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September 5, 2015

Bill Lawrence talks Cougar Town (full transcript)

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 23rd 2009 11:04AM
Bill Lawrence at TCA session for Cougar TownHere's the full transcript from the phone interview I did with Bill Lawrence a couple of weeks ago... minus the part where we talked about Scrubs. That's an interesting bit in and of itself, and I'll publish that in full sometime during the early part of October.

This goes on for about 5700 words, but if you hang in there, you'll find a lot of good conversation about Cougar Town, the state of the sitcom, why Bill thinks NBC is shortsighted in its dependence on Jay Leno, and why Courteney Cox let him talk our ears off at the Cougar Town TCA session.

You can either leave comments here or at the bottom of the edited version.

In the Cougar Town TCA session, you you spent a lot of time defending the name of the show. When the project first started, at what point did the name Cougar Town kind enter your consciousness?
Immediately. K? Even before we made the show. I said I'm gonna title this show Cougar Town, It's a noisy title, so it will stick in people's heads, k? Which is a good thing. I can tell you right now that, when they do title recognition tracking, more people have heard of this show and this title than any show right now, of the new ones. Not counting like Melrose Place, which we know from before, but people have heard it. I don't know if that's negative or positive yet.

With Cougar Town, there's three different things. One, it will convince some people that the show is a specific thing that it is not. That it's like a sketch, you know. And then there's a lot of people in the country to whom this word isn't played out and that still will find this funny. And when they've heard the title, would've been like, 'that's hysterical.' There are even people going, 'what's a cougar?' On the low side is that TV, both from and executive side, and a writer's side, and a media/intelligentsia side, happens from New York and LA, where to them, the word cougar is incredibly overplayed.
Right. But where does the name of the show come from?
I lifted it from a high school football team. The town isn't called Cougar Town, it's called Gulf Haven. But the little town where my parents were in Florida, the football team with the Tigers, and they were Tiger Town. So like the opening of the show, the football team is the Cougars, so they call themselves Cougar Town.

Was the show (co-creator) Kevin Beagle's idea, or was this your idea?
The two of us wrote on Scrubs, Courteney wanted to do a show, I think he's super talented, and we just said we should do a show with Courteney as a 40-year-old, newly single woman out there, because I thought that's a real zeitgeist-y topic. And it's also something that's prevalent in my life for real. You know, a lot of actresses and people that find themselves single in their 40's, and I find it fascinating.

So the next step that we got to, even before we pitched it, was you know, hey if you call the show 40 and Single, or The Courteney Cox Show, or any of those things, on some level -- network TV is so much sales involved in it now to even have a chance to succeed, you know what I mean? So then we started talking, 'what's this show really about?' It's about what it means to be what people are calling a Cougar, especially if you see the first few shows. If you see the first few shows, especially when you're dealing with somebody that doesn't want to be judged and seen as one of those people, that we would all make fun of it.

But yet she likes the fact that dating younger men is kind of invigorating to her.
Yeah. Exactly. And so I didn't know if the title would stick, but I knew it was a good noisy title and you know, it cracks me up. And then when we went and pitched it to Courteney, it cracked her up. Courteney, I don't know if you heard her speak, but she's like 'oh, who gives a shit. It's a fucking word. I've been a Cougar, I'm eight years older than my husband. I've been a Cougar for a decade.'

Yeah, I liked when she said that. That was very funny to me.
Yeah, and she didn't care. So I go hey, let's go for it. It's funny. And I said, the only thing that we have to do to protect ourselves is A) we can't be throwing the word around, B) it can't be a sketch show, and C) Courteney can't be a Samantha from Sex and the City that's just like out prowling on younger men. And as you see the show, she's actually the opposite. She's embarrassed by it and mortified by it, you know, and doesn't think she's earned the right to have fun. You know what I mean.

Had you worked with Courteney before her guest spot this past season on Scrubs?
Yeah. I was actually a writer on the first year of Friends.

Was that kind of a test run?
Well, the Scrubs thing was, you know, she wanted to do a comedy again, I knew that was a huge piece of business and that she was a super nice lady to work with. We both had reservations because you know, I reached the career level I wasn't sure I wanted to work with an actor or actress that's also an executive producer who gets to kind of control things. And I'm sure she wasn't sure about working with somebody that has a reputation of being a control freak and doing whatever the hell he wants. But we liked each other, so we said hey, let's have a try-out on Scrubs.

And we did it, and she's easy to get along with, and I actually don't mind someone taking some of the heat off me. I mean, she's a real weapon when she's on your side for what she wants, and what she wants to do and stuff. And it worked out so well that then, after our try-out was over, we said alright, let's do a show.

Is she an executive producer just by title?
No, man, I mean, I talk to her creatively about the stories we're going to tell, she talks to me about life experiences. She's playing kind of an exaggerated version of herself. She was in on casting, in on every aspect of it: music, wardrobe, and really is kind of running with the stuff that not only do I hate doing, but that I'm not good at. You know, the look of the show, Courteney's like a designer in her own right. She has a secondary business, essentially, of flipping houses. So the look of the show, the look of the wardrobe, all that stuff that I usually just leave to other people, she's kind of all over it.

It is definitely a bright and sunny wardrobe...
If you know Florida at all, there's a ton of gentrification in a lot of these small, former fishing towns on the water that suddenly have their version of New York bars, you know, and their version of hip style. And so like all the stuff these women are wearing is very bright and Florida-ish, but it's also two years old, or three years old, because they'll always behind that way.

Why did you feel you needed a noisy title, despite the fact Courteney Cox is your star?
I'll tell you two reasons. One is ya gotta stick with the fact that I would not have titled it Cougar Town if I didn't think that was a funny, ironic title for the show. If I thought 'hey, this is just marketing,' I would never do that. I like it. But, by the same token, you and I have had enough discussions that when people don't like something, you can't go 'you're wrong.' You just have to acknowledge why, and talk about it.

I like Cougar Town because it makes me laugh, tells me in two words what the show is about, which is an older woman out there, single again. And as long as it's not a show about Courteney as a voracious cougar, I like it as an ironic title about a woman who is now smack dab in her life in the middle of Cougar Town, even though she desperately doesn't want to be seen as one.

And then the second part, before I go ahead, the second part is, I believe that the landscape of network television is a bleak one in which shows go away in a heartbeat, and it's almost impossible with the amount of counter-programming, to make a splash. And even with Courteney Cox, there's 9000 different big names on TV right now. And even with Courteney, with an expensive show, the danger of working with A-list talent is that show's gotta deliver out of the gates or it's gonna go away quick because of how expensive it is.

I'm a whore, Joel, but not so much of one that if I hated the title I would still keep it anyways.

So you don't even think that having the big name there helps at all?
Oh, I do. I do, man. But I'm gonna do everything I can to get people to check this show out. And I stand by the title I mean, if you remember the TCAs, at the end, someone was like, 'man, you sound defensive about the title.' I'm just acknowledging all sides, you know? I'm the same guy that, a couple years before with you guys, was like 'yeah, I think we dropped the ball on Scrubs last year and fucked up some things creatively.' I think most people would be like 'No! We were really there, and trying something new.' So for me, when I was talking about it, I was just acknowledging that I've heard people respond differently than I've responded. But if you remember at the end, I'm like 'naw, man, I love the title. I'm sticking with it.'

Has some of what you thought come true in that regard? People are just riffing off the title, not really understanding what the show's about?
We'll have to see. I mean, I think ABC's aggressively marketing the show. I think it's a subject matter that's way in the zeitgeist right now, you know. I would prefer to be selling that stuff, because the stories do revolve around being 40 and single. You know, having your 20's in your 40's. I would prefer to be selling that than selling 'hey, Courteney Cox, it's The Courteney Cox Show and her name's Jules and she's got a kid and a friend,' you know what I mean?

I think the advertising for Cougar Town has been on the mark, though.
They're selling Courteney as a sexy woman. I get that, you know. So I'm hoping it gradually morphs into a bit of an ensemble thing. But you know, I would be selling the same thing. I understand the marketing.

They also show her poking and prodding at whatever little flab she may have.
Yeah, I know, right?

But I think the funny thing was, with that, that it's actually her in that scene.
Yeah, she doesn't care.

And really, she doesn't have much to be worried about anyway.
I just respect her because I saw her do an interview the other day, and she's the quintessential woman that says, when people are like 'oh you look so good for your age!' And she's like, 'do you not understand how being an actress works? When someone takes a photo of me, there's hair people, makeup people, perfect lighting, and then retouching, and then ta da, here's the product of 40 people.' She's like, that doesn't happen for everybody out in the world, so to pretend that's not how this works is insane.

A good bit of casting, was Dan Berg as Courtney's son, because he has that kind of snide kind of teenage son type of persona he plays very well. But he seems very wholesome and sincere, and he plays very well off of Courteney in the pilot.
Those guys are really working well together. Man, I'm really digging their relationship. And the guy's funny. He also doesn't seem weak, so it doesn't seem like she's putting him in a... because rightfully so, the network was constantly worried, I think you heard me talking about it a little, about the risque nature of the show. And is it too inappropriate for what's going on around this son. And I think that Dan seems like an old soul too, and a guy that's gonna be fine.

You had started mentioning, at the end of our last interview, about what had changed between the original version of the pilot and the pilot that's going air. What did you see in that pilot that needed changing?
Two huge scenes, and I'll tell you the biggest ones right off the bat. Giant mistake, even though I found it funny, the very first scene at the football game, you know? Didn't seem like a scene, to me, written by women. It seemed like dudes writing women funny like frat guys. And the reason it sucked, was I really thought the pilot picks up steam, you know, and then starts to be more real and starts to have awkward moments, and real woman moments of connecting tissue and stuff. But to have started in a place that they seem like they're talking like two overgrown frat boys, even though I found some of the jokes funny, didn't work for me.

So something like saying like 'ah she has gorilla heads for boobs,' it didn't sound like ladies. So once we had a staff of more women than men, you know, we went into that scene and talked about it, and talked about other things that could be really funny. And I re-shot that scene, start to finish, completely different material, and think it's a lot better.

Example, the beginning of it starts now with something that two women on the show said that they do sometimes when they're out and it's Courteney and Busy looking at a woman that's probably about 41, with a guy that's probably about 20, or 23. And they're playing the game Son or Boyfriend. You know, when you look at a couple and decide is that her son or a boyfriend. And they bet on it, and they're going back and forth, waiting to see which it is. And when they kiss, Courteney's like 'Yes!' So that it's more stuff taken from ladies' lives.

I didn't feel like they sounded like women in this situation. And I think it's got a completely different feel, the way the show starts now. I also felt like Courteney never really explained what she was so afraid of in the show, so when they're selling that big, empty house to the people with Busy, and Busy's trying to get her to go back out in the world, I re-shot that whole scene, A, to make it funnier, B, because I thought it was creepy when the guy jammed his hand up that's extra's ass, and C, because you came out of that scene not really understanding.

I noticed that like some people had the reaction, when they saw the pilot, and by people, I mean friends of mine, 'oh, what is fucking Courteney Cox whining about?' It'd just be easy for her to go out and have a life. She's beautiful, right? So I wanted to make it clear it wasn't that she can't get dates. So I put in a scene that basically says 'look, the problem is, all the single men my age are either gay, broken, or chasing younger girls, and it gets lonely out there. Well, why don't you go out there and do it, because I don't want to fucking be someone that I would make fun of.' That's the show.

When the pilot got picked up, did you seek out a female writing staff, or a largely female writing staff, or did it just happen that way?
Yeah. I did. I just said, this show has to be more women than men, because, you know, if it was a male-dominated writer's room, it would quickly veer the other way, and it needs to be stuck on what women are doing.

And like I said, that was the big feel I got from the pilot, was just that it felt like, in some spots, it was guys writing for women, which never seems to work out very well.
Well, I gotta tell you, the difference of...we did. I mean, two dudes that had been writing Scrubs, which is a guy-based comedy for nine years, wrote the pilot. And I think we did a good job, man. I think we did a solid B, B+ job, and I really think though that bringing in these people, and to re-shoot two big scenes, and then extricate a bunch of moments that I thought were fraudulent and add a couple little extra jokes here and there...

It's the same thing I did to Scrubs, but Scrubs it was for different reasons. We didn't talk about re-shoots as much back then because it was under the radar. But Scrubs, I didn't feel like it was dramatic enough. So we re-shot the scene where the old guy died in the pilot, you know, and brought in Aloma (Wright) as Nurse Roberts, to say 'Can I just pronounce him dead so we can go home?' So you could kind of contrast his heartache with her cynicism. And in the original pilot version of that, he just walked up and saw that the guy had died.

That was actually something I was curious about bringing up. Tthe difference between Scrubs nine years ago and now, is that as initial pilots that come out, right after the upfronts, they're are scrutinized by people like me much more. Does that change what your process is, because a lot of people know what the Cougar Town initial pilot looks likes as opposed to the pilot that ends up... because every pilot gets re-shot...
Yeah, every pilot gets that. It does a little bit. Because even when we think about the thousands of people that may have seen bits and pieces of it, it's still a drop in the bucket you know? So I find it actually helpful to hear from outsiders. Especially in my case, generally the people like yourselves have been pretty candid with me in the past. You know, they like things that I've done, they've disliked things that I've done, and I take it all in and don't think that people are making this personal.

It's something you and I talked about years ago with Nobody's Watching, I think, is when you get more feedback from a bigger palate of people, when you see things that run consistent through it, it makes you think that they're true, in a good way. So it doesn't bother me at all.

Now what are we gonna see from Cougar Town coming up? I mean, is there any casting you wanted to talk about?
Not yet, man. You know, I'm gonna get there. Right now, the big thing for me is look, we're selling the Courteney Cox show, and she's really funny in this as it really starts moving forward. But the biggest thing for me is to make sure that the rest of the ensemble pops. Because a lot of these people are really strong and I've really been digging them.

Is it a good thing, by the way, that Cougar Town is premiering on its own so people aren't trying to compare it directly to the new Scrubs?
Yeah. Believe me, it is good for me. I mean, I think it's such a scary landscape out there though, man. You know, some show has to make it. These networks all counter-program and all spend a lot of time going 'How can we kill that new show that looks like it might be successful for someone else?'

Do you think comedy's inching its way back right now?
I hope so. But I think it'll be a body blow if something doesn't work. You know, if we come out of this year and Modern Family, or Cougar Town, or Community -- if none of those shows connect, it's gonna be not a good thing.

Do you think that ABC putting faith in Better Off Ted, for instance, kind of shows that comedy has a chance?
I loved that. I loved that move. So it makes me optimistic. The next move, the next thing I really want to see is someone just make a great, intelligent, multi-camera comedy, where for some reason, it still seems really hard to get that through the system.

Yeah, I think the closest we've come right now is probably How I Met Your Mother and that's not really multi-camera.
But it's not, you know, it's a... look, the hardest thing, and you've heard me talk about it before, I feel the network TV-loving populace, not only do they still watch re-runs of Friends, and re-runs of Will & Grace, and re-runs of Raymond, and Seinfeld, but their children watch the most traditional multi-camera shows ever in Hannah Montana, you know? And yet there is a snobbery in the industry that when we all make, or pitch, or write a well-made multi-camera comedy, that the executives and the comedy writers, and sometimes the media, look at them and go, 'psh...that's old news, that's not exciting.'

I don't think people are talking about The Big Bang Theory like that.
I don't either. I think that's the best thing to happen recently.

Yeah, I think because that's picking up steam, and that's picking up a lot of critical praise. Two years ago, when the show debuted, people were like 'ah, it's a sitcom about nerds.' And now you've got the TCA giving it all sorts of awards.
But you know why? It's because sitcoms -- I really believe this, it's not, you know, critics aren't just guilty of this, everybody's guilty of this -- sitcoms aren't about the idea, OK? They're about the execution and the casting and the chemistry. So I had the same reaction (to Big Bang), which is like 'eh, who cares, it's fucking nerds.' But then you watch some of those scenes, and like wow, that Parsons dude is really fucking funny. And wow, that group of guys is really playing off each other well. And wow, they've really hit a stride writing jokes. Know what I mean?

So then, you know, the hardest thing about a multi-camera sitcom is, they don't have a lot of potential to hit hard with giant buzz. Do you know what I mean? Because they've all been done before. They're about execution. It's like Joel, I know you, and I know me. I'm not gonna go 'hey, did you hear? There's a new multi-camera sitcom that takes place in a diner!' It's like, who gives a shit? Know what I mean? As opposed to, my interest was piqued when I heard the initial (concept of) Modern Family, which was like Dutch film crew shooting documentary style of three different types of nuclear families. 'Ooh, that sounds interesting.'

Yeah, the concept always sounds more interesting in the multi-camera because you can go further with the concepts I mean, than the single camera. In multi-camera, it's just you know, a set with a couch in the middle and...
Yeah, these guys are gonna be at a bar, these guys are gonna be at their house.

I don't understand why people don't think that if done well, a multi-camera sitcom can seem fresh. Almost everyone I've talked to in comedy says the same thing: if it's done well, it'll bring back the genre. Only a few people have ever said that that format is dead.
I know. I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy for a while because people were all enamored with single-camera comedy, until after five years of really good ones, they realized that Two and a Half Men was still crushing them all in the ratings. But we need someone other than Chuck Lorre to get a multi-camera show picked up.

And what happens is, you only get a few shots at the plate. The amount of pilots they make every year has diminished. Even now, the multi-camera show that ABC made had to have Kelsey Grammer attached. Huge name. Because what's tough is when they're not making a lot of pilots, and it's hard for anybody, much less network executives or studio executives who are hearing 1000 pitches, to envision something in a realm that they're only making five or six comedy pilots. The guy that goes in and says, I'm doing a single-camera, mockumentary, talk to the camera take on the modern American family with this, and that, and this, you know, that's a great pitch, especially when you don't have the show to look at and see that it's funny.

A harder pitch is to go, 'I want to do a show about kind of a workplace family, but they work at a...' Imagine pitching Cheers right now. 'I want to do a show, multi-camera sitcom, about a bunch of friends who are really a family and they all hang out at a bar.' It'd be an impossible sale, unless you're Chuck Lorre. 'Are there any stars in it?' 'No. At this point, there's no one you've ever seen or heard of.' Do you know what I mean? To me, that's the disconnect. That's what makes it hard.

Has anybody asked you about how you reacted to the whole Leno thing? You would think you're torn, because yeah, more comedy writers get work because it's Leno's show, but then again, it's still taking away from development in general.
I think it's short-sighted, man. I think it's a product of the fact that television network business is about the what's our bottom line right now. But there's no back end business to The Jay Leno Show the same way there are in scripted programming. And even though there's a bunch of comedy writers working, that's a group of 10 or 15 comedy writers replacing 40 or 50 writers, you know, that would've worked.

And you know, I think that it's fiscally responsible, and it'll be a no-lose situation because they'll be able to claim victory no matter what. But I do think that the network television business is a business that, to stay alive, these guys have to hold onto their brands, you know? And I think CBS has done a great job in holding onto their brand. And man, I want NBC to hold onto their.. I mean, shit man, I'm really close to the Thursday night comedy, smart television and great dramas, and that was their brand. And I don't want to wake up in six months and go, 'oh NBC, it's the talk show network.'

I don't think it will be, at least on Thursday nights, because they've still got 4 strong comedies going, including Community. I think the surprising thing is I tend to think that the 10:00, the Jay Leno thing's gonna work, despite what everybody hopes against. Because people are gonna just want to tune in and turn their brains off, and listen to just topical comedy for an hour.
I don't believe in schadenfreude or whatever, wishing other people bad. I think it will, no matter what happens, it will be seen as working. Because even if it delivers a mediocre number, it's still going to save so much money now.

I like the business side of Hollywood. Even though right now, their overhead will be less, if you say, what if ABC had done that the year that they created, you know, that they put Lost on, and all those cool shows that have a shelf life and develop a whole kind of ancillary product of DVDs, and books, and fanboys, and devoted nerds, you know, that's the short-sightedness of it.

Let me close this out by just asking you about you and us, you being Bill Lawrence and us being the press. I thought it was very interesting at the Cougar Town panel where you just kind of just admitted that 'oh yeah, I invited Courteney and everybody else to come watch while I talk to you guys.' When did you realize that being open and chatty and friendly to the press is going tobe advantageous to you? Is it just your natural personality?
Yeah, it's not a calculated thing. I'll tell you, I feel it;'s three things. One, right from the start, the way, even way back in the Spin City days, the way that you were tried to be ushered through the press with sound bites or whatever as if they were tools that you could use. If things were bad, you say nothing. If things were good, you just say that... it's so disingenuous that it almost immediately invalidates your credibility with people that are writing about the show.

If I know something in my heart sucked, then someone like you says don't you think that sucked? And I say 'no, I think it was great,' you've either just invalidated me as a person with any valuable opinions, or you're thinking 'bullshit.' So to me, I like it because I think I'm honest enough that people believe me when I say I'm fixing this, or when I say I think something's better this year. Because you gotta own both sides. You gotta face the music when you say hey, I think something didn't work.

And I think it's a product of a second thing, which is, I think the networks are using the excuse of the change in the way we get TV to mitigate the importance of the press. And you and I have talked about this before. I think that people look at movies that get panned and then open huge anyways as a reason that they go 'Who gives a shit?' And I think it's the opposite. I think there's still gonna be things like that, that (there will be) shows (that are) just like films that do well because people want to go see explosions and stuff.

But the opposite side is true, which is, I personally believe Scrubs stayed alive because enough people say 'hey, this is a high quality show and it's doing valuable things. At the end of the day, certain years when they were talking about picking the show up, it was a show that people at the network level said 'hey, look at the stuff that's being said. Even if this makes us just a little money, we can also be proud of it as programming.'

So I think it's a huge value, and I get constantly frustrated by how much people underestimate that. The third one is, I'm not a fan... Courteney told me to keep talking, because I'm not a fan of the tabloid aspect of journalism that snuck into all this. And Courteney said, 'if you don't keep talking and get the stuff about the shows out, I will immediately be asked about when is Jennifer Aniston coming on the show, and then that will be the only story reported.' And so we made a deal beforehand, I said when that comes up, I'll make a joke out of it, and then we'll try to make it go away and move on. We handled it in eight seconds. If you Google "Cougar Town TCAs," the first 50 stories that come up are 'Jennifer Aniston is gonna join her Friend, Jennifer Aniston blah blah blah blah blah,' you know? So that's really why I was just all over that shit for her.

We're in an era where show runners are outgoing and friendly to the press. I mean, everybody from Matt Weiner of Mad Men to the guys from Lost, it seems like a lot of them are open and honest with the people in the press. But do you wish other show runners were more open? Do you wish everybody was as open as you are?
I think it's a personality style. I think some people are really uncomfortable with it. And I think one of the disconnects for some people is, everything stings, but I have had enough success, knock on wood, that if people that I like and have been nice to me before say they don't like something, I can grin and bear it, you know, without going into a week-long spiral. And I think that for some people that do have that artist personality, I think it's very hard to be an open book because the slightest negative thing can really fuck you up.

There have been some things going on your show, like Zach had a contract negotiation but it seemed like all that got diffused because everybody was open and honest when it was going on.
I think it's ultimately easier, you know, because the other harsh reality of Hollywood, that I realized early on, and it was a guy named Bob Broder actually told me which is his big metaphor. He said there's only 20 people in Hollywood, and if any of the 20 people know what's going on, then everybody knows what's going on. So to think that in this era that you can have a contract negotiation or anything like that, and you can keep it wrapped up, it's not going to happen. So why bother spending that energy?

Right. Or if there's problems on the set or something like that...
Yeah, are you kidding me? I hear about stuff that happens on our set sometimes from the internet before I've heard about it from the people that it happened with.

Do you think, I mean, are they true?
Sometimes, man. I mean, sometimes people are out there catching things and talking to people. You know, caught Donald at a party, or somebody on set is friends with somebody who's said something else, you know.

It's interesting. The internet's a wonderful thing. It keeps me employed, so... Well, Bill, I wish you luck, and I guess we'll catch up with each other later on.
Thanks. I hope you like the new stuff, man, I think you'll feel it's a little different tonally, in a good way.

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Gee, I wonder if this show would have been made if it was created by a woman. It is a cool show. How did a man think of this?

September 24 2009 at 7:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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