There's a reason Kaley Cuoco's character, Penny, on the CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" is from Nebraska.

His name is Lee Aronsohn.

"It was something I threw out, I think," the "Big Bang" executive producer said in a phone interview. "We knew she wasn't from Los Angeles. So where is she from? Nebraska. I knew a little bit about Nebraska. So fine."

Aronsohn, who grew up in New York and attended college at the University of Colorado, spent two years in Lincoln, 1975 to 1977, where he opened Trade-A-Tape Comic Center, which still is in operation.

"I can't think of anything that I've been responsible for that has lasted that long, except maybe a venereal disease," he said, laughing.

In addition to "The Big Bang Theory," Aronsohn, 58, is co-creator and executive producer of "Two and a Half Men," now in its eighth season on CBS. "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" are the top two comedies on television.

He also co-wrote the catchy "Two and a Half Men" theme song with "Two and a Half" co-creator Chuck Lorre and composer Grant Geissman.

"I have two sons, and we used to march around our house singing 'We are men, we are men, we are manly men. We are men, men, men, men, men,'" Aronsohn said. "So when it came time to talk about a theme song for 'Two and a Half Men,' I thought, how about something like that."

He loves that the song is as popular as the show itself.

"You know, that's my immortality," he said. "There was a point in my life that, had I died, I would have been known as the guy who created the Captain's bastard daughter on 'The Love Boat.'"

So why did Aronsohn live in Lincoln? For a girl, of course. They met at a bar in Estes Park, Colo. She was a student at the University of Nebraska. After his senior year at CU, he came to Lincoln to be with her.

"We spent one semester meeting halfway, taking the train," he said. "‘I think halfway was Cheyenne, Wyo."

He opened the comic book and used record store because that's what he knew. He had worked at a used record store in Boulder and frequented a comic book store there as well. He collected comics.

"I needed to make a living," he said. "When I moved to Lincoln, I decided to combine the two (concepts)."

But he always believed he was destined for something else. At the time, he thought it was stand-up comedy.

Larry Lorenz, who began working at Trade-a-Tape in the fall of 1976, remembers Aronsohn testing his material on him.

"He would ask me what I knew about Jimmy Carter, and I would say 'not much,'" said Lorenz, who bought Trade-a-Tape from Aronsohn in 1977 and continues to run it. "He would then do a 10- or 15-minute stand-up routine about him. He was the boss, so I knew I'd better be laughing."

Friend Phil Hammar, a production services manager at NET, said Aronsohn wrote constantly.

"We would be at a restaurant and he would go away, grab a napkin off a table and start writing," Hammar said. "I asked him once if it was something he saw that triggered that. He told me, no, something had just come to him.'"

After Aronsohn's relationship ended with his girlfriend -- he still wonders what became of her -- he and Hammar drove to Los Angeles. Hammar returned to Lincoln after two weeks, but Aronsohn stayed. He had no reason to come back.

Aronsohn immediately tried stand-up because "that was the dream."

"The reality was somewhat different," he said. "I did stand-up for awhile, and I starved to death at it."

His career path changed after meeting with the late Ben Joelson, who was a producer and writer on "The Love Boat." Joelson was one of the people on Aronsohn's "contact list."

"When you come out here, you have a list of everybody and anybody in your family knows that has any connection to show business," he said. "Ben Joelson's brother was my father's insurance agent in New York."

The two had lunch, and Joelson attended one of Aronsohn's stand-up performances. He asked Aronsohn if he ever considered writing. Aronsohn said no.

"It's like having a term paper due every day of your life," he said. "Then he told me what they were paying writers on 'The Love Boat,' and then I said 'On the other hand ...'"

After nearly a year of pitching stories, he finally sold one to the hit ABC series and wrote the script. Then came another. And another.

"Then they hired me on staff, and before you know it, I'm a cocaine addict," he said.

This time he wasn't joking.

He left "The Love Boat" in 1979. He didn't get sober until 1983. And he didn't come by another writing job until 1988, on Scott Baio's "Charles in Charge." He lived off residual checks from "The Love Boat" to make ends meet.

Thankfully, "Charles" led to more work. Aronsohn wrote steadily for the next 10 to 15 years on such shows as "Who's the Boss?" and "Murphy Brown."

He met Lorre in 1993 on the ABC comedy "Grace Under Fire." The show Aronsohn was working on -- "Joe's Life" -- had been canceled, and former "Roseanne" producer Bob Myer recommended Aronsohn to Lorre, who was running "Grace."

"We discovered we worked really well together," Aronsohn said. "After awhile, we learned what we produced together often was better than what either one of us could produce on their own."

In 2003, they came together again for "Two and a Half Men," an idea executive producers Eric and Kim Tannenbaum approached Lorre about writing. The Tannenbaums had a concept based on Neil Simon's first play "Come Blow Your Horn," about a young man moving in with his older, bachelor brother.

Interestingly, Aronsohn said Lorre wasn't interested in it because he had a Tyler Perry project in the works.

"I needed a job," Aronsohn said. "I told Chuck if we wrote ('Two and a Half') together, I would help him write the Tyler Perry thing. We figured ('Two and a Half') would be a script and out. We figured we would be working on the Tyler Perry show for years to come. As it turned out, CBS turned down the Tyler Perry show."

Aronsohn and Lorre pitched "Two and a Half Men" to Charlie Sheen, and once he was on board, they began writing it for him. His attachment gave it a high-enough profile to earn it a pilot. The comedy debuted in 2003. Co-star Jon Cryer won an acting Emmy in 2009 for his work as Sheen's brother.

"It's funny now," Aronsohn said. "That little dinky script deal turned into the top sitcom in the country."

"The Big Bang Theory" -- created by Lorre and Bill Prady -- premiered in 2007. The comedy is about an attractive woman (Cuoco) who moves next door to two socially awkward physicists (Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons). It started slowly, debuting just before the writers' strike. But it's now one of television's most-watched shows. Parsons won an Emmy Award last year for his role as the high-strung, outspoken Sheldon.

So is having TV's two most-watched comedies a bit surreal?

"It's become my reality," Aronsohn said. "When I stop and think about it ... I'm not only an executive producer on 'Two and a Half Men,' but I'm an executive producer on 'The Big Bang Theory,' so it's a very busy life. In a material sense, it's quite a change from when I got sober, which was broke, with warrants out for my arrest and unemployed."

Back in Lincoln, Lorenz and Hammar aren't surprised Aronsohn is successful.

"I thought he would do pretty well with whatever he tried," Lorenz said. "He's a pretty aggressive guy. He still is."

Said Hammar: "He's really a brilliant guy. He has a similar dedication to sarcasm that I do. I think that's why we became friends."

And though Aronsohn lived in Nebraska for just two years, it had a profound effect on him. One "Big Bang" episode last season was titled "The Cornhusker Vortex" and featured the characters gathering to watch a Nebraska football game. This season, viewers met Penny's father (Keith Carradine), who also is from Nebraska.

Hammar sees even more of the state and Aronsohn's time in Lincoln in both comedies.

"I'll pick up on the life experiences (Aronsohn) had here," he said. "I'll be like, 'That was the time so-and-so did that,' and now it's ended up as a plot element in the sitcom."

Aronsohn admitted he enjoyed his brief stay in Lincoln.

"Lincoln is not New York, and it's not Los Angeles," Aronsohn said. "It's not even Boulder. Still, I have a great deal of affection for Lincoln. In retrospect, I miss the small-town ambiance and relative lack of stress. I didn't appreciate it when I was 25. I appreciate more now that I'm 58."

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 402-473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffkorbelik.


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