Craig’s Interview with Spin City / Scrubs / Cougar Town Creator, Bill Lawrence

I’m not going to bore you with a big forward to this interview as I know so many of you have been checking back daily for it.  So instead, I will say that in the hour I spoke to Bill Lawrence, he proved to be charmingly self-deprecating, funny and honest about his experience as the creator of some of the best TV comedies of the last twenty years.  The interview was very conversational and I tried to maintain that as best I could in transcribing the interview, so please forgive me for any spelling errors, grammatical mistakes or general forgetfulness of the basic elementary rules of writing.  I am an artist after all.  But you guys don’t want me to illustrate the interview, you want to read it.  So jump below the cut and dig in!

Andrew:  Look at that, it’s actually working.

Bill:  Yeah, I can actually hear you.  It’s a thousand times better.

Andrew:  Awesome.

Bill:  Nice to meet you on the phone, man.  I always touch heads with you on twitter and stuff, it’s nice to hear your voice.

Andrew:  I was about to say the same thing.  It’s nice that twitter lends itself to something other then people being assholes on the internet.

Bill:  Haha.

Andrew:  Which, you know, I’m guilty of as well.

Bill:  Yeah, you know.  Me too, but I actually like twitter so far.  You know, it’s weird in my position we’re like, one of the things these big companies do now is encourage you to twitter but all they’re encouraging you to do is send out weekly “Hey, tonight at 9, make sure you watch…”  Essentially market and the interesting thing is, people on twitter, if you’re just trying to sell them something, they lose interest almost immediately.

Andrew:  Yeah, I work with a handful of people in the industry who are making a real effort to connect with fans personally via twitter and now they practically live on it.

Bill:  Yeah, I got sucked in too.  I got my wife sucked in as well.

Andrew:  I can tell!  You two bounce back and forth a lot via twitter.  She even tells you to come to bed via twitter.  So the first thing I wanted to ask you about was something you kind of touched on while tweeting the other night.  The fact that you started off writing for a bunch of TV shows and got fired off of all of them.

Bill:  Haha, yeah.

Andrew:  The interesting thing to me is that it seems like early in your career you started writing on all of these various shows.  Stuff like Boy Meets World which one of our blogs contributors is a huge fan of and The Nanny.  And you went from doing that to creating and writing your own shows.  How did that happen for you?

Bill:  Alright, look.  Anybody in my position that tells you there isn’t a large amount of serendipity and luck involved getting to the spot is a fibber because you know you work, just from what I know about you already, you work in the entertainment industry and you know that there are so many issues like timing and the luck of the draw and more then that entertainment is, even though the cliche is the jerk-off producers that are mean to young people and smoking cigarettes on a stick and stuff, nobody is successful without the benevolence of someone else.  That’s a long precursor to when I started writing TV shows, my very first boss was a great guy, this guy named Rich Eustis, who created Head of the Class and he hired me on a show called Billy and I didn’t get fired off that show, it just got cancelled after 13 episodes.  But he gave me my start and was super nice to me and taught me a bunch and then I did get fired off of Boy Meets World and The Nanny.  And then I got lucky and got on the show Friends and the weird thing about Hollywood… Anytime Im too long winded man, just cut me off…The weird thing about Hollywood is that the perception on how good or bad you are as a writer specifically changes almost immediately based on the show you get on even if you haven’t changed at all as a writer.  So I got very lucky.  I got on Friends when it was a new show, before it was a giant hit. It became a giant hit and even though I got fired at the end of that season, the very same people who weren’t interested in me six months earlier because I wasn’t on the hip shows and I didn’t go to Harvard were like “hey Bill, we’ve always liked your stuff,” just because I had written for a show that was now in the top five, you know.  And thats a bummer because you’ll find yourself often in situations out here where you’re like “Wow, you weren’t huge fans of me eight weeks ago and I don’t feel like I’ve changed that much.”  But, the coolest, to bring the whole story back around, even though I got fired off of Friends, one of the creators of Friends, David Crane, was very nice to me and thought that I was talented I guess and took the time to call Gary Goldberg up and hook me up with another job and Gary Goldberg, you know is just a famous television producer.  He created Family Ties and Brooklyn Bridge amongst other shows.  So I went and wrote on the first Dreamworks sitcom.  it was called Champs.  It didn’t last very long.  It was a show Gary created.  But the good thing about that was that for whatever reason, Gary decided to mentor me and kinda, we really got along, and kinda teach me.  He was the first boss I had that didn’t fire me and wasn’t kinda put off by, you know, I was a bit cocky and a bit loud and Gary actually kind of liked it.  And so, that’s how it came to be.  I worked with him for a year and that show didn’t go anywhere but at the end of that year Mike Fox said he wanted to do a TV show again and he wanted to do it with Gary, but he also wanted to do it with a younger writer that had written for shows like Friends or Seinfeld and Gary said “I work with a guy that wrote on Friends,” and so I got to co-create Spin City when I was twenty-six and that’s basically giant chunks of luck.  It worked.  Just lucked out, man.

Andrew:  Thats pretty much how I’ve ended up on everything I’ve worked on so far.

Bill:  Yeah, you know, you get some kind of break and someone likes you and takes an interest in you get a chance to, you know, the only way you can get cocky about it is that you have a chance to put up or shut up and we were lucky that people liked the show and it lasted a while.

Andrew:  Yeah, and then you went on to Scrubs which had a huge influence on me friends and I.

Bill:  Oh, cool.  Thanks man.

Andrew:  We were the guys faithfully watching week to week.  I’ve even listened to all of the audio commentaries.

Bill:  Ha!  Most of the audio commentaries for Scrubs for me were just me filled with self-hate about all the mistakes I had made on the show.  It’s hard to watch all of those things again.

Andrew:  I don’t know if you know this, but they have been re-airing the entire run on various networks now.

Bill:  Yeah, I have to go through all that stuff and it seems like it’s everywhere right now.

Andrew:  Oh yeah.  In fact, serendipitously the other night, the finale aired again.  Or what I consider to be the finale.

Bill:  You mean the end of the eighth year?  Yeah.

Andrew:  Yeah.  How much involvement did you have in the ninth year?

Bill:  A couple things.  First, the caveat that you’ve gotta put out there for me because I never get to tell people enough. The hardest part of TV shows, anybody that has ever done a comedy, when it goes and starts re-airing places, the only way that they can make any money is to get more commercial time  and so they edit more chunks out of the show.  Sometimes whole jokes are missing or it doesn’t make sense.  it’s never publicized that the guys and girls like me, the creators, we have no control over that.  So once a show exists out in the world like that, they can do whatever they want.  Thats the only bummer for me.  Um, the ninth year of Scrubs wasn’t Scrubs.  It was, you know, when it was pitched, it was pitched as a spinoff.  It was going to be called Med School.  It wasn’t going to be called Scrubs, Scrubs Med, anything like that.  The network kept the title for business reasons because then they could attach it to the syndication plan.  Basically, they could sell those episodes the same way they had sold Scrubs so they are on all over the place if they wanted to.  The real reason to do stuff like that is interesting.  it’s never quite a creative decision.  One of the things that was tough for me and I don’t really care is that if you go on blogs and websites and stuff and one of the coolest things about the Scrubs fan base is that they are incredibly passionate.  I understand the viewpoint, but say seven out of ten Scrubs fans would say “you wrote the finale to Scrubs.  Why would you go on and do another year of Scrubs Med and taint it and ruin it?”  First of all, it’s not tainting and ruining it.  You liked that first eight years, Im grateful.  But that, to me, thats neither here nor there.  Those decisions are never made based on creative.  They’re made either based on greed and this one wasn’t based on greed because I didn’t make any dough from the ninth year of Scrubs because, you know, if it had become a big hit I would have, but because it didn’t do well and the show had already sold into syndication I didn’t.  But what it was really about was that most people on a TV crew work hand to mouth and the 105 some odd grips, composers, gaffers, PAs, script coordinators, etc. had all worked together for eight years and we are all friendly.  I mean, we all still hang out and work together now.  So when I was sitting around talking after the eighth year, someone said “hey, if the show could go on and exist as a different show in the ninth year, would you do it?”  Randall Winston who is my  my producing partner and I, talked to everybody and everybody was like “are you kidding man?  We would kill for another year of work.”  So it wasn’t even a question.  You know, it wasn’t about a creative thing, it was about if you had the opportunity to get 110 people you’ve worked with for eight years another year of work, you just do it.  The downside was creatively, I think, by naming it Scrubs and by making the decision to, even though I love Zach, to still have Zach in it, the show was going to be unfairly judged and judged against the previous eight years of Scrubs which, for me, it ended.  You know, the eighth year of Scrubs, the finale was the end of that show.  And I understood what ABC was trying to do and that they wanted Zach to bring viewers back and stuff.  I just didn’t care about Zach anymore in that world.  I really felt like the last four episodes of the ninth year, if the ninth year was just a spinoff called Med School and you met all these new characters and there wasn’t a voice over….on all new shows it takes you about half a season to find your voice.  You know I work on a show now that is nothing like it was when it started.  And I think at the end of that ninth year of Scrubs, they were starting to find something interesting between Mike Mosley and Eliza Coupe.  That was a couple I hadn’t seen on TV before.  You know, a self hating crazy rehab angry guy and the darkest kind of edgiest female doctor, you know, two people that were so cold and shut off that they could only be with each other.  I was really enjoying that.

Andrew:  I always thought that it had continued because ABC had wanted the show for so long.

Bill:  You know, it’s not that they had wanted the show for so long, it’s just that in the modern…you know, this is the real business of Hollywood.  It wasn’t any creative desire to keep it going.  It was literally in the hopes that…I think that the only bad decision ABC made in retrospect was not letting us re-title the show.  And because, even you, you’re a Scrubs fan.  The second you watch that show at the beginning where there are some rough patches and we are trying to figure it out and it’s still called Scrubs?  I mean, my reaction would be “this isn’t Scrubs!  This sucks!”

Andrew:  But unlike a lot of the viewers, I’ve got a unique viewpoint because I sort of work in the industry and because of that, I judged it as it’s own show.

Bill:  Yeah, to me it is it’s own show.  Here’s what’s really interesting.  I thought they were doing a great job.  You know, I was writing Cougar Town, but I thought the staff was doing a great job finding the show.  A large chunk of that ninth year Scrubs staff, and you can look for similar comedic sensibilities and some similar actors, is now the writing staff of Happy Endings because the group went over, took Eliza and Jonathan Groff and Josh Bycel who were the two showrunners of Scrubs Med are doing Happy Endings and that just proves that those guys, when given time, can find the show and Happy Endings is another example of a show that kept getting better and better as it went this season.

Andrew:  And now you’ve got Cougar Town and you are thinking of changing the name.  Since you had that discussion twitter where you put out the idea of changing the title, I’ve gone through and watched the entire run of the show.

Bill:  Oh, gosh.  Cool!  Thank you!  I mean, whether you like it or not, thank you.

Andrew:  Actually, I really do like it and I’ve been encouraging other friends, because I have a lot of guy friends…the group that I do this blog with is five guys and two ladies and one of the women is married to one of the men and she’s been watching the show since the beginning.

Bill:  Great!  I feel like I should send her something.

Andrew:  Please don’t.  Don’t encourage her.

Bill:  Hahaha!

Andrew:  it’s kind of hard at this point to live it down because not only has she been trying to get us to watch the show since the beginning but she’s also the person who will watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and tell us we are missing out on quality television.  She…

Bill:  She’ll watch anything.

Andrew:  Yeah.  Definitely.  But since watching the show, I’ve found that it’s a much different show then I expected in that it’s sort of an evolution of Scrubs in a way.  It has the same comedic sensibilities but now instead of dealing with people in their twenties and early thirties, it’s dealing with people that are a little bit older and sort of in the next stage of their lives.

Bill:  Yeah, you nailed it.  But look, one of the things thats tough as a writer is that if you watch Scrubs or even Clone High or even some of Spin City, you know, I think a lot of writers have a specific tone or style.  I do, you know.  I like a certain kind of mixture of comedy and heart and kind of weird jokes.  But yeah, to me the biggest change tonally for the show was just deciding what it was about.  At the beginning, Kevin Biegel and I, the guy I created it with who was a Scrubs writer, we thought we were going to do this kind of campy woman who was forty getting to have her twenties finally when she never had them before.

Andrew:  I think in a way the show has kind of captured that just through the sense of humor.

Bill:  I think maybe a little bit but we changed about six episodes into the first season we decided the show was about something different and you just nailed it a second ago because we decided that it was a show about adult friendship.  Because we started talking…you know, Im forty-two, and we just started talking about when you hit my age which all the characters are, you don’t really generally go out to clubs, you aren’t generally really looking for that boy or girl in your life because you’ve probably found them.  All you really do is while away the time with the people you care about, doing stupid stuff and drinking wine and that became the show.  One of the ways…we’ve never really gotten to sum it up publicly, but one of the ways Kevin Biegel always sums it up which I think is really astute is that he always says it’s a TV show about people that would all be very very sad lonely people were it not for each other.  Meaning that the cast would be a divorced loser that lives on a boat, a divorced bar owner who lives in a big empty house by himself and just aimlessly fucks twenty year olds even though he’s forty, a forty year old woman who lives by herself and is divorced and the closest thing she has to a family is a nineteen year old son who is more like an adult then any of his contemporaries so he doesn’t really seem like he has a huge circle of friends, kind of a towny girl that roams from dude to dude and empty one night stand to empty one night stand and because she’s a little above the kind of trailer trash people that she came from but because she’s also not going anywhere in her life she’s still staying in that little town and a neighbor who used to be a big professional woman but is now kind of shackled to her house by her kid in a cul-de-sac in the middle of rural Florida.  And if all these people didn’t have each other, they would all be sad lonely people that sat around watching TV all day.  So I hope that’s what our show is about.

Andrew:  One of the things that I always adored about Scrubs and has now kind of carried over into Cougar Town is the weird things that the characters come up with.  Thats one of the things I really wanted to ask you about.

Bill:  Sure.

Andrew:  One of my biggest dreams when my adult life really begins is to build a roof toilet.

Bill:  Hahaha.

Andrew:  It’s a dream of mine to combine the roof toilet from Scrubs and the Angry Dome from Futurama.

Bill:  Thats funny.

Andrew:  How many things like the roof toilet were directly influenced by your life?

Bill:  Not only my life, but the writers life.  I would say it’s probably 99%.  You go back to Scrubs to, you know, the dead stuffed dog in college that we bought at a garage sale.  You know the dumb games, movie mashup, the dumb games people play that we do all the time.  Imaginary hat.  These are all, almost to a T, all stuff that we do in the writers room and we used to call them room bit’s on Scrubs and one of the weird things when you get a bunch of comedy writers together, you know, you start your day talking about the funny crap that you did over the weekend or joking around.  Too often, most TV shows don’t really pay attention to this stuff and Scrubs, not really from me but from these guys Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan who are now helping run that show Community, they were the first ones to really say “hey man, maybe we should start putting these room bit’s on the show because they make us laugh.”  One of my favorite ones, this was Garrett Donovan who is a funny comedy writer, he used to do these hilarious fake public service announcements when he was bored.  They were much darker then what we could put on Scrubs, but that became Zach Braff’s public service The More You Know about “don’t smother your kids,” which was always one of my favorite jokes.   “You come home, you have a beer, you smother one of your kids, you watch a movie, you go to bed.  it’s great, right?  Wrong.  Don’t smother your kids.”  And then there was that NBC The More You Know thing.

And so those are all, even the jokes sometimes on our shows kind of come out of screwing around in the writers room.  The roof toilet, alas, is not something that anybody ever had or used.  It was just something in an old warehouse building that I had seen and it confused me because it was where they had obviously torn down a room but on the roof was just this toilet sitting in the middle of nowhere and I was like “oh, come on.  Who is going to use that?”  And then it became the epiphany toilet.

Andrew:  And how many of these things have since crept into your life?

Bill:    Most of the wordplay ones, most of the uh….we rarely invent jokes from a vacuum.  Obviously, some of the character gags are just written but when it’s a game that the characters play or the idea of everybody pretending in Cougar Town like they are a council that gets to judge each others behavior, those are things that have all happened in the writers room or amongst our families.

Andrew:  So they make their way in slowly.

Bill:  Yeah, after the second year of Scrubs, we made part of the work day starting off by talking about stuff that happened with your family or friends or things that happened online or jokes that cracked you up and trying to put them in the show.  We’re doing one right now for this season, and it’s a spoiler but it’s a good comedy spoiler.  Mike McDonald who was on Mad TV is a director/writer on the show and one of our….

Andrew:  He’s fantastic.  I’ve always really enjoyed him.

Bill:  Oh, and he’s a good dude too.  And one of the female staffers, Jessica Goldstein, who is a co-executive producer on the show.  When they get bored on set for the last two years, because she has a camera, they stage little murder scenes and it’s literally….it makes me laugh because it’s just….because there is so much down time when you’re actually shooting the show, whenever they’re on set together, it will always be a picture of Jessica doing something like sniffing a flower or grabbing a piece of gum at craft services and Mike McDonald is usually behind her with a giant axe.  They basically staged a bunch of photos that are literally like a photo taken the instant before he gruesomely murders her.  They had it made into a calendar that they gave us all this year to start the year and it’s hysterical and it’s dark and it’s twisted.  That immediately becomes part of the show to me.  We said, alright, this is funny because each picture is a different murder scene so how can we work it into the show.

Andrew:  The dark stuff is always the best stuff.

Bill:  Yeah and for us, we said the couple Andy and Ellie, we said it would be really funny if one of the things they do as a couple because they’ve been married so long is that when they get really pissed at each other or they are just annoying the shit out of each other and both want to kill each other, they just do it, you know?  They just stage one of those gory pictures so that they can act out the fantasy of murdering your spouse.  it’s become a funny story thats in one of the first few episodes.  But thats how the stuff generally comes about.

Andrew:  Thats great.  How do you guys go about choosing the music on the show?

Bill:  My wife Christa Miller, she plays Ellie on Cougar Town and was Jordan on Scrubs, she uh…back in the day in New York, she DJ-ed.  She’s obsessed with indie music and on Scrubs, Zach Braff, Neil Goldman and my wife were obsessed with a really kind of acoustic indie singer/songwriters.  I really love music and on that show, one of the choices we made was to sometimes even start with a song and shoot the stuff to match it.  We did that with Hallelujah and we did it in the finale.  I had known for years beforehand that I wanted to use the Peter Gabriel Book of Love song.  I shot all that stuff to match it.  On Cougar Town, we just made it official and my wife is actually the music supervisor.  She picks all the songs and it’s a combination of things I like doing on my shows.  it’s a combination of hopefully music that people like but also music they haven’t heard before because to be economically responsible you have to find bands that haven’t really hit the mainstream yet.  And if you’re lucky it becomes kind of a cyclical promotion process that you put on bands that become more popular and in turn, people that like that band will check out your show and stuff and thats what happened on Scrubs a little.

Andrew:  I had actually met Ian Gomez from Cougar Town a few years ago because he was on a show with a friend of mine who was a drummer in an indie band that I worked with.

Bill:  Oh, cool!

Andrew:  Preceding Cougar Town, he was on Rita Rocks.

Bill:  Oh yeah, him and Nicole Sullivan who is a cool gal too.  She was Scrubs a bunch.

Andrew:  Yeah, the drummer in their band on Rita Rocks is a good friend of mine, an actor in L.A. named Raviv Ullman.  He was in a band called his Orchestra at the time and they actually had the band appear on the show.

Bill:  Oh, thats cool.

Andrew:  It always impresses me when showrunners and creators make an effort to pull in these small bands that nobody has really heard yet but who later become big, in part because of that exposure.

Bill:  Well, you know, the fun of it too is…and even though Christa is the music supervisor, one of the things that we do at the show because…I used to do it all the time.  Look, I used to be a guy that went out to Hotel Cafe and Largo and the Troubadour…

Andrew:  I have practically spent the last five years living at the Hotel Cafe.

Bill:  Well, there you go.  Look, one of the things that really started the motion for Scrubs was Zach Braff’s best friend from college, Josh Radin who was just starting to be a musician and really trying hard and we took the first song that Josh ever wrote, it’s a song called Winter, we did in this episode of Scrubs where Brendan Fraser died.  Brendan Fraser was a ghost, it was a Sixth Sense episode and the sad song at the end was Josh Radin’s first song that he ever recorded.  That kind of catapulted Josh’s career.  Within a couple months he was on the Ellen Show and Rick Rubin was producing his next album and now he is a legitimate musician star.  He tours the world and all that stuff.  And that gave us kind of the inside track back then that we could really seek out people that we not only liked their music but we also liked them personally and as a result, kind of help them out and in return they drove people back to our show and it was kind of a cool business model for us.  Even though Im a little older then that now, there’s still a bunch of young writers on this show, on Cougar Town, that are out and about and will hear people and bring them in and it all goes through Christa and she puts it together and we will all listen to it and see what we like.  A guy we kind of championed the first two years and he started to pop a little bit was a guy named Matt Hires and it’s just a good example because by the end of last year he had gotten very popular and his songs were a lot more expensive but we were able to call him up and go “hey, we need a little bit of a financial break,” and he was very cool and nice about it.

Andrew:  I spend a lot of time working with smaller indie bands and really talented musicians all the time.  In fact, tomorrow my friend is having his record release.

Bill:  Thats really cool.  On twitter you should hit me up with bands I should check out.

Andrew:  Yeah, this guy has buried a few years of his life on this album so it’s really gratifying to hear that there are some writers and producers who get it and want to help those guys and see it as something more then just a dollar figure or how popular they are.

Bill:  Well, I think that the old trend, I mean, let’s be honest man, TV is the new radio.  If you are a young songwriter and you can get your music licensed on a huge show it can catapult you.  A lot of the internet crowd back on Scrubs and still on Grey’s Anatomy, the day after the show aired would be saying “what band was that?  What song was that?”

Andrew:  Yeah, definitely.  Thats one of the ways I started working with a lot of the bands I work with now was that I heard their music somewhere.  I don’t listen to the radio because most stations play the same top fifty hit’s over and over so I tend not to hear new stuff unless a friend recommends it or I see them at a venue or on rare occasions when I hear them on a TV show.  Then Ill go seek them out and your shows have always been a nonstop source of new material for me.

Bill:  Oh, thats very cool.  Thank you.

Andrew:  It’s very rare that I find new stuff through TV, but I think I found so many bands I love through Scrubs especially.  You just mentioned Grey’s Anatomy.  A friend wanted me to ask you how you feel about Grey’s Anatomy, in a weird way, sort of stealing your business model.

Bill:  Hahaha, no.  You know what?  Look, if it was a…it would be a different story if Grey’s Anatomy was a medical comedy, but it’s a completely different show.  It is a late night soap, and a well done one, that has passionate fans that hang on those relationships.  Even though over the years I’ve made jokes, I’ve also made jokes about…if I was to be mad, I wouldn’t be able to admit that our show, without a doubt, cribbed from the Wonder Years and MASH.  I think that every show, even the ones you are nice enough to say have changed television a little bit with their own stuff, they still have been influenced by the show that the creators loved beforehand.  Shonda has always been not only really nice to be about Scrubs, she is literally one of the worlds biggest fans of Cougar Town.  She has two million and some odd followers on twitter and she constantly tells people to watch it and so more power to her.  She crushing it.

Andrew:  I get the feeling you watch as much TV as I do.  What are some of your favorite shows on television right now?

Bill:  Current ones on TV?  Current shows, I like…I watch everything so it’s hard for me to do just a few and a while back on twitter I was asking people for new ones to try out and it’s tough because theres only 140 characters but I’m like “give me some new shows to try out” and I would say 90% of the suggestions were shows that, of course, I have seen before.  But the ones Im digging right now… I really like Tosh for absolutely checking out and just total brain candy and laughing a bunch and I’ve been trying out the Archer because people told me it was funny.  Archer, I think is pretty funny.  I really like Game of Thrones.  I enjoyed this last season of The Office especially the Steve Carell and Amy Ryan stuff because I think the two of them together…when you see so many lame romantic comedy films, the comedy that they are doing, I like to think that there is better comedy writing for the most part on TV and the romantic comedy scenes specifically that Steve Carell and Amy Ryan are playing are so much better then the stuff that you are going to see in an Adam Sandler movie in which he’s pretending to have children to woo Brooklyn.  You know what I mean.

Andrew:  That movie specifically, I’m so glad you brought this up, that movie specifically was one of the more painful experiences I’ve had in a theater this year.  I see everything that comes out because one of our blog writers works at the local theater and that movie was particularly difficult to get through.

Bill:  Feature film comedy for the most part usually hurts my soul because, you know, you’re watching a trailer and the big joke, the first big joke is usually somebody slipping and landing on a bar and they wack their balls on a pole or something and Im like “oh my god.”  It literally feels like a punishment for me to go in the theater and watch those movies.  But they make a bazillion dollars so what do I know?  Other shows I like…you know, I do laugh at Big Bang Theory because I can’t help it, I like the classic multi-camera sitcom and I want to do one myself again sometime.  I still watch 30 Rock.  I watch Community.  I watch any shows that I have friends on, I generally watch them.  Theres too many to mention, but Game of Thrones is the one that I’m most into right now just because it’s about to end and all the writing staff has been talking about it just because we thought it was such a bold move.  None of us had read the books and anytime that theres an episode of a TV show that surprises television writers because we can all…you can do this with music, Im sure.  The way I torture my wife is that I’ll watch 90% of TV shows and call out what’s going to happen next just because theres a formula to it.

Andrew:  Yeah, I’ve always driven my friends a little crazy with that.  For a long time, one of my friends swore that I got the east coast feed of Veronica Mars because I called it every time.

Bill:  Yeah, and so I was waiting for them to come in and save Sean Bean on Game of Thrones and when he got beheaded Im like “good god, this show is awesome.”

Andrew:  I haven’t seen it yet.  I’ve been waiting for the season to wrap up before I dive into it.

Bill:  Yeah, you should because by the nature of the show, they were really forced to do a lot of exposition early and then it really gets going in a way…I don’t know.  I just became a huge fan of it.

Andrew:  I try to do that with any serialized drama.  I did that with the first few seasons of Alias and the first season of LOST.

Bill:  Yeah, I did that a little with LOST.  I watched it first and then I caught up late.

Andrew:  How far ahead of time do you plan gags like the whole Community/Abed crossover?

Bill:  Oh, we planned that at the beginning of the year.  You know, the fun part about that was that whether it made an impact or not, we just love doing that.  Neil and Garrett…the funniest thing for me, and I don’t want it to sound like Im being a condescending jerk, was all the cool fans that would….I don’t think people realize how small a community TV writers are.  I don’t think people bothered to check that the two executive producers of Community were guys that worked on Scrubs for eight years.  But I would constantly get Facebook messages and twitter messages that would say “did you see what they did on Community last night?  Can you believe they are saying this about your show?”  I love people’s excitement but for me it was a crack up because Im like “how could you assume that with the two guys that helped me run Scrubs for nine years that we haven’t planned this from the start?”  And after Abed did that “My Dinner With Abed” episode when he was talking about being an extra on Cougar Town, we had already filmed him as an extra on Cougar Town.

So we had all planned this and yet still, one of the fun things was people going “man, are you going to respond?  Do you think he would ever be on the show?”  I like that kind of easter egg, giving extra gifts to your hardcore nerdy fans and we do that stuff all the time.  I love that stuff.

Andrew:  And as a fan of television, I always love that kind of stuff because I do watch so many shows.  It seemed like Arrested Development did that really well, the wink at the audience and the rewarding of the hardcores.

Bill:  They really did.  We try to do it to.  We often will try to name check even with little in jokes and character names, people that we see all the time on our boards and are obviously huge fans.

Andrew:  How many people have gone from being crew members to cast members?  The delivery guy on Scrubs, I know was a member of the crew.

Bill:  Oh, Mike Schwartz.  That happens…I enjoy doing that but it should be noted that it only really happens when those people are performers.  Like Mike Schwartz who was a great comedy writer and became Lloyd, the deliver guy, he was also Will Forte‘s comedy partner.  The two of them did the HBO comedy festival together and then Will Forte decided to focus more on performing and went and got on Saturday Night Live and Mike was more in love with writing and went on our show.  Even though we put him on the show as a writer, he was already a dude that had been in movies and TV shows and stuff before.  The same with Mike McDonald.  You know he’s a writer on Cougar Town and we put him on Cougar Town.  He was also on Mad TV for ten years.  The only exception to that rule is me and just because I created the show, Ill occasionally stick myself in it and Im a horrible actor but I just do it out of…a goof, you know?

Andrew:  But again, as a devoted fan of the show, when you showed up, it felt very much like a natural step and kind of a nice moment for those of us who are familiar with you.

Bill:  Oh, you forgive me for sucking too?  Because I can’t act.  That’s part of what TV is now.  If you can hook a really devoted cult audience by feeding them that type of content and letting them in on more fun stuff then the casual viewers, your show can stay alive if they stay invested.

Andrew:  With numerous blogs, web boards and now twitter, how much has the internet influenced the growth and changes in your shows

Bill:  Uh, I don’t see the internet as a….Look, the internet is a double edged sword because anybody who is creative, be it a composer or a writer or actor, one negative thing, one negative comment trumps a thousand positive comments and you’re more likely to believe the negative comment and the internet is really a place for haters and snark and I don’t say that judgmentally because I do it to.  So in the first phase of it, you’ve got to make sure it doesn’t influence your show too much.  You cant go on there and because a couple of people are really hating on something, you change the show creatively to suit that.  On the other hand, it’s great if you really look at your fan base and you see that there is a thousand people who all have similar thoughts about something, it could influence you creatively.  That’s one big influence of the internet.  You can really gauge what’s working and what’s not on your show.  For us, it’s one of the key research tools we are using to help get network and company support for changing the title.  When I tweet all that stuff it’s not just to satisfy my own dumb curiosity, it’s because DIsney executives follow my twitter account and have to read it.  People are like “why do you keep retweeting everybody that says they don’t watch Cougar Town because of the title or that they can’t convince friends to watch Cougar Town because of the title?”  I just don’t have time to go “I do that because the Disney executives who cover my show follow my twitter account are arguing about this behind the scenes right now.”  Other then that, I also feel that there are so many TV shows on right now that part of your job as a showrunner is to market your own show and the internet is great for that.  I think that part of your job to keep your show alive is….in a world in which people love content, to provide more content.  I think that’s really fun to do.  I love doing those Vulture videos.  They weren’t that hard.  I feel like it makes people feel like they know the actors and the characters and the writers better and they get more invested in the show.  So it’s really changed the way that I view the whole working process a lot.

Andrew:  And how close are you, at this point, to getting a title change?

Bill:  Pretty close.  I mean, I think that the biggest issue to tell you the truth is….it’s a decision that we are not going to make this second because a)  I would want to include the fans of the show in helping us make the decision and b)  to make a decision tomorrow of a new title of the show is counterproductive for us because our show doesn’t premier until November.  So I think it’s something that we will decide leading up to the show coming back on TV.

Andrew:  Do you have any favorite ideas for a new title?

Bill:  Not yet.  There’s a bunch.  I would just rather it not be a weird pun.

Andrew:  Yeah, definitely.  I loved that you guys spent the entirety of the second season making fun of the name via the title card.  It made it a little easier to accept the show.

Bill:  Well, I’ve got to tell you man, no matter what we do, we are going to keep doing that because it’s so much fun to shit on yourself.  I cant even tell you.  We’ve got to keep that going forever.

Andrew:  Yeah, I think it actually started with The Simpsons, the idea of putting a new gag in the opening titles every week and since I grew up on that show, I’ve got a love of anyone who does it.

Bill:  Oh, without a doubt.

Andrew:  Are those gags all thought up in the writers room?

Bill:  Yeah, it’s just another awesome excuse to waste time.

Andrew:  Hey, isn’t that what writers rooms are all about?

Bill:  Of course.  Procrastinate.

Andrew:  One thing I’m a little afraid to broach but I have to ask, in two shows consecutively now, you’ve cast your wife as sort of the bitchy character.  How much of that is based on reality?

Bill:  Haha, she’s slightly meaner in real life.  Heres the thing is on Scrubs, when we started Scrubs, Christa was the weed of the Drew Carey Show.  Because of that, on Scrubs she was always kind of a guest star and she had a big presence because I think she’s funny but also because the character was extremely over the top and funny and I always wished that I could have fleshed that character out and see if you could make somebody that was kind of edgy and bitchy truly likable.  And so, what I wanted to do in Cougar Town was essentially say “alright if Jordan is a regular on a show and had to be a real actual character with more layers of heart and someone that absolutely loves her best friend and would kill or die for her husband and stuff but still has some edge to her, could we pull it off?”  So I think they aren’t so much the same characters.  One is a real character and one was kind of a funny cartoon, but Scrubs had those cartoons.

Andrew:  That was part of the shows charm though.

Bill:  Yeah, it was a heightened reality show and this one isn’t as much.  But Christa?  Yeah, I have the same respectful amount of fear of Christa in real life as the characters do of Jordan and Ellie.

Andrew:  Thats fantastic.  One of my favorite things I’ve always enjoyed about television over film is the ability to take a character and develop them over years.  There are so many more subtleties that can be brought to a television character over several seasons then a movie character that has two hours.

Bill:  Finding levels is one of the most fun things about a show evolving.  I would give not only huge props to Christa, but if you look at Brian Van Holt who went from being just a dummy ex-husband bad dad to a guy that people somehow, by the end of this second year, really empathize with and care about.  Or Busy Philipps.  That character could have easily just been a typical airheaded bimbo and you’ve seen those jokes a thousand times but I think that people actually find, you know…there’s people writing articles about how she’s an Emmy contender and stuff because of what she’s done and so I think thats part of the fun of TV.  You get more time then movies to find what makes a character funny and then add layers to them.

Andrew:  Definitely.  I ran into Neil Flynn a few years ago on the street in L.A. and he mentioned that John Cusack was always hanging around the set because he was good friends with John C. McGinley, but you guys never got him to guest star.

Bill:  We never pulled it off with John Cusack, but he was the guy that got away.  But, you know, in his defense, he is also a dude that I’ve never seen on TV.

Andrew:  Is there anyone else like him that you wanted to get into a part and just never found a spot for?

Bill:  No, you know, it’s not finding the spot, it’s usually that they can’t do it.  I love working with actors from my old shows because generally we’ve developed great relationships and I know how to make them funny and I have not, as of yet, gotten Connie Britton on any show since Spin City so I’m trying really hard to get her on Cougar Town.  I just think she’s really good and I thought she was great on Friday Night Lights.  Beyond that, Jennifer Garner who I really like personally.  One of her first jobs was as a guest star on Spin City, shoot, has to be seventeen years ago now.  I thought she was funny and sweet and so I would kill to have her on a show again.

Andrew:  Yeah, she’s fantastic.

Bill:  And she’s a nice lady.  Couldn’t be nicer.  She doesn’t get a chance to do comedy that much and she is just crazy funny.

Andrew:  Thats been my general experience with her.  I run into her every once in a while and she just always strikes me as just a really amazing woman.

Bill:  Yeah, super pleasant, right?

Andrew:  Very much so.  Are there any dream things you would love to do on one of your shows that you haven’t gotten to do yet?

Bill:  You know what man, I don’t want to sound too corny but I’ve been really lucky.  I’ve gotten to do almost everything that I’ve wanted to.  If I could change any of the past, I would have liked to have…there’s this show I made with Neil and Garrett called Nobody’s Watching that we were doing internet videos for and that I thought would have been a really cool pilot.  I would have liked to make that and I wish that Clone High had gotten to be on longer because I thought the two guys, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, that I did that with were hyper talented and they are proving it now.  They did Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the animated film, both writing and directing it and now they are doing 21 Jumpstreet.  Now they are big movie makers.  I thought Clone High was a really funny show but it kind of went away before it’s time.

Andrew:  Yeah, I never saw it in it’s initial run but I revisited it on recommendations from friends and even then I only agreed because I am a huge Lincoln nut.

Bill:  It’s a good show to be a history nerd for.  All those guys are the exact same people I work with all the time.

Andrew:  Last big question before I let you go.  As a warning, it’s kind of a silly question, but the member of the team that has been trying to get us to watch Cougar Town for two years wanted me to ask you.  Do you make a concentrated effort to make her cry on a weekly basis?

Bill:  Haha, no.  That’s really funny.  But look, I like TV shows that are about something.  One of the things thats always intrigued me, and I have to make sure I don’t do it too often but luckily Kevin Biegel who I do the show with likes it too, is trying to suck people in by letting them enjoy themselves by watching a comedy and then try to switch gears and have the show be about something that has some emotional impact with people.  At it’s worst, it can be very manipulative if you are playing a really sad song but no, I’m not trying.  To me, we are just trying to tap into real things that happen to people.  To tell you the truth, I’m glad that it doesn’t happen as much on Cougar Town because the thing about Scrubs was that like MASH, it took place in a hospital and it was too easy not to do it because people do die.  That was one of the victories that we won on that show because initially, when the show was first pitched, the network wasn’t super excited about a comedy in which patients are dying all the time and people are upset all the time.  But tell her I apologize and I’ll try to make it a little lighter this year.

Andrew:  Actually, I think she thoroughly enjoys that you make her cry.

Bill:  Cool!  Then tell her I’ll keep it going.

Andrew:  It seems like a rare show that can walk that line and your shows always have.  I think the best comedies always do in the sense that good comedy comes from a realistic place and an emotional place as opposed to just jokes for the sake of jokes.  If you care about the characters and their situation, the comedy and the drama carry so much more impact.

Bill:  Well, I hope so man.  I mean, you’re being way too nice but that is definitely what we all shoot for.

Andrew:  it’s one of the hallmarks that has always made your work stand out.  As a fan of television, it’s nice to see shows that take the audience seriously and realize that we can react to and be impacted by genuine storytelling and not just a gatling gun of one liners.

Bill:  Well, thank you very much.  It’s weird because it’s a hazy line with some shows now.  I was talking to some reporter about the Emmy’s and about how it’s confusing that when you have shows that are nominated for best comedy that are like Nurse Jackie or The Big C, shows that I think are good but I generally don’t sit down and watch them and laugh hysterically because I find them to be dramas with some comedy.  But, on the other hand, some of my favorite shows, using MASH as an example, are comedies with some drama in them.  So it’s always kind of hazy.

Andrew:  Thats why we always loved Boston Legal.

Bill:   Yeah, of course!  The scenes with Spader and Shatner used to make me laugh my butt off.

Andrew:  Well, that and the fact that Shatner would get nominated for best actor in a comedic performance and Spader would get nominated for best actor in a dramatic.

Bill:  Yeah and I agree.

Andrew:  Well Bill, it’s been a pleasure.  Thank you very much for doing this interview.  We really appreciate it and it’s fantastic that twitter put this whole thing together.

Bill:  Glad to do it, man.  I’ll look for you on there afterwards and I checked out your website too.  It looked pretty cool and so I think you and I will talk more.  Feel free to call me again sometime.

Andrew:  Thanks Bill.

Bill:  Thanks Andrew.

You can pick up Spin City on DVD via Amazon here
You can get Scrubs here
Clone High?  Right here
Cougar Town can be bought here
And hey, why not follow Bill Lawrence on twitter?  You can do that here

Be sure to watch new episodes of Cougar Town this fall on ABC!

~ by Andrew Craig on June 20, 2011.

5 Responses to “Craig’s Interview with Spin City / Scrubs / Cougar Town Creator, Bill Lawrence”

  1. My eyes are bugging after reading this entire interview on my phone! Nice work Andrew, I am a fan of Cougar Town (name is great and doesn’t bother me one bit! They should keep it.) I also watched Scrubs (not all, but quite a lot thru the years) and I am a TV-holic so I follow the actors to the shows first then I admire the creators and writers.
    You were great interviewing Bill Lawrence (who’s only about a year older than me) and I sure am impressed with his candor.
    (This is Bailey’s mom, by the way 😉

  2. Oh, come now Stephanie. Of course I know who you are. To be honest, I wouldn’t have watched Cougar Town if not for the fact that I knew this interview was coming and I am really glad I did. It isnt the show the title indicates at all. And yes, Bill is totally awesome. Really cool fella.

  3. This is my first time on this site, and I just wanted to say I loved this interview. Bill Lawrence has made some of my favorite shows on TV (cougar town being one of them after I read about the title change) and the opportunity to read a long form interview like this was awesome. Hes a brilliant show runner, and to read his thoughts on the balance of drama and comedy was really cool. Keep up the good work, I will definitely be back on this site to read more.

  4. Glad you like it Kevin. I’m currently trying to set up a few more interviews to do in a similar fashion and, fingers crossed, even a possible video interview. Is there anybody out there in LaLaLand you would like to see us try to get an interview with?

  5. […] Craig's Interview with Spin City / Scrubs / Cougar Town Creator, Bill … Uncategorized by admin […]

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