How ‘Rules of Engagement’ Creator Tom Hertz Helped CBS Avert Sheen-pocalypse

Hertz's relationship comedy going strong in fifth season

It’s no surprise CBS came to “Rules of Engagement” show runner Tom Hertz to shoot extra episodes of his relationship comedy when “Two and a Half Men” went into limbo.

If “Men” has been one of the most tumultuous shows on television this season, “Engagement” has been one of its most steady. Hertz says he even tries to get the cast and crew home for dinner: "I try to hand CBS the best show we can every week with no drama, no craziness and no blowups," he tells The Writers' Room.

Also read: How 'The Killing' Show Runner Veena Sud Tricks Herself Into Hitting Deadlines

A computer programmer, standup comedian, and writer for Jon Stewart and Dennis Miller before he worked on a slew of sitcoms, Hertz has a special insight into CBS’s “Men” trouble. As a producer on “Spin City,” he guided the transition when Parkinson's disease forced Michael J. Fox to leave — and Charlie Sheen replaced him.

The creator of "Rules," now in its fifth and longest season, talked about where he can't write, what he would do with his own plane, and his surprisingly dark idea for “Two and a Half Men.”

You’ve said you borrow a lot of situations on your show from your life or your writers’ lives. Do you worry about their exes recognizing themselves in storylines?
I guess if the people are forthcoming, then I assume it’s all right. Even if it’s slightly embarrassing or something, people maybe enjoy seeing their lives on TV.

My previous show was just a one-season show on ABC called “Married to the Kellys,” which was pretty much about my marriage to my wife and her large Kansas family and me navigating a Midwestern, loving family after coming from kind of a quiet, East Coast one. And even if something was not flattering, it was always taken as, “Well, it’s the truth.” They just thought I was very observant.

You work with about 10 writers, but when you're writing the script yourself, where do you write and when?
Usually in my office, or sometimes on a laptop in bed. I’ve tried writing on airplanes and that doesn’t work because I usually fall asleep before the plane has left the gate, even. Something about the humming, and you’re cut off from cell phone usage and it’s so peaceful. … I wonder if I got a plane and put it in my yard and just sat in it. Would I have to be airborne for it to have that effect?

I usually put on headphones and try to shut everything out. … For writing it’s usually classical music or something without lyrics. Just something in the background that shuts out tones and people. I sometimes go on iTunes and find a blues station. Blues may have words, but it’s just a lot of complaining that I can tune out.

How did you get into writing?
I graduated from the University of Connecticut — go Huskies — in the ’80s and had a regular job I didn’t like and started doing open-mic standup comedy in Connecticut. And I sort of kept doing that while I quit my job and was sort of looking for other jobs. And I heard about other comics talking about getting paid gigs and all that so I thought, Oh, I’ll just do that.

Standup took me to New York and I met other comics and they thought I was a good writer, so I wrote for Jon Stewart’s first MTV talk show. Back in the ’90s they had all those cable comedy shows… so I’d write for them. And then I moved to L.A. to write for “Dennis Miller Live,” and then “Spin City” took me back to New York, and then L.A., when Charlie Sheen took over for Michael J. Fox. And then I graduated to taking a shot at pilots, writing my own shows.

What was the regular job you didn’t like?
It was computer programing for the Hartford Insurance Group.  It was an eight-month training program and maybe up to a year of doing it before I realized it wasn’t that thrilling. Right as I was quitting I went to, it was like, the funniest-morning-DJ-in-Hartford contest at some comedy club, and I left there thinking, "You aren’t that funny. I’m pretty funny." And the next week I tried it. I was really nervous. And I’d never spoken into a microphone until then.

When CBS wasn’t sure what would happen with “Two and a Half Men,” they asked you to do 26 episodes. Was that intimidating, given you had only done 13 episodes the past two seasons?
This was twice as much work, but it’s great. I was happy to do it. After the crew and all the workers only got 13 episodes worth of employment the last two years. … Everyone likes working. Things are pretty smooth around here so we don’t really work late nights or stay here for dinner.

That’s kind of a rarity, isn’t it? To work normal hours and go home at a regular time?
I guess. I don’t know what the secret is. I think it’s just I know what I want on this show. … Also, I love my wife and kids. Often, show runners have a problem, or they don’t want to go home, and they make the staff stay until all hours of the night, because it’s more fun than going home.

So is Charlie Sheen still a friend?
Yeah. I don’t see him a lot. We texted a few times and I said, "Is all this just because the Reds lost the playoffs last year?" He's a big Reds fan. I don’t know anything as far as what’s going on in his head or what’s happened. I’m not that close to him. I just hope he comes out of it healthy and his family’s all right.

You had to handle the transition from Michael J. Fox to Charlie Sheen on “Spin City.” Any thoughts on how you would replace Charlie Sheen on “Two and a Half Men”?
If I was in charge I could get like 13 episodes, without him, I think, pretty easily. Most of them about the fact that he’s gone. … You do an episode where like he hasn’t called, where is he, we’re searching for him. And then you find out, I don’t know, what happened, and dealing with it. Maybe he met with, uh, foul play.

You could plan a short season dealing with his disappearance and wrapping up the show. But as far as carrying it on for another year or two, I have no idea.

"Rules of Engagement" airs Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c on CBS.