SXSW: Chuck Lorre and Neil Gaiman talk creativity, vanity cards, and an 'American Gods' update

Chuck Lorre might have a reputation for being bitter, especially after years of vanity card rants about the state of the entertainment industry (among other things), but during an hour-long talk with sci-fi graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, the conversation stayed focused on creativity and storytelling. While the two seem to approach the industry from very different places – Lorre’s hugely successful sitcom The Big Bang Theory is about as close to sci-fi as evening sitcoms get, and that’s not very close – they came out in nearly matching outfits (“The Hebrew version of Johnny Cash,” Lorre joked) and clearly had a friendly rapport and great respect for each other’s work. Gaiman even offered that he’d been pausing his VCR to read Lorre’s vanity cards since the 90s sitcom Dharma & Greg was on the air.

Also on hand to hear Lorre’s comments; Two and a Half Men star (and SXSW interactive’s favorite Hollywood investor) Ashton Kutcher.

Below are a few of the biggest takeaways from the talk:

++When something’s not funny, Lorre and his writers rewrite it (“and we re-memorize it!” Kutcher quipped from the audience). “Having a live audience is a great litmus test,” Lorre said. “Make it funny or cut it, but don’t put it on TV and pretend its funny.”

++Liner notes were the inspiration for Lorre’s vanity cards. Lorre’s famous vanity cards are now immortalized in a book, but his original inspiration was music album liner notes. “We grew up with liner notes in albums, which immersed you in the story of the band… it made the record better. Maybe these are liner notes at the end of a sitcom,” he explained.

++Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles make you cool. Well, to your kids at least. Lorre wrote the TMNT theme song, which he says endeared him to his kids. Gaiman said it was Lorre’s use of Sandman references in The Big Bang Theory that made his kids say, ‘Hey, Dad, didn’t you write that?’

++HBO is waiting for Gaiman to submit the third draft of his American Gods TV pilot. Hurray for audience questions and this mini-scoop that the long-awaited show is really in the works.

++They both love their fans, but they don’t really care what they think. Lorre said the biggest danger of listening to fans is that “you are doomed when you say: ‘What do you want?’” which is one of the reasons why he keeps his web site walled. “I made a decision that the site would be completely and totally non-interactive. I didn’t want criticism or praise.”

++The Big Bang Theory wasn’t originally about nerds. “Nerds [were] applied to the show after we did it,” Lorre said, adding that he set out to “write a series about brilliant characters who can’t navigate the minutia of life.” Instead, the show was touted as A Beautiful Mind without the paranoid schizophrenia.

++All sitcoms are about family. Cheers? Family. The Big Bang Theory? Family, even if it’s a surrogate one, Lorre said. “We are creating the dynamics of a family,” he explained, adding that when a character leaves a show too soon, it feels like a betrayal. To illustrate his point, Lorre used the example of John Travolta, who stayed on Welcome Back, Kotter even after he became a movie star, saying it was a sign of Travolta’s loyalty to his audience.


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