PASADENA — It’s 9 p.m., and Bill Lawrence turns to me and asks, “Should we keep the tab running another half hour?” I look around at a hotel bar full of reporters, “Cougar Town” actors and “Cougar Town” writers,” all of them having a good time and talking about how the show they love is in limbo, and I say, “Sure.” Lawrence nods to his longtime producing partner Randall Winston, the man who has kept the trains running ontime on all his shows going back to “Spin City,” and tells him to keep the tab going. Lots more to talk about, and it never hurts to have the booze flowing, does it?
Welcome to the very unofficial, very liquid, very uplifting “Cougar Town” invasion of press tour, the latest bit of seat-of-the-pants, grass-roots marketing that Lawrence has organized during his show’s 10 months and counting off the air.
Just as “Cougar Town” has no place on ABC’s mid-season schedule at the moment, “Cougar Town” had no place on ABC’s press tour schedule. But when Lawrence – who has been sending his actors and writers to cities around the country to host fan screenings of upcoming episodes – saw that there was no evening event scheduled at the end of the first of two ABC days at the tour, he stepped into the breach and decided to host an event that would keep his show’s name in the press even as the show itself is in limbo.
“When we got shafted,” he says, recalling the moment when ABC put out a mid-season schedule that didn’t feature “Cougar Town” on it, “we came up with our own marketing.”
As with the screenings, he paid for the press tour event out of his own pocket.
“First time in my life I have ever kept receipts, diligently,” he explains. “And if the show succeeds and goes forward, I’ll be like, ‘Hey! A little help with all the viewing parties and TCA parties!'”
I ask Lawrence’s wife Christa Miller, who plays Ellie on the show, what she said when he told her he wanted to pay for all this guerilla marketing.
“‘No,'” is what she recalls telling him. “I say, ‘No, think of a better way.’ And then he lies about it, but I write the checks, so I see what he’s doing.”
After Lawrence complains that Miller is making him look bad by telling reporters that she handles the checkbook, she adds more sincerely, “I think it was a good idea. We had great response. I love this show, too, and I’m so happy to be working on this show with so many great people. It is no lie. I know the ‘Desperate Housewives’ say they love each other; they all hate each other. We really do all love each other. Let’s be honest.”
And that’s the sense you get from everyone in the “Cougar Town” contingent, who arrived at the hotel on the same party bus, and who all seem closer for the strange experience of producing a show without having any idea when it will air.
“This group is special,” says writer Gregg Mettler, a veteran of sitcoms like “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “That ’70s Show.” “Honestly, to work with Bill has been an amazing experience. To see him do stuff like this, I’ve just learned a lot. It’s been a really cool gig for me.”
Writer Kate Purdy went to the fan screening in Atlanta last month, and she recalls, “It’s incredible. It makes you feel great. They laugh at all the right moments, and they ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at all the right moments. It makes you feel really good about yourself. I keep pitching to Bill that we should just forget having a fourth season and just tour the show around to different cities… Forget network TV! Bill TV!”
Writer Melody Derloshon was in Chicago with Busy Philipps, and calls it “a love fest. You could definitely tell that there’s been a drought of ‘Cougar Town’ and our kind of comedy, which is different from a lot of shows. Every single joke, the people were loving. The characters were coming on to Kramer-type welcomes. People went nuts.”
Writer Sanjay Shah got to see a couple of screenings, one in San Diego and one in Los Angeles, and he appreciated seeing the fans respond strongly to jokes he didn’t like, or vice versa. Of writing and producing the show in a vacuum, he says, “There are pluses and minuses. When the show is on the air and we’re still on production and you get the ratings, people can be affected by that. When we’re in this bubble and just free to make something, I think it’s actually creatively freeing. But we’re not as worried about, not reacting to numbers as much. That’s one of the reasons why we feel, universally, as a staff, that this is our best season.”
(Before the event, I got to see the first five episodes of the season, and they feel very much up to the loose, silly, warm, happy standard the show set for itself last season.)
I spend the longest time talking to Kevin Biegel, who co-created the show with Lawrence, and who once upon a time was a fanboy himself as a writer for Ain’t-It-Cool. He half-jokingly compares what they’re doing to what Katniss does in “The Hunger Games” books (which he admits he’s been obsessively reading lately), and not only talks about his expectations for when and where the show might come back, but delivers something of a manifesto for why activities like this may become essential for all shows in the future, including this thought:
“There are so many shows on TV right now. Why would you watch X show? Because they care about you! You want the feeling that the show you care about cares about you back. And I hope that people who like this show are getting that feeling. That’s why we’re doing this. Doing something like this is like a thank you to them. I think you have to do it.”
(Click here for a full transcript of my conversation with Biegel, which is passionate and profane and defiant and very funny. If for no other reason, you will want to read his final thoughts on why the show’s name hasn’t been changed.)
Will this work? Nobody knows. Lawrence goes back and forth between believing their fans are devout enough to come back after all this time away and fearing that the show has been away too long and no one will remember. But they’re trying something different, and they’re getting love from their fans – or, on this night, friendly critics – while doing it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org