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Chuck Lorre would not have made “Bookie” if Sebastian Maniscalco had passed on the starring role

"Would we have run around trying to find someone else to play the part had he said no? I don't think so," Lorre tells EW.

Chuck Lorre's idea for his new dark comedy Bookie didn't start with a premise, but a person: comedian Sebastian Maniscalco.

"The seed of the show came when I saw Sebastian in The Irishman — the scene with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and he played a psychotic killer, 'Crazy' Joe Gallo," Lorre tells EW. "I wasn't really inclined to want to do a show about a psychotic killer, but he has really nuanced acting chops for a great standup."

Maniscalco puts those chops to work as veteran sports bookie Danny. He's in business with his best friend, Omar J. Dorsey's Ray, a former NFL player. But their livelihood is threatened by the potential legalization of sports gambling in California. Not to mention, they have several clients who need to pay up. Or else.

<p>Adam Rose/Max</p> Sebastian Maniscalco on 'Bookie'

Adam Rose/Max

Sebastian Maniscalco on 'Bookie'

There was just one creative problem: "I didn't want to do 'Crazy' Joe Gallo as a comedy. I don't know how to do that level of violence and psychosis and make it funny," Lorre says.

But he knew someone who did. His frequent collaborator, Nick Bakay — a writer and executive producer on Mom and Young Sheldon — used to be a sports commentator on ESPN.

"[Bakay] has an extraordinary, rich history in the sports gambling world," Lorre explains. "The over and under, the spread, the favorites, the dogs, the parlays. He has a wealth of knowledge about that part of our world. And I thought that was a perfect way for me to chase this idea of doing something with people who are working off the grid, who don't pay taxes, and work in a world where it's all cash. There is no paper trail."

So they had the idea and great insight into it. But would Maniscalco be into the idea of playing, as Lorre calls Danny, "a quirky, interesting, broken individual who's dealing with even more broken, more eccentric characters, and his clients"?

Fortunately, "he blessed the script," Lorre says. But, "had he said no, it would've been the end of it... I really saw Sebastian in the lead role. Every once in a while you just have a feeling and you got to trust it. I just believe that this was Sebastian's part. Would we have run around trying to find someone else to play the part had he said no? I don't think so. I think we would've put in the drawer and went, 'Okay, that was fun.'"

<p>John Johnson/Max</p> Omar J. Dorsey and Sebastian Maniscalco on 'Bookie'

John Johnson/Max

Omar J. Dorsey and Sebastian Maniscalco on 'Bookie'

So with him on board, that meant it was time to find the right person to play Ray, which they found in Dorsey (Queen Sugar, the rebooted Halloween franchise).

"At its heart, this is a buddy comedy — these two men doing the best they can treading water as quickly as they can to keep from drowning in this world," Lorre says. "And when Omar read with Sebastian, it was like watching an old married couple. They finished each other's sentences, there was a comfort with the way they interacted. We were blessed that Omar walked [through] the door. He was perfect, a perfect marriage with Sebastian. It is the key relationship in the series. There's also the [Danny and Sandra] marriage, and then there's Omar's relationship and devotion to his very difficult grandmother who raised him and makes him miserable, but he's devoted to her. So there's these really pivotal relationships that I think drive this whole series."

But through it all, it's all about the money — and the very real addiction to gambling.

"There are devastating consequences to the addiction, whether it's alcohol, drugs, or gambling. To simply call it a comedy and there's no consequences — it's doable, you can do that.... I thought the more challenging approach is to try and uncover some of the darker consequences. Even when they win. In a later episode where they have a tremendous windfall, where everything goes right and you're sitting on a mountain of cash, what do you do with that cash? How do you pay the phone bill with that cash? What do you do with mountains of cash in an electronic world? So even in success, they have enormous problems that come with handling a ton of dirty money."

The first two episodes of Bookie are streaming now on Max.

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