Surely the scariest moment in Charlie Sheen's meltdown a few months back was when it was revealed his television show, Two and a Half Men, was the world's favourite sitcom.
Who among us was surprised by the tales of Charlie arriving on set with loaded weapons or sobbing himself to sleep in the arms of prostitutes? On the other hand, confirmation that Two and a Half Men -- a property which couldn't be less funny were it to feature burning orphanages -- was clobbering The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock et al in the ratings was a proper downer. We suspected America had embraced the Great Dumbing Down faster than the rest of the world. But were things really this bad?
In Two and a Half Men, Sheen plays Charlie Harper, a faintly ironic riff of his real-world tabloid persona. Whilst TV-Charlie doesn't quite go the full kahuna and maintain a boudoir of porn stars and high-class escorts, he is known to be somewhat of a ladies' man and booze-hound -- his bad behaviour is invariably kept off-screen. Sheen can act, or at least waggle his eye brows in an arresting fashion, and some of his one-liners land with real zing. What the old-fashioned 'three camera' sitcom producer Chuck Lorre has built around him is so detached from contemporary trends in television comedy -- where laughs are suggested rather than sign-posted and canned audiences have been binned -- feels like an embarrassing relic of comedy past. This, kids, is what comedy looked like in the salad days of Diff'rent Strokes and The Cosby Show. No, we wouldn't want to have been around then either.
For many years, those who loathed Lorre's unapologetically retroactive style were inclined to write Two and a Half Men off as a fluke. However comforting, the idea was thoroughly dismantled in 2007 when Lorre launched a new franchise. Rather than relying on the stunt casting that had, in part, sustained Two and a Half Men through its then five years, Big Bang Theory was an ensemble piece about two geeks living with a leggy blonde. But while the gags were often genuinely clever -- particularly if one was enough of a sci-fi nerd to cop the references -- it was difficult to disguise the fact that, beneath the hood, Big Bang Theory was essentially Two and a Half Men 2.0. It had a prominent laughter track, broad acting and jokes telegraphed more blatantly than the next ECB rates rise.
You can guess what happened next. Despite critics lining up to toss rotten fruit in its direction, Big Bang Theory was an instant hit, its popularity metastasising over the past four years -- at any given moment, it seems to be screened simultaneously on at least four digital tv channels. Perhaps that's why Lorre seemed so unmoved by Sheen's recent coming apart and the ensuing cancellation of Two and a Half Men -- papa's got a brand new cash cow.
After all the frothing-at-the-mouth interviews Sheen has been giving, it would appear his relationship with Lorre is broken down beyond repair. The great, howling irony, of course, is that in many ways each is a mirror image of the other.
Born in Long Island, Lorre showed little interest in writing sitcoms -- until the day he wound up actually writing a sitcom. The son of a cafe owner, he dropped out of college in the 1970s to play guitar. He passed in and out of bands and had some success as a tune-smith. In 1986, he penned 'French Kissin' In The USA' for Debbie Harry and, a few year later, composed the theme to the television series Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.
Around the same time, Sheen was coming off his successes in Wall Street and Platoon -- and refusing to kowtow to Hollywood by keeping his crazy personal life under wraps. But even as Charlie and his demons conspired to throw it all away, Lorre had decided it was time to put his life in order. Quitting music, he landed a job writing for Roseanne, then the most popular comedy in the US. Though arriving at the medium relatively late, it transpired he had an instinctive understanding of the inner workings of the classic American sitcom. Soon he was running his own shows, first the Cybil Shepherd vehicle Cybil , then Dharma and Greg.
Critics loathed his work but the ratings kept getting better and better. In 2002, while he was scratching around for a new project , someone suggested he talk to Sheen. Within its first year, Two and a Half Men was America's most watched comedy.
For all his success, Lorre's influence on television has been minimal. He certainly hasn't helped rescue the sitcom as historically understood from redundancy. In a world where 30 Rock, The Office and Curb You Enthusiasm are pushing the comedy envelope, he's the guy screaming that the world is flat.