Building a Kingdom – A Conversation with Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre, HRTS luncheon recap
Legends. Decades of success. Thousands of hours of content. Studios unto themselves. All descriptors for Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre, two men who took the stage at the Beverly Hilton on December 14, 2015 for a freewheeling discussion with veteran executive Warren Littlefield.
Littlefield opened by saying that “our theme is ‘then and now’ so let’s do a quick snapshot of our world in 1990 and hopefully gain a little bit of a better understanding about how these two overachievers accomplished what they have done both then and now”. In 1990 there were 248 million people in the country, with an average of 33 channels per household, there were 4 broadcast networks and “cable basically lived off of network re-runs”. Cut-to today and there are 320 million people in the country, with an average of about 200 channels per household, and “that doesn’t include Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime”.
Starting at the beginning, Littlefield noted that “in some Eastern European countries, prison time is considered a real boost to a political career, in Hollywood sometimes that boost can come from being fired. Chuck, Cybill Shepherd fired you and Dick, Don Johnson fired you – how did you both bounce back?” Lorre said “I drank a lot, and then I did ‘Dharma & Greg’” and in the second season of that show he had a transformative epiphany when he realized that no one there was mad at him and so “it was the beginning of actually enjoying it, it was a safe and warm way to work, which it hadn’t been for many years”. Wolf saw being fired as a blessing in disguise, saying “Don arranging my departure was actually a huge favor, because out of that came moving into my own shows”.
Procedural versus serialized? Littlefield noted that with Law & Order, “it wasn’t about character development, it was about ‘ripped from the headlines’, very story-driven”, adding that the current Chicago trilogy (Med, Fire, PD) are more character-driven, so is that part of the evolution of network television? Wolf said that with all three Chicago shows he’s been cutting back on the serialized elements of late, since “four years ago, everything had to be heavily serialized to accommodate binge-viewing, and that never made sense to me since essentially TNT invented binge-viewing with ‘Law & Order’ marathons and nobody ever objected, they just went up every hour and nobody was saying ‘I wish there was a continuing storyline’”. Further, “if the writing is good, people are perfectly happy to watch a self-contained hour and I think the taste is drifting back towards more procedural”. As to the larger evolutionary processes at work, Wolf said that the television industry “has changed more in the last six months than it did in the last six years, and it changed more in there than it has in the previous sixty”, asking the audience “did anyone out there four years ago think that Netflix and Hulu and Amazon would be the major prestige studios that everybody wanted to go to?”
Picking up on the theme of prestige and awards, Littlefield noted that broadcast shows today aren’t really driven by critical praise and that “it seems as though your success is driven by viewers”, asking both men who they write for. Lorre said that he and his writing team ask “would we watch it? Would we laugh at that particular moment?” and “is it worth the audience’s time?” He added that “another good barometer is the guys that are operating the cameras, because they’ve seen it all and if they laugh, you’re gold”. Wolf drew parallels to the film industry, saying “broadcast and cable are still two totally different spheres, worlds, universes, and we write mass entertainment. Network shows are the equivalent of big studio movies, there are a lot fewer of them than there were, and cable is the realm of the independents”.
Littlefield noted the repeal of fin-syn in the 80s and the current state of overwhelming network ownership of content, going on to ask Wolf “what is the difference when you’re vertically integrated versus when you’re not?” Wolf said “I would go so far as to say I am maybe the only beneficiary of vertical integration, because of the deals that were pending both in ’86 and in ’94, it’s been very good for me” since “in success, everybody knows that there are going to be ways to capitalize on that success in the same company”.
Is there a secret sauce for comedy success? Littlefield noted the diversity of different types of characters that Lorre has created, asking if there’s anything that they all have in common. Lorre said that “before comedy can occur, I have to care about the character” and “it has happen on the page, and then you have to be lucky enough to find an actor who has that innate presence that causes the audience to give a damn. Then you can tell the story, then the jokes have impact because you’re viscerally involved with a human being on the TV screen”. Given the increasing competition from shows on unrestricted platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, Littlefield asked Lorre how he keeps a broadcast comedy fresh and edgy. Lorre said that the new content ecosystem doesn’t affect his process, since “it’s playing defensive, trying to anticipate what other people are doing. When you sit down in a room and you’re staring at a computer monitor and you have to write ‘Fade In’, you have to write ‘Fade In’ into something that you care about”. He added that “I think we’ve become the redheaded stepchild in television because we shoot in front of an audience. Try it sometimes, put your comedy in front of 200 people and see if they laugh”.
In closing, Littlefield said that “my sense for both of you is that what you do is your oxygen, it is essential to how you live and breathe – what do you love most about your job, what drives you to do what you do?” Wolf said that “it feels so good when it’s good. When you see characters starting to work, and people hitting their stride, it’s a high and ain’t no other way to get it”. Lorre said that “if you’re lucky and you have a TV series that survives, a family happens. You’re spending years and years with the same people and it’s an ongoing ensemble village kind of a thing and it’s remarkable”.
Photos by Chyna Photography
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