Interview Date: 09/21/2010
Run Date: 09/22/2010
Once, he was the man behind “Scrubs.” Now, he’s the man behind “Cougar Town.” Bill Lawrence has been a good friend to Bullz-Eye over the years, and we’ve been digging the way he and co-creator Kevin Biegel have taken a show with what Lawrence describes as “the crappiest title of all time” and transformed it into one of the most solid ensemble comedies on television. The buzz on the series grew steadily over its first season, but never has it been higher than now, with Jennifer Aniston re-teaming with series star Courteney Cox on the season premiere. The good Mr. Lawrence took time to talk with us on the eve of “Cougar Town” returning to the airwaves, discussing the first few episodes we’ll be seeing a few storylines that may come to pass as the season progresses, and even touching briefly on the end of his beloved “Scrubs.”
Bill Lawrence: Hey, Will, how are you doing, man?
Bullz-Eye: I’m doing good, man. How are you?
BL: I’m good. Hope I didn’t leave you hanging too long.
BE: Nah. I figured, “I’ve talked to Bill before, I know his schedule. 10 minutes is just a drop in the bucket.”
BL: (Laughs) All right, cool.
BE: So, tomorrow’s the big day.
BL: Ah, there’s no big days anymore, man. I’m in “Groundhog Day.” I’ve been doing this forever.
BE: Surely there’s at least a little bit of excitement, what with all the buzz.
BL: (Long exhale) Only in the sense that…I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m all talk, so of course I’ll check on the show, but I don’t really do the ratings thing anymore after so many years, ‘cause I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like if you believe the good stuff then you’ve got to believe the bad stuff. I don’t want to sound like a cynic, but I don’t feel like there’s a huge correlation about the number you get the next day and how the show’s doing. Not anymore, anyway. I don’t think people watch TV that way.
BE: Well, I did check out the first two episodes on ABC’s media site…
BL: Oh, cool!
BE: …and I was impressed: not just a cameo, but a full-fledged guest appearance by Jennifer Aniston.
BL: Yeah, right? (Laughs) She actually showed her face! I was happy. She’s a good girl, and she’s really funny, too, man.
BE: So obviously you’d talked about her coming on the show for a long time in theory, but how quickly did it come together once you really got down to brass tacks with it?
BL: You know, the cool thing is that Courteney and Jennifer’s friendship isn’t a media fabrication. They’re great friends. And so when we talked about doing it, it really became a Courteney thing, talking to her friend, asking her if she liked the show and if she wanted to do it. Jen was really cool and amenable. It was pretty easy. The only thing that was tough about it at all, to tell you the truth, was that we realized early on that we’d love to do it as the first episode, so it became less about whether or not she wanted to do it and more about scheduling. It was just tough, because…I don’t know if you know this, Will, but Jennifer works a lot. (Laughs) We finally got it worked out, but we ended up shooting our season premiere as the fourth episode of the season, so we really had to turn it around quickly to get it on TV.
BE: Well, they definitely seem to have that familiar Monica / Rachel chemistry going on during their scenes.
BL: Yeah, but I wouldn’t even really call it a Monica / Rachel chemistry. I just think that those guys are just so funny together in real life that…I mean, yeah, you’re right, I know what you mean. They’ve just got huge chemistry. It’s very natural, and I think part of the hassle of all television is that when you do a guest star thing, more often than not, you’re gonna have actors and actresses that are supposed to be playing spouses or boyfriend and girlfriend or father and daughter, and they have no idea who each other is, and it seems fake. But these two seem tight immediately.
BE: With the title card for the first episode of Season 2 reading “(STILL) Cougar Town,” did you sigh as you put that joke up there?
BL: Nah, man. Will, I’m wearing it as a badge of courage and honor now. (Laughs) If we can make this show work with the crappiest title of all time, then it’s a huge success story. It’s really funny to me, because you can’t get away from it, you know? Because the people that watch the show know, and the people that don’t watch don’t. Like, I was watching…I don’t know if you saw, but I thought Courteney did a great job on “Kimmel” last night, and even my own network did it to me. The intro for her on the show…and Jimmy’s such a good dude, and I know him a little and think he’s a great guy…but the intro for her was, “20 years ago, she was playing a young single girl dating 20-year-old guys on ‘Friends.’ Now, 20 years later, she’s still dating 20-year-old guys.” And I’m, like, “Oh, hey, thanks. No, she’s not! She’s not, she hasn’t for six months, and she’s not gonna this year. But, yeah, thanks for that.” (Laughs)
BE: I talked to Carolyn Hennesy yesterday…
BL: Yeah? She’s cool!
BE: Yeah, she said that, obviously, she loves working on the show, but she said she’s still depressed that they never went with a storyline that had Barb showing Jules the way of the cougar.
BL: (Laughs) I think Barb is our last vestige of our old show, and she will always remain there A) because she’s funny, she comes in and hits a home run right away, and B) she’s literally the only thing that could possibly have us call the show “Cougar Town.”
BE: Between she and I, we practically wrote Barb’s back story during the course of the interview.
BL: (Laughs) Awesome! She’s talented, man, but it’s a weird thing I’ve got to police. People want to write a character like that so that everyone wants to see more of her, but if you actually do, then you blow it. But she’s so funny. It’s like having a candy bar in front of you and keeping from eating it all at once. It’s tough to resist putting her in everything.
BE: In the season premiere, the characters play something called “Movie Mash-Ups,” where you put two movie titles together, give a clue, and someone has to guess what they are. My God, how many of those must there have been left in the writer’s room?
BL: Dude, there’s hundreds. We started taping those, and we’re going to put them online and see if anybody can get them. That started as us finding an excuse to waste time. (Laughs) And we just did it for hours upon hours. It’s the stupidest thing in the world. It eventually starts to make your brain hurt.
BE: And the gang playing drinking games with wine…? Classy.
BL: I know, right? (Laughs) That shows you’re a grown-up, Will! To me, that means you’re not a kid anymore, when you graduate to playing Quarters with wine.
BE: Do you have a favorite drinking game?
BL: I used to dig…they weren’t playing it right in their game, but I used to dig Speed Quarters. And a really complicated game called Zoom Schwartz that I played in college. And beer pong. I used to do all that stuff. I still would if my wife wouldn’t scowl at me.
BE: How about Asshole? Ever play that?
BL: Oh, yeah, of course. Are you kidding?
BE: That was my game of choice.
BL: (Laughs) Nothing like a little game of Asshole.
BE: Now, you and I discussed this a little bit during the TCA tour, but could you describe for me the concept of “TV college” and how it applies to Travis?
BL: Oh, sure. Well, TV college is…look, one of the things that I think you’re always a prisoner to in TV is the trap of, “Do my kids age? Do the kids on ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ still go to high school when they’re 40? Are the doctors in ‘M*A*S*H’ still in Korea, even though the show’s lasted longer than the war?” They’re all battles that you fight in television, and I’ve always chosen to at least make attempts at people actually aging and moving forward. Sometimes it works, and with Dan, we set up that he was a senior in high school, so I was, like, “Oh, shit…” I mean, we never thought the show would last. (Laughs) And now we’re, like, “Well, he’s got to go to college.” So I joked, “Well, he’s got to go to TV college, then.” The only thing that Kevin (Biegel) and I have to lean on is that we both have roots in Florida, and there’s a cool liberal arts school in Florida that we based this college on. It’s about 20 minutes away from Sarasota, and my whole family lived in De Land, which was, like, a half-hour away from Daytona Beach Community College and is the town where Stetson was. And with the University of Florida and Rollins and all those schools, we just said, “Screw it, he can go to a school half an hour away.” It’s actually an opportunity. We were talking in the writers room about the nightmare of going to college somewhere that your parents can drop by unannounced because you’re so close, and in our world, that’s a new opportunity. So TV college is where, yeah, he’s going to college, we’ve done a story about him moving out, but he lives 20 minutes away, he can come back for food and laundry and have problems at school and have to move back. His mom and dad and friends can show up there whenever we want, and it’s more embarrassing. So that’s TV college: going off to college without leaving a TV show. (Laughs)
BE: Has Bob Finenden been upgraded to series regular?
BL: Nah. You know me, man: I like to try and sprinkle the world of the show with recognizable faces, so people gradually get to know the other folks that are around. Much like Carolyn Hennesy, he’s just a character actor who I think is a gem in the rough and just super funny. I had him on “Scrubs” a bunch, and he was actually one of the leads of this pilot that I did, “Nobody’s Watching.” He’s a guy that I like as kind of a creepy neighbor whenever we need one. (Laughs)
BE: I won’t reveal how Ellie gets Tom to mow her lawn…
BL: (Burst out laughing) Oh, God…
BE: …but it begs the question of the worst lie you’ve ever told to get someone to do something for you.
BL: Dude, it is not that bad. That one is tough. When we were talking about that, my wife (Christa Miller, who plays Ellie) was, like, “Are you sure I can sell this?” I said, “Look, we’ll write it so that it just kind of happened and you ran with it, not that you actually lied to him. That he misinterpreted.” She said, “All right, I’ll try…” But, no, I’m more of a say-the-truth-right-to-someone’s-face kind of guy. The pain of knowing there’s something out there hurts too much. But I will tell you the biggest lie that Christa and I have ever gotten caught in, and after it happened, we stopped, but…we used to hate going to wedding ceremonies, but we loved weddings, so we would always skip the church and then show up at the reception. And as soon as we saw our friends, the bride and groom, we’d also go, “Oh, it was a beautiful ceremony!” (Laughs) But, like, four weddings in, one of our friends said, “Uh, we were all talking about where you guys were, because we knew that you don’t like weddings, and…yeah, you weren’t there.” This was the bride and groom. So we had to say, “Okay, we’re sorry…”
BE: You know, it says so much about the importance of Stan (Ellie and Andy’s baby) to the show that when I watched one of the new episodes on the ABC website, it still says “INSERT BABY” instead of an actual shot of the baby.
BL: Yeah. (Laughs) Look, babies are no fun, man. It always makes me laugh, because there are very few things anymore that are a disconnect between the people who write about TV shows and the people who produce them. You guys are all so knowledge about the way production works. But one thing that still cracks me up is when I read people say things like, “You know, I still don’t understand why Ross and Rachel have a baby and we never see him. It just doesn’t seem to make sense, storywise.” Uh, the answer is that babies can work about 90 minutes a day, the second they show up on set they start screaming. They don’t necessarily want to be actors and actresses, they don’t do what you do say, and they usually cost an average of an extra 20 to 50 thousand dollars per episode in wasted time, keeping the crew there late. So it’s never, ever a creative decision. To me, I’m always finding ways that we can do an occasional kid story that justifies why you aren’t going to see the kids much. So it’s usually about “we have an amazing nanny” or “this is why we don’t tell stories about our kid.” You know what I mean?
BE: I do. And I can only presume that Greg Garcia’s going to have a ball on “Raising Hope.”
BL: Oh, my God. Good luck. (Laughs) I used to love watching shows like that, just to see when you could see when they’re using a fake baby. It’s possible there’s a scene like that in one of our upcoming episodes. See if you can find it. (Laughs)
BE: So the word’s out now about Ken Jenkins playing Jules’s dad on the show. When’s that actually happening?
BL: We start shooting the day after tomorrow.
BE: Are you psyched to work with Ken again?
BL: I am, man. You know, I love that guy. And it’s so funny: people are, like, “Aw, man, you’re bringing him back. Is he even going to be able to play someone different than Dr. Kelso?” And it’s, like, when I put Ken on “Scrubs,” it’s not like I discovered the guy! (Laughs) He’s been on Broadway, he’s been in a thousand movies, he founded the Louisville Repertory Theater…he’s amazing, but he’s been around since long before he worked with me.
BE: Speaking of “Scrubs,” you’ve got the complete-series set getting ready to hit stores.
BL: Oh, wow… (Laughs)
BE: That reaction makes me suspect that you didn’t necessarily have a hand in putting that together.
BL: You know what? Anytime anybody asks me, I always do interviews and stuff, but I never know what it’s for, and I haven’t been doing a lot lately because I’ve been doing a lot of stuff for “Cougar Town.” So I don’t know if they used any new stuff, or if it’s a bunch of stuff that I did before it wrapped.
BE: Just as a post-game wrap-up, were you happy with the ultimate ending of the show with its 9th season?
BL: Yeah, I mean…well, you and I talked about this, but I considered the 8th year to be the real end of “Scrubs,” and the 9th year…we always come back to titles, right? I talked to a lot of people, I was pushing really hard to re-title the show as two separate things. I liked the eight-year run of “Scrubs,” and I had no qualms about saying that the 9th year, which we wanted to call “Scrubs Med,” was under harsher light because it was still called “Scrubs.” But as I watched the show as a viewer a little bit…because I didn’t work on it nearly as much as I’d worked on the previous eight years, because I had another show…I compared it to any new show, and in those 13 episodes, especially once J.D. left and they got a chance to really explore the new characters, I thought it did what any new show does: it got better and better and stronger and stronger. At the end, I actually found myself as a fan really wishing that it would go forward. I especially wanted to know what was going on with Mosley’s character and Eliza Coupe’s character. I really liked that couple, and I hadn’t seen that relationship on television before: two totally dark, fucked up people really trying to make it work. I thought they did what most writers of new shows do, which is really quickly try to find what’s working and what’s funny and lean into that. So it’s been fun, man, because, you know, I’m always pretty candid, and if I thought it stunk, I’d say, “Ah, it was a swing and a miss,” but I’m having more fun right now when people are saying, “We didn’t like that,” I’m, like, “Ah, you just wanted it to still be ‘Scrubs’ because it was called ‘Scrubs,’ but it was a new show and it was better than most new shows on TV.” It should’ve gotten a better chance.
BE: Well, I must say that I’m psyched about the new season of “Cougar Town.”
BL: Thanks! I think we’re starting to get it, you know? If I can trick people, if I can convince people that it’s not about women dating and chasing younger men, I’ve got a chance.
BE: I’d think the fact that you’ve got Jennifer Aniston on the season premiere has a big chance of bringing in new people who’ve never watched it before, if only for curiosity’s sake, and then realizing, “This isn’t the show I thought it was.”
BL: With some luck…I mean, I don’t want to be a schadenfreude guy, but I gotta think that “American Idol” can’t be the same juggernaut it’s been in the past.
BE: We’ll find out tomorrow, when they formally announce the new judges.
BL: Yeah? Is it Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler? Is that the word?
BE: I think the only possible dark horse is the vague possibility that Elton John could be in the mix. Otherwise, though, yeah, it sounds like J-Lo and Steven Tyler.
BL: You know, dude, I’m not sure anybody cares. They’ve had so many famous people on that show as guest judges. For me, that show is all about Simon…and I watched it pretty religiously, to tell you the truth. So what else have you got for me, buddy? And I’m not rushing you off. I’ll waste as much time with you as you need.
BE: (Laughs) Just a couple more Season 2 questions to close. Are we looking to see Jules and Grayson pretty much stick it out as a couple for the whole season?
BL: Well, I’m a TV guy who’s, like, if it’s working and it’s making those guys funny… (Trails off) It’s a little against what shows do, so it makes me happy that it’s not the traditional road, you know? I’ll tell you a couple of things that are kinda spoilers. I don’t like everybody being in stable relationships, so I’m sure that means that I’ll muck up one of ‘em…and it looks like it’s gonna be Busy (Phillips) and Smith. I’ll screw those guys up.
BE: I was going to ask, because I know he pops up at least briefly in one of those first two episodes. So he’s clearly still there.
BL: Yeah, but I like her back as a single person, even if he stays in the world a little bit and in our group of characters. And our tightrope to walk is that you’ve got to make sure that…like, I think Courteney’s really funny playing the romantic comedy of it all, but I’ve got to make sure that the show doesn’t become all about that, and that Grayson doesn’t become a wuss as a result. I want to make sure he stays an edgy, dark, emotionally distant, dicky kind of guy. If we can do that, I think it’ll be a fun thing to do. You know what I want to do. I want to make sure I’m not doing the “will they or won’t they.” The one thing I’m going to try to do, even though I’ve never been successful at it, is that if it ever really does come to an end, that’ll be the end.
BE: Are you toying with the idea of hooking Bobby up with someone on at least a semi-regular basis?
BL: Only because the actor will not stop complaining about it. (Laughs) He’s a good guy, Brian, and he’s single, so he’s, like, “Hey, that’s great, I’m the single guy. I haven’t gotten one girlfriend on the show. Thanks a lot, Bill.”
BE: Any other guest stars lined up?
BL: You know, right now, it’s just Jennifer and Ken. But if I do more, I’ll tell you. I’d love to get some “Scrubs” folk on here, though.
BE: Because all I’m saying is, Ausiello gets everything. Just once, I’d like to get an exclusive.
BL: I’ll give you the next one, dude. I’ve got a show coming up, and…we won’t talk before then, I know, but we’ve got an episode coming up where we’re trying to cast someone cool. I’ll give you a buzz about it as soon as we do.
BE: You would be my hero.
BL: (Laughs) No problem.
BE: Okay, Bill, good talking to you again.
BL: Will, a pleasure as always. Hey, anything I should be watching this year?
BE: Yeah, I’ll tell you, you…and a bunch of other people…need to start watching Fox’s “Lone Star,” because it premiered last night, and the ratings apparently sucked. But it’s my favorite drama of the new season.
BL: You really liked it, huh? That’s the one about the con-man, right?
BL: I’ll check it out, man. I TiVo’ed “Hawaii Five-0,” just because I’ve been liking Scott Caan lately, but I haven’t watched it yet.
BE: It’s big, bright fun.BL: It’s take-a-breath TV, right? Have a beer and watch a show. (Laughs) All right, buddy, have a good one. If you’ve got any follow-ups, give me a call!