Recovery with a Laugh-Track

By Malina Saval 10/30/14

Chuck Lorre and Gemma Baker on the story behind their recovery themed sitcom Mom.


Sitcoms about alcoholics and addicts are not the norm for network TV, with the majority of substance abuse-themed storylines relegated to such envelope-pushing cable skeins as Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and AMC’s Breaking Bad. In Mainstream TV Land, humor and drugs are generally thought to go together about as well as a shot of tequila and a hit of heroin, which, of course, undercuts the truth about addiction, which is that so many who struggle have their senses of humor intact, and keenly so.

Without keeping their wits about them, most recovering addicts would be dead. Step into any 12-step meeting—these are rooms flush with self-effacing—and, yes, uplifting and edifying—humor. You could make a case that nobody laughs at their foibles and flaws like an addict. The idea that recovery and darkness must go hand in hand is just not true, which is why CBS's year-old sitcom, Mom, is such a refreshing change to the small screen landscape.

So the idea that you get sober and suddenly it’s a paradise is maybe not accurate.

The show tracks the life of Christy (Anna Faris) a waitress and single mother struggling to stay clean while raising her pregnant teenage daughter Violet (Sadie Calvano) and precocious tween son Roscoe (Blake Garrett Rosenthal). Complicating matters: they live in Napa Valley, the wine capital of America. Further complicating matters: Christy’s long-estranged, recovering alcoholic mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), suddenly pops up and decides to move in with them.

And while the two lead protagonists on the series are newly sober alcoholics and drug addicts, this is not a series about addiction, affirms co-creator and executive producer, Chuck Lorre: “It’s about recovery," he insists.

Co-creator Chuck Lorre with Anna Faris

“Recovery is actually dealing with the issues that are below addiction,” says Lorre of the Emmy-minted CBS sitcom (thanks to Allison Janney’s plucky, spot-on performance), which returns tonight for its second season. “The drugs and alcohol treat those conditions, but treat them very poorly, and it creates another layer of problems. Treating the underlying conditions of addiction is the show, not the addiction itself.”

It’s a story that Chuck Lorre has “wanted to tell for a long time,” ever since his days working on CBS’s Cybill and Grace Under Fire in the 90s.

“It’s a heroic story to tell about a woman raising a child in this world by herself, or raising children,” says Lorre. “Adding on the difficulties of having had a troubled past, recovering from alcoholism—that’s a day-to-day situation.”  

But while laughter and addicts have an easy consistency, packaging the two as a mainstream sitcom was not a process that had been tried and tested. Not quite sure how to marry the inherent “darkness” of addiction and recovery with the breezy—and often laugh track-accompanied—sitcom format, it was Mom co-creator and producer, Gemma Baker, who offered up the perfect solution.

“Gemma played an invaluable part in unlocking the puzzle when she said 'Let’s put the active addiction in your rearview mirror and let her be in recovery,'” says Lorre. “From that moment on, I think we wrote the first draft of the pilot in about six weeks after that conversation.”

Mimi Kennedy, Anna Faris and Allison Janney

With Christy and Bonnie no longer using, but working to piece together their fragmented lives, Baker and Lorre were able to craft a smart, soulful sitcom where emotions could ring loud, but also where alcoholism and addiction could provide ample fodder for blade-sharp (sometimes ribald) repartee and zippy one-liners.  

“Christy desperately wants to be a better mother, daughter, and person, but whenever she gets the opportunity, she says or does the wrong thing, at least at first,” says Baker. “I think that’s really human. And the great thing about having a lead actress, like Anna Faris, is that she is so charming—you can’t help but love and root for Christy. The thing I love most about Bonnie is that she always says exactly what's on her mind and Allison Janney delivers those moments perfectly. “

For Baker, Christy and Bonnie provide endless inspiration; as they grow and mature as individuals, so does she as a writer, a TV producer and as an off-screen mom with real-life parenting challenges.

“After writing the character of Bonnie for over a year, I find myself in certain situations thinking, ‘What would Bonnie say here?’” says Baker.  “But I never say it and that’s probably a good thing. Bonnie can get away with anything – I cannot.”

To wit, in the pilot episode, Christy and Bonnie, newly-reunited after not speaking for several years, argue over Christy’s childhood. Christy, whose dad walked out on her as a child, says, “While other mothers were cooking dinner, you were cooking meth.” Bonnie’s response: “Otherwise known as working!”

“(The line) got a huge laugh because the audience knows the characters survived their past and are trying to do better,” notes Baker. “I think our show does a good job of finding humor in addiction and recovery because we don’t shy away from the seriousness of the issue. Chuck really encourages us to lean into the emotional moments, which means we don’t have to end every scene, or every episode for that matter, on a joke. If we just went for the funny in every single moment of this show, and completely ignored how serious addiction is, I don’t think the audience would be able to laugh as easily. Those heavy moments really help us earn the light ones.”

This delicate balance of funny versus serious was no more evident than in the season one finale in which a very pregnant Violet, with prom on the horizon and nearing her due date (she and her boyfriend dance the night away until heavy contractions signal the start of false labor), makes the heartrending decision to give her baby up for adoption. It’s a crushing and painful moment that Lorre and Baker chose, bravely and wisely, not to play for laughs.

“It occurred to me that if she was actually going to break the cycle that was her inheritance, she would have to do it very courageously in giving the child up, as opposed to keeping the baby to prove her mother (who was also a teen mom) wrong, as if to say, ‘Look, I can be a better mother than you are as an act of defiance,’” says Lorre of his decision. “It just seemed like an opportunity for this character to have some clarity about her life. There just didn’t seem to be any way to do this and play it for laughs; it just seemed to be disrespectful. It’s too fraught with emotion to play it for laughs and it was enough to just be able to say, 'Okay we can put on a good enough comedy generally to sustain the scene that serves to do one thing and one thing only – which is for this woman to make the biggest decision probably of her life.'”

Sadie Calvano, Anna Faris and Allison Janney with co-creator Gemma Baker

What Mom does, and does exceptionally well, is to engage viewers regardless of whether or not their lives have been impacted by the devastating effects of drugs and alcohol, of teenage pregnancy and broken families. It’s the universality of the series that sustains it and nourishes the audience’s investment in its characters and, most importantly perhaps, keeps the laughs coming. Its humor is a salve that heals, no matter what each person’s situation.

“I think people in general are all trying to lead better lives than the lives they were leading yesterday,” says Lorre. “It’s just a natural desire to become a better father or daughter, a better spouse, better brother or sister, better worker, and to repair the damage done and hopefully become somewhat wiser and somewhat more useful, and that’s a bumpy road, and the bumps hopefully lend themselves to comedy.”

Following the bittersweet sequence of Violet giving birth and saying goodbye to her daughter as she heads home with her adoptive family, the season ends on a poignant and promising note, with Christy speaking at her AA meeting on the one-year birthday of her sobriety. It’s a critical moment, and not just because it means that Christy hasn’t had a drink in a year. More than physical sobriety, it’s a milestone that marks Christy’s success at having weathered the ups and downs of life while maintaining a mental clarity heretofore unknown. As Christy tells the group, “I got sober just in time.”

For Lorre, the scene was about revealing the truth of recovery, which is that “stopping drinking doesn’t cause life to stop.”

“Life continues and life is a messy affair, and it’s filled with joys and difficulties and tragedies,” says Lorre. “Being sober allowed (Christy) to be present, to be useful and helpful to her daughter, and repair the damage with her mother, and to repair a relationship with a long gone father. There was so much work within this family that could not have happened had she been drinking. It would not have happened. There would’ve been no progress, her life would’ve remained the same or probably gotten worse. So the idea that you get sober and suddenly it’s a paradise is maybe not accurate, at least in this case it’s certainly not accurate. Getting sober allowed her to be present for her life.” 

Malina Saval has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. She is the author of  “The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens” and the novel “Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.” She is also an associate features editor at Variety. 

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Malina Saval is the author of  The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. She's also an associate features editor at Variety, and a regular contributor to The Fix. You can find Malina on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.