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‘The Kominsky Method’: Chuck Lorre’s Second Act

Chuck Lorre has been called the “angriest man on TV” because of his battles with network executives, actors and critics. He has also been called the “King of Comedy,” having created one hit network sitcom after another since the early ’90s. One title he has only recently grown accustomed to, however, is “old.”

“Internally I don’t think of myself that way, but boy, I am,” Lorre, 66, said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “So I’m dealing with it. It’s a universal feeling like, Wait, what’s happening to me?”

That experience is one reason he feels so close to his Netflix comedy “The Kominsky Method,” he said, about an aging acting coach named Sandy (played by Michael Douglas) and Sandy’s wisecracking, recently widowed agent, Norman (Alan Arkin). Other than their friendship and professional history, what binds the two men together is their struggles with the often unpleasant problems (dying loved ones, prostate flare-ups) that arrive with age.

Before “Kominsky,” Lorre was known best for creating more traditional, so-called multicamera sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory,” “Cybill,” “Dharma & Greg” and the CBS newcomer “Bob Hearts Abishola.” But “Kominsky,” with its cinematic aesthetic and looser constraints — no studio audience, no commercial breaks, no censorship — offered him a much-sought-after new experience. It also won a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy series.

Ahead of the second season of “Kominsky,” which arrives on Netflix Friday, Lorre discussed what he learned from Douglas and Arkin, why the term “sitcom” is a misnomer, and why he still shudders at the memory of Charlie Sheen’s exit from “Two and a Half Men.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

A half-hour network sitcom has tried-and-true plot structure, but don’t you have far more room to experiment on “Kominsky”?

First of all, I don’t really think plot is a driving factor in anything I do. I think character is the primary asset. You don’t remember your favorite half-hour sitcoms because of the plot. You remember them because you love those characters. You love Norm and Cliff and Sam and Woody and Kramer. I think that’s because a character is a combination of writing and great acting. And if you’re lucky enough, you find the right actor for the part.

Isn’t there an overarching plot in “Kominsky” about how Sandy comes to terms with aging?

What I was interested in exploring was just the minutiae of getting older. There’s not a lot of plot in that; that’s just life. That’s just human entropy.

I take it then that this show, perhaps more than others you’ve created, hits especially close to home.

That’s true. I don’t have to make this stuff up. On “The Big Bang Theory” we would be regularly talking to our astrophysicist consultant David Saltzberg at U.C.L.A. to make sure we got the math right or the science right. I didn’t need to have a consultant on this one. [Laughs.]

So much of the success of “Kominsky” hinged on the chemistry between Douglas and Arkin. What was it like bearing witness to their dynamic?

I really like the phrase “bear witness.” Because that’s what it felt like. I had a front-row seat to watch two masters of their craft. They approach the work very differently, but they both arrive at a performance that’s startling and every time surprising. When you write something, you have an image in your mind as to how it’s going to look, how it’s going to sound. And then you go to the stage and actors like Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin read it and have other ideas. And they spin it differently, and the syncopation is different, the tone is different. Inevitably, it’s better.

The most inspired moments involve little more than the two of them just exchanging barbs.

One of the things I learned in the first season is I could actually write less and do a better job. When we first started this I didn’t understand the kind of power that both of these men have over the camera. A gesture, a look, a raised eyebrow, even a pause on their part communicated more than words. And especially for comedic purposes. A bunch of clever words weren’t needed.

“Kominsky” is your first non-network show. Could this show have worked on network TV? Or was the plan always for this to go to a streaming platform like Netflix?

Would this have been possible on a major broadcast network? I don’t know. I really never thought of it that way. I wanted from the beginning to have an opportunity to work in a different environment with a different palette. So I could learn. I had a steep learning curve because I had been doing the studio audience, four-camera approach for decades.

So you’re saying you welcomed the challenge?

I sought it out. I wanted to learn a new trick, says the dog who’s a bit older.

How then should we view this in relation to your other work? Or is this the future of what we’ve come to know as sitcoms?

Well, let’s break down the word. Because it comes from “Situation Comedy.” There’s no situation here other than the fact we get older. And we deal with health issues, and we deal with the loss of loved ones, and we deal with the feeling of being irrelevant and disenfranchised and to some extent uncomprehending of things as the culture changes. So I think you’re hard-pressed to call those situations. The situation is just life.

So is the sitcom as we knew it dead?

Well, that word is really just a misnomer. It’s an anomaly. It really doesn’t belong anymore. The word really made a lot of sense when a guy married a witch. Or when an astronaut came back from outer space with a genie. I’m going to call that a situation. [Laughs.] When a Martian is living with you and you have to keep it a secret — that’s a situation. But getting through the day and dealing with people at work, dealing with family, that’s just life. And the comedy of life is not plot driven. It’s just the reality of what we do every day. It’s universal. It doesn’t matter if the characters in “The Big Bang Theory” are quantum physicists. Because loneliness is loneliness. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. Fear, jealousy. the Seven Deadly Sins: They play for all of us. So that’s what you write about in TV. For me, anyway.

When conceiving your shows, have you thought of them as being aimed at different constituencies? Or is the goal always to reach as many people as possible?

I’ve always been suspicious of the idea of aiming a show. It comes very close to pandering. And assuming that you know how to play to or manipulate an audience. And I don’t know that. I don’t have that skill. What I do instead is I try and make a show that I find is worth watching. That I think is funny. That I think the characters are interesting.

You’ve mostly stayed behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s more of a contemporary model to put the showrunner out front.

It’s not something I want. Who would seek that out? The show is the thing. The show, that’s what hopefully has value. My opinions, my perceptions of what’s important — I’m not trying to be self-deprecating, but who cares?

Did getting publicly trashed by Charlie Sheen amid his departure from “Two and a Half Men affect how you view your own celebrity?

That whole experience with “Two and a Half Men” was a nightmare. I hated every minute of it. I’m glad it’s in the rearview mirror. I learned a lot from it. Primarily that public ridicule doesn’t kill you. It feels like it might. But it doesn’t. You just go about your business. You go back and you keep working. There’s nothing else to do.

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