Rude Awakening: The Low-Down on the Long Ride of 'Two and a Half Men'

CBS's Crass Comedy Was a Cash Cow

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Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the ninth season premiere of 'Two and a Half Men.'
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the ninth season premiere of 'Two and a Half Men.' Credit: CBS

When the hoary old Chuck Lorre sitcom "Two and a Half Men" signs off for the last time with a one-hour episode Thursday night, it will be remembered fondly by CBS ad sales executives, Warner Bros. TV studio execs and fans of a sort of giddy, lowest common denominator raunch. The rest of us may well wonder how the show lasted as long as it did.

Make no mistake, "Two and a Half Men" was a phenomenon. In closing out its 12th season on CBS, the show stands as the longest-running multi-camera comedy in TV history. (Boasting a 14-season run on ABC, the straight-laced family comedy "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was shot as a single-cam.) At its peak, "Men" was the 10th most-watched series on TV, and even a near-death experience in 2011 couldn't topple it from its perch as one of broadcast's priciest ad buys.

But you don't have to be a town elder in "Footloose" to apprehend that "Men" was perhaps the most relentlessly smutty entertainment franchise this side of Fox's "Family Guy." Leering coke goblin Charlie Sheen tattooed his signature brand of charismatic debauchery all over the show's heaving flanks, while Jon Cryer lent an air of sweaty urgency to his role as Alan, a hapless single dad. Each script was stuffed with jokes about Alan's enthusiasm for, um "roughing up the suspect," Charlie's boozy licentiousness and pretty much any bodily function you might care to name. (Not for nothing does the Google search for "Two and a Half Men" + "fart" expel no fewer than 95,400 results.)

Of course, comedy's a terribly subjective animal, and an awful lot of people thought "Men" was hilarious. Despite losing Mr. Sheen to his Tiger Blood sojourn, the show returned to record ratings in its ninth season premiere, which saw Ashton Kutcher fill in for the ousted Mr. Sheen: A staggering 28.7 million viewers tuned in for the episode on Sept. 19, 2011. The season opener peaked with 31 million viewers and an 11.4 rating among adults 18 to 49, where a ratings point equals 1% of the set of TV households, making it the most-watched installment of a sitcom since the "Everybody Loves Raymond" finale in 2005.

The Kutcher refresh helped boost the show's full-season ratings 15% to 14.6 million viewers, and the series didn't really show signs of metal fatigue until the penultimate season. This final run will be the least-watched of the show's dozen seasons; through 14 episodes, "Men" is averaging a still-respectable 9.08 million viewers and a 2.1 in the adults 18-to-49 demographic. To put that into context, the highest-rated live-action comedy on Fox, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," is averaging a 1.8 in the demo, while NBC's biggest sitcom, the departing "Parks and Recreation," is averaging a 1.3.

All told, "Men" is CBS's fourth highest-rated sitcom, trailing only Mr. Lorre's "The Big Bang Theory" (4.6) and "Mom" (2.4), as well as "2 Broke Girls" (2.2).

A decade of big ratings translated to a very robust advertising environment. During the 2006-07 broadcast season, the going rate for a 30-second spot averaged to around $276,433 a pop, making "Men" the second-most expensive scripted buy on TV behind ABC's "Desperate Housewives." A spot in this final season of "Men" was a relative steal, as media buyers in the 2014-15 upfront ponied up $147,140 per :30.

While advertisers couldn't get enough of "Men," many casual viewers were outraged by the show's fascination with genitals gags and flatulence funnies. Over a four-year span from 2009 through 2013, 98 viewers filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission about the sexual innuendo and coarse language that characterized "Men."

As is generally the case with citizen complaints, the unintentional hilarity in the FCC documents is off the charts. For example, in October 2011, a viewer from Kansas forever ruined PB&Js with the enigmatic sentence fragment, "Also an animal eating peanut butter off Alan's balls," a curiosity matched only by the Wisconsin resident who frowned upon a reference to "watching Walrus[es] masterbate [sic] at the zoo." (For reasons upon which we don't even care to speculate, the single most misspelled word to be found in the FCC documents is "masturbate.")

At least one infuriated viewer took the time to suggest a replacement for "Men," demanding that the FCC reinstate "'Family Matters' and 'Full House,'" while another petitioned CBS to "bring back 'Leave it to Beaver!'"

No action was ever taken against "Men" -- of the hundreds of thousands of complaints about TV content the FCC receives each year, only a statistically insignificant number result in the issue of a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture. Actual fines are rarer still.

And perhaps that's where we should leave the show as it settles into the penumbra of history. Mr. Lorre and his merry band of pottymouths weren't doing any harm with their show, and after a dozen years of flipping the bird to the Ozzies and Harriets of the world, the Republic still stands. Even at its filthiest, "Men" was designed as a diversionary 22 minutes of good, clean fun.

"I would hope that the kindest view of the show is that we tried to make people laugh. That was our job," said Mr. Lorre in a valedictory video produced for CBS. "If you were going to give us the half-hour to watch the show, we would try to repay your attention with laughter."

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