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Bill Lawrence on the Cougar Town renewal and Scrubs missteps - TCA Report

by Joel Keller, posted Jan 16th 2010 11:06AM
Bill Lawrence at the Winter 2010 TCAsDuring ABC's portion of the press tour (which feels like a month ago already), the network had its Wednesday night comedy showrunners on for a panel. Surpisingly, Bill Lawrence actually let Steven Levitan of Modern Family and Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline of The Middle speak for a good portion of the time, though he had a few things to say himself, not the least of which was that Conan's letter saying no to 12:05 on NBC was a "ballsy" move.

You knew I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to speak to Bill while he was there, especially with Cougar Town getting picked up for a second season and the new Scrubs trying to find its way after a shaky start. The conversation we had is after the jump.

(Oh, and it's always amazing to me that I can talk to Lawrence for maybe 15 minutes, cut out 3500 words, and still have 2500 words left. The man can talk a blue streak.)

Let's start with Scrubs.
When you first heard that ABC was going to double dip the episodes, what was your reaction?
Scrubs got picked up as a mid-season show. You'd be foolish to not realize what the expectations that putting on four new comedies on the same night was a high risk. Three of them were working, you know what I mean, and they had new stuff starting up.

So potentially, Scrubs could have taken the place of one of the three Wednesday comedies. Could've even taken the place of Cougar Town?
Yeah. And when that wasn't coming to fruition, I expected it to be jammed in there. To me, the nicest thing is the end result that they're going to give it a couple pops on Wednesday at eight.

People think it's burn-through theater mainly because they're doing it with Ted as well. But that's not your perception at all?
That's not my viewpoint. Scrubs does a one six on a bad night when they're only expecting it to do like a one six, one eight. And Better Off Ted did a one nine.People go oh my God, you're being burned off. That doesn't prevent opportunity, especially in a world where the distance between the giant hits and the huge failures is that instead of that.

The main criticism of the return of Scrubs has been the return of Zach Braff and the fact that stories revolved around J.D., and that it was the immature J.D. we saw a couple years ago as opposed to the mature one that left Sacred Heart at the end of season eight. When you started the writing process, I know you're not maybe quite as involved in the show as you used to be but...

No, I am, I am. I can jump in and tell you the three mistakes I made. And they line right up with some of the stuff you've been writing. You gotta understand that a lot of the things that we think are creative decisions were business decisions early on, and I understand them. You know the character J.D., keeps this Scrubs, keeps this branded, syndication-wise, as a show that sells, and I get that. Also add to it, I find Zach Braff funny.

I had told so many people that Scrubs was over, this is a new show, regardless of the title, that we wrote it as such, know what I mean? And the only argument I would ever make in my defense, and it was a giant miscalculation, if this show didn't just seem like it was Scrubs continuing, because (to) me, it's a med school, it's all these other things, and Zach was a guest star. Much like when the Cheers gang would go on Frasier, they weren't playing the characters that they were in the last five episodes of Cheers. They were playing the things that we remember that were so funny, know what I mean?

So I think if this show was called Scrubs Med or Med School, and like hey, Zack Braff's in there and he's doing that shit that used to make us laugh, that wouldn't have bothered people as much.

That being said, I wish I hadn't told as many stories about him. I'll tell you why. This is how you fall into the trap as a writer. When you have a new show, part of the burden, like the only time I ever get mad is like after the third episode, if I read a comment on your blog of someone like 'Man, the new characters aren't rounded out at all.' And I would always go, why don't you go back and watch the first three episodes of Scrubs and tell me how Elliot and Turk were rounded out, other than she talks really fast and he's cocky.

What's funny is that the second and third episodes after Zach left are actually paced very much like Scrubs in the first season was... slower, more deliberate, kind of examining things more...
We're trying to jam home who those characters are a little bit to people. It was a mistake, just to finish that thought and I'll go back to you, the mistake I think was even if I was going to do it as a new show, I should have viewed Zach as a guest star. But what was hard is, when you don't know those actors' strengths and weaknesses yet, and you've got the gift just by the business decision of, I know how I can make this story work and make this guy make me laugh. It's a crutch and I leaned on it a little too much.

Well, the one guy, I think, kind of hit...
Mike Mosley, yeah, so good. If this show went on past this, you'd see, like we were watching with Mike Mosley going, all the writers at the end of the year -- remember we made this in a vacuum so by the time you guys were viewing it, we had written them all -- at the end of the year, we're watching these produced episodes going, ah we found something in this guy and his relationship with Eliza (Coupe), and who he is as a character actually seems new, and it makes her seems fresh and more well-rounded.

And to put Cox in there, it might be tough to center the episodes around three misanthropes...
Naw, man, that's what the show, I think that's what the show would've ended up being.

And Lucy is a great supporting character, but right now I have not seen enough from her to justify her being the center of the show.
Well you know, we didn't find her voice. And what was interesting is, again, with it still being called Scrubs, you're with this absolute reality that the person whose voice-over is the lead of the show. We were starting to find out who she is toward the end of the year and what her strengths are, and where she really helps, because I think she's a great actress. I think the shortcomings are our mistakes that we didn't really know what made her different from J.D. right away.

At first, she seemed more of a combination of J.D. and Elliot.
Yeah, you know, and then we started to just write to a reality of hey, Arrested Development, Ron Howard was the fucking narrator, you know what I mean? And then so that, unfortunately, I think that would have evolved.

And with Cougar Town too, like you mentioned in the panel, you don't have a narrator there.
Yeah. Without a doubt. By the way, that would be like something that we all talked about as something that we couldn't just up and do once we had started this year. But there was another...

Just kind of peter it out...
Yeah, exactly You'd see it...

Are you hopeful that they're going to bring it back?
I would've told you after the first airing that it was 50/50. And then it had some really bad numbers, so I think it went to 70/30 against. And then it went up in the nationals it's slot, airing to a respectable demo number, so I'd say it's like 70/30 against I'd say it's all gonna have to be what its demo numbers are when it airs on these Wednesday nights.

Even with Donald (Faison), the way we were seeing Donald was in comparison, was in relation to Zach.
Yeah, we were playing around with old, familiar stuff that we knew was funny. We embraced this philosophy, and I think it's wrong... Well, you know what, I don't know how wrong it is. I know it's specifically wrong with huge fans, do you know what I mean? Which was, we said, we're just gonna hit people up with completely new characters that they don't know, so let's give them the comfort food of what they used to love with J.D. and Turk. But old fans that are religious watchers of the show go, we don't love old J.D. and Turk, they've changed.

And at the end of the white coats episode, that's where I started seeing Turk by himself. And it kind of translated out into the couples episode.
Well, as a writer, it was almost impossible not to escape the reality of Turk and J.D. defining each other when they're on the same show still. But that's, yeah, if I have any regrets, it would be that,when this season's over, there will have been 6 episodes of what is a new show. Not 13, because there's Zach's, and then there's 6 episodes of a new show. And I regret, I will regret it if we don't have the chance to pursue that, only because I know when I've had a clunker in my career and when I haven't. And this one was teetering on a show that had a chance to find itself right when we got to the end.

Now with Cougar Town, did it surprise you that it became this dysfunctional family instead of centering on Courteney Cox's character?
It surprised me that it's not about what I thought it was about, and that happened almost immediately, and it was really weird, you know.

Where it started for me, as a viewer, was when I was just connecting with the guy's storylines better than Courteney's storylines. Where did you see it?
I saw, I'll tell you what I saw as I equated it with the writing staff to Spin City. Because I only can talk about things that I've worked on before.

Oh you mean when you guys unfortunately had to get rid of Carla Gugino, right?
And Spin City had this element that there's this great ensemble show with all these wacky people careening off of each other, and then there's the romantic comedy with Mike and Carla Gugino, which I thought was pleasant and fun, but by its nature, it forces you to be in a two-person vacuum. And what I was doing to Courtney initially was, I'm going to put Courteney in two-person vacuum stories, ultimately with characters that we know you don't have to invest in, because they're one offs or two offs.

And so the second that you do that, I think that that person is stuck in some stories that comedically have a ceiling. And I found myself enjoying Courteney more when she got to be, exercise her own crazy and her own funny comedy with her friends, know what I mean?

And since she's been in an ensemble before, you would think that would be natural to her anyway.
Yeah, but I mean, it's not her...I sold her on a different show, initially And she was the biggest champion of, much like Mike Fox back in the day, of, you know, no slam on any actors, but man, it's so much more fun for me to be on top of my ex-husband's boat or writing a song, or dancing to a song written by my neighbor, know what I mean, or sneaking in my...than it is for me to be off, you know, having an embarrassing lunch with someone that's too young for me that's not going to be on the show next week.

The best thing I had going for me is an actress that has not only embraced with the show has evolved into, but been a champion of it. Because it's enabled her to be funnier, I think.

Almost every character has started to develop and grow at this point.
(What's) cool about having a second year is now we go back and sit around and go alright, I like the ex-husband, he cracks me up. If we aren't careful and he seems like a bad dad or he gets dumber and dumber, he'll cease to have any chance to be real for people. How do we move him forward?

Now the whole thing about Josh Hopkins' character and Brian Van Holt's character starting to pine after Courteney's character... are we going to see more of that?

Yeah, I'll tell you what I did, in this one on this week, or the week after this, I blow the Brian thing out of the water right away. Because it was just always building up towards a fun story for me, with... there's a new song, which is called "Sex with the Ex." There's no such thing as a couple that's gotten divorced that re-establish a friendship that don't accidentally fall into bed. I knew it was something I wanted to play this year.

Josh Hopkins is a longer-term thing and you can't fight it. You know, we created a show that has got a single man across the street from a single woman who are both attracted to each other. For me, what's fun is to, how do we not do what people expect?

he one character I think probably we need to hear more about is Busy (Philipps)'s character.
She's like Brian Van Holt in that people really love their comedy or they go oh, it's too much. But I just love it. She and Brian, we went after Brian first, are the last ones in line.. .and Andy, Ian Gomez... to get levels of depth beneath them. With Busy, it starts happening when there's a romantic guy in her life played by Ryan Devlin, who is the exact of who you would think she would (be with).

It seems like a quick gag right now, but it keeps going on. And he's a guy with intelligence and depth and it rounds her out as real. And that there become actual stakes in her life, and that she's moving forward and trying to change and stuff.

Which version of your wife Christa (Miller) is closer to reality, Jordan or Ellie?
This one (Ellie on Cougar Town). Jordan was just an exaggerated.. .pure evil. This is more like who my wife really is, you know, all fake edge and hard underneath, you know what I mean?

ow weird does it feel to be in January and know that you're going to get a second season on one of your shows?
Oh insanely weird, man. Totally unexpected. I thought one of my buddies that emailed me this morning was messing with me. I understand it, and I think it's a cool thing by Steve, because he's really putting a lot of oomph behind that night, but no hints, no anything. It's cool. It feels like a real opportunity. It takes the pressure off, I think, so that you don't get into this weird, sometimes dangerous vibe of chasing numbers. Hey, we have American Idol's not going to be on that week, we should get God to be on the show that week. So man, it's kinda liberating.

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Personally, I'd like to see someone put their fist through Cole's face. And in a weird way, that's a testament to how good a job the actor playing him is doing. He's making us hate that character that much.

January 17 2010 at 12:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree about Cole, turn down his obnoxiousness cause its not funny any more.

January 16 2010 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it's great that Bill gives you this kind of access. Since he might be reading, I have a couple comments:

* I was one of the biggest critics of Scrubs in its last couple of seasons, but I've enjoyed the new episodes -- with the exception of the Cole character. (I know, I know ... as someone pointed out here a few weeks ago, we're not supposed to like him, but I dislike him to the point of wanting to turn the show off.)

* I tried to watch Cougar Town once and could barely get through it. Too much Courteney Cox.

* Carla Gugino was great on Spin City! And on Karen Cisco. I guess everything happens for a reason.

January 16 2010 at 11:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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