Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Wall Street Journal Home Page

Hit TV Writer
Has Brief Message
For His Viewers

It Only Lasts a Second,
But Stirs the Airwaves;
Mr. Lorre's Beer Apology
May 14, 2008; Page A1

Some of the most provocative writing on broadcast television can be found on CBS on Monday nights. It airs for a combined duration of about two seconds.

The writing comes in the form of what many in the industry call "vanity cards" -- an image flashed on the screen at the end of a TV show. Usually, the cards just identify a show's creator or production company. But Chuck Lorre -- a writer and executive producer of the sitcoms "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" -- uses the airtime as a public diary.


Shown at about 8:29 p.m. and 9:29 p.m. Eastern time, his Chuck Lorre Productions vanity cards feature an essay -- usually about 100 to 200 words -- on subjects such as meddling network executives, Hollywood culture and his own family drama. The messages can't be read in full as they air, because they're shown so briefly, but they can be read by viewers who have DVR technology with a pause button on their remote control. The cards have attracted a cult following, as well as the attention of network executives.

In one recent message, the 55-year-old Mr. Lorre wrote: "I received a phone call from a mid-level CBS exec who began the conversation by saying he wanted to give me a head's up. Having been in this business a while I knew 'head's up' is code for 'we've decided to s- you.'"

In a message to his late father, Mr. Lorre wrote, "I want to apologize for despising you for reasons I still don't understand."

Another card says: "Don't hug men while shaking their hand. Enough already with that. The shake/hug (shug?) is probably something Roman guys did when their empire was in decline."

Mr. Lorre says, "My vanity cards are like liner notes on an album."

The network reviews each one before it airs, and has censored three of the last 40 cards. A CBS spokesman said those cards "didn't meet our broadcast standards," but declined to be more specific. "I've always had the character flaw of wanting to bite the hand that feeds," Mr. Lorre says.

The hand admits to being a bit sore. "I get a kick out of most of -- most of -- what he does at the end of the show," says Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS Corp. "If someone wants to give me two hit television shows, they won't hear from me -- except for when I'm going to get in trouble with the FCC."

[Chuck Lorre]

Mr. Lorre has brought the network success. "Two and a Half Men," starring Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, is the highest-rated sitcom on television this season, attracting an average of 12.9 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen Co. His newcomer, "The Big Bang Theory," attracts an average of eight million viewers. On Wednesday, CBS is scheduled to present its lineup of new and returning programming to advertisers and reporters. A CBS spokesman says both of Mr. Lorre's shows will return.

This season, which was interrupted by a months-long writers' strike, more of Mr. Lorre's messages focused on behind-the-scenes negotiations between television's creative and corporate forces. In a recent script for "The Big Bang Theory," Mr. Lorre included a reference to a fictional Catholic priest molesting a boy. CBS insisted the reference be removed, out of concern that it might offend certain viewers. (The line was changed, to refer to a "chaplain.") In a vanity card that he wanted to run at the end of the episode, Mr. Lorre shared the censored reference, explaining how and why he fought to keep it in the script.

After submitting that card to the network, Mr. Lorre says he received a call from Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment group. "What are you thinking?" she said. A spokesman for Ms. Tellem confirms this account.

"You know you're in trouble when someone that high up the ladder bothers to call," says Mr. Lorre.

That card never aired. Instead, he wrote a new one for the show that read: "Just two episodes back from the strike and I've already managed to write a vanity card that is completely unacceptable to the good folks at CBS." He posted the outlawed version on his own Web site.

"We sort of imagine Chuck sitting around saying, 'What can I try to get away with this week?'" says Chris Ender, a CBS spokesman.

Above, the Lorre vanity card that mentioned The Wall Street Journal Monday evening. Dow Jones spokesman Robert Christie declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Warner Bros. Television also declined to comment.

This past Monday, in a card that aired after one of his shows, Mr. Lorre lampooned The Wall Street Journal and Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of the paper's new owner, News Corp. Mr. Lorre wrote about his vanity cards being the subject of an upcoming "article in The Wall Street Journal (or as I like to call it, The Depressingly Inevitable Next Step Toward the End of a Free Press in America, Thanks a Lot Rupert, Journal)." Robert Christie, a spokesman for Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Journal, declined to comment.

The card also took a shot at Warner Bros., describing it, in part, as the "monolithic, multi-tiered, entirely un-integrated, boy-did-we-make-a-colossal-boo-boo-with-AOL entity." Warner Bros. Television produces Mr. Lorre's shows. A spokeswoman for Warner Bros. Television, a part of Warner Bros. Entertainment, which is owned by Time Warner Inc., declined to comment.

Mr. Lorre, who has worked on sitcoms for more than two decades, has used the cards to take jabs at former bosses and the press, too. Last season, he aired a vanity card that showed a photo of him with two television critics. It carried a caption that said Mr. Lorre had just supplied the men with cash, drugs and the companionship of women, "in exchange for some favorable press."

"I thought it was hilarious," says Variety's chief television critic, Brian Lowry, one of the men pictured.

In one card, Mr. Lorre likened the "pain and humiliation of receiving a colonoscopy in front of a classroom of medical students" to "writing and producing 'Roseanne,' 'Grace Under Fire' & 'Cybill.'"

In an email response, Roseanne Barr, star of "Roseanne" said, "What do you want me to comment on, Chuck's vanity cards or Chuck's vanity?"

Mr. Lorre started putting up the messages in 1997, on a sitcom he co-created called "Dharma & Greg." He says "it was a silly idea," but didn't think most viewers would notice. "I felt very certain that whatever I wrote would go under the radar."

His early cards were existential wonderings and explanations of his personal beliefs, including, "I believe that beer is a gateway drug that leads, inevitably, to vodka." His next card said, "After intensive consultation with ABC executives, I now believe I was very, very wrong. Beer is good. Especially beer brewed by major manufacturers, and enjoyed in a responsible fashion." A spokeswoman for ABC declined to comment.

Since then, he has written more than 200 cards, and gained a following. Nicole Bugna-Doyle, 34, a marketing coordinator in Los Angeles, is a member of a Facebook group called "I watch Chuck Lorre's programs just for his vanity cards." A fan of his shows, Ms. Bugna-Doyle says she looks forward to reading the new vanity cards each week. "They're like little gifts with purchase, and I love them," she says.

Mr. Lorre says his real education in the TV business began when he was hired to write for Ms. Barr's show. "She beat all the glibness out of me," he says. In the 1990s, he created "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill," which starred Cybill Shepherd. His relationship with Ms. Shepherd was contentious, he says, and after a year, Mr. Lorre says he was fired. "I was pretty shattered," he says.

Ms. Shepherd says, "Despite our differences, Chuck and I did great work together."

Personal issues are a recurring theme of his vanity cards. "These vanity cards have tracked a couple of nervous breakdowns, a divorce, all sorts of stuff," he says. "You can watch my psyche collapse, rebuild itself and collapse again." In 2001, eight hours before marrying his second wife, he wrote, "I'm riddled with fear to the point of mind-numbing disassociation." Asked how his wife responded, Mr. Lorre replied, "You mean my ex-wife?" (He is now divorced.)

Mr. Lorre says writing the cards is not therapeutic. "You can only call something 'therapy' if you can say that you're getting better," he says.