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October 22, 2014

Bill Lawrence: The TV Squad Interview (Scrubs 2.0 edition) - full transcript

by Joel Keller, posted Aug 20th 2009 11:18AM
Bill Lawrence at the TCA 09 session for Cougar Town Here's the full transcript of the interview I did with Bill Lawrence on the last day of the TCAs. It's goes into some of the financial nitty-gritty of the Scrubs deal and drops a few other details. I also asked him to repeat what was going to go on in the new Scrubs a few times, just so I could understand completely what was going on. Enjoy! The main post, where you can leave your comments, is here.

Well let's start with the obvious. You've been thinking about doing another season of Scrubs for like a year now.
(laughing)

Because you told me...when'd you talk to me about that? About a year ago?
We're the only people who shot the shit about it. I thought there was a chance it would happene. I just saw the landscape, you know.

How did that whole thing develop? I mean, beyond the fact that you and Steve (McPherson of ABC) talked about it?
This was the first time that there was absolutely no work at it. I mean, in the years past, I wanted to keep it going, so I actively like was trying anything I could. I can cut the budget, we can do this... This year, I said, it's over. I did a finale. Steve liked the numbers, he liked the compatibility with Better Off Ted because he likes, he wants to try that show again. He thinks they both skew male and the only shows that have 18-34 year old men watching ABC, and called up and said, 'If you can do Scrubs for this cheap, I want to go again.'

"For this cheap" means what?
Means that Scrubs, in its ninth year, especially with new, young actors who, besides being young are going to be inexpensive, will be a less costly show than any of their new shows. The production value will be the same, because what drove up the price is, by the eighth year...

Everybody's making eighth year money.
Yeah.

Especially Zach.
Yeah. I know.

Crista (Miller, Bill's wife, who played Jordan) told me that you rebuilt the hospital sets, that you're not going to be using the hospital. I mean, you gave up the hospital?
Gave it up.

And you rebuilt the hospital set?
Had to for the new concept of the show, because I pitched...Steve wants to keep it called Scrubs as a brand name. I wanted to change it to Scrubs Med, because I said, 'It can't be the same show.' You can't do 'JD's left his wallet and he comes back.' Otherwise people that liked the show will think I'm a whore.

So I said, when I pitched it to him, 'It's gonna be like Paper Chase as a comedy.' So he built a huge auditorium med school set. We picked Culver Studios because that studio looks like a UVA. It looks like a med school. And then the premise of the show is that they move the Scrubs hospital onto campus, you know, rebuilt it, and there's a building there that looks like a hospital. Fifty percent of the show will be in the med school, but they have immersive programs now. They let the 21-year-old med students in with the patients in most hospitals in the country.

We actually always fudged it the other way. Scrubs was always a teaching hospital. We didn't want to do the teaching scenes, so we'd occasionally have a classroom and we'd fudge it. So now, it's like John McGinley's like John Houseman. The opening scene is in a giant auditorium and he's telling a bunch of 21 year olds that he sees them all as tiny assassins that wander the halls of the hospital.

Is it going to be actually Sacred Heart, or is it going to be another thing that looks like...?
It's Sacred Heart, but what we fudged is, most teaching hospitals...I don't know where you're from but, UCLA for instance, it's on campus. And what we said is, that hospital's such a piece of shit that when they decided to rebuild it, they rebuilt it on campus. But it'll still have the Sacred Heart logos.

And the cool thing for me, continuity-wise, which might be what you're asking, is...Frasier was smart because he moved to Seattle and you're not like'Where's Sam, where's Diane,' right? What we decided to do was, we do a med school on a hospital show. The shows we've been writing, when they go to the hospital, insinuate that everybody's still there. And that's why, one episode, when they go there, you'll see Sarah (Chalke). One episode, you'll see Judy Reyes. One episode, you'll see Ken Jenkins. Multiple episodes. You'll see the Todd, Ted. The med students are operating mostly with John McGinley, Eliza Coupe, and Donald Faison and Zach.

So it's been rebuilt to look the same?
Well, it's like when they go build a new hospital, it's a bit of an overhaul.

Alright so it's gonna be on the campus, and everybody just went and worked at the new hospital?
Yeah everybody's still got their same jobs. The main thing we fudged on Scrubs, if you work at a teaching hospital as a physician in real life, you're obligated to teach. And so what this is about to me, we already did interns and residents, and I'm like there's nothing else to do, except med students are really like the practice of medicine because they don't know what the fuck they're doing, and they seem like high school kids, you know? So that became the story.

So if it's a 50-50 split between school and hospital, will we see the hospital less?
It's going to be the same type of story. The difference, if you remember the old Scrubs, we would be, outside of the hospital, we'd be in JD and Turk's apartment, you know, and a bar. And now, outside the hospital, we'll be in classrooms. Still has the life and death stakes, and these kids, but it's a little more college-y and a little bit younger. To be honest, man, the show's gonna succeed or fail based on the casting of three new people and if they can carry it.

I just read that you're still doing the casting right now?
Yeah. Well, we found a bunch of people we like. We're gonna test them for the network in a week and a half (Note: One cast member was announced earlier this week, and the remaining two were announced today).

Where are you culling these people from? Are they from like improv groups or UCB, that kind of thing?
Oh, you know me, man, I like people that have comic chops. But Eliza Coupe is the only one I signed on from last year as a regular. I think she's hyper-talented. We gave her a one-note character and she made it actually funny. So we'll flesh her out. Otherwise, there's going to be a new young lady with a voice over and she's either going to be funny and talented and great, or the show's gonna crater.

So you're actually gonna have the focus be on that person and be like the new JD with the voiceovers?
Yeah. She's gonna narrate it a little bit, yeah.

Are you nervous though? I mean, obviously people like me, who love the show, are going to be taking a close look. You called me out on your blog when I wrote that the show should die.
I know, but that was awesome. And I knew you wouldn't care.

Oh no, no. And I left a comment there.
That was fun. Oh yeah, yeah, I saw it, I saw it.

I understand all the reasons why you'd want go do another season. But are you nervous that this won't work?
What I can tell you is, the diciest thing that I've said so far, which is true: I don't stand to make a dime from this year of Scrubs. Because what's really interesting is, Scrubs' ratings went down year after year after year. It's eight years old. The syndication value is not one package. So they sell it year to year.

So they'll still try to sell this year, but the reason I had to cut the budget is, our last year on NBC, you know, we're making the show for like $1.8 million and their license fee is like $2.5 million. You're in profit right away. On ABC, the show is $1.7 million this year, and they're only paying one million of the cost. So it's gonna be a deficit. This is the tricky politic, the tricky money of big companies. The studio will lose money, but their network will make money. On the yeah, yeah, yeah...

What it means, though, is that I, my percentage is worth nothing. So what I can honestly say to you, and it's not bullshit, was if this was a show that I didn't know or like, or give a shit about the crew, in a boom time of Hollywood that everybody's like 'Oh no, we're just going to go on to a different job,' I woulda gone like 'oh, come on, it's over.' But everybody's like 'let's work, let's work, let's work.'

Was there a real concern that they wouldn't find work if Scrubs didn't come back?
There's not a lot of comedies going right now, man. And I think people work hand-to-mouth in the biz. The difference is, when you get to the eight-year mark, everybody's got a family life and they're no longer going 'Hey, I'm doing a commercial over here, and I'm going to do a feature in North Carolina, and then I'm gonna do...'

So to me, don't get me wrong, I'm not being holier than thou because the tiny fantasy in brain is that we nail it and it's funny, and it's got a new shelf life. So I'm not completely...but the reality is, I'm not a legacy guy. Spin City (with) Charlie Sheen, didn't ruin it for me or make it better, it was just different.

You did basically the same thing there. You replaced Michael J. Fox after he left, but you also cut the cast too.
Yeah. And to me, it's because you know, you go forward, and it's either going to work or not. I think that the thing you have to embrace though... I would feel like a dick only if it was embarrassing. Do you know what I mean? To me, if you cut down that one quote about how 'It's gonna suck, but it'll suck hard,' it's because we're gonna swing for the fences. It'll either be great, or it'll just be a miss.

In the syndication package, will this be sold as season nine?
They're gonna try and sell it as Scrubs. That's why Steve's making us stick with the title. You know, I don't know how they're going to sell it, because people are going to go, 'Is Zach in it? Is Sarah in it?' It'll depend on how it does.

Well, it'll be like that last year of That 70's Show when Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace weren't in it....
Except the difference is, I didn't want to do that. Because that show was like 'Hey, it's the last year of the show and these two guys aren't on it.' So I'm like look, if we're doing this, and these people can't do it, I'm building the show around new actors that I think are TV stars and it'll either work or not because they're good.

So full time, we're gonna see McGinley...
And Faison.

...Donald, and Eliza?
Yes.

Ok. And then...
There's 3 new regulars. They're all young.

And then occasionally we'll see Sarah, occasionally see Zach...?
Well Zach is, because this is a Steve McPherson move...he wants to try for this...I would've gone and started from scratch. I love Zach. Steve went and made Zach commit to the first 6 episodes minimum, right out of the gate, you know, just as a transition thing.

Do you think that's going to be problematic? Not from the work perspective...
I think that the problem is creative. Because the burden we're looking at is, is it a new show if Zach's still there? And we think we've found an angle to it, but you'll have to tell me if it works or not. When I say swinging for the fences, I'll float you the first one... when you see it, it's obvious that someone else is the lead, but Zach's still a presence.

Also, the ending was pretty final.
Well yeah, but one of the things that we do...we were able to lock down back-story (for JD). He doesn't work in the hospital. OK, so the thing we did, remember he was teaching... he was going to a hospital 45 minutes away? We just did that he needs teaching accreditation. And Zach's teaching a basic anatomy class. So he works at the college. But those are his friends. The fact that he's over there gives him an excuse to go over and say hey, and do all that shit, but he doesn't work there anymore.

Beyond the first six, are we going to see him after that, or that's it?
You know, it's tough. Depending on how the show goes, I would think like it would be good for him to move forward. But you know how network TV works. If it's working, they're gonna (try to get him back).

How about Sarah? She's just going to be in and out?
Sarah, here's the issue, Sarah and Judy both want to do episodes, and we're trying to make it work financially. They're both preggers in real life. So they have short windows too.

So this might be a situation where you'll see them pop up every so often?
I'm gonna try and book, if I can make it work, all those guys for two episodes minimum, and then spread it around. And then also try to use them here and there on a day-to-day type thing.

Besides Coupe as Denise/Jo, any other interns from last year are coming back?
I like that kid Sonal (who played Sunny), she'll float through the same way that Ted and Todd float through.

So what would you tell a fan like me, who is saying that Scrubs should have ended after the eighth season, to encourage him to tune into this new version?
I would say you should check it out because, in my mind, and this is a fight I'm still fighting, it's a new show. Hopefully with some characters and elements that, if you liked Scrubs, you would like this new show. If it goes my way, and we'll see if I win this battle, when it, the credits at the beginning, when it says "Scrubs," you know, at the end, it'll then flash again and it'll say "Med School."

So I would say look, if it seems like it's just Scrubs again, that's cheap. But if it seems like a new show, then maybe we have a chance.

Does it help that you got McGinley back in?
It does for me. You know, I just like look, I liked it. McGinley and Donald Faison are like actors emeritus on this show. They became what Kelso was originally. Donald becomes Dr. Cox, Dr. Cox becomes Dr. Kelso, you know, in this world.

It's like somebody said 'Hey, would you like to do a new TV show pilot, and here's the kicker, you get thirteen episodes guaranteed, and you don't have to do a ton of exposition because there's gonna be three characters on it that people really like. You just have to introduce the three new ones.'

That's why it's gonna succeed or fail. It'll be either AfterMASH or Frasier. You know what I mean, man, that's the two camps.

And we'll see a little bit more nuances to Turk and Cox?
Yeah. Because, you know what, we beat their...TV gets stretched thin at the five year point, and we went eight years. You know, when you have (characters) that are full, but everybody knows every aspect of them So one of two things is gonna happen. Either they've gotta be more rounded out and have more elements to them, or they've gotta be essentially support characters to a brand new team. And I think there'll be a combination of both.

Are you hoping that this goes on a couple more years? You're going to be more involved with Cougar Town than with this show, right?
I am. But it's like my drug habit. The writers rooms are in the same building, like 20 feet from each other, and those guys are like 'Hey Bill, come on over.' I'm writing the first one like it's a pilot, you know. And I can't turn my back on it man. I love it too much.

What is the network expecting from this show? Is it the same numbers that Scrubs got last year, or less, or...?
I think if it did the same that it did last year at a cheaper price, then he would be super happy. I think what Steve's really hoping is to have a companion piece to give Better Off Ted a chance with what he thinks his audience is.

How long do you have Donald and John?
One year deals. Yep.

What have they told you about like what might happen?
I think that those guys are seeing this as a bonus year. And we'll all see how the experience is.

Because I know they were both attached to other pilots. But were those pilots in first position, right?
Yep. I made second position deals with Donald Faison, John McGinley, and Neil Flynn, hoping to get two of them.

What would have done with Janitor if Neil came back?
Shoot, I would've had to redefine him and make him a little fuller, you know, and have him turn on somebody. I just love working with the guy so much.

We still don't know what his name is, do we?
No. (laughs)

Yeah, I thought that was great, because that's exactly what the Janitor would do.
Yeah, of course, man. You can't answer after all those years, you know?

Yeah, I think it's great. So let me ask you a couple questions about Christa (Miller), the music supervisor...
Sure. And then I gotta bust in before she leaves.

So how come, first of all, I didn't know Christa was a DJ. I mean, DJ, like a scratching records DJ...
I know. (chuckles)

Don't Scrubs have an official music supervisor?
No. Never did.

So Christa's basically the uncredited music supervisor?
Used to be that yeah, we picked the songs, and I would be like, 'I like that song,' but then everybody realized that I only like what Christa tells me to like, so it always started going through her. I think from now on, it's going to be official.

Oh she's actually going to be credited as the music...for both shows?
Ah, probably. I don't know how much music we'll use on Cougar Town, but we'll see.

Because I was talking to her about, you know, going way back with the episode with Brendan Fraser JD tells his character he has leukemia. Christa picked that Guided by Voices song for that scene...
It was great. "Hold on Hope. "

"Hold on Hope." That was one of my favorite...it's hard to believe this...one of my favorite CDs of 1999, 2000.
I know, man. It's so long ago too, isn't it freaky?

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