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Benefits of fun

CULTURE MONSTER : SPOTLIGHT

Mark Roberts goes from childhood goofball to busy playwright

June 06, 2012|Jason Kehe
  • Playwright Mark Roberts is executive producer of CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and "Mike & Molly."
Playwright Mark Roberts is executive producer of CBS' "Two… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Mark Roberts claims he didn't design "the summer of Mark Roberts." But that's exactly what this looks like.

The creator of "Mike & Molly" and former "Two and a Half Men" writer, who's shifting to the stage for his summer break, has written three plays opening within a month of one another.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 13, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Couples Counseling Killed Katie": In the June 6 Calendar section, an article about playwright Mark Roberts gave an incorrect phone number for ticket sales for his play "Couples Counseling Killed Katie" at Elephant Theatre in L.A. The correct number is (323) 960-7721.

The first two are in L.A. theaters, and the third -- "Parasite Drag," opening June 20 at the Bernstein Theater in Massachusetts -- ran in Los Angeles in 2010.

It's a full-circle moment for Roberts, who started playacting in drama clubs as a young boy some 40 years ago.

"It doesn't really feel like going back, it just feels like doing something fun," Roberts, 51, says. "Since I was a kid, this was the stuff that I did. Ultimately what got me into this whole thing was putting on funny wigs and goofing off."

He'll be doing just that in "Couples Counseling Killed Katie," a one-act comedy opening Saturday at the Elephant Theatre in which Roberts and Jessica Tuck ("True Blood") play seven interconnected couples trying, and mostly failing, to work out their differences on a therapist's couch. Besides wigs, quick changes involve false teeth and false limbs.

The duo originally performed the play in Los Angeles in 2000, and it changed Roberts' life. After a performance one night at an informal industry hangout, "this dude" approached him from across the crowd.

"If somebody hasn't made you rich writing for television, I want to be that guy," the man told Roberts.

That guy happened to be Chuck Lorre, and he followed through on his word. When CBS picked up Lorre's "Two and a Half Men" in 2003, he made Roberts a co-producer. Roberts had never written for television, but that didn't stop Lorre from promoting him to head writer a few years later.

"I was dumb enough not to know the limitations," Roberts says. "I was a little fearless."

He had the added advantage of finally doing what he loved: writing. A stand-up comic for years, Roberts had never felt comfortable in the spotlight. In the writers' room, he'd found his home.

It wasn't a gift he would waste. Wary of the veterans who'd spent so long in the television industry that they'd lost their individual voices as writers, Roberts woke up at 5 a.m. every morning to write his own material -- plays, new TV scripts, even a movie. Out of that regimen came Roberts' two other plays this summer: "Parasite Drag" and "Where the Great Ones Run," which opened at Rogue Machine on May 26.

For the darkly comic writer -- "Parasite Drag" finds humor in the story of two brothers facing their sister's imminent death from AIDS -- "Great Ones" represents a turn toward the sentimental. In it, a messed-up family in Anytown, USA deals with love and loss within the cozy confines of a run-down diner. Roberts calls it a "farewell to his hometown" of Urbana, Ill., where he used to return most summers to try out his new plays.

Roberts' summer gets more hectic in a week, when he returns to "Mike & Molly," his CBS sitcom in which an overweight couple find happiness. Among the many joys of that job, Roberts says, is seeing star Melissa McCarthy's "very deserved" rise to post-"Bridesmaids" fame.

"She's just one of those weird little comic geniuses where you don't have any idea where she's going, and you're fascinated to watch her," Roberts says. "She's beautiful and funny, and she knows how to flip you around, which is great."

"Mike & Molly" might be Roberts' sweetest project. Generally he goes for "dark and twisted," two adjectives he uses to describe himself.

All of Roberts' writing, he says, comes from real-life experiences. The characters in "Couples Counseling," though over-the-top caricatures of well-known types -- bikers, emo-goths, hicks, Brits -- began as real people. The Katie of the title is an old girlfriend; the silver fox-trophy wife duo are based on a real Hollywood couple.

"And I won't tell you their names," Robert says.

One refrain in Roberts' work is the talking cure -- people vocalizing their problems as a way of solving them. Mike and Molly are proud members of Overeaters Anonymous. Jane Lynch played a shrink on several episodes of "Two and a Half Men." Does Roberts know why this theme persists?

"I got a lot of problems," he says, chuckling. "The psychology of people is fascinating to me, and it also provides a certain amount of reality to the comedy -- tragedy, really."

And it's therapeutic.

"It gives me a way of making sense of things," he says. "It's sort of like gathering data and being able to study the reality of your life through your art -- sometimes making it come out happy when it didn't."

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calendar@latimes.com

"Where the Great Ones Run," Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Ends July 8. $30. (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachine theatre.com.

"Couples Counseling Killed Katie," Elephant Theatre, 322 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. Ends June 30. $20. (323) 962-0046.

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