THE BACK PAGES

No one wants 'Friends' anymore

Sitcoms about 'nice' characters don't cut it now. Viewers prefer pain and humiliation.

JAIME J. WEINMAN September 3 2007
THE BACK PAGES

No one wants 'Friends' anymore

Sitcoms about 'nice' characters don't cut it now. Viewers prefer pain and humiliation.

JAIME J. WEINMAN September 3 2007

No one wants 'Friends' anymore

tv

Sitcoms about 'nice' characters don't cut it now. Viewers prefer pain and humiliation.

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Today’s most successful sitcom producer is a guy who used to write for My Little Pony. Chuck Lorre is the creator of the sole hit multi-camera sitcom on the NETWORKS—TWO and a Half Men—and he’ll have a new one, The Big Bang Theory, in September. But he’s most famous for using TV to settle scores. He includes angry essays or “vanity cards” at the end of his productions, and the New York Post reported last week that he was considering writing a CSI episode about “the murder of a hated sitcom diva”—his revenge for being fired by stars like Cybill Shepherd. How does this downbeat attitude translate into popular TV comedy? Maybe because his shows are full of pain, conflict and obscenity—all the things modern audiences want.

The secret of Lorre’s success is that his angry streak endears his work to audiences that don’t want good-natured shows like Friends. In the Jack Bauer era, darkness sells, even on a sitcom. Lorre told Maclean’s that “there’s a difference between charming and amusing and clever and truly funny,” and he doesn’t let his shows display too much charm, focusing instead on the comedy of humiliation. The Big Bang Theory is about scientists who are socially retarded and make fools of themselves over a new female neighbour (“We take great intellect and slam libido into it,” Lorre says). Two and a Half Men started with a painful divorce and features a hero (Charlie Sheen) described by Lorre as “debauched.” Characters aren’t rewarded for being good; the uptight brother on Men (Jon Cryer), Lorre says, “plays by the rules with a passion, and he’s punished for it.”

If the men on Lorre’s shows don’t have a great time, the women come off even worse.

Men blames the heroes’ problems on their mother, and made vicious fun of a woman with a crush on Charlie. Lorre says that he and co-creator Bill Prady want the heroine of The Big Bang Theory to be the “voice and eyes and ears of the audience,” but in the pilot, she comes off as an airhead for the heroes to lust after. But this kind of thing may be an advantage when hits like Entourage and Rescue Me are out-and-out misogynistic. And Lorre points out that his shows have plenty of appeal for their majority-female audience: “We generally punish Charlie mercilessly for his cavalier attitude toward women and sexual relationships,” he says.

Lorre adds that “Charlie’s struggling to break free of his shallow relationships,” and that this season will see him dating a woman who’s “a municipal court judge.” That structure-taking a slightly misogynistic hero and teaching him an occasional lesson—may be another clue to why Lorre’s work clicks with today’s audiences. Nineties hits like Friends were about clean-living people who never grew up, but if you look at the most successful shows today, they’re often about debauched, unfulfilled lives. When Lorre says that “we’re growing Charlie up, and it’s a struggle,” he’s figured out that you can get the men to watch by presenting characters with decadent lifestyles, and then bring in women viewers by

forcing those characters to grow up a little.

Another aspect of Lorre’s successful formula is being as dirty as possible. Lorre, who often gripes about the jokes that were censored by CBS, likes to pack his shows full of R-rated double entendres (in The Big Bang Theory, a joke is built around the different meanings of the word “douche”). Lorre says that while it’s harder to get this kind of material on the air today—“Janet Jackson ruined everything”—he denies that he’s doing this kind of material just to push the limits of censorship: “If it provides our audience with a belly laugh it’s worth fighting for, and for no other reason.” But it does contribute to the appeal of these shows, which is that they look like family sitcoms but are really for grown-ups; Cryer told AOL.com that Men pleasantly surprises people once they “realize it’s as naughty as it is.” Having a winning formula doesn’t mean that every show will be a winner, and it’s too early to tell whether The Big Bang Theory will be a hit. But then again, critics complained that Two and a Half Men was too reliant on sitcom clichés, and it’s about to shoot its 100th episode as Lorre’s flagship property. Even if Big Bang doesn’t make much noise, Lorre’s found a successful sitcom method for a post-sitcom world. “We’re doing something very simple and noble,” he says, “and that is to make adults laugh, and give people a respite from all the drama.” And his success is teaching the world that the more pain a show has, the more adults will laugh at it. M