Last spring, more than 14 million people watched über-nerd Sheldon Cooper finally meet his match—a lady-geek played by Mayim Bialik—when The Big Bang Theory concluded its third season. Even more viewers—more than 15 million—tuned in to see Charlie Sheen’s Charlie Harper get arrested in the season finale of producer Chuck Lorre’s other mega-hit, Two and a Half Men.
Of those many millions of viewers, however, probably only a handful noticed the message that briefly appeared after the credits for both series finished rolling. “Over the years, CBS executives have always been very generous when it comes to sharing their ideas as to how I might better do my job,” it read. “I have never returned the favor regarding how they might run their network. Until now.” The message went on to offer the network several facetious suggestions, among them “Tell the world that CBS only airs the coolest and most honest commercials.”
The text flashed on-screen for a split second, then vanished. Only viewers savvy—and curious—enough to freeze the frame would have been able to read Chuck Lorre’s 288th “vanity card” all the way through.
Typically, TV producers display their personal production logos at the end of a show’s credits—famous examples include Gary David Goldberg’s “Sit, Ubu, sit!” or Joss Whedon’s “Grr! Argh!” monster. Lorre is more playful. He doesn’t run the same image or logo week in and week out. Instead, he attaches vanity cards to his TV shows: quirky concluding notes that change with each episode.
Lorre began experimenting with vanity cards back when his ABC comedy Dharma and Gregwas in its first season. “It was a completely open forum for me to write whatever I wanted,” he says. “And it didn’t necessarily have to be funny. It didn’t have to be true. It could be true. It could be revelatory and deeply personal, or completely ridiculous.”
Over the past 12 years, Lorre’s cards have been all those things and more. They’ve offered intimate revelations, broad comedy, and righteous anger (often inspired by network censors). They’ve been alternately depressing and charming, lighthearted and uncomfortably dark. They’ve occasionally provided revealing glimpses into how a sitcom is made; on other occasions, they’ve provided peeks into the psyche of a narcissist. The cards have evolved over time—the ones from the Dharma and Greg era are fittingly earnest, while more recent ones tend to focus on the mechanics of Hollywood—but they’ve never been boring.
Lorre is modest about the meaning behind the messages—he told me he was amused that anybody “gives a shit enough to write about” them. But what other big-shot TV producer invites viewers to tour the recesses of his mind on a weekly basis? Both of Lorre’s hit shows have season premieres this week—as does a new Lorre series, Mike and Molly—meaning a new batch of vanity cards will soon be flashing on millions of American screens. Herewith, a slide show of 10 of Lorre’s most notable cards, culled from the full archives at chucklorre.com and illuminated by my conversation with Lorre.