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December 17, 2014

More With Bill Lawrence: Changing Shows Midstream, Hanging With Howard Stern and More

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 20th 2010 2:00PM
Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston in Cougar Town
Here are some outtakes from my hour-long talk with Bill Lawrence earlier this month. To go back to the main interview, click here.

On trying to find a new name for 'Cougar Town:'
We had a bunch of things that we thought were kind of good and we researched them and no one seemed to dig those either. Because now we have all this access to information. One of the things I like that Disney does is they test things like that with fan groups, people who like your shows anyways, because they have all that Disney 2000 s--t and the only one those people really liked was 'Sunshine State' and they already had a show called 'Mr. Sunshine' coming out.

Not coincidentally with Matthew Perry. So why don't we make it even more confusing?
So it's sunshine with the Friend's cast, right? And by the way, for me now it's a challenge. If I can get more people to tune into the worst titled show of all time, that's a huge win. 'How I Met Your Mother,' tough title when I first saw it, and now it's 'HIMYM' or whatever the hell it is.

But you know what though? I was talking to Carter (Bays) the other day and of course I had to ask the question, do you guys still feel penned in by the title? That question's going to come up for the life of the show, so you know, that's going to happen.
You know what? We're starting to face it head on in writing. And the first episode when Jenifer Aniston, the two things we do is the character Barb, she's going to exist in perpetuity, she makes us laugh in small doses, do you know what I mean? Small doses, whatever. Two, we're facing it head on, episode one Jen Aniston is a shrink and Courtney is talking to someone else about all the stuff that that person has helped her through. You know like "She's helped me on my past, my divorce, that weird phase last fall when I was hooking up with younger guys." All that s--t.

Might was well be self-referential. It's not the first time you've done it.
No. And I believe that right now this show is going to succeed or fail based on the title, I really don't.

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On changing the direction of a show during its first season:

This isn't the first time you put the braeks on after the first season. In 'Spin City,' everyone remembers that Michael J. Fox had a fiancee for the first half of the season and then all of a sudden he didn't.
Right.

What is it about the way that you work that allows you in the middle of the season to put the brakes on and say "Hey, this is what's working, and we're going in a totally different direction?"
I'll tell you what I believe man, which is I truly believe that every show with any level of success has done that. If you look back at even TV shows you mentioned, shows are rarely what they're like in their inception. And there are exceptions that prove the rule but I would say that shows that premiere and are chugging along, maybe not working perfectly and they don't evolve and lean in to what their strengths are, they go away.

And on the other hand, shows like 'Seinfeld' which in its original incarnation was 'The Seinfeld Chronicles,' had at least a third of the show of Jerry standing up doing a show in front of an audience. Or 'Family Ties' which its pilot episode was about these crunchy parents who had kind of right-wing kid and they played a folk song at the end of the pilot and it was all about them, and you close your eyes and a couple of episodes later it's about Michael J. Fox.

But those seem to be more subtle changes, you know what I mean? Or they transition from first season to second season or something like that.

Yeah, well I really felt with this one that it was a little bit bigger and I felt like 'Spin City' was actually kind of subtle because he had a fiancee and we were trying to wedge her into the ensemble at the office and then we just said f--k it, let's just stick with the office. So that one felt more subtle to me, but this one, it was more drastic because something that I've, I'm not sure if it's true but I rambled about it a bit to a bunch of people the other day, I think, and this sounds like I'm passing the buck but I'm not, I think what's happening in television comedy that's not always the greatest thing in the world is that people are buying the idea rather than the execution.

And what I mean by that Joel, is movies is an idea business. For a feature film, there is a hook, whether it be 'Memento,' your pitch and the idea is what matters. TV, especially TV comedy almost entirely depends on execution. There's not a lot that you guys or all of us haven't seen in television. 'Modern Family' is just an extremely well executed family comedy.

The problem is, now that there are single camera comedies and stuff, more often than not you're selling the pitch. And more often than not it would be extremely hard to sell a show. I doubt anybody except maybe Chuck Lorre could walk into a network right now and go, "What's the show?" "The show is this guy owns a bar and a bunch of people who kind of hang out at the bar and they're friends there. And then in the pilot a smarter than all of them pretentious waitress gets hired." (A show like) 'Cheers,' I don't know how it gets sold anymore.

And I went into this situation knowing that I could sell, "Hey zeitgeisty cougars, 'Cougar Town,' Courteney's a young 40, there's this double standard and she goes after younger guys." I know I'd sell that, I'm not sure if I'd sell in retrospect "It's about Couretney Cox and all her friends in her neighborhood that she spends her time with."

Right, that wouldn't have worked.
And the problem is that my first idea sells as a pilot but doesn't have legs. I didn't see it at the time, because I constantly make mistakes, but it was a structure that forced you to minimize your other regulars and force your lead to play a large number of scenes with characters that no one cares about because they're going to come and go within a matter of minutes.

Right, and I can imagine the pitch for 'Spin City' was the way I first heard about it when it came on the air, "How does a deputy mayor split time between work and home especially when -- uh-oh -- he's engaged to a reporter who works in City Hall?"
Well let's be honest, 'How I Met Your Mother' was a great pitch, but you said that they still feel prisoners to that pitch. Because I don't watch that show ever going "Oh my god, I can't wait to find out who the mother is." I watch it because it's a great ensemble comedy.

So your philosophy basically is look, we're just kind of feeling it out?
My philosophy is always you start a show, you see what's working and then you jump on it. And in this particular show, what was working was just more of a drastic departure. 'Scrubs,' I couldn't have told you at the start of 'Scrubs' what relationships were really going to drive us, but then a couple of episodes in on that show we were able to say JD and Turk as essentially a couple works because Turk's so straight it doesn't seem like we're doing homoerotic stuff. JD always wanting Dr. Cox's approval really works.

Carla and Turk as the one, really good stable relationship which we never knew, they weren't even dating in the pilot. But we put them together and people really enjoyed it as the one relationship that seems real and that it was culturally diverse and they were fine throughout the history of the show and that works.

One of the things we've always done after the first six episodes of any show that I've ever done, failure or success is take a second and go what's really working and what are people really enjoying, and what are you guys really enjoying to write? What are you leaning towards? The easiest dynamics and we go with that.

A lot of comedies and a lot of shows in general do that. Maybe because you're the most public about it too, you readily admit it. The writers for 'Happy Days' 35 years ago weren't saying "Yeah, Fonzie was the one that really hit big and that's why we concentrated on him" and the writers for 'Family Matters' weren't going in 1989 or whenever the show debuted, "Yeah, we're really going to focus on Urkel now."
Yeah, the second I saw that, I said that kid's going to be on every week, he's going to be a monster.

I think maybe the other part of it is that you're very up front about it. One of the reasons why, do you like or sometimes do you think just being honest with us about that helps the process along?
I don't know if it helps but I hope that you guys respect it. And I did this early on, I picked it when you talk to publicists and networks and in this modern culture where every one's being so careful and you're instructed to say no, that actress didn't get fired, she decided to do other projects and you're focusing on other things creatively.

I just realized early on, that none of you guys f-----g believe that. And I don't believe it, so why are we saying that? It seems like such a dumb exercise in being careful where no matter what you do, everybody knows the real deal so why don't you say the real deal? To me, it's always seems disingenuous to go "No, we really loved that aspect of the show but we kind of evolved into this other thing we liked more." No, I'd rather go "You thought it wasn't working and this stuff works."

And the 'How I Met Your Mother' guys, to bring them up again, did a good job on the press tour of sitting the press down, and saying "Hey we tried something this past season and some of it worked, some of it didn't." I don't know if they're taking a cue from you or they just decided to be forthright, I don't know, but they've been very up front about it.

I think it's tough because it's always easier when you're later in the show because I think people are so savvy now about how the business works and I know Carter and Craig are dealing with this now, you get to a certain year, maybe it's year five or year six and you go, "Here's our no win situation." If we continue to do status quo, if I were Joel Keller I would write 'Oh my god haven't we seen this 100 times?' Which you probably have, because that's TV.

If you take a big swing and try to do things completely different, I always knew that even if people don't respond to it and even if people say wow you got away from what's working and you're not staying true to the characters or we really don't like it, it's still a good thing because we can make returning to what works for your show seem fresh. So I know that those guys are int he middle of that, at least I would assume they were.

You and I used to joke that after 100 episodes (of 'Scrubs), Dr. Cox would show up and someone says, "What's he mad about this week?" And who gives a s--t? I could not care less what he's mad about this week. I don't care why Dr. Kelso's mad at him and sometimes it doesn't work and you go "Let's get way too goofy and see if people think it's funny," which we did. Other times it does work and you say things like "Hey, let's make Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso be friends because they've spent six years playing guys who hate each other and it might be pleasant and nice" and it was.

Yeah, that actually kind of worked in the last two years, the med-school year and the last year, that actually kind of worked well. It's like Tom and Jerry being friends but actually good.
Yeah, and having earned it. One guy's done and he doesn't have to be that a--hole anymore and begrudging respect. That was a nice thing to do. They did that well on 'M*A*S*H,' that's me copying again but Hawkeye and Hot Lips evolved form "Man we hate each other," to now that this show has been on for longer than the Korean War, we respect and like each other.

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On the ninth season of 'Scrubs':
When you look back at the med school season of 'Scrubs' and separate yourself out of it for a minute, looking back is it a noble experiment for a year or is it more that if "We had changed this or that we could've kept going with it?"

I think TV is about things beyond how the show is. You and I have talked about that a lot. It's about marketing and perception and what opportunity we really have and how you pull it off. Creatively from episode six on, if 'Scrubs' had never existed and I launched that show right now I could make it last for many years. Because I thought the cast was good, the jokes were funny and I thought it was a 13 episode order and I think it usually takes a show six or seven episodes to find itself.

Essentially the first six or seven episodes of that show when it was post-Zach (Braff), I think it was a great start. I would've dug another opportunity to do it. When you find out what's working and you lean into it after six episodes the writers on the show were all like "Wow Eliza (Coupe) and (Michael) Mosley are really something we haven't seen on TV before."

And Mosley has been on a lot of shows an I'm surprised, he's one of the guys you think you've seen him a lot, like he was on 'Kings' and a lot of other shows.
But he's always a hardcore drama guy but he's really a funny kind of odd kind of actor. So what would I have leaned in on that show? It would've been about a really mismatched couple of dark f---ed-up people who neither one of them has clean access to their emotions trying to survive med-school by clinging to each other. And that would've been a cool show.

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On the demise of 'Nobody's Watching':
It's been four or five years now since the whole 'Nobody's Watching' thing was getting hot. When that whole thing fell apart, were you concerned that these guys would fade into obscurity?
No, I knew they were both talented. Neither one of them has faded into obscurity really into the sense that they're back in the pack of doing pilots every year for shows that don't last. Paul Campbell was immediately a regular on 'Knight Rider' which was horrible but is a paying job, these kids need to pay their bills. Taran (Killam) not only did 'Scrubs' but would do one pilot after another. He was in a pilot this year, he was in (another) pilot. Shows that didn't get picked up. Those were two guys who didn't go from working to not working.

The thing that sucks about Hollywood is that there's so much out of your control, there are super talented people and you're never ever ever sure if they're going to get their shot to star in anything again. I'm really obsessed with 'Law and Order' is over and Jeremy Sisto was the cop on that show for the last four or five years. That dude is such a funny, interesting actor so I'm just waiting for him to be the James Rockford kind of guy. He was so good in 'Six Feet Under,' in movies. If you stopped watching 'Law and Order' you wouldn't even know he was still working. "Remember that interesting guy in 'Six Feet Under' and that movie 'Waitress'? Whatever happened to that dude?"

The show that I remember him from is that one show 'Kidnapped' where they were going to He was really good in that. He's the type of guy who's going to be getting stuff for a while. I could see him turning himself into the Lawrence Family Players.
I would kill for it. To me, he's a guy, I actually screen tested him for the few seconds I was doing 'Fletch' and he was hysterical.

As Fletch?
Yeah, believe it or not. We were reading a bunch of people and I thought he was so funny.

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On hanging out with Howard Stern:
How surreal is it be to be at a party and there's Howard Stern?
Super surreal man. It's the closest thing I've had to a moment when you're a kid and you think about what Hollywood's going to be like from all the old stories of the Rat Pack hanging around and drinking and stuff. That was the closest thing to it for me. It was surreal.

And how was he at the party? Reserved?
Great dude. Great dude, normal guy, funny, easily accessible. And I was a terrified sycophant. I had a good ten minutes with him and I thought I did so well that I hid from him the rest of the night because I didn't want to ruin it.

And Christa called into the show afterward. Was she less shy with him than you were?
Oh yeah, because she's been on the show before on the celebrity fan panel and she was on the show a bunch of times when she was doing 'Drew Carey' and stuff. And Howard likes him some pretty girls so it's easier for her. For me he's a comic icon, for her he's just some guy she listens to every morning in her car.

I stopped listening to him a couple of years ago because I was paying $12 for Eric the Midget updates and Richard and Sal looking at each other's asses. I'm one of those guys who goes back to 'Crucified by the FCC' days. So it's one of those things where...

Yeah, I grew up in KROQ country. So everyday when I was painting houses.

It's kind of tough for me. He's still doing well but it was tough for me to become immersed in the world of Howard because the post-show show it's just too easy. And I was like - I gotta break away from this.
You know what helped me? Because I did break for a while and Christa didn't because it's part of her ritual, pause a present from someone and return to Howard going to work in the morning. It's like a TV show that hasn't been on in a while, it's nice to go back to it.

It does feel like old home because I was out in LA and the rental car I had had Sirius on it and if you have it in the car you can listen to it no matter what.
That's what weird, because I like my day around the actual time.

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