Lee Aronsohn has had a long career in television, beginning as a writer on The Love Boat, but this year has been like none other in his career. As co-creator and executive producer of Two and a Half Men, Aronsohn watched star Charlie Sheen go into public freefall, and then got to work rebuilding the show with Sheen’s replacement, Ashton Kutcher.
On Saturday (Oct. 1), Aronsohn will share these experiences – and some advice – at the Vancouver Film and Television Forum.
The Globe spoke with him shortly after Two and a Half Men returned to the airwaves.
How did you feel about the Two and a Half Men season premiere?
We were expecting that people who hated us before were still going to hate us and there’s a certain faction of Charlie fans that will always feel betrayed. But by and large, we were very pleased with the reaction.
Was there a point where you thought the show might not continue?
Actually until it premiered, I thought there was always a chance that it may not continue. Certainly most of the spring was spent in a fog of uncertainty and amazement at what was happening.
Did what happen with Charlie Sheen take you by surprise? Did it come out of left field?
My God, surprise is not the word. The words shocked and aghast are more appropriate, I think. When [Sheen’s]interviews happened, we had already shut down the show for him to ostensibly go to rehab. Then we heard that he wasn’t going to rehab; he was claiming to be doing rehab in his house. And then he started giving the interviews. I was reloading TMZ to find out the latest news. Charlie was talking to people that did not include us.
What was that like for you? You had a long relationship with him, clearly.
Well, certainly, eight years, nine years. It was sad. I loved Charlie and we’ve been through a lot with him and it was very scary to see the direction that he was headed in. Our biggest concern was simply for his survival, not for the show. And look, it was much tougher for [co-creator and executive producer]Chuck [Lorre]than for me; Chuck was in the crosshairs. [Charlie] kind of left me out of it, except peripherally. I was one of the AA Nazis [he referred to in an interview at the time]
Are you still in touch with him?
No, I have not spoken or heard from him since the last show we shot, actually.
Did you watch the roast?
I did not. I did look at the live tweets while it was going on, so I heard all the good jokes. I thought some of them were very funny. I was really surprised that people could come up with stuff that I hadn’t heard already.
When did you bring Ashton on board?
Probably May. It actually did not get finalized until probably the week before the [new season lineups were announced]
Was there this immense sense of relief when you signed with him?
Not so much relief as anticipation. One thing that’s been repeated often in this context is sometimes you get a gift wrapped in really ugly paper. And the whole show blowing up gave us an opportunity to do something that doesn’t often get done, which is try and re-invent a hit show while it’s still on the air. So on the one hand, yeah, it was horrible, everything that happened. On the other hand, it was kind of exciting. Okay, what are we going to do now? Season 9 is not going to be the same as seasons 8 and 7 and 6.
You were also executive producing The Big Bang Theory. How on earth were you able to spread yourself so thin creatively?
You don’t. It was possible simply because Two and a Half Men was running really well and smoothly, so Chuck and I could go back and forth between the shows and split up, and things kept humming along. When things stopped humming along, it became more problematic.
What has this whole experience done for you as a human being and as a television producer?
It’s certainly challenged me creatively. We’ve had to create a whole new character and new relationships with all our other characters, and really think about where we want to go now. As a human being, it simply reinforced the lessons that you never know what the next day is going to bring in life, in general and in this business specifically. I’m glad I didn’t just make a down payment on a castle or something before everything hit the fan, because I would have been freaking out.
You’re coming to Vancouver to mentor young people in your industry. What sort of lessons can you offer them out of this recent challenge?
Lesson No. 1: Reconsider law school.
This interview has been condensed and edited.