I interviewed “Undateable” executive producer Bill Lawrence and Adam Sztykiel at a noisy bar in Pasadena shortly before a press conference in mid-April.
Going back and transcribing the 35-minute interview is bittersweet.
At the time, Lawrence had two shows in limbo — TBS' “Cougar Town” and FOX's newly premiered “Surviving Jack,” which he EPed along with creators Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. While Lawrence wasn't directly involved with “Enlisted,” he has a close relationship with “Enlisted” and “Cougar Town” creator Kevin Biegel, whose comedy was newly shelved.
Since that time, “Enlisted” and “Surviving Jack” were both cancelled. “Cougar Town” was renewed for a final season on TBS.
At the time, Lawrence also wasn't feeling especially confident about “Undateable.” The multi-cam sitcom, which features Chris D'Elia as seemingly cocksure ladies man Danny, who mentors the less confident Justin (Brent Morin) and his group of allegedly “undateable” friends.
“Undateable” had been announced for NBC's 2013-2014 slate at the May 2013 upfronts and went without a premiere date until spring. And when a premiere date was slated, NBC gave “Undateable” a launch on May 29, after the conclusion of the season. The network also announced plans to double-pump the comedy, airing two episodes per week.
Normally, that would be a sign of pessimism, but just because Lawrence wasn't confident doesn't mean he lacked confidence. A network veteran who burst onto the scene as a wunderkind on “Spin City,” had a huge hit with “Scrubs” and has most recently been shepherding a series of protégées including Biegel, Halpern and Sztykiel, Lawrence has watched the TV business shift and watched the business of TV comedy shift and he's never been shy when it comes to holding court on Small Screen State of Affairs.
In this wide-ranging interview, Lawrence and Sztykiel talk about why they're not discouraged about “Undateable,” why they think the show is special and why they think the cast is special. They also talk about TV ratings, the eternal battle between multi-cam and single-cam comedy and other industry shifts.
It's a huge interview — 6200 words of transcribing — but I think it's a good one… [And remember the timing of the interview as it relates to “Cougar Town,” “Surviving Jack” and “Enlisted.” Lawrence was hopeful on all three shows. Oh well…]
HitFix: There was the whole long period with the show not having a premiere date at all. Give me your immediate reaction when you heard the premiere date and its airing pattern. And then give me your current take on it.
Bill Lawrence: The message was presented to me really well. Look man, when the show was picked up, there's no way that anybody's got me on tape going, “Hey, I hope it premieres on May 29.” But NBC and Warner Brothers were pretty supportive of the show and spent a lot of dough, so when Bob [Greenblatt] called us about this, he presented the message correctly, so I didn't get to have two reactions. He said, “Before we figure this out, let's talk about the landscape.” He said, “Let's talk about what comedy is like for us on Thursday nights.” He said quiet honestly — and he should be happy that the shows on Tuesday night are working — and he said, “So for us, the options right now are Thursday night, where shows we really like and believe in don't have one doing a 1 [rating in the 18-49 demo] and Wednesday night from 8 to 9, trying to launch you with with two weeks.” And the biggest issue right now in television is awareness. I'm doing this show with Justin [Halperin] on FOX and I saw the premiere ratings and saw a 1.3 and I was like, “Aw, s***” and then I heard from the FOX people, they're like, “Hey, you're our second highest scripted show on television.” I'm like, “What?!?”
HitFix: Most-watched live-action comedy on FOX!
Bill Lawrence: And we've gotten to the place where our show went from a 1.3 to a 1.2 the next week, “Idol” dropped 0.2 and we only dropped 0.1, and it's like a victory in the company, which is insane. So in that landscape, it didn't totally dampen my initial reaction, which was, “Oh f***ing summer!” But Bob, early on said, “I promise you NBC will do the most original material this summer.” I think NBC's gonna win the summer because they're gonna try and win the year and I think they've got a shot right now. And the bar is so low, man. I know that if we can get a 1.1 as a multi-cam in the summer, our show's gonna be on again, which is insane. That's just the new landscape. The one thing I really don't like, and I don't see any way around, I never liked to be double-pumped. It worked for “Scrubs” when it was on NBC in the seventh or the sixth year, one of the years I thought it was gonna be over. By the fourth week, the second episode went up from the first and so it made us look good.
So I talked to NBC about it and they're like, “Look, if we had literally anything else to put with you, we would do so.” You do this for a living. They just don't. So what do I think's gonna happen? Because we have a way to promote this since we have four comics so we're ahead of the curve, in the end we chose “time,” having the time to launch it. I think we have a real chance to put in enough of a number that the show will continue to exist.
HitFix: If I'm watching this and I'm assuming that you [Bill] are Danny [the Chris D'Elia character] and you [Adam] are Justin [the Brent Morin character] how close is my impression?
Adam Sztykiel: I think some people would say that you're pretty close. I don't sing, though.
Bill Lawrence: I think the biggest thing is that you'll see that Chris is Danny and and Brent is Justin. One part of this show that came through from pitch to the end was Adam and I pitched that multi-camera shows, when you audition them now, some actors haven't even done multi-camera before. Bianca's done it before, so she's on the show. Comics know how to vibe off an audience. We don't use fakes laughs. We use a live audience. You used to have a whole year to establish cast chemistry and now after two weeks they'll go, “Cast doesn't seem to have chemistry.” You're like, “They've known each other for 13 days, dude. Gimme a break.” So part of our pitch, believe it or not, is we wanted to cast people who are friends otherwise and see if it actually shows through. Bianca and Chris have known each other for 10 years. Chris D'Elia is Brent's mentor in standup. Brent met him when he was 19 and Chris got him into all the clubs and through all the doors. Brent and Rick Glassman live together. They all tour with Ron Funches. We made the pilot and NBC was like, “We really love the cast chemistry.” I'm like, “That's weird. I wonder how that happened.” So Chris and Brent, you'll see, are that way in real life. Chris tortures Brent.
Adam Sztykiel: We cast Brent first, because Chris was still on “Whitney” and unavailable. So for a few days, Brent was sorta marching around with Chris saying, “We're equals now, Chris. I've gotta TV show. You've gotta TV show. We're the same guy.” And then two days later, “Whitney” went away and we cast Chris, so immediately Chris went, “Well, now it's my show, Brent.”
Bill Lawrence: Right. “Remember your TV show? It's my show now.” And the best part was right then, we were at the Laugh Factory and Chris is pretty popular and a girl came up to him says, “Chris, can I get a picture with you?” and he's like, “Sure, sure. Brent. Take this picture of us.” And that's their dynamic in real life. They torture each other.
HitFix: How frequently does a script just say, “Chris does… something.”
Bill Lawrence: Tell the truth, because I had to be honest about “Scrubs.” Tell him what the second pass is like.
Adam Sztykiel: “Do whatever you want.” Every time. I would say that well over 50 percent of the takes we ended up using in the show are the “Do whatever you want” takes. Those guys, what they can come up with off-the-cuff, on-the-spot, just because they know each other's rhythms and stuff so well…
Bill Lawrence: They're used to Ron Funches sounding like a space alien.
Adam Sztykiel: And Rick's insane ramblings.
Bill Lawrence: The only weird thing, and the network wasn't ready for it at first, was that at the live tapings, second pass, they'll go so far away from what they're doing and they don't really care about the audience. They care about the audience laughing, but they'll stop in the middle of a scene that they're supposed to be lost in and Chris or Brent will be like, “Hey Adam, Bill… How do we say something that makes this kinda what the scene's supposed to be about?” And this is literally while the cameras are rolling and executives sprint back and forth going, “I don't think that people…” and I'm like, “It's gonna be fine.”
Adam Sztykiel: “It'll all make sense.”
Bill Lawrence: Or it won't.
HitFix: Which things have you found are Chris' go-to moves? I've watched five episodes and I can already pick out a few of them…
Adam Sztykiel: Chris and Brent both have this skill which I love to see, especially on multi-cam, is they can do these monologues where it's not traditional set-up/joke, set-up/joke. It's sometimes half-a-page.
Bill Lawrence: Chris does things in one breath like no one I've ever seen other than like Sarah Chalke or John C. McGinley.
Adam Sztykiel: Yeah, fast-talking. And Brent, we write a lot of singing for Brent, just because he has a tremendous voice and I think I'm jealous.
Bill Lawrence: There was an episode we sent out that I think was the most proud of them ever, because even if the show doesn't work, the audience really was laughing and we had to cut tons of time out. There's this episode about a sexual move on a piece of paper. Chris, in front of an audience, he made up that he learned the move in Italy, so that you had to apologize to a piece of paper in an Italian voice. And the scene, we hadn't written any of the stuff. There were people from the studio, these actors were speaking Italian and they're looking through the script and they're like, “What the heck?” [WBTV Chief] Peter Roth, who's great, he's like, “What the hell is going on?” We're like, “Don't worry about it!” That, to me, is what multi-camera comedy used to feel like.
Adam Sztykiel: Later, this is what we're talking about with the cast, is that then three scenes later, we're on a “Do whatever you want” pass and David Fynn, who plays Brett the bartender, says as an aside, “Hey, if you guys can get me to singing… If you can get there, great…” And, sure enough, Chris says, in his Italian accent, “You have to sing to the move” and David starts opera-singing in Italian.
Bill Lawrence: The danger is at 11 o'clock, because I'm old, I'll have to leave and go, “There's eight jokes we haven't done… Please make something up on-stage.” I can't tell if any show's gonna work anymore, man. This show made me laugh when I was watching it and it feels throwback-y, like “Cheers.” And I guess I've seen a lot of comedies that just don't have hard laughs lately and I really respect that Adam and these guys are doing shows with hard laughs.
HitFix: Most of these characters, in terms of their awkwardness, go right up to the edge of being sociopaths, but they don't necessarily go over that line. Do they sometimes go over that edge when you let them go off on their own? Is it sometimes hard to keep them on the “Still relatable” side of the line?
Adam Sztykiel: No, truthfully, especially as we got into more and more episodes, their voices are so distinct…
Bill Lawrence: But you have to service his question in the sense that the one thing that NBC's great at… How many calls did we get from Bob Greenblatt saying, “Hey, you know that thing where Chris acts out Russian mobsters killing…”
Adam Sztykiel: Sure. OK. Yes…
Bill Lawrence: We turned in a cut and Chris was talking about Brent's character blowing it with Briga Heelan's character and he suddenly starts miming with his finger — He does a great Russian accent — Russian mobsters coming and killing the metaphorical concept of him having a girlfriend. It went on for the better part of two minutes. It was, “You leave girl there…” I can't even do it. And it made us laugh.
Adam Sztykiel: They threw the imaginary person off of a cliff and then the car alarm went off.
Bill Lawrence: And then the car backed over somebody. And we laughed every time we saw. We turned it into NBC and then a couple weeks later we got a call, “Hey, Bob likes all the episodes. That gangster thing has to go.”
Adam Sztykiel: You're right. There was always one time per show.
Bill Lawrence: One time per show that they'd go, “I think that probably is too insane.” Like when Chris is acting like a young woman going [He makes a noise I couldn't describe if I wanted to] you can only do that for five seconds instead of a minute-and-a-half.
HitFix: I wasn't sure with the Rick Glassman character, Burski. He seems like the kind of guy who can go from funny to funny-scary to just-scary.
Bill Lawrence: Without a doubt. He's making up 90 percent of the stuff he says, too. He's an awkward comic.
Adam Sztykiel: Have you ever seen Rick's standup? I don't know if it's online, but it's fascinating, because it dwells in the discomfort.
Bill Lawrence: It's very Andy Kaufman-esque. People either enjoy it or get very angry about it.
Adam Sztykiel: I've seen audiences fall out of their chairs laughing. I've seen him perform to dead silence for 10 minutes.
Bill Lawrence: We were in a theater of a 1000 people and he started with a big crowd and he just goes, “Hey, where you from? Where you from?” And he never makes eye-contact with anybody. “Where you from? You in the hat. Somebody talk. Where you from?” Some people are laughing and some are getting furious and someone'll be like, “Uhhh… Dallas?” “Not you. I'm not talking to you. Where you from?”
Adam Sztykiel: “What's your name? What's your name?” And someone just out of the discomfort will go, “Mark” and he'll go, “Ah, never mind. I needed a Ryan.”
Bill Lawrence: But he's that dude.
HitFix: How do you harness that? How do you make use of that in this format?
Adam Sztykiel: It's challenging but, again, he's playing a character, so you're always guided by “This is this guy's MO” and the one thing that they have crossover is that they don't have a problem existing in an uncomfortable situation and that's one thing that I think you can generate comedy from and still make it not sociopathic, make it relatable.
Bill Lawrence: The value of it is somebody who occasionally crushes with a live audience, but occasionally bombs, is that of all the actors, you can literally say, “Will you go do this, even though it might not work?” “Yeah. Sure. I don't care. I get booed two nights a week. I don't give a s***.” When so many people are careful about not wanting to put themselves in embarrassing situations or at risk, it's a great thing.
HitFix: How important is it to have the characters call each other on their moments of bulls***? Because there's another show that just premiered. It'll go unnamed. On ABC. And it's about a bunch of people at a bar and they're all trying to get laid and nobody on that show has any awareness that they're all vaguely disgusting. Whereas on your show, I feel like whenever somebody goes over that line, they know.
Adam Sztykiel: I would say that one of my favorite things about our show, and it stems from the fact that these guys are friends, is that they can call each other on the bulls***.
Bill Lawrence: There are two things that are pet peeves of mine. One is when TV characters don't know they're telling jokes. Know what I mean? I've always liked it when I think TV characters know when they're being funny. I've been on shows as a young writer where people say to the cast, “No, don't laugh at that.” And they look at me and I'm like, “Hey, if someone says something that's funny and you laugh, people love that s***.” On our show, there's a lot of takes of people laughing and they're laughing because they've just heard a line that was said for the first time. It's funny. It's giving one of their friends s*** and that's all they do all day anyway. After every rehearsal and every show night, that group goes to… What's that horrible place in the Valley? Du-Pars? And they do the same thing. The only thing we're trying to fight is Warner Brothers bought the title “Undateable” and we aren't really doing a ton of dating episodes. It's like “Cougar Town” again.
HitFix: I was just gonna ask when you last liked the title of one of your shows.
Bill Lawrence: Well it's his fault. They liked the title, right? And I said, “What's a pitch for this?” and his pitch when we went around to the networks, he said, “Every young man and woman goes through an undateable time in their life. Most of us get out of it. But it's always either because of your social awkwardness or your economic situation or how you look in that moment.” So we all brought pictures of our most undateable stages. Like I was trying so hard when I left Connecticut, to be cool. I had white peroxided hair and earrings. I looked like a guy from Connecticut with white peroxided hair and earrings. And then Adam said, “This is a show about, for whatever reason, a group of friends that hasn't gotten out of that rut.” Not as a show about people dating. One of our fighting elements — well, not “fighting” — is we'll get promotional ideas from the network will be like, “How 'bout the guys give dating advice?” And we're like, “Have you watched the shows? We hooked the main two characters up and we haven't really done any dating episodes.” It's more par for the course, we always blow up the titles. It's a good title, though.
Adam Sztykiel: You had such a good run with “Spin City” and “Scrubs.” Those are great titles, man. It had to even out.
Bill Lawrence: It's another show that was almost retitled.
HitFix: And I know “Surviving Jack” was another title that had to be workshopped into being.
Bill Lawrence: It never ends, man. I've got a good title for something now that I literally started so excited just because I'm like, “This is a pretty good title!”
Adam Sztykiel: You're gonna back into the show?
Bill Lawrence: I'm gonna back into the show from a title that I don't think I'll have to change 10 times.
HitFix: And the first thing the network will tell you when you bring it to them is…
Bill Lawrence: You need a new title!
HitFix: Now you mentioned Briga and… that's unfair. She pops up in the first episode and I hadn't realized she was going to be in it at all and I was all happy, but all I could think was, “Well, she's not going to be here forever, because she has to go to 'Ground Floor.'”
Bill Lawrence: Here's my plan! I've got a plan! Here's what happened: I loved her on “Cougar Town.” We put her on “Ground Floor.” Before we knew that “Ground Floor” was gonna survive, we shot her in this pilot. When we heard “Ground Floor” was picked up, we shot this pilot again with another person who was talented, but we're like, “Hey, this is not as a good as Briga.” So we shot it a third time with Briga, just her scenes. I have such a great relationship with the guy who runs Turner, Michael Wright, who I really like. I went to him and I'm like, “Hey. Can Briga be in most of the episodes of this show this year?” He let her be in them. Our plan, as of now if you're asking our plan, it's if this show survives to a second season, it's probably me at Michael Wright's house with a gift basket saying, “'Ground Floor' is already done with two years. Can't she do both?” Production-wise, they don't overlap.
HitFix: She was already there longer than I expected her to be, so I figured she was just going to fall down an elevator shaft in the next episode or something.
Bill Lawrence: No, she will not. You know me. I can't do will-they-or-won't-they. To me, shows have done it too well. Adam was on-board with that, because he's had to do his share of romantic comedies where it's like, “Yeah, they get together at the end. We get it.” So I just like doing it early.
HitFix: Adam, Bill has had this string of protégées including Kevin Biegel and Justin Halpern. What is Bill like as a mentor, other than not really letting you talk in interviews?
Bill Lawrence: Oh God.
Adam Sztykiel: No, man. Having one other experience shooting a pilot without a Bill Lawrence, I would say that I'm not surprised that some of the most successful shows are run by people who have a history of other successful shows. It's the bulletproof vest of, “We're gonna make sure, at minimum, we're proud of the show.” I think there's so many factors — Casting, development, shooting, all of that stuff — where you're getting a million ideas from a million different people and the one thing I learned with him is you've gotta go where you're going and you've gotta protect that vision the whole way. Be collaborative, but otherwise you get to the end of it and go, “I'm not proud of the show anymore.” And at that point, it's kinda on you. And that's why I can definitely say with this show, success or failure, I'm proud of what we did. I think we made a very funny show. I'll show it to all of my friends, which is sorta a thing Bill taught me, is at the end of the day, you have to be able to show it to your buddies and be happy to show it to them. And that's where we landed. That's the one thing that I will take away from this process if we're not lucky enough to come back, is everything you do on the road, just protect that you're proud of it.
Bill Lawrence: It's why I'm so proud of Biegs. I want that show [“Enlisted”] to work. I think it's awesome. The one thing I have with age that I try to tell the Kevins and Justins of the world that they can't see right now: In success it's great, but because of how those guys stuck to their visions, it's gonna be great for their futures and careers. You watch “Enlisted.” You can't watch “Enlisted” and not go, “Oh, what a well-made, heartful, well-executed, well-written show.” I've been around long enough and I've seen so many people where it's like, “Hey, I got my show picked up! The main character has superpowers now. Otherwise, I think it's really my vision.” And then six months later, everybody's talking about it as the worst… Justin had an experience that… That show [“Feces My Dad Says”] was not what he expected it to be or wanted it to be. It's no one's fault. It's just the way sometimes things happen. I think that was a real hard experience for him. It'd be different if you're like, “This is what I wanted it to be and people don't like it, or people do,” but when you know it's not what you thought it was gonna be? My wife wouldn't let me do it, but I wanted to name our production company Noble Failure Productions, because I feel like in this landscape, it's the best you can do.
HitFix: Bill,You started so-very-young and now you've suddenly become…
Bill Lawrence: People call me “Mr. Lawrence” on the lot, dude.
HitFix: Exactly. You've now become the wise old man, the Mr. Miyagi to the younger generation. When did you realize that was something you enjoyed doing and were good at?
Bill Lawrence: “Scrubs” was such a great experience for me. To try and recreate that is insane. You just can't have that first time again. And people that chase that Golden Ring, you see them getting sadder and sadder. To me, young people like Biegs and Justin and Patrick [Schumacker] and Adam and Jackie Clarke and Chrissy [Pietrosh] and Jessica [Goldstein], they make me feel still young and relevant, even though I'm rapidly leaving the demographic that anybody gives a s*** about.
HitFix: There's always CBS. And they're the ones who still do multi-cam.
Bill Lawrence: No s***, man! So the main two factors are that the most fulfilling thing for me is getting very talented people through the process and hopefully not being a person that needs to throw my name on everything. I could give a s*** if my name's on a script or whatever. It's just incredibly satisfying. And the other one, I was telling Biegs, is I can't do it anymore. At 11 o'clock at night, I become a crotchety old man. These guys are like, “Bill, maybe you should head home.” I just get angry. At 11, I usually start this bit like, “What are we doing? We could all be doing stuff that matters. We could be building houses for people. We could be out doing charity work. Why are we here?” And then all the young people who are inspired and happy to be there will say, “Maybe you should head home and go to bed and we'll stay here and write the jokes.”
Adam Sztykiel: You're just being very modest. The other modern TV lesson is: There's no more difficult job than being a showrunner. I was like, “Buddy, you have a very good life. You could theoretically, probably phone it in if you wanted to.” And, by a million miles, Bill was the hardest worker of anybody on that show.
Bill Lawrence: Wanna know what the secret to that is? Really, no bulls***? You keep working with people that you've worked with for years and you like them and you feel beholden to them to keep work going. This is the one argument we had in the writing staff, is I could ultimately give a s*** about the young, 24-year-old comedy writers with no kids that are just gonna go write on some other shows.
Adam Sztykiel: You did say that.
Bill Lawrence: “I could care less about any of you.” But my friends who are grips and assistant editors and caterers and ADs that we've been working with for 20 years that work from gig to gig and are emailing me now, constantly, “Is 'Cougar Town' coming back for a sixth year?” They're the ones. It's more hand-to-mouth for them. That was a harsh joke. I did care about some of them.
Adam Sztykiel: You did. But also, one of the first things you said to me and everybody else is, “Be nice to everybody who works here, because I've known them way longer than you.”
HitFix: Bill, when have you last felt COMFORTABLE with the position of a show that you were working on, vis a vis network, airing situation, renewal hopes, etc.
Bill Lawrence: [Long pause.] Uhhhh.
HitFix: And does the discomfort feel different now that you've been accustomed to it for as long as you have?
Bill Lawrence: Yeeeeeeeah. I was really comfortable on “Scrubs,” simply because once we reached the fifth year, we were always ready for it to go away, the finale was written. So every year became, “Really? You wanna do another year? Alright.” And it was a weird experience. The only discomfort thing with “Scrubs” was was we were done with “Scrubs” after eight years and they wanted a ninth year and… whatever.
HitFix: Which every once in a while you go off on a Twitter run about, just because you feel like you need to.
Bill Lawrence: I will tell you, by the way, the funniest thing about “How I Met Your Mother.” I drew a diagram on the board at work which had the “How I Met Your Mother” finale, people upset with it, people were nice to me for an hour because they liked the “Scrubs” finale and then 900,000 tweets about how the ninth year of “Scrubs” sucked. And I'm like, “Oh my God! How does this happen? I said nothing. I'm just sitting here. It was over four years ago. Stop it.”
The smart thing about the way you asked the question is that discomfort has become the norm. It's the norm for everybody and I think to get caught up in it… I can't believe how much the conversations have changed about what keeps a show on. You are literally in meetings now where executives will say, “Maybe we should hit this affiliate up with a promo.” Two Nielsen families rounding up a tenth of a point can be the difference between survival and failure nowadays, which is insane. If right now your rating is a 1.346 and we can get it up to a 1.4 instead of down to a 1.2, which literally could be three families in a Top 5 market, two families, that's bananas. Once you accept that, there is no comfort. You also live in a world in which shows that premiere hard, two years later are gone.
Somebody challenged me today, a reporter, because I said two years ago that the one thing I'm holding onto is that so far, a show that I thought was incredibly well-written, well-executed has not gone away. Right now is the first year that I feel like there could be a couple shows that I think are well-cast, well-written, well-done, that might not survive, which is a weird place for network TV to me.
HitFix: Does that make you want to flee? You have your cable shows. Has that made you want to say, “OK. Screw this network stuff”?
Bill Lawrence: No! I just think that you have to embrace the other side, which is that if you're a content creator, there's no better time. Your content on Comedy Central or TBS or FX or USA is just as viable as ABC, CBS, NBC. It really does shift you business-wise to go, “Hey, it's network, so I'm gonna try and make a multi-camera pilot for CBS. Or I'm just gonna try to make something I'm passionate about and sell it to the person that's the most passionate with me.”
HitFix: Adam, are you as passionate about multi-cam as we know Bill is? Or did you just get pushed into this? We're always hearing about how “younger” people don't like multi-cam.
Adam Sztykiel: This is sorta the conversation we had very early on, which is that those are the shows that I grew up on and there is a familiarity to them and I've written them before, just in the development process, and I cannot identify what it is that felt comfortable, but we had that first conversation of, “How do you feel about a multi-cam?” and I don't know why it is, but there's something that is comfort food about it. A show like “Big Bang,” that show's such a big hit because people love it, but it also has that multi-cam comfort. I can't explain it to you and I don't know what it is, but I really enjoyed working on it. I'd definitely love to keep doing it. Coming from features, it is so different to move to a multi-cam especially, because it is so joke-driven. My instincts in the beginning were like, “Yeah, it's a scene with a couple jokes in it,” but it's sorta like, “Yeah, but we need jokes for the fuel of a multi-cam show.”
Bill Lawrence: When I started, they used to count they used to count the jokes on the page, man.
Adam Sztykiel: Which is so crazy!
Bill Lawrence: Back in the “Head of the Class” days.
HitFix: Ah, the ol' “Head of the Class” days!
Bill Lawrence: I know. You know something inflammatory that I was gonna say today on the panel, but think I'll say it now instead? I personally believe that in comedy, multi-cam is where networks can compete with cable. I love single-camera too, but I think now that the playing field is leveled — at no fault of the creators — it's very hard to compete with single-camera comedy, with “Veep.” It's “Get me this f***ing this, f***ing that” or “Louie,” “You go down on me,” know what I mean? Or even “Silicon Valley,” which I found really really funny and enjoyed. But I think multi-camera is something that all the networks are so silly to not be doing a ton of them, because the one disconnect is we as writers love the independent film feel of single camera, but now as I have kids and they're becoming teenagers, all they watch all day are multi-camera shows, the “Big Time Rush” and “Wizards of Waverly Place.”
HitFix: I always forget those are….
Bill Lawrence: Exactly. They're classic multi-cams. And they have not been conditioned to think that they're not cool or not hip. And yet only CBS seems to be churning them out.
HitFix: OK, but when “Ground Floor” came out, I watched it and I thought, “OK. This is old-fashioned, but it works.” It showed that you can do this and it works. Why are so many multi-cams, even from people who seem to know how to do it, not working?
Bill Lawrence: I personally believe that there are just as many really good shows on TV as there always and, in fact, that it's probably even a great time for television right now, this era. But there are so many shows and so many outlets, so there are also more horribly executed shows and badly produced shows that are actually on TV. Before when there was not as much of a home for content, it was rare that a really horribly made show got on the air anywhere. Now? I still think that you can find gems everywhere. It's niche stuff. I can watch “Workaholics” and laugh my nuts off. It hits my frat-boy sense of humor. But now I will occasionally — and I won't ice anybody — turn on a channel and I'm like, “Oh my God. Is this on TV? This isn't one of those weird coffee ads where they're pretending it's a sitcom? Is this really on television?” and it used to be that those shows would just not get picked up to pilot. Now, there's so many people that need content. My wife's home and she's like, “I'm thinking of doing a guest-starring role on a Amazon show.” And I was unaware. I'm like, “What? What's happening?” And I'm like, “Do they know if it's picked up?” She says, “Yeah, they put the pilots online.” And it's this one called “Transparent,” with Jeffrey Tambor. I watched the pilot and I thought it was stunningly good. But there's so many people who need content now. I still think that in three or four years, networks as we know it are gonna be pretty different. I don't think anything's gonna stop the trend that we're watching this year and I just think that we're gonna have to become niche programmers just like the cable outlets are.
Look, I'm already at a place at Warner Brothers where it was a lot harder to get people behind you selling to other outets two years ago. And now? “TBS? Sure. USA? Sure. Netflix? Sure. Damon Lindelof, big Warner Brothers deal HBO? Sure.” The the culture there, rightly so, four years ago was, “Hey, we got in business with you for your next big network show.” It's changing.
HitFix: Adam, because you don't have the same background in the network world, do these divisions and barriers seem invisible to you?
Adam Sztykiel: Not in the sense where it's talked about constantly in writers' rooms and there's a very steep learning curve about that stuff. But it does in the sense that the people that I know, and when I talk to, for instance, my brother-in-law, whose 22-years-old. I'm quizzing him recently. I'm like, “What do you watch, man?” And he goes, “Oh, I watch 'Big Bang.' I watch 'Workaholics.'” And I literally said, I go, “When are they on?” He's like, “I could not tell you.” I'm like, “What network is 'Big Bang' on?” And he's like, “I don't know.” And you just realize that a lot of the stuff that, as a TV writer, you obsess about — “What's our lead-in?” “What network are we on?” blah blah blah — there are so many people other there now that they watch it online, or they DVR it or whatever.
The one thing that people ask me a lot now is, coming from movies, “Do you prefer TV or movies? Which one do you like better?” That's an impossible question to answer, but the one thing that I keep trying to wrap my brain around is that a move, you know what the box office is, because tickets are sold. That many people bought tickets to a movie. And a TV show, it's like they're polling, but then trying to say, “Well, that's the election!” I feel like it's like if you ran an election and you poll 10 percent of the country and that's the president. And you're like, “Wait. What about everybody else who watches TV?” What do you always say about “Spin City” and “Scrubs”?
Bill Lawrence: I always feel that bums Mike Fox out, but just so I'm not being a whiner, I always say, the ratings said “Spin City's” ratings quadruple “Scrubs,” yet annecdotally, having been involved with both shows, more people come up to me about “Scrubs” than ever came up to me about “Spin City.” Did I not ever see ratings, I would go, “Oh. Billions more people watch 'Scrubs.'” It's just odd. But whatever.
“Undateable” premieres on Thursday, May 29 on NBC.