Bill Lawrence on 'Cougar Town,' Jennifer Aniston and Character Names
by Joel Keller, posted Sep 20th 2010 2:00PM
How do you get your people to see a show with a lousy title? Casting Jennifer Aniston in your second season premiere helps. Bill Lawrence, co-creator of 'Cougar Town' (returning Wednesday, September 22 at 9:30PM ET on ABC) knows Aniston's drawing power, which is why the placement of her much-anticipated reunion with her former 'Friends' co-star Courteney Cox is not just a coincidence.
"If I just did a normal episode, ABC's priorities would be launching 'Modern Family' and launching their new shows," he told me earlier this month. "And if I got Jennifer Aniston to be in the first one, I knew they would have, and it without a doubt happened, that they would respond with financial backing for the launch."
In the usual wide-ranging interview with the gregarious Lawrence, I asked him about Aniston, who plays the new therapist of Cox's character Jules Cobb, and what he thinks her next career move might be. We also talked about some upcoming plots and storylines for 'Cougar Town''s second season. And we conclude by having a discussion about character names, especially where the last name of Busy Philipps' character came from.
If you really want to geek out, click here for some outtakes from my hour-long conversation with Bill. We talk about changing shows during their first seasons, hanging with Howard Stern, and more.
How do you think ABC is going to try to convince people that despite the title or despite what the first half of last season was about, that the show is this kind of show now?
In reality, if we do the same thing we did last year the show is going to be on for five, six years but I would just like it to be a better situation. So start by saying what I really hope to accomplish doesn't seem insurmountable because I get these giant ratings breakdowns and for me it's basically a blanket comparison between what we did before 'American Idol' came on and what we did after. And what am I hoping first and foremost? That we go back with Jen Aniston to what we were doing before 'American Idol' came on. And with Simon gone, that show takes a bit of a header and can't devour everybody anymore.
One of the messages that ABC has seen there is in my efforts, my thwarted efforts a little bit, to change the title, a lot of that message when it was out and about was that we're trying to do so because the title doesn't suit the show. The only thing I've asked ABC to do and we'll see if it'll work is lean into the turn a little bit and embrace how bad of a title it is.
And I rarely write promos, I used to all the time for 'Spin City' and 'Scrubs' but we wrote one for them; they were thinking of putting together one of those review promos because we had a lot of nice reviews at the end of last year and luckily one of them said "Amazing show, possibly the worst title of all time." And I was like, you gotta close with that one. You have to have somebody saying that and then cut to a shot of Courteney saying, "'Cougar Town,' what are you gonna do?"
Why did ABC decide to stick with the title?
Because, and I agree with them, there's three factors, one, we didn't come up with a good other one -- other than 'The Courteney Cox Show' which she didn't love because it seemed like it could be interpreted as a vanity move by some people -- that we never had anything that anybody thought was brilliant. Two, this show does a nice pop on DVRs and you would have to reprogram them if you changed the title in any way shape or form.
And three, they did the research and no one really seems to, there are still a group of people that think this show is one thing and not the other but no one seems to really give a s--t as to "would you like it more if the title was different?" Because you can't escape the fact that whether not you're trying to convince viewers 'Cougar Town' isn't what you expect it and it's funny, check it out or "Hey, that show that used to be called 'Cougar Town' is now called this new titled show to trick you, check it out." Those aren't that different.
Well, it's happened before, people forget 'The Ellen Show' used to be called 'These Friends of Mine.' It's not like ABC especially hasn't done it before.
'Seinfeld' was 'The Seinfeld Chronicles' but I think at that time only two big arguments for me were DVR which I get and plus the perception that this show is failing a little bit because those shows were in different stead. And secondly, if I had a great f-----g title for this show I would've just said "Come on guys, suck it up, let's do it."
Let's talk about Jennifer Aniston for second. Did you figure you'd try to get her on at some point at the season and then it just worked out for the first episode?
I'm not a huge believer in stunt casting normally because I feel like it takes your show a little bit out of its element and a lot of times you'll see TV shows with stunt casting that don't feel like a normal episode of the show. That being said, there are certain people when we're talking about the burden this show has, that I do actually believe bring eyes and it's almost this self fulfilling prophecy. So let's talk the business side first.
Business-wise I knew coming into this year that if I just did a normal episode, ABC's priorities would be launching 'Modern Family' and launching their new shows. And if I got Jennifer Aniston to be in the first one, I knew they would have, and it without a doubt happened, that they would respond with financial backing for the launch.
Creatively it didn't bother me because unlike bringing just a big famous person that you don't know how to deal with on a show, Jennifer and Courteney have this ages-long friendship and ages-long working relationship that we all knew they'd have chemistry that we knew would be easy to write scenes for them, we knew that they'd click and be funny and they were.
For us it just became a burden of how can we have Jennifer Aniston on this show and have it be a typical episode of 'Cougar Town.' So no one feels bait and switched and we were able to do that because all Jen cared about was coming on and being able to do funny stuff with Courteney and she didn't care about coming on because she's not high-maintenance, she's actually insanely easy to work with. She didn't care about coming on and being served and having a huge dramatic story about her, all she wanted to do was come and have fun with Court and be funny
Obviously Jennifer is a huge star but the performance of her movies has been mixed. If you could write a TV series you think she would go for at this point, do you think TV is in her future at all?
I'll tell you what I think -- it's a two-pronged answer. I feel like actors and actresses are either good or bad, funny or not funny, so I'm super shocked when a movie comes out and it says "Wow, this Jennifer Aniston movie didn't work" and the few of those that I've heard that and seen them, I've never ever ever once gone "Wow, if that was somebody other than Jennifer Aniston playing that part that movie would have made hundreds of millions of dollars." I usually go "That's too bad that movie wasn't that well-written and wasn't that well-directed." You know what I mean?
I really feel like blaming an actor or an actress, except in a rare occasion, for a movie not working is like blaming the manager when his entire team strikes out every time they're up. Maybe there's rare occasions when the manager makes a mistake or where they didn't do something right, but I find Jen to be comedically talented actress.
I'll tell you right now as a guy, I'm not saying this out of friendship, I mean I like her, but as a guy that has spent every single year when he's created a TV show searching for an attractive... every TV show is always searching for that cute attractive girl that can turn a joke and she's just a stud with that..
First thing I'd do is just write a good f-----g movie and put her in it because people are really just kind of out to get her which I don't generally understand. It seems like there's almost a media glee if she's in something that doesn't work. Like even, I had to read stupid articles that said even though 'The Switch' made eight million bucks and it was suddenly launched as a big movie, even though I had been working on booking Jen just out of friendship for months, there were hundreds of articles about "'The Switch' fails so Jenn runs back to TV." Oh please, that's so stupid.
Also I think it was more of a Jason Bateman movie than a Jennifer Aniston movie.
No s--t. And he didn't take the hit.
Well what I'm saying though is, could you see her coming back to TV at some point?
I could see Jen coming back to television only in the sense that she enjoys working and I think that she, sometimes traveling all the time and kind of being a bit of a gypsy is a tough life and because she's awesome at it and could be creatively involved and do whatever the hell she wanted, I think that would have some appeal, but I would be shocked if she didn't stay in the movie business hardcore for at least the very near future of her life. I know she's running off again to do another big movie, like a Judd Apatow project which is supposed to be really funny. So for me, I don't see that in her near future.
So what are we going to see coming up in the next, what kind of stuff can you talk to me about? Upcoming episodes? Upcoming guests, upcoming plots?
I hired Ken Jenkins this morning to play Courteney's father. I work with the same twenty actors Joel, you know that.
Exactly. That's cool because we haven't seen much of her family at all in this.
No, and I think to me what was fun was casting somebody that would be in the world a little bit and poke his head around and he's just a great actor.
Will this be a little bit different than what we saw him do playing Dr. Kelso on 'Scrubs?'
Oh without a doubt. Ken's a Kentucky guy and we're playing Courtney's dad as sort of a Southern good ole boy and Ken will actually be able to play more of what he's actually like. Rather than playing some weird fucking psychotic doctor. That guy's a great character actor, dramatic actor, Broadway guy long before I met him.
With regards to some of the plots that we kind of left off on at the end of last year, what can you say about some of them being picked up? Like Jules and Grayson?
Yeah, they're together. We're keeping it going. To me, that's an angle on this show that feels a little different. A lot of people were really nice about it. It seemed like we were going to stretch that out like every other TV show does for a year and then break them up and get them back together. They're just together and they will be for as long as it works and it's just been really funny so far.
And to me, this evolved into a Courteney Cox-led ensemble comedy that's based on how we kind of wile away our hours and the more claustrophobic the better, because that's what suburban life was like for me as a kid. My parents in a small town and the same twelve people every weekend kind of circling around each other. I think we'll keep that wedding.
When did you hit on that vibe? At what point in the season did you guys sit down and say "I like it when these people get together in the kitchen?"
Two shows -- one was we did this barbecue show that Jules was trying to spend a day alone and everyone ended up kind of migrating to her house because she didn't like being alone and Grayson was playing songs with his guitar and people were drinking beers and hanging out outside, that was early on. I think it was the fifth one and it was easy to write, because it's not as plotty as TV shows generally are and you fill up the spaces with funny, real familiar moments of how people wile away the days together which is what a lot of us do.
We went from that show to another episode that was incredibly hard to write because it didn't have that, and that was the first step because those were episodes six and seven and then the eighth episode that year was the Thanksgiving one, where it was again, let's just put everybody together, the guys playing basketball, 'Top Gun' style, Travis is upstairs thinking about whether or not he's going to have sex with his high school girlfriend and Jules is making a meal, and it was so easy to write again.
It was such a family show right after that show we put the brakes on and threw out a bunch of scripts and said "Alright here's the skinny: 'Modern Family's crushing, it's easier for us to write this stuff, we have to view this as a big dysfunctional family in itself and throw away any of these other episodes that are about her out seeking this guy and day players."
The other big aspect this season is that Dan Byrd's character Travis is going to college.
He's going to TV college. But one of the things I like man, and we are using it based on fact because (co-creator) Kevin (Biegel) and I both have Florida roots and a bunch of my cousins went to Daytona Community College which is 25 minutes away and Kevin was in Sarasota, this is based on a college right there in town but we're not allowed to use their name because of Disney and lawsuits and stuff.
For us we went "Look, if we keep him close we can really quickly establish his dorm room as a set, his roommate as a character which helps us broaden our horizons a little bit." He can be home whenever the hell we want him to without explanation and people can show up to see him and embarrass the s--t out of him at college.
One of the early episodes which happened to me in real life, well not with my dad but with my cousin from Florida, is that Bobby shows up to say "Hey," but he's having a good time and he won't leave. To us, rather than be a burden it's broadened us out to some other characters. The guy that played Tinker on 'Friday Night Lights' is Travis' roommate and for me this is the first show, mostly since I've done a domestic show that hasn't been culturally diverse. Which is kind of a bummer. Ian Gomez is Latino but I feel in an incredibly un-PC way, that aside from naming him Torres, I would have to tell people that. So for Travis to have a black roommate and kind of be out in the world a little bit is a good thing for us.
And of course it allows you to use the Culver City campus that looks suspiciously like the med school from 'Scrubs.' I don't know how you guys pulled that off.
You're always one step ahead of me. It's the key to production - never venture more than 100 yards away from your office.
I talked to Josh (Hopkins) a little bit at the ABC party, and first of all he was nervous when he was dueting with Sheryl Crow, but I think he said he'd like to see her come back, would you like it if she came back?
I would do anything like that. You know me, you were one of the only guys that cracked it and wrote about it, I do this friends of the family thing which is basically - look, if you're going to hire an actor that does one or two lines, hire someone that needs the work and help break their career. But if you're going to have someone on that's going to do something more than that, bring someone that you want to hang out with anyways because life's too short.
She's got an active other career, I wouldn't be surprised if you see some other 'Scrubs' people if I can ever do that just because I love working with them so much.
What other 'Scrubs' people? Anybody that you can mention or no?
I haven't slated anything yet. I would kill to have anybody on the show except for the people who could probably never do it right now is Sarah Chalke and Neil Flynn because they both have ABC shows, well CBS ABC.
Speaking of former members of the Lawrence Family Players, how are you feeling about Taran Killam getting on 'SNL?'
Oh, so happy man. So deserved, and it is his wheel house. We know him so well, he's such a good improv comic and sketch comic and one of the other things those guys are going to like is that we did this webisode with him on 'Scrubs.' He is the master of obscure impressions that no one does. Paul Giamatti, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I would be shocked if he didn't thrive there.
A couple more things and then I'll let you go. Are we going to see more of the bromance between Ian Gomez (as Andy) and Brian Van Holt (as Bobby) develop?
Oh, without a doubt. More of that, anything that you saw working, one of the thing that's really working on this show too is inventing ridiculous games. Because then we get emails from thousands of people who are playing them as drinking games. We have a new one that I think is going to sweep the nation in the pilot, I mean the first episode and you're going to be obsessed with it.
Any new songs for Josh?
Without a doubt.
I think he was telling me about a new song that he was doing. Anything you can tell me it might be about?
I can't remember the title but there are a bunch of new songs. And I'll give you something else that no one knows that is funny for our show, Courteney turns Travis' old bedroom into a "jam room." Jimmy Kimmel had a barbecue, it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. This is going to sound really Hollywood-y, but he had a barbecue for Howard Stern and my wife (Christa Miller) and I went, Courteney went.
And when we went Jimmy Kimmel, even though he doesn't play an instrument, has a jam room in his house and his dream is for people to just go in there and start playing music. And at this particular party it was horrible music but everyone was playing, hanging out in there while Howard and John Stamos, various other people were trying to struggle their way through songs, it was hysterical.
I think that's it but if I have any other questions I'll let you know.
Yeah man, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled if we see any of Laurie's relatives, her dad or a cousin, I'll have to call you for permission but he'll definitely be named Joel.
OK then, let's get this out in the open, about the name of Busy Philipps' character, Laurie Keller. You and I have emailed and talked about this little bit, but you have a habit of naming characters after people you know so when it was time to give Laurie a last name, who were you thinking of when you gave her that name?
Oh, without a doubt, Joel, come on. It just went right to Joel Keller, easy. Without a doubt, one of the things, I can't name characters. It's impossible for me, so I do it, and by the way, what's important to note as I never do it hoping I'm going to get anything out of it because more often than not people end up annoyed. So I didn't know how this was going to fly with you, being like hey this is going to be you're kind of slutty, white-trashy sister. But luckily you didn't torture me for it.
I know you were talking with Variety or somebody was doing an article about naming characters after real people.
Yeah they were doing an article, and by the way I mentioned you and instead they did the Ken Tucker one.
Well that's a more interesting story, because those writers named a murderer after him. You name regular characters after people. Every show you have has a Randall Winston [one of Lawrence's producers] so I'm sure Randall's happy about that.
When you do that with TV shows, the world becomes a little smaller, And people kind of know, I think people like 'Scrubs' they knew there was a real JD floating around out there. It seems less fake and you're always going to win Joel because no one would believe a character name like Alan Sepinwall? It sounds like a made-up comedy writer's name.
I'm looking forward to what names are in there this year, whether it's critics' names or writers' names or people on your staff. The one name I noticed that doesn't get name checked is, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't see a Christa or Christa Miller anywhere.
No, no. I'm not doing that s--t. It's already weird enough that we work together and live together at the same time.
So that's one place you're not going to go with the names?
No, you can't get there.
How about your kids? Would you insert your kids names in there?
No but if you noticed on 'Scrubs' and I started on this show, I always give them a background moment. Once in the series of the show and I gave my daughter one already this year. I think Christa there's a scene in the first episode this year is in a coffee shop and she says "Is it wrong for me to want that chick's ass?" and we reveal my daughter and Courtney says "Well only because she's nine."
Oh that's cute. And then of course in 'Cougar Town,' 'Scrubs' is playing re-runs in the background. Which I thought was pretty funny.
A little self-indulgent.
It's easy to get clearances on that though.
It came about truly because when you're in that situation, anything, what else can we do? Because it's almost impossible nowadays. You can't even say brand names.
It made for a fun inside joke. But it also establishes the fact that they're not the same universe, we're not going to see Dr. Cox.
No JD , no Elliot, if those guys come on they'll be different people.