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September 23, 2014

Bill Lawrence talks Cougar Town

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 23rd 2009 11:04AM
Bill Lawrence at the TCA session for Cougar TownA couple of weeks after I got some Scrubs scoop from Bill Lawrence in Pasadena, I asked if we could talk by phone about his new show, Cougar Town. The Courteney Cox-led show, which follows the travails of a forty-something Florida real estate agent and single mom as she tries to re-enter the dating world, starts tonight at 9 PM ET on ABC.

We talked a little more about Scrubs (I'll print that in a few weeks), then about Cougar Town. I opened with the fact that at the session he had for the show at the TCA press tour, he seemed to spend a lot of time defending the "noisy title" of the show.

The conversation ranged far and wide from that point, from what he thinks about the future of the multi-camera sitcom, why NBC's dependence on Jay Leno is shortsighted, why he's so outgoing to us press types, and why Courteney Cox let him talk everyone's ears off during the press tour session. You can read the long but interesting full transcript if you're eager to find that stuff out. An edited version of the interview is after the jump.

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 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?

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...

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?'

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costa

"COUGAR TOWN" is a pathetic and desperate excuse for a show - Obviously written by a fool mysoginist with issues who does not understand mature, independent, strong women who raise kids alone - and needs to portray them as needy sluts. As a "40-something single mother of a teenage son" myself, I am totally disgusted and insulted by Ms. Cox's/Ms. Cobb's stupid stance on herself. Her character says "Do you know how scary it is to be a 40 year old single mom?" as if she would die without a man - or had no choices in life! WTF! I have a funny feeling the show was pitched by the immature idiot that lives across the street, the one that thinks he's still cute... but is just as old and ugly! This is not entertainment, it's just a dumb boy's point of view. Signed: MS. MOM

September 30 2009 at 12:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JoAnn

Loved the show! Laughed out loud. Hope to see many more episodes.

September 23 2009 at 10:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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