Interview: ‘Cougar Town’ producer Bill Lawrence on Penny Can, viral marketing and more

Senior Television Writer
04.18.11 8 Comments


Tonight at 9:30, “Cougar Town” airs its first episode in six weeks, a special post-“Dancing with the Stars” airing before the show reclaims its usual timeslot this Wednesday night at 9:30.

If you’re a fan of the show who didn’t realize it was coming back tonight, that’s understandable, as ABC’s on-air promotion for the return has been minimal. But that’s okay with “Cougar Town” co-creator Bill Lawrence, who says that in this age of DVRs and social media, on-air promotion for established shows is far less important than the viral marketing that producers of those shows can do. So during the long hiatus, Lawrence, co-creator Kevin Biegel and a number of the show’s stars have taken to Twitter, and Facebook, and other corners of the web to both keep the show fresh in viewers’ minds and make sure as many as possible were prepared for the return.

Lawrence and Biegel produced a series of videos for Vulture pitting the show’s actors against its writers. They took to the Facebook page for Lawrence’s previous show “Scrubs,” producing videos featuring “Scrubs” alums to try to bring fans of that show to the new one. Tonight’s episode, which was originally supposed to be the last one that aired before the hiatus (a primetime address by President Obama bumped it), at one point features a phone number that fans can call to talk to different members of the cast. Etc.

I spoke with Lawrence about his new role as guerrilla marketer of his own material in a long phone interview that was, I suppose, also a part of his campaign. We also talked about the recent “Community” shout-out to “Cougar Town,” a few upcoming story ideas (it’s towards the end, and there’s a spoiler warning if you really don’t want to know, but plot is largely besides the point on “Cougar Town”), the origins of Penny Can, Bill’s alternate interpretation of “Seinfeld,” and more.

You’ve been through this experience before on “Scrubs” a time or two, where you’re making episodes but you’re off the air and disconnected from your audience. How did this hiatus compare to that?

This time it was much less frustrating, and much easier, only because this time, (ABC president) Paul Lee called me and picked up our show before he did it. He said, “Here’s the skinny, man: best place for us to try two new comedies we have coming on is after ‘Modern Family.’ It’s not the best scenario for them, because they’ll be on against 2-hour ‘American Idol’s, and they’re not always going to be on after original ‘Modern Family’s, but this is their chance. And when they’re done, we’ll put you on after ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and then back in your old timeslot, and then we’ll pay for a one-hour finale in Hawaii.’ I was like, ‘That’s fine.’

The only thing that really bumped me is that in this landscape that you and I talk about a lot, there’s a burden towards feeding people content and keeping them invested while you’re gone for 10 weeks.

Well, you did those great Vulture videos.

I can’t tell you the amount of stuff that not only I’m doing, but Kevin Biegel is on Twitter running homemade promo contests, and Busy Philipps and Josh Hopkins and Christa (Miller, Lawrence’s wife) are talking to people, and we’ve got 9,000 Easter Eggs coming up. We just do as many things as we can.

Did you know that the episode that’s airing Monday was going to be the first one to air after the long break?

We never knew it was going to be this long time away when we were making these episodes. And in fact, once we knew, it was designed to be the one before the break as a way to interact with fans. We’re all going to take turns answering the phone for the next month. (Lawrence then mentions something that will happen if he happens to answer the phone rather than one of the actors, then decides he’d rather keep it a surprise, and amends his comment to…) You can just say that, “Don’t be depressed if you reach Bill instead of one of the actors, because there’s a chance he’s gonna give you something.” It was earmarked as one of our ways to keep in touch with the fans while we were away, but then President Obama did his speech, and here we are.

Okay, so then the episode airing on Wednesday night was one where you thought it would be the first new one after a long break. Did you do anything special with it for that reason?

We weren’t doing like a pilot episode coming back. Good or bad, I feel this show has a loyal fanbase, and I’m trying not to make the mistakes I made with “Scrubs.” On “Scrubs,” I would venture away from what was working, because I’d go, “Let’s try to rope in a whole bunch of new people.” I feel the show works since we changed it creatively, and we’re trying to stay true to it. The only reason we’re trying to rope people in is you have to walk this fine line when it comes to the title. You and I who are in the industry, people who read you, they all get that the show’s not about Cougars anymore. Some people have even come after me and said, “Enough apologizing for the title.” But I go after people online, the “Scrubs” Facebook page has 9 million people, and when I mention this show, a lot of responses are still, “I don’t want to watch a show about an old woman fucking younger dudes.” We’re just trying to message that this show is essentially “Friends” or “Scrubs” with lots of booze.

You’ve already been renewed for next year, but where do you think you’re going to be on the new schedule?

It’s interesting. There’s three options. The show’s either gonna be leading off an hour somewhere else, which it has to do eventually, or it’ll be behind “Modern Family” the whole year, or behind it half the year and then ABC will move something else in. There’s no Shangri-La. If we have to lead off an hour, I think that’s a great opportunity. If you suddenly get a 2.5 (rating in the 18-49 demographic), which is lower than our average, but coming off a 1.9, then you’re a self-starter. But if you stay behind “Modern Family” for a year, you get that security blanket for a year, but you take retention shots for a week. If I’m ABC and I’m trying to launch a new comedy, (Wednesday at 9:30 is) the only place to try it. Best situation I can tell you, of all the Wednesday shows on ABC, in this modern economy, “Cougar Town” is the only one made and owned by ABC Studios, and I really feel protected that way, because I know they like the show creatively. If we can hold onto the audience we have, whether it be after “Modern Family” or in a new spot, we’re going to be on for a long, long time.

That’s an interesting approach you have, where rather than trying to reach out and broaden the appeal, you’ve decided that the show is the show, the audience is the audience, and you’re going to play to that. And not a lot of shows have that philosophy. They’re just going for the big tent.

I have that philosophy for this show on one level. Were it not for my crappy job titling this show, I actually think this show has a broader appeal than “Scrubs,” without the weird fantasies and the voiceover and the very Zach-centric sensibility. Even though this show has some “Scrubs” elements, it has Courteney Cox, she has mass appeal, she’s still that kind of all-American girl. It’s got the potential to reach a wider audience. I’m still surprised. We’re much more impatient within the industry, how deep I have to fight the bad title battle.  Entertainment Weekly, the reviewers are very nice to “Cougar Town,” they’re very supportive and great, but then whoever does their “Community” review, when “Community” wrote their “Cougar Town” episode, they said, “I don’t know how there can be any crossover between those shows, because one’s about fucking younger guys.” And I’m like, “Really? You work at a magazine that has written tons of articles about how the show’s not about that anymore, and still you don’t know.” It drove me crazy. To me, the only thing that’s different than “Scrubs,” I like where the show is now, probably won’t push it to as weird a level as “Scrubs” got. I just think we’re still fighting the fight to convince people to at least give it a shot.

Speaking of the “Community” thing, I don’t know how much you want to say, but is there going to be some reciprocity from your end?

Here’s what I’ll tell you: Kevin Biegel and (“Community” producers) Dan (Harmon) and Neil (Goldman) and Garrett (Donovan) and I have been having fun. Executives have come at me like, “Can you believe what ‘Community’ did? Were you guys so shocked?” And no one’s gone, “Since Neil and Garrett (both of whom worked as Lawrence’s deputies for most of ‘Scrubs’) are exec producers of ‘Community’ with Dan, is there a chance you planned this out in advance?” All I’ll say is, if you’re a ‘Community’ fan, you might want to watch our show.

In a cool way, we’ve been doing some subtle cross-promotion. I always like to talk too much about TV, but I feel like the burden of marketing your show falls on the producers and actors a bit. Not that the networks don’t want to help, but that they can’t.  I love TV, but I never watch promos. That’s not how I get my info. I get it from guys like you, being online, word of mouth, talking to the fans. We all stumbled onto the idea that we like their show, they like our show, we’re not on against each other, is there a way to promote each other in a way that has a little snark but isn’t mean?

Lot of Penny Can in the first episode back. What’s the origin of Penny Can? Was it a game you guys played in the writers room?

With “Scrubs,” any game we played in the writers room, it wound up on the show. We literally had a coffee can there, and to procrastinate, we started throwing pennies in there. We said “It’s such a dumb and simple game that, if we can make it part of their lives and it has more elaborate rules every couple of weeks, it would become a drinking game for us.” We still play.

You’ve introduced a lot of different games that the gang invents. Did you expect that this would be the one to stick?

I didn’t think this one would stick. I thought the movie thing (where you mash up two different movie titles to create a different plot altogether) would stick, I had a big entrepreneurial idea, we had a bunch of them sitting around to market it, and Disney, the attorneys got involved and said, “You’re not allowed to do it.” I thought this would just be a goof, and that people would be into the movie thing.

So what do you feel comfortable telling me about where the rest of the season is going? (Note: Minor spoilers follow.)

I like the end of the year to be about something. Especially with younger shows, the network pushes you to make self-contained episodes, they don’t like them to be serialized: “We want this one to be funny for someone who’s never watched it and will never watch again.” And I go “Why would anyone want to do it like that?” I guess “Two and a Half Men” did it like that. So the arc at the end of the season is kind of Travis’ descent. If you pay attention to casting news, you know Colette Wolfe (who plays Travis’ girlfriend Kirsten) booked another pilot, so you’ve gotta know he’s heading towards heartache and disaster. We thought it would be funny if the smart and seemingly together kid had a lot of his dad in him, and by the end of this year, he will be his father. While at the same time, things are looking up for Bobby while his son craters. It’s a fun story that we’re following, but also something that we were following in the show before the hiatus messed it up was we were really trying to make Courteney’s character a little over-the-top intrusive, building to that episode in which it’s time to realize she needs to stop being that person. That was her arc for the end of the year.

That’s always got to be tricky. You had to write Smith in and out of the show when Ryan Devlin got cast in other things. When you’re dealing with these actors who play a crucial role on the show but aren’t under contract for you, what do you do?

I’m always super-careful to not put myself in the trap. The one that burned the most was I had Aziz Ansari teed up to be a recurring character and then a regular on the new version of “Scrubs,” and “Parks and Rec” snaked him. I thought he was the kind breakout talent I would have loved to keep around. Kudos to him, because it’s the best thing that could have happened to him for his career.

Well, you did manage to sort of replace him with Dave Franco’s character in the last season.

I like Dave, and am super happy for him, he’s doing a movie with the “Clone High” guys, “21 Jump Street.” But Aziz, everyone has their own likes and dislikes, and he’s a guy I thought was a special dude you could even build something around. The reason he was so brief on “Scrubs” is because by the time we had him in his first episode and we were trying to book him for more, he was already spoken for somewhere else. I just thought he was so funny, you could almost build him in as a main character, if not the main character.

There’s a great story in the Wednesday episode that deals with Laurie coming to a realization that, on 99% of other shows would be treated as this awful thing, but here, for her, it’s kind of cool. There’s this element to the show I like where the show and its characters just accept everybody’s things that everyone else on another show would be completely judgmental about.

It’s a huge thing we have in our writers room, which is “No judgment.” I think that our characters, even though they might get frustrated in specific instances, completely accept and embrace who they are. It doesn’t seem to bump these grown people that Bobby lives on a boat, and essentially steals scraps and feeds on his friends, or that Laurie is a fun-loving tramp that has one-nighters with faceless guys, or that Ellie, even though at her core is a nice person, can seem upfront kind of hateful and horrifyingly intimidating. I love that about these guys. To me, that’s what real friendship is. Every one of my friends is fucked up, and I don’t look at all of them with that eye of judgment you see in TV, especially when it comes to things like sleeping around, or children, or the things you see in every show.

That’s got to be a hard thing to pull off. I see a lot of these shows try to have it both ways and have the characters busting on each other and being terrible, and yet trying to intimate that there’s this sense of warmth between them, and it never comes across. You’ve got a long streak of doing these kinds of shows that manage to be funny and yet work the heart in and feel authentic; what is it that you’re doing that they aren’t, exactly?

Not trying to be modest, but it’s partially luck. I would tell you my pilots that have failed are the ones that tried to have that element and it seemed fake, like hateful people throwing barbs at each other that didn’t care about each other. A lot of times it comes down to that chemistry thing. On “Spin City,” if you looked at Mike Fox’s dialogue, he was not a “nice” character to his coworkers. In the pilot, he outs a guy who’s not gay as gay, shits on the other people who work for him, but as an actor, he had chemistry with the other actors, and you could tell he cared about them deep down. One of the things I tell my wife that I’m most impressed by is that she can say the lines I give her, and yet I still believe – and maybe I’m wrong – that people look at her character and say, “Oh, she loves her husband, and she loves these people, and she even loves Bobby.” It’s the one area where we try to police ourselves.

I hate shows, personally, where people stand around tossing stuff at each other, and any character can say any line, because you don’t believe any of these characters care for each other. I used to fight with my friends who wrote on “Seinfeld,” because they had such great pride in saying it was a show about nothing. And I said, “Whether you like it or not, it’s apparent in how those main characters act, and because of their chemistry in real life, that they all love each other underneath that stuff.” And that’s what hooked me in. So I would say it’s part  luck and part making sure they never venture far over that line… and guys like you have busted me every time we have where you can’t come back from it. Closest we’ve come to messing up on this show is sending Courteney’s character too far down the river.

The other thing that’s notable in Wednesday’s episode is that baby Stan reappears. You and I have talked in the past about baby Stan and how you’re not going to work him in unless there’s a story you actually want to tell with him. Why here and now? (Again, a minor spoiler follows.) 

A couple of things. One, there’s a story arc that goes through to the end, that if nerds have paid attention, we’ve taken pains to show that Josh Hopkins loves kids and thinks they’re adorable, and Courteney is a woman with a grown kid and not into having kids anymore. It’s an arc we take a look at at the end of this season. It’s something we follow in the finale, and next year. Not to have another baby around, because it’d be another baby no one sees. And also because we love the gag of when all our regulars are like, “Oh, yeah, you have a kid!” And to be honest, I really do feel like I’m writing about my contemporaries, and I don’t go to my friends houses as much as they go to Courteney’s, but when I do, I don’t see the kids. The kids are upstairs playing, or they’re asleep. I do my best to not be at their houses when their kids are awake. (laughs) There is nothing worse than other people’s kids, man.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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