After 12 seasons and nearly 280 episodes, “The Big Bang Theory” is about to bid viewers a big farewell. And as is customary with any major hit, that raises questions about when – or whether – another network sitcom will blow up this way again.
Chuck Lorre, who co-created the show with Bill Prady, has at times seemed like he’s single-handedly keeping the traditional multi-camera sitcom alive. In addition to producing “Two and a Half Men,” another huge hit for CBS, his credits include the returning “Mom,” as well as earlier shows like “Cybill” and “Dharma & Greg.”
More recently, however, Lorre has migrated into single-camera comedies, including the “Big Bang” spinoff “Young Sheldon” – already renewed by CBS for two more seasons – and “The Kominsky Method,” the Michael Douglas-Alan Arkin comedy for Netflix, which earned the producer a Golden Globe Award in January.
Despite his experimentation with a different form of storytelling, Lorre said he’s been around long enough to see the sitcom pronounced dead before – such as when “Friends” signed off 15 years ago – only to see it rise again. And he continues to operate in that realm, including a new CBS series, “Bob ❤️ Abishola,” which reunites him with “Mike & Molly” star Billy Gardell.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know I’ve heard the bold statement that ‘This is it. This won’t happen again’ many times,” he told CNN. “And it does. So humility would suggest that making a blanket statement, that this is the end, is probably foolish.”
Even in a streaming age, Lorre sees value in the format, which he has described as like producing a little play every week.
“I don’t see any reason to walk away from the four-camera show,” he said. “It’s a valid way to tell a story. When you’re at home watching television, you’re not counting cameras. You’re either entertained or you’re not.”
Lorre conceded that he faced a “sharp learning curve” in producing single-camera shows, as well as producing for Netflix, where all the episodes become available at once. On the plus side, there were no limitations about episode length, no writing to commercial breaks (usually pharmaceutical ads these days, he quipped) and no restrictions on language. “You feel like if you need to use a certain word, that word’s available to you,” he said.
The main difference, Lorre said, is that a studio audience provides comedy writers instant feedback as to how well their jokes are landing, noting that “their silence is the sound of failure.”
As a result, sitcoms are often rewritten on the fly when material isn’t working. The absence of an audience thus forces writers to rely on and be more trusting of their own judgment.
Regular watchers of “Big Bang” and Lorre’s other shows know that he shares his thoughts – about everything from politics to growing older to random observations – on his vanity cards, penning short messages that viewers (those with DVRs, anyway) can freeze and read.
Lately, Lorre’s cards have taken a rather somber turn, reflecting his distaste for the Trump administration and concerns about the direction of the country.
Lorre said there’s a certain level of “cognitive dissonance” between his job – trying to make people laugh – and his general mood and broader concerns.
“There has been a pall lately,” he said. “You drive to Burbank every day to write and produce comedy, and there’s this foreboding sense that this country is in dire jeopardy, and I’m going to go write a sitcom today.”
Still, even with “The Big Bang Theory” fading to black, for Lorre, the beat, and the jokes, go on.
“The Big Bang Theory” finale airs May 16 at 8 p.m. on CBS. The series is produced by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia.