Talking TV comedy with ‘Undateable’ producer Bill Lawrence

03.13.15 3 years ago 11 Comments

NBC

Every few years at press tour, I find myself sitting down with Bill Lawrence – creator, co-creator and/or showrunner of “Spin City,” “Scrubs,” “Cougar Town,” “Ground Floor” and NBC”s “Undateable,” which returns for a second season Tuesday night at 9:30 – to talk about the state of TV comedy. As a guy who broke into the business during the ’90s sitcom boom (his early jobs were on “Boy Meets World” and “Friends”), who”s worked extensively on both traditional multi-cam sitcoms and filmed single-cam comedies, and has now worked for both broadcast and cable (with “Cougar Town,” which concludes its run at the end of this month, he”s done both), he can take a global view of the genre in a way many of his contemporaries can”t, and he remains one of the champion talkers among showrunners of comedy or drama.

Back in January, we talked about letting his castmembers (many of them stand-up comics) improvise away from the script, adding “Good Luck Charlie” alum Bridgit Mendler to the “Undateable” cast, ending “Cougar Town” (and the larger challenges of ending any long-running series), and a lot more about what it”s like to be a sitcom producer in 2015. (Note: After we did this interview, TBS declined to order a third season of “Ground Floor.”)

Before you did this show and “Ground Floor,” it had been a while since you had done multicam. The studio audience eats up that stuff when your actors are going on a long improvised run. How do you decide – both for story but also just for what”s going to play to the viewers at home – when you need to cut them off?

Bill Lawrence: Yeah, I know when to cut. I don”t care as much about the audience experience, simply because they love the fact that these guys will go off, and more often than not their runs end with stuff that can”t be on any network TV show. They”re comics and filthy and ridiculous. We don”t let kids in there under 18, so it”s not as big a problem, because people love the live theater type experience of it. The harder part is falling in love with jokes that comedy writers and comedians would like but that are not that accessible. And it”s a rare tip of the hat that I would ever give, but that”s where you rely on network and studio. And it has been fascinating, because I never really responded when people would say, “I don”t like this small moment” or “I don”t like the way that you wrote this dramatic moment in ‘Scrubs.”” I would say, “I like it and it”s not really a show breaker.” The biggest thing that a studio or network contributes on is we”ll often give them things (long) and they”ll say, “I know you guys love this bit but it”s inaccessible and it made the women here feel that this character was creepy.” Or, “I know you love this bit but we feel like it”s an inside hipster that goes to comedy clubs bit.” And we actually listen to it, and we”re getting better at policing ourselves. But as a fan of TV and of maybe stuff that”s slightly different than the network genre, that”s the hardest thing: when you see something you”re like, “Man, I know my friends would love this,” and maybe someone else is saying, “That”s not a mainstream sitcom moment.”

And do you run into conflicts more over the scripted stuff or when they improvise?

Bill Lawrence: On this show, it never comes up with the scripted stuff. I”ve been vehement in my belief that to try and make a multicam updated is such a mistake, because to me they are comfort food. They”re a throwback genre. I still enjoy them. I can watch “Raymond.” I can watch “Taxi” tonight and be happy. The problem is for me when you hear young people going, “I”m doing a multicam but it”s not a multicam, it”s a hybrid and what we”re gonna have…” Nobody cares. I mean, we care in Hollywood, but to me it”s stage play, radio play, funny. So we”re writing very traditional scripts with very traditional stories and counting on the real life friendship of the actors and the weird places they take it to be what makes it different.

So just to use the move bit as an example, suddenly Chris (D”Elia) is doing this pidgin Italian accent holding a tiny little mouse and you”re on set watching this. What is your reaction?

Bill Lawrence: I thought it was hysterical. And just so you know, their version was another at least three or four minutes. The network was there and we showed it to them and they”re like, “This is hilarious.” As opposed to, there was one in the same show that Chris was acting out Russian mobsters with his hands and doing accents which we laughed our butts off and NBC was like, “We have no idea what the hell he”s talking about.” I”m like, “The audience is laughing.” And they said, “Of course, they”re laughing. He”s a good performer. But that doesn”t translate.” And so we kept one, lost the other.

I”ve been to sitcom tapings of not necessarily good episodes of sitcoms. The people there are just so excited to be there. They”ll laugh at anything.

Bill Lawrence: We have a different issue, because I”ve had that before where they”ll laugh at anything. We don”t have those audiences. Our issue is slightly different. We have specific comic audience, so they”ll go nuts over a Chris D”Elia bit. Or Ron (Funches)”s fan base will go nuts over a Ron stoner bit. This probably shouldn”t be in our show because they”re there to see their favorite comic. This is a weird experience. It”s not people that I go, “Oh, I”m so happy to be in a show (taping),” because that you have to really temper and then watch it and be like, “Eh, is this funny or not?” Where we get killed is the people that from the start are just like, “Is Chris gonna come up and talk to the audience? Is Chris gonna come up and do some of his bits?” And then if he even ventures into Bit Land, they”re gonna go haaa. It”s the same thing, but it”s a new problem.

And Ron has such a specific and unusual energy.

Bill Lawrence: Adam (Sztykiel, “Undateable” creator) and I were talking. One of the things you do in sitcoms is sometimes actors will set themselves up. Ron is that guy. He speaks that way. That”s his cadence. He”s a very silly young man, but his comedic sense is so strong that he was messing up tapings because people would laugh at his setup. So there is a very average joke that we wrote that was just two characters were fighting, brother and sister, Chris D”Elia and Bianca (Kajlich). And Ron”s joke was, “Somebody call Steve Harvey. We”ve got ourselves a family feud.” And in front of the audience – because he had a good 40 fans there – he said, “Somebody call Steve Harvey,” and they”re laughing, and I”m like, “We”ve got to do this again. We can”t just put that line in, it makes no sense. No one in the world”s going to understand it.” And the second take, we actually had it in our blooper reel. Ron goes, “Somebody call Steve Harvey.” And they laughed and then he stopped in the middle. He”s like, “What are you laughing at? What”s funny about calling Steve Harvey?” We realized that the gift of somebody that can get laughs by pointing out things is also a curse because of what you just said. So one of the things you”ll notice that evolved on the show – he doesn”t set himself up anymore, because it gives you a false read on a joke. It”s very weird.

You”ve been doing this a long time. Network executives are often averse to the new. So when you have someone who”s different like Ron, were they reticent about him being in the show and doing the things that he”s doing?

Bill Lawrence: How quickly Ron went from, “Are you guys sure?” to “Put him in more” is a testament to those guys. It shifted from, “Wow, this is an odd guy” right at the beginning to, almost immediately, the new problem which is hey that guy that people laugh whenever he opens his mouth, so they tell us, “Have him speak constantly.” Which is also a horrible note if you love TV, do you know what I mean? “Oh, so beat it into the ground immediately?” So it”s such a tough balance. But they shifted quickly and they get it. He”s a really interesting persona. I love it when you find someone that”s slightly different. All the people, you know, the testament to Adam and to the cast is they”re all a little different.

Getting back to what you were saying before about multicam. How much of “Good Luck Charlie” had you seen before you cast Bridgit Mendler?

Bill Lawrence: I”ve seen way too much because of my daughter.

As have I.

Bill Lawrence: My daughter”s about to be 15. That”s her wheelhouse. And my daughter”s favorite thing is singing. She walks about singing Bridgit”s songs. Huge asset for us if we can bring in young fans of hers that watch with their family. It”s probably one of the reasons that we”ve been really religious about making sure that her character and persona is not compromised in a way that that audience would be like, “What the hell is this?”

But have you found yourself having to tamp down any other parts of the show because you think there may be some tweens watching now who wouldn”t have last year?

Bill Lawrence: No. You know what? I think that the world”s pretty sophisticated and parents will make choices for themselves. The big issue that approached is we said, “Look, this character we ought to embrace right now. This character is closer to my daughter”s age then me.” So she”s the bar”s little sister. She”s not going to be hooking up with dudes, and if she”s around that comedy, she”s not gonna join in as much as she”s going to stand in judgment. And this show needed that. Comics are very cynical, and you can sense it and this show needed a little brightness and optimism. No matter how you feel about the show, if you”re a TV fan and you”ve watched a lot, the tone of the show with her as a regular has changed almost overnight. It”s why we used Briga (Heelan) as much as we could last year, even though she wasn”t a regular because she brings a brightness and an optimism to the world, where behind these comics and their jokes is a little edge and a little anger.

Given that you”re producing both shows, would it have been possible to juggle the schedules to get (Briga) to do both, or would TBS just not have allowed it?

Bill Lawrence: No, they were really nice but I think it would have been detrimental to the other show. And it certainly wasn”t a long term solution, because at the end of the day, TBS was nice enough to let her work over here but like, “Oh, could she be a regular on an NBC show?” No. And I think we also set down a path there, once we knew Briga wasn”t a regular, which was very Ross and Rachel and tried and true and which we didn”t mind with her as a guest star. But it”s not something we wanted to do long term if the show actually gets legs and survives.

You”ve got Bridgit on the show. There”s this belief that younger people are not into multi-cam at all and yet there”s this whole generation that have been raised entirely on Nick and Disney sitcoms like hers.

Bill Lawrence: I”m so proud of NBC that not only are they doing it, but if you look at the pilots they”ve ordered so far, they”re picking up multicams. But what”s hard – because I really am enjoying their support and enthusiasm right now – is how much I want to rant about this. I have three kids and because I”m a TV fan they”re gonna grow up TV fans. My daughter is of the age now she binge watches shows. She is into “Pretty Little Liars” and into that stuff. But they watch so many multicams, man. And to think that these kids don”t like them is so very closed minded and dumb. And there”s such a disconnect between Hollywood and what the country really wants to watch. And my dad said something – he likes the show “Parenthood,” okay. I like the show “Parenthood.” It”s got comedic elements too but my dad”s like, “When I sit down to watch ‘Parenthood,” I”m expecting some dramatic stuff.” There”s some whimsy in it. He really enjoys it. But when he turns on one of these half hour single camera dramedies that don”t have hard laughs in them, he”s like, “Hey, I want to watch a comedy.” It just ends up leaving him like a little annoyed. Because it”s not what he”s looking for as a TV fan. And I don”t know how everybody but CBS got away from making these shows. It”s amazing to me.

Are they cheaper?

Bill Lawrence: They”re easier to make. You can tell by audience feedback if they”re working or not on some level. I just don”t get it.

But it”s been basically 20 years in the making of this. You wrote on “Friends” for five seconds and you did “Spin City.” So you”ve got multi-cam experience. Greg (Malins, “Ground Floor” co-creator) has multi-cam experience. But there aren”t a ton of active showrunners who still do. Other than the people who”ve been working for Chuck Lorre, who never seem to leave to do their own shows, there”s no system in place to teach people how to do this.

Bill Lawrence: What”s really funny is there is, but it”s what you just talked about. “Undateable” has an incredible young staff, and for me one of the fun things is – I don”t want it to sound self-aggrandizing, but I love the teacher element. I”m talking about, “Hey, this is multicam. You can”t bury the joke in a quick line. And the guy keeps on talking because once they hit the joke people are gonna laugh.” And one of the strongest young writers we have this year is somebody that their start was in, I believe, a Disney fellowship program but it was being a staff writer on one of the shows you and I just talked about. And they have a basic knowledge of multi-cam structure and jokes. And I think if people are talented, they get it. And the one thing that you are seeing is they”re still kids that haven”t worked on them, but when you talk about TV nerds there”s still people that watch – you can”t find somebody that”s a true TV fan that doesn”t still watch “Friends” reruns. They compute. They just haven”t worked on them yet.

Up until all the unpleasantness came out, my kids and I had been doing a “Cosby Show” marathon. That had to stop, but they loved that. We would have watched 200 episodes of that.

Bill Lawrence: Of course you would have. Nothing more fun than watching that with your kids. I watch “Friends” with my daughter. It just slays her. And the interesting thing is it always took me back, when I talk single camera with people. And I”ve tried with a bunch and I”ve messed up a bunch and screwed up a bunch. And one of the reasons I thought “Scrubs” worked as a single camera was we still tried so hard to be funny. And I”ll watch single camera shows that I”m like, “Oh man, when”s the joke coming?” It kills me. But “Veep” right now is one of my favorite shows on TV. I think it”s amazing.

What does your daughter think of your “Friends” episode?

Bill Lawrence: Oh she likes it. My daughter is more impressed with Bridgit being here. You know what she likes too? She”s gone back into, because of her friends, “Boy Meets World.” And I wrote on that show. And it matters to her, which is kind of cool.

Have you watched “Girl Meets World”?

Bill Lawrence: My middle kid, my son, has seen “Girl Meets World” a bunch but I haven”t seen it yet.

Are you actively avoiding it?

Bill Lawrence: No, I”ve just been swamped. And I don”t know how you do it but I”ve got to pick and choose what TV I”m going to jump on to. And my daughter”s up later than my boys, because they”re still young, so I can go in and watch when she”s binge-watching stuff. They aren”t doing that yet.

We”ve talked before about how these days, to get a comedy picked up, you have to come in with a high concept.

Bill Lawrence: It doesn”t even have to be a high concept. It has to be something you know they can market.

Okay. So “Cougar Town” starts out as “Courteney Cox is dating younger guys” for six or seven episodes, and you stopped that. This show is “Danny is going to teach these losers how to get laid,” and you moved off of that quickly.

Bill Lawrence: You know why it didn”t bother us as much? “Cougar Town” was almost a huge mistake because the show Kevin (Biegel) and I pitched, we ultimately didn”t want to write. And there are no elements of it left. “Undateable” we knew we could sell it because it was a book, and we showed the title to Warner Bros. and to the network, and they go, “We”ll buy that.” I could have told you back in that meeting what the posters were going to be, and it”s a way to market the show. When Adam and I talked about it fresh off the “Cougar Town” experience, he said, “It doesn”t bother me as much, because we are saying these characters are all single, and we are by the nature of any TV show going to be following, if we get to keep doing it, whether they end up with someone.” So it doesn”t feel as far out on the tightrope as “Cougar Town” did. That felt like it was almost a real bad mistake. So I think it”s a question of you can”t sell something that you don”t” want to write it at all. For me it”s trying to find that middle ground. You could have called “Friends” “Undateable,” you know. None of them were married after five years and they”re all in their mid-30s. And I would have been fine with it. So I just think it”s less about noisy and more about something you know they can market.

So just “here are seven funny people hanging out at a bar.” Like “Cheers.”

Bill Lawrence: Do you know what I said to Adam? I don”t know how you sell “Cheers” today. I don”t think I could go in and go, “I want to do this show in a bar. It”s a bar run by an alcoholic and he”s really tight with the people that work there and a couple of people that go there to drink.” “What else happens?” “I don”t know.”

You sell Sam and Diane: a dumb jock dating a smart snob.

Bill Lawrence: Yeah but I doubt that was part of their pitch: “We”re gonna go will they or won”t they with Sam and Diane back and forth for years and years because it”s gonna work so well.”

I think “Taxi” would be even harder. That”s the other thing that”s really fascinating. “Friends” changed sitcom DNA, because if you look at cast photos from even sitcoms of 1992-93, and then you look at everything after “Friends,” suddenly everyone is so much younger and better looking.

Bill Lawrence: And you would even argue that the shows that were a little different than that were still playing off that all of a sudden. “The Drew Carey Show” (starring Lawrence”s wife, Christa Miller) is a specific example. Christa is always talking about how it was sold as, “”Friends” has all these beautiful ridiculous cookie cutter people from New York, and this is what ‘Friends” is really like in middle America.” Yeah, without a doubt it changed. It changed the make-up completely of these sitcoms, man.

If you”re trying to pitch George Wendt and John Ratzenberger and Rhea Perlman as three of your core cast members, I don”t know if that”s going to fly.

Bill Lawrence: It”s tough. With multi-cams, you”ve got to stop thinking that they”re about the story. They”re really about execution and cast chemistry and you used to have 22 episodes to develop cast chemistry and see Shelley Long and Ted Danson were great together. These two were great together. So my pitch was, “I”m gonna get a bunch of standups and actors that have known each other before the show so they have immediate chemistry.” And they”re like, “Yeah, yeah, if that happens, that”s great,” but no one really cared. But Adam and I think it”s why the show works because Brent (Morin) , Rick (Glassman), Ron, Chris and Bianca all know each other for a minimum of five years and then Chris and Bianca 17 years. And we”ll be on the set and Brent will be like, “Hey, do that funny thing you did on the road the other day.” It saves us, especially how many shows have you seen the pilot where people are supposed to be a romantic couple or best friends, and you”re like, “Eh, those two aren”t best friends.”

On “Cougar Town,” you came back to work on the finale. How did you want to approach that? What did you want to do at this point, having ended other shows?

Bill Lawrence: I feel like in a lot of ways I”ve gotten to end three shows because I got to write the one where Mike Fox left “Spin City.” And to actually write an end is such a luck of the draw thing on a TV show. It”ll always annoy me that some people don”t think the “Scrubs” ending was the ending (because of the “Scrubs Med” season), but it was. But each one is different, you know. With “Cougar Town,” Biegs and I had been talking about it a little from the beginning because we knew the tone would be a burden, because the second you do a show that”s about people hanging out and spending time together – on “Friends,” they were young enough that you would be like, “Oh, it makes sense that they all have to split up. That”s sad.” With people in their 40s, we”re like we”re trapped because nobody that”s a real fan of the show wants to go, “Hey, I hope the ending is that they explode.” So you”re doomed. But we had a cool way to approach it. One of the things we talked a lot about is how just giantly different each show is in terms of whether you”re a writer that just wants to end a show or whether you”re a writer that wants to end a show without dashing people”s expectations.

“Everybody Loves Raymond” is probably the last big sitcom that just did a regular episode as their last episode.

Bill Lawrence: Yeah. I don”t think you can do that. I think people want a close to it. You know what, though? You could argue in that show that it was so about the minutiae of life that you would be disingenuous if they did something huge. But that”s what I mean. I think it”s each show”s situation. I”d love to have a show that your burden was just doing a last episode, you know. They”re tough man. It”s almost a no-win situation.

Do you think comedies have it easier? Now with all these dramas it”s a constant fixation: “Are they going to stick the landing?” It seems like people get angrier about the big drama finales.

Bill Lawrence: I think with dramas, it”s a huge point. I think dramas, especially with any type of show that”s serialized and is expecting a payoff, you”re fucked, right. I”m such a Damon (Lindelof) fan, but I don”t think that there was any way to win. I just think it”s hard to stick the landing. You have to embrace early on that you”re going to disappoint worst case 50 percent, best case, it”s probably split 70-30. And maybe I”ll just disappoint 30 percent. Comedies are easier. You just need to leave people with a warm, fuzzy feeling and the people that get the angriest are if a comedy tries to – oh man people got so mad at “Roseanne.” Remember that?

Yeah, she wins the lottery and then Dan dies.

Bill Lawrence: Yes. Everybody that cared so much about that show was like, “That”s not really what I want.” I still thought it was a noble attempt, but they loved it too much, and they didn”t want it that way. Comedy I think is a lot easier. We find out what people actually want or sense it and you can do that now because of sites like the one you”re on, and following people online, and you just try to meet those expectations in a way that doesn”t feel false.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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