It’s early in 2013, but it’s doubtful a more enlightening quote will emerge than that from “Two and a Half Men” co-creator Chuck Lorre. Responding to disparaging comments made by series star Angus J. Jones, Lorre said, “I can’t really disagree with him. The show’s kind of filthy. What he said wasn’t wrong. We hope it’s funny as well.”
Lorre wasn’t extending viewers an olive branch as much as he was a middle finger.
As one of television’s top businessmen, Lorre knows that to be successful you’ve got to give the people what they want. For the past decade, the people’s choice has been the locker-room humor of “Two and a Half Men.” As the decade’s most-watched sitcom, it’s attracted roughly 14 million viewers each week who are grinning, groaning or slapping their knees at the sex, filth and thinly veiled innuendos.
Don’t blame Lorre for the low-brow humor; he’s merely perceived a trend and capitalized on it. He’s been involved in series ranging from “Roseanne,” “Grace under Fire” and “Cybill” to “Big Bang Theory” and “Mike and Molly.” To his notable credit, Lorre’s shows have become major identifiers of the decade in which they were broadcast. The inside joke – or perhaps the telltale sign of Lorre’s success – may be “Mike and Molly,” which at its core is merely a reworked version of what people wanted in the 1950s – the bonding elements of “The Honeymooners” and “Amos ’n’ Andy.” (Pay close attention to the theme song and you’ll hear what I mean.)
Lorre doesn’t create trends; he merely reconfigures them. It could be argued that “Roseanne” was a less volatile, middle-America version of “All in the Family.” It can’t be argued at all that “Big Bang Theory” is a 21st-century take on “Friends.”
“Two and a Half Men” merely lowered the bar for filth, a bar that nearly brushed the floor with an episode earlier this month that featured a song-and-dance routine on douche. It was filthy. And funny. Twenty years ago, viewers would have called the networks to complain. Two weeks ago, they merely Tweeted ‘LOL’ to their friends.
It just might be that “Two and a Half Men” was conceived during “The Family Hour,” that long-ago, pristine 8 to 9 p.m. slot that gave us “Leave It To Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” “Gilligan’s Island,” ”Daniel Boone,” “Family Affair,” “Brady Bunch,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “The Waltons,” “Happy Days” and “Growing Pains.”
In this instance, it wasn’t “Happy Days” that jumped the shark. It was “Growing Pains.” TV critics, including this one, noticed a perceptible shift in tone on the sitcom that premiered in 1985. Teen Mike Seaver was described by his own (TV) mother as “a hormone with feet.” Mike’s parents made small talk with sexual overtones. Mike’s best friend was nicknamed Boner. Though hardly fitting the description of filthy, “Growing Pains” and “Who’s The Boss,” with which it was paired on Tuesday nights, ever-so-gently strained the limits of acceptable “family” dialogue.
When viewers shrugged their shoulders, the networks hastily dumped the family hour, the better to serve its 18-49 target audience with more adult-themed shows such as “Evening Shade,” “Mad About You” and “Coach.” And, as their target audience increasingly clicked to more mature cable offerings, the networks fought back with racier material. “Spin City” was one of the first sitcoms to generate laughs (and high ratings) from adult sexploits in the 8 p.m. hour. Many others followed its lead.
If viewers – and the FCC – were becoming more tolerant in the 8 p.m. hour, what territory could be mined later in the evening? “Cheers” and “Will and Grace,” among others, were certainly dipping their toes in the waters of sexual innuendo, but it was Lorre’s “Two and a Half Men” that dove in head first. In its wake, it’s left us with “Two Broke Girls,” a series whose leads are far removed from the “cupcakes” they sell on the side.
Let’s be honest. Lorre is right. As long as TV’s filth is funny, America is OK with it. And if that type of programming drives viewers back to the networks from whatever cable series they may have been watching, CBS is OK with it, too.
By the way, Jones – despite his supposed disdain for “Two and a Half Men” – has agreed to return to the show. The better, one suspects, to become filthy rich.