Creator Bruce Helford Talks ANGER MANAGEMENT, Working with Charlie Sheen, Developing the Idea into a Series, and More

     July 5, 2012


In the new FX comedy series Anger Management, actor Charlie Sheen plays Charlie Goodson, a non-traditional therapist who has his own successful private practice, holding sessions with a group of regulars each week, as well as counseling a group of inmates at a state prison.  Prior to being an anger management therapist, Charlie was a minor league baseball prospect whose road to the majors was sidetracked by his own struggle with anger issues, making him the perfect person to understand what his patients are going through.  The show also stars Selma Blair, Shawnee Smith, Daniela Bobadilla, Noureen DeWulf, Michael Arden, Derek Richardson, Barry Corbin, Michael Boatman and Brett Butler.

In this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, the refreshingly honest and passionate creator/showrunner/executive producer Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show, The George Lopez Show) talked about developing this idea into a series, the process of shooting 10 episodes and then waiting on a pick-up for the back 90 episodes (giving them 100 episodes by 2014), collaborating with show star Charlie Sheen, what he would say to people wondering whether or not to tune in, how crucial the casting choices were, how the actors stick to the script with no improvisation, and how nerve-wracking it is to debut a show that has so much buzz.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

bruce-helford-anger-managementCollider: Did you intentionally through in as many story possibilities as you could with this, so you always had somewhere to go with it?

BRUCE HELFORD:  Yes, we tried to build in as many different dynamics as possible.  We did 10 episodes and, if it reaches a certain ratings level, then there’s an automatic 90 more.  Usually that’s in a five-year period that you play that over with regular network shows.  This will happen over the period of two years, which is much shorter.  So, I knew that I would have to have lots of different branches on the tree to go to.  As we go on, you’ll see in the first 10, we explore things between the patients, between Charlie and the individual patients, between Charlie and his ex, and between Charlie and his daughter.  There are a lot of places to go.  It’s very exciting to have that many good actors that you can have him interact with.

Does it feel daunting to know that you’re waiting to get picked up for the back 90?

HELFORD:  I know!  Usually, you get an order of 13 episodes and you wait for the back nine.  The back 90 sends chills down everybody’s spine.  We learned a lot, during the first 10.  We shot them in basically the same mode that we will for the 90.  It’s set up to allow us to shoot quickly, and it’s also set up to let the writers and actors have breathers, so it’s very doable.  The first 10 episodes were a great pleasure.  Charlie called me, about two weeks after we finished and said, “Dude, that was a gnarly schedule!,” and I said, “Yeah, I know.”  And he said, “But, I don’t have anything but fond memories of it.”  We had fun.  We had a really good time.  We worked at a pace that just is crazy, compared to what it is now.  Actually, if you go back to the beginning of TV, in the early days, they would shoot 38 episodes straight with no hiatus, so it isn’t completely outside the realm of what was done.  It’s just a matter of making it work now.

Did this show start with developing a TV show from the movie Anger Management, or did it start with Charlie Sheen and then finding the right project for him?

HELFORD:  It started because Charlie called Joe Roth.  They’ve made about six movies together.  Joe is the head of Revolution Studios.  He called Joe and said, “I think it would be really cool, if I played an anger management therapist.  Can I use the title of the movie?”  It was never intended to be based on the movie, which I have to explain to people.  It has nothing to do with the movie,  but he loved that title for a show.  That was the inception of the idea.  Then, when they talked to me, it was basically, “Charlie wants to play an anger management therapist.  It will be called Anger Management.  Have you got an idea for a show?”  So, I had to create the world and all of that.  And then, Charlie and I sat down and had a bunch of conversations about what we both wanted to accomplish, what we really wanted the show to be like, how we wanted it to be different from Two and a Half Men and his recent experience there, and different from my other shows.  We really just had nice talks about it until I went away to my little writing cave and created the world that we talked about.

Had you been thinking about returning to television, at that point, or was it more this project that specifically enticed you?

HELFORD:  It was a combination.  I had taken three years off.  I did a pilot with Bernie Mac and, during the process of the development of the pilot, he passed, and that gave me a good wake-up call that life is short.  My oldest daughter was getting ready to go to college and my son was a couple years away from it, and I thought, “You know what?  I’m just going to do that.”  So, I stepped out for awhile, just taking care of the kids and getting them ready for college, and doing all those wonderful things.  And then, when they both were at school, I realized, “Okay, the kids are out of the house, I’m going to be bored, unbelievably.  I can’t just sit around.  I’m going to need to develop something.”  When the Charlie thing came up, I had no idea I’d be jumping in this deep, this fast.  Usually, you do a pilot and then you cast it.  This was a much, much quicker process.  I went in and pitched the show to all the different networks with Charlie.  There was no pilot and there was no script.  There was just the totality and the concept, and Charlie and me pitching it.  And then, they bought it based on that.  What I hadn’t really thought of in advance was that I had to write the first episode, at the same time I was casting and that we were building sets.  Everything happened simultaneously, as opposed to the normal process.  Everything is excelerated and much more intense, but the pluses are all there, too.  It really proves to be a better way to do things.

Was cable always where you wanted to take the show because it gives you a bit more freedom?

HELFORD:  Because Charlie has such a broad audience, we didn’t set out to say, “We’re going to do something that’s so outrageous that it can only be on cable.”  We set out to do a good show that everyone could love.  We went out to the networks and the networks were not as interested in doing this 10/90 form.  They didn’t want to make that kind of commitment.  Basically, they’re committing to 100 episodes, if we get a certain number [with the ratings].  There’s no ifs, ands or buts.  It’s a contract.  So, that’s a big commitment, especially with no pilot, but there’s Charlie and, arguably, I’ve had a good track record.  When we went out to the cable networks, there was much more interest in this kind of thing, and much more interest in having the episodes sooner.  In order to do this cheaper, which is the mode for the 10/90, you have to do it quickly, so you don’t spread the amount of time that you do it, holding people over and all those expenses.  You do within two years what you normally do in five.  And for the cable networks, that made more sense.  FX was running Two and a Half Men in reruns and doing very well with it, so it made a lot of sense when they asked us to take them seriously, above all.  There were a lot of people interested, obviously, but for me, FX is great because I love what they do and I think it’s great for them to have a show that’s kind of a bridge.  This is not a typical FX show, but it does bridge from the programming they have before 8 o’clock, which are reruns and syndication things, into getting into the later evening hours.  I think it makes a lot of sense, and it’s definitely edgier than a regular broadcast show.  We have that leeway because we’re on FX.  Charlie and I are not big on using expletives, or anything like that.  That wasn’t what we were looking to do.

Once they gave you the idea and you had to figure out what kind of show you were going to do, was there one thing that helped it click for you?

HELFORD:  Well, the first thing was that anger is a part of everyone’s life, so that made complete sense to me.  That’s an area that hasn’t really been explored, and there are so many aspects of what anger is.  Frustration is a sort of anger.  So, I knew that would be a rich territory to dig into, as far as his own life ‘cause we had agreed that he would be somebody who had major anger issues in his past, and then there was the group.  The next thought I had was, “How do I do a show that’s not just a workplace show?”  One of my favorite old shows was The Bob Newhart Show, where Bob had the therapy group, but it was very important that he go home with Suzanne Pleshette and have that family aspect to it.  So, I had to build something where I could have the workplace and his personal life merge, and that’s what led me to the family, with the ex-wife and the daughter.  I had to find a way to make it flow organically between there, so I decided that he would have his group at his house, which a lot of therapists do.  Those things all merged together.  The biggest thing for me and Charlie was that we wanted to have a show where he did have some sense of family and was a much smarter and more complicated character than he has been, previously.  This guy is way more complex than Charlie Harper.  With those things all in mind, it started to come together.

When you had those first meetings with Charlie Sheen, not longer after his public meltdown, did you go into them with an open mind or did you have certain expectations?

HELFORD:  Well, I knew Charlie a little bit from our old days at ABC when he was doing Spin City and I was doing The Drew Carey Show because we did some cross-promotion stuff.  I also knew a lot of writers on Two and a Half Men who all said, “This guy is a complete pro.  He shows up for work and he does his job.”  The crew on Two and a Half Men loved him, which is a huge sign for me.  When a star is out of control or has that whole diva thing going on, the crew are the first ones to turn against them.  All those indications were very clear.  Also, what he was talking about and the things he was doing, he knows he was spinning out of control.  That perfect storm that happened, at that point in his life, made a little more sense to me, being a TV insider, than most people.  I know what it’s like to be on a show and not have a lot of input, but you’re the star and the driving force behind the show.  They never ran stories by him.  He was basically a hired gun.  After eight years of that, that’s a very frustrating thing.  I know Chuck [Lorre].  Chuck is not necessarily an easy guy and, apparently, they didn’t have a great relationship.  But, they did do a really good show and it was very lucrative for everybody.  I know that Charlie doesn’t feel great about the way that he went about it, but he feels strongly about the points he was trying to make.  But no, I was not concerned.  I’ve always found Charlie to be an incredible gentleman.  This process has been amazing.  He has been great.  He obviously has something to prove.  He wants a better legacy than the way that show ended, and he’s very invested in what we’re doing.  I also knew that, with all those things and with Joe Roth, who’s very close to Charlie, being involved, that Charlie really has a lot of people that he doesn’t want to cause problems for and that helps him to manage his life.  He’s still a character.  He’s got a lifestyle like nobody else, and he makes no bones about it, but I think that his sense of purpose and his sense of dedication to this is higher than anything he’s done.

What would you say to people who are wondering if Charlie Sheen still has it?

HELFORD:  They’ve just gotta tune into the show.  He’s wonderful.  This is a very different Charlie, but there’s still part of Charlie.  The womanizing part of his character on Spin City and his character on Two and a Half Men were based partly on who he is.  It’s an easy fit to go that way.  The rogue is in him.  This is a much more complex character, and he gets to use his acting chops.  You see a lot more levels and a lot more colors, and it’s really a funny show.  The audience will tell me.  I can’t really gauge what’s right or wrong, good or bad.  But I do believe that, for people who like Charlie Sheen, they’re really going to love the show.

In incorporating certain elements of his own  life into the character, how do you decide what will work and what won’t?

HELFORD:  Charlie has been through anger management therapy, and when he picked that, and the fact that he wanted to be a baseball player who had had major anger problems in his career, it was automatic that there was going to be some resonance in his life.  On the TV show, there are two Charlies.  There is the old character of Charlie, who was a baseball player and a guy who was very angry that did a lot of wrong things and was not very evolved, and then there is the Charlie who, after his accident, became more evolved and learned about how to be a therapist.  He’s now at a point where he can make amends for the guy he was, by helping other people.  That all has resonance in Charlie Sheen’s life.  We made some meta references in the pilot and had some fun with that, but by the time it gets to Episode 3 or 4, it’s really about how this show works and not about the bigger picture.  You’ll see that we have our fun, in a few episodes.

There are some good jokes coming up about Charlie’s personal life.  Denise Richards comes on the show and does an episode with us.  Martin [Sheen], his father, played his father in an episode.  Those things are there, but the show really works on its own and has to work on its own, and not just on those ironic references ‘cause the irony will wear off, very quickly.  In fact, in the agreement, when they judge what the ratings number will be to get the pick-up for the 90, the first two episodes aren’t even being counted ‘cause everyone knows the tune in is not just to see Charlie’s new show, but to see what’s going on with Charlie, and all that.  It will be based a lot on what he went through, during that period.

On this show, you really get to learn about Charlie through his relationships with the women in his life, whether it’s his best friend (Selma Blair), his ex-wife (Shawnee Smith) or his daughter (Daniela Bobadilla).  How crucial was the casting of those roles and finding the right dynamic for each of them?

HELFORD:  It’s one of those things where, when you do the casting, you see a lot of really incredible people, but there’s that moment that you see it.  Charlie read with all of them.  Selma [Blair] and he hit it off, right off the bat.  They love each other.  The chemistry between them is honest, in a physical way, where I’m almost embarrassed to be on the set sometimes for the bedroom scenes, but they’re both professionals.  It doesn’t go any further than that, but there’s definitely a lot of flirting going on.  But, they also truly are genuinely friends.  They’ve become friends.  They didn’t really know each other before this.  So, when you see them interacting, it’s not so different from their interaction, as people, when I see them just sitting on the set, talking about whatever they’re going through in their lives.  They share a lot of personal stuff.  That was really palpable.  The chemistry between them is very honest and very pure.  You can’t make that happen, so that was really great.

Shawnee [Smith] came in with a whole different energy.  One of the things about sitcoms that I’ve always been against is the way they treat ex-wives and ex-husbands.  Charlie and I have both been divorced a number of times and we both agreed it was not going to be, when the ex-wife came in, “Oh, here comes trouble.”  We weren’t going in that direction.  So, what you see in that relationship is that these were two people that really did love each other and still have a form of that affection, even though they can push each other’s buttons and make each other crazy.  There is a true affection there, and not just for the benefit of the child, but they genuinely care about each other.  And then, there’s all the dynamics of trying to control the divorce, as opposed to controlling the marriage.  And she’s great at her honesty and her under-playing and her strength, as a woman and a person, to be able to play the ex, but not play the wounded, the bitter or the whiny.  That was really great, and that chemistry was also really obvious.

And Daniela [Bobadilla], who plays his daughter, came in and read for the role, but it was just an okay read.  Charlie said, “Come out in the hall with me, for a minute,” and he took her out in the hall and they just talked for a moment, as people.  And then, he said, “Okay, now let’s go in there and show them how it’s done.”  So, he brought her back in the room and she killed.  Not only that, we began to realize there was even a physical resemblance in their coloring and everything else.  It was just completely natural.  Just taking her out in the hall and taking to her, for a second, about stuff and getting all of the nerves out of the way, she was able to be who she really was.  She’s been a pleasure, and they get along really well.  She’ll accomplish stuff in her life, and Charlie is really proud of her and he brags about her, like he would about his own kids.  It’s a really nice relationship.  So, we saw lots of great actors, but the chemistry is real obvious when you see it.

What led you to cast Brett Butler?

HELFORD:  Well, there are no accidents.  Obviously, she has a history with Chuck Lorre as well, and so I think Charlie thought that might be fun.  Also, honestly, she is looking to return and this was a very comfortable, safe place for her to come to do that.  She’s done a lot of soul searching, and she’s made no bones about that.  She comes in for a cameo, like every other episode, and she’s really funny.  Charlie gets a kick out of her, and we have a good time.  I think it was a nice way to reintroduce herself, and we get the benefit of a very talented comedic actress.

Did you worry, at all, about having a character who thrives on chaos in his own life, and making him responsible for helping other people, especially in his own home?

HELFORD:  Honestly, it’s that aspect that we embraced.  Everybody said, “Why would he bring these angry people into his home?,” but he does look for chaos in his life.  And why would he be having sex with his therapist?  That’s the most dysfunctional relationship on TV.  It’s a mess, which is fun for us to play with because they have terrible intimacy issues.  It’s really part of who he is, and a little bit of a part of who I am and who Charlie is.  When you’re in this business and you invite all this incredible hard work and all the craziness and all the people we have to interact with, I definitely think we both enjoy a little chaos in our lives, so it was real natural to put it into the show.

Especially for the four regular patients that Charlie works with, did you have an idea of who those characters would be and then you did the casting, or did you look for actors first and then develop the characters around them?

HELFORD:  No, the only one we hand in mind, from the beginning, was Barry Corbin for Ed.  We wanted that voice in there.  We knew what the character was going to be, and we always wrote it with his voice in mind.  With the other three characters, they were created first.  For me, it was very important not just to have four angry people.  So, Nolan’s (Derek Richardson) issue is that he enjoys other people’s anger.  That’s actually from my life.  I had a couple of wives who I thought were very strong people, but who turned out to be very angry people.  When I went to a couples therapist, the couples therapist said, “You know why you keep marrying women like this?  You do it because you vicariously enjoy their anger because you’re not an angry person.”  I was like, “That’s a bunch of psychobabble.”  And then, I went home and went, “Oh, my god, that’s exactly what I’m doing!”  So, I married a nurturing person and that’s worked out good.  Nolan has more masochist in him than I do, but he’s a really interesting person to throw into a group of angry people.

And he’s got a crush on Lacey (Noureen DeWulf).  I wanted to have someone who had legitimately been thrown in there by a court mandate.  We thought it was interesting that she tried to kill her boyfriend, or at least tried to shoot his genitals off, and so she was mandated to be there.  It’s not really an anger management seminar type of thing.  This is really about anger therapy.  But, there’s always someone who has been told they have to go there by the court.

And then, with Patrick (Michael Arden), he was told to go there by his business.  He’s a personal shopper.  We haven’t really dealt with it on the show yet, but he ended up slapping a woman when he was helping her with her clothes, and his company sent him into anger management therapy.  As the episodes go on, you will learn why he is like he is, what his family background was, and why he’s so passive aggressive.  So, I wanted to have four really different types of anger, or anger-related issues, to deal with so it would keep it interesting.  And then, of course, there’s the prison group, who are all angry and out of their minds.

Is there a lot of improvisation on this show, or do you pretty much stick with the script?

HELFORD:  There’s no improvisation.  It’s all sticking to the script.  But, I make a bond with my actors and I will never make them say anything they don’t want to say.  If anybody has a question about a line or something, they’ll come to me and say, “This doesn’t work for me,” or “I’m not sure I’d say this,” or “Could this be something different?  Could it go this way?”  And then, the writers regroup and we make some changes.  So, there’s input from the actors on the dialogue.  I’m used to working with stand-up comics, like Drew [Carey] and George [Lopez] and Norm MacDonald, who, while they don’t improv, they try to make the words more like the way they would speak.  Charlie, as a real actor, enjoys going into the written script and making that unique for himself.  It’s really interesting to watch him ‘cause I haven’t worked with that many actors, in my lead roles.  It’s almost always been stand-up comics who became actors, as they went along.  For Charlie, he will actually make us continue to do takes, until he says it as written.  You don’t usually get that from the star of your show.  It’s an amazing quality.  But, he is a perfectionist about his work.  That’s been a pleasure.  On this show, unlike some other shows, there’s not a lot of improving yet.  As time goes along, that could actually happen.  I’ve got people there who have improv backgrounds, like Noureen DeWulf and Derek [Richardson].  They may want to play a little bit.

As a showrunner, your ultimate goal is to make a great show and have people tune in.  So, was it nice to have the buzz for this show before it ever even aired, or is that nerve-wracking?  Do you prefer to fly under the radar?

HELFORD:   My success has always been in being under the radar and being the underdog, and then surprise everybody.  There is no surprising anybody with this.  Everybody sees this coming with huge big boots.  It is a bit more nerve-wracking because the expectation is so high.  I believe we’ve created a good show and I think people will like it, but America will tell me.  The expectations are just so insane and there’s all this buzz.  But on the other hand, it would have been nice if Drew Carey had had that kind of buzz, in the beginning.  Nobody knew who he was, and nobody knew what the show was.  There is something very nice about the recognition of the show, going into it, and that people are aware of it.  You spend so much time, when you first start to launch a show, just making people aware.  The marketplace is so crowded now that, to have Charlie’s name emblazoned in lights over the project, it’s actually a very nice thing.  It will definitely get people to watch what I think is a good show, which is great.  Hopefully, it will bring people to the sets to check it out, and that is a great opportunity.  But like my dad always told me, you can advertise all you want, but you better have good stuff when people walk into the store.

Anger Management airs on Thursday nights on FX.