Bill Lawrence of Scrubs: The TV Squad Interview
That's what I got from him when I spoke to him earlier this week. Yes, we went over what happened with NBC after the writers' strike and how his show was able to make the shift to ABC. But, since he already spoke about that at length, we talked more about why NBC treated the show like it did, what creative shifts he's going to make to the show this year (expect to see less baby and relationship stuff this year, and more of the medical drama and comedy that got people hooked on the show). And, of course, he also dropped the mini-bombshell that I posted about earlier in the week, that there might be a ninth, "next generation" season of Scrubs.
I'll warn you right now, this is a long transcript, which is why we're splitting it into three parts. But it's got a lot of good information, and if you're patient, you'll find some interesting spoilers about what's going to happen next year on the show (production on eighth season should be wrapped up by August, according to Lawrence). So, buckle up and enjoy the ride...
Joel Keller: How are you doing?
Bill Lawrence: I'm doing well, man. I've got a job. I'm like one of the only comedy writers in the country with a job.
JK: When the writers' strike was going on did you sit there and think, "Oh, this is not good," especially as far as your show's concerned?
BL: You know what man? I had two things going for me, so I wasn't really thinking that. Number one was I have a really good relationship with ABC and ABC Studios and, knowing that we could possibly be heading for a strike and having the ammo that our show sells extremely well in DVDs, we had the thought of when (the strike) eventually ended, doing the six episodes we had outlined as a straight-to-DVD thing and (knowing) how well that would probably do.
I knew that would probably do well enough financially that I'd get to do it and the stuff that would normally give you pause or make you feel bad I had gone through long ago, man. I'll tell you why. It's because like I always felt like, you know, our show could have had a different path if it was on NBC, but, you know, not owned by another network because I felt that they constantly moved the show from time slot to time slot and never really got completely behind it.
And I used to have some bitterness about that as anybody that was competitive would, but I finally reached the point around like the sixth year (laughs) that I was like... At the beginning, knowing what I know now, if somebody had said, "Hey, six years from now or now eight years from now, Scrubs won't be a gigantic hit, but it'll still be on TV, will you take it?" And I would have taken it in a heartbeat, you know?
JK: So what you're saying is that you think that the reason why NBC treated Scrubs the way they treated it was because it was made by ABC?
BL: Oh yeah. It's not a personal thing. I think it's a business thing, man. Don't get me wrong. I think there's some bonehead moves in there but here... I'll try to do the unbiased opinion, all right?
The unbiased opinion that I saw firsthand was in the modern landscape of television, most networks owned their own product and therefore can make tons of cash off their own shows. To be a television show that's on one network but completely owned by another network or studio, you'd better be a giant hit, or you're not going to be protected in the least.
The painful admission from me is that I can't blame them. As a businessman I would roll my dice on whatever show I owned that I thought had a chance. And, you see that a lot. The only shows that are on television that are owned by one network and on another that are promoted and taken care of are ones that were giant hits out of the gate because then they become this kind of giant steamroller that generates money and protects nights and time slots and ad revenue.
I felt like that was a tough battle with Scrubs from the start, combined with the fact that I think that people didn't really know what to make of this show at the start. I remember when we were first beginning. that we sold ourselves as a comedy and some of the first episodes we were turning in were with people dying and, you know, drama shit and sad music. And I used to get all these calls that would go, "Yeah, people weren't really clear on what type of show we were doing." And, you know, I think that people are much more in tune with that type of storytelling now.
JK: What do you think was the move that NBC made out of all the moves around that they made that kind of --
BL: Oh, that dicked me over? What I'm most bitter about? Okay, I'll tell you. I'd say that the one that still grates me is, you know, the show premiered really strongly behind Frasier and got big numbers and did all the stuff that showed that, if it was owned by the network and they knew they had a back end coming, they would immediately jump on it and protect it.
So what a lot of people might not remember was that the first year of our show was considered a hit. Now it was considered a hit because it had an incredibly strong lead-in, and NBC was dominating comedically. So going into the next year I remember Jeff Zucker going, "Hey, this is going to be big for you guys. The show's gonna get Emmy nominations. It's critically respected. We're going to put it on the second year after Friends, you know at 8:30. Friends is going to be on at 8:00, Scrubs is going to be on at 8:30." The thing that still grates me is that we got maybe three pops at 8:30, you know, and before long there was a 45-minute long Friends and our show started getting shuffled around from time slot to time slot.
And, you know, it's a product of two things, man. One is that Friends was such a juggernaut at that time, it's such a cultural phenomenon on some level that it was very hard to retain (audience) and they weren't able to do it with any show. That's why NBC never fostered, developed and established one successful comedy over that entire run using Friends as a lead-in, which is silly.
And so I thought that itchy trigger finger was a giant mistake, not only for their network but for our show because -- and I understand it in the sense that, you know, that was really back in Jeff Zucker's heyday of "let's milk every last dollar of profit we can out of this. We'll do 45-minute Friends and super-sized episodes and extra Friends and Friends this and Friends that." You know, I get it and I liked that show. But that was the year that our show went from, you know, one year being perceived as a hit to the next year being, "Hey, this week you're on at 8:30 and next week you're on Tuesdays at 8:30. The week after that you're on Thursdays at 9:30 and the week after that you're on Tuesdays at 9:00." I'm like, you've got to be fucking kidding me, man. By the end of the year my parents didn't know when our show was on.
JK: (laughs) The move I can think of was two or three years ago when the show finally got some Emmy recognition and Zach got some Emmy recognition, and they decided to start airing it mid-season.
BL: I didn't mind that as much because by that time the show's fortune had been set. In television nowadays, the course of your show is set in the first two or three years. There's no slow-building giant hits anymore. I just don't think that people's viewing habits provide for a show that's going to continue to grow its fan base after year three. I think it's the exact opposite. You've got to hold on to whatever audience you've hooked after those first two or three years knowing that you're going to lose a percentage every year.
One of the things that really made me mad in retrospect is somebody published an article recently on Scrubs that said that one of the things is that they noticed that every time it gets put in a new time slot, it starts at whatever number it starts at and then gradually it increases for the next five or six weeks until its fan base has found it again, until it gets to a steady number. You know, no matter what we do we always end up close to the same number and so I always felt going back to that second year that this show would have had a completely different history if NBC had just gone, "Look, the critics like the show, they've been really nice and supportive. We like the show creatively. Put it on after Friends, lock it down there and let it find and build an audience as we go." And the fact that they had such an itchy trigger finger, you know, in retrospect kind of bums me out a little bit.
JK: Well that being said, what do you think kept NBC going back to the well for seven years?
Two reasons. One of the biggest reasons Scrubs survived is that our show's cheap. There's new shows, new half hour comedies that are more expensive than our eighth-year show and that's even with Zach's salary. And so it was designed to be a show that the overhead was so low and it's so claustrophobic and in the hospital and stuff, that if it does decent ratings, they're still turning a huge profit because it's not expensive and it doesn't cost anybody anything.
JK: So shooting in the hospital is one of the things that keeps the price low?
BL: We're not out and about on location and that we're all in one, you know, one site and we can shoot the show in five days instead if six. And it was mostly neophyte actors so that even now, a lot of their salaries aren't up to the levels of new shows with established names. Like if Matthew Broderick was to star in a sitcom next year, his starting salary would probably be, you know, higher than anybody on our show's eighth-year salary.
JK: Including Zach?
BL: Maybe not Zach (laughs). Zach took a leap at the end. But that was reason number one that the show stayed on. Reason number two is we went to survival mode after the second year. You're either a big hit in which you should just sit back and fucking enjoy it and count yourself as the luckiest person on the face of the earth, or you're a cult hit in which means you have a very loyal and passionate niche audience.
And that's what we had, and we went to great lengths to feed them whether it be online or paying attention to their interests on websites, paying attention to their likes and dislikes. Doing different events so that they could have access, shout-outs to the fans because you have to keep the people that are passionate about your show hooked.
JK: What was one of the shout-outs?
BL: We did one that the doctors were all looking at a RateYourDoc.com site, which we took from a real hospital thing where you could go on and rate your doctor online. When the doctors were reading negative comments from people online, they were all real negative comments from some of our hard-core online fans that would comment on the show every week. And we used their real names.