Q&A: Bill Lawrence

Showrunner Bill Lawrence has been a fixture on the TV comedy landscape for almost twenty years, contributing scripts to hit shows like Friends, The Nanny, and Boy Meets World before launching a hit of his own as a co-creator of the Michael J. Fox-starring Spin City in 1996. He followed that with Scrubs, which blended heart and outlandish humor as a mainstay on ABC throughout the 2000s. In 2009, Lawrence and Scrubs alum Kevin Biegel co-created Cougar Town, starring Courteney Cox. The show quickly outgrew its high-concept premise and evolved into another sublime ensemble comedy striking a balance between zaniness and warmth (and wine. Lots of wine.).

Cougar Town wraps up its second season Wednesday night at 9:30 p.m. EST/8:30 p.m. CST. Recently, Lawrence spoke with The Vast Wasteland about the season finale, goals for next year, and the importance of keeping creatively engaged with fans.

The Vast Wasteland: What can you tell me about the season finale?

Bill Lawrence: TV should generally be about something, and I thought the end of last year was about something, with Jules (Cox), and the triangle between her and Grayson (Josh Hopkins) and her ex-husband, and him finding out that they’re together, and their kid graduating from high school. And so the end of this year, I think people can see so far what’s been coming, which is two things. One is, Travis (Dan Byrd) has been kind of bottoming out a little bit. You know, he asked a girl to marry him to keep her there, she said no and wasn’t interested. He hasn’t been doing that well in school. And eventually he takes off for Hawaii just to get the hell out of town.

It’s mostly because we want to tweak his character a little bit. Even though he seems like the most “adult” of the group, he is still Bobby Cobb’s (Brian Van Holt) son. To have him follow in that guy’s footsteps a little bit and end up with no prospects and living on a boat in a parking lot really appealed to us. That’s kind of what drives the finale. Everyone is trying to rally him back to school and get him out of his funk.

Laurie (Busy Philipps) is saying, “I always wished I’d gotten out of this town and see the world,” so he uses what little cash he has to buy a plane ticket to Hawaii. And the whole gang – because they travel as a pack – goes there to retrieve him. That’s what the finale’s about.

The other thing that towards the end of the year we’ve been hinting at is about Jules and Grayson’s dating. I’m not a big “will they or won’t they guy” – we got them together early, and they’re staying together as an adult couple, but we’ve been laying in for two years that he’s always wanted kids. And she’s got a 19-year old about to come an adult, and she’s finally getting to the point where she’s ready to let that go and let him live his own life and be done with it. And that feels like it’s going to reach a conclusion in the finale.

VW: Did you shoot on location in Hawaii?

BL: Yes. I love doing location shows, because I got challenged by a mentor long ago who said it’s really hard to do a location show without being cheesy. I think we pulled it off on Scrubs, we went to the Bahamas. And I think we pulled if off on this one. We went to Hawaii and we didn’t just shoot at a resort. There’s people paddleboarding, they’re out in the ocean, they’re on beaches. We shot at this cool surf shack that’s run by Mark Foo’s sister – he was the famous big wave surfer that passed away at Maverick’s, if you ever watch that Riding Giants movie.

VW: So you try to get at least one tropical location in per series.

BL: Yeah, that’s the angle. Someplace that I can sucker the whole crew into going, thinking it’s going to be fun, but then they work really hard. But then they get to drink a lot at the end. That’s the plan.

VW: Have you begun to map out the storylines for season three?

BL: Yes and no. We’re all working on it. I think the burden for season three of any show is, how do you stay relevant? A lot of times sitcoms burst onto the scene and get a lot of buzz, a lot of publicity, and they grab their audience. Usually, if you’re not careful, season three is when all you can do is hold on to your existing audience.

I think the burden for us is that this show started a little late. I think it’s a much different show now than it was in its first six episodes. Because of that, I feel like, creatively, we still need to be doing new and exciting stuff that might make some new people hook in. We did choose that crappy title, too.

VW: Will you be bringing the title card gag back next year?

BL: Look, Kevin and I titled this show so poorly. We did it as a goof at the time, and we had the sense it was going to be a campy show about an older woman pursuing younger guys and what that meant for her life – and it’s not. It’s a show about adult friendship and how we wile away the hours. And yet it’s called Cougar Town. So we have two options: change the title, which I think is weird, or wear it like a badge of courage and mock it for the rest of time, which I’m really comfortable with.

VW: Those have consistently been some of the funniest gags.

BL: We’re so filled with self-hatred, it’s the easiest joke to write.

VW: You talked about expanding the audience. You’ve been doing a lot of fan interaction stuff, with the 855-PennyCan, and the @Larmy Twitter feed. How did you come up with the ones you’ve done, and are there any more of those in the pipeline?

BL: I have a philosophy about TV, and it could be wrong – you probably have your own too. Which is, if you’re lucky enough to be a breakout hit like American Idol or Lost, and you grab the zeitgeist at the right time and everybody’s watching you, more power to you. If you’re not –  the only way I don’t think those things you’re talking about are to gain new viewers – I feel like the only way to survive as a TV show is to hold on to your loyal audience as hard as you possibly can.We started doing that on Scrubs. One of the things we did on Scrubs was, we tried to open the doors of access to writers and cast members, whether it be Turk’s cell phone, or a live-sitcom version of Scrubs that we flew all the superfans to come in and see. It’s something that we really enjoyed doing.

So with this show, too – I feel like Cougar Town‘s long-term success is going to depend on keeping the people that are already fans happy. One of the ways to do that is to provide them with extra content. The trick is to have it not seem like a sales tool and to be funny, fun stuff that we enjoy doing, and so far it has been. We did these Vulture videos [for New York Magazine‘s pop-culture website], we really liked doing them.

Another thing going on is, we’ve been kind of sneaky in cross-promoting with Community, which I think is cool because it’s a comedy on another network. So we’re feeding content back and forth. People can see Busy Philipps and Dan Byrd in the background of the Community [season] finale, and I would tell fans of Community to watch Cougar Town towards the end of the year for a surprise. I believe in the modern landscape of television, you can’t just expect loyalty. People have two hundred options. You have to earn it.

VW: What are your thoughts on your time slot for next season [NOTE: This interview was conducted before ABC released its 2011-12 schedule, which holds Cougar Town for midseason.]

BL: I feel like there’s no Shangri-La. If you stay behind Modern Family, you will always get judged by the next show that goes behind Modern Family, if it’s not us, based on retention. The reality is, you’re going to be very hard-pressed to match the ratings of a hit. You’re gonna feel like crap even though you get a good number because you’re not doing their number, and when it comes time for [the network] to launch a new show, you’re going to get benched for a little bit because that’s the best place to launch a new comedy.

That said, it’s nice to feel safe and to have people watching your show. If you go out on your own, the negative is, you could drown because it’s uncharted territory. The positive is, if you’re leading off an hour on a different night and you get a 2.3 [rating] or a 2.8, or a 3.1, suddenly you’re a giant hero.

VW: With Scrubs, you’d talked about having a “tool box” of side characters to bring in for gags. On Cougar Town, you’ve got Tom, and Barb, and now Travis’s roommate Kevin. Is that world going to expand?

BL: I’m a big believer in secondary characters being funny in their own right, and adding to the ensemble. I think slowly but surely we’ll expand. But we’ve got a lot of regulars, so you’ve got to take care of a bunch of people.

VW: There’s a rumor that Sam Lloyd will be appearing on Cougar Town as his Scrubs character Ted Buckland.

BL: Ted’s in the finale. He’s fantastic.

VW: What would happen if Ted ran into Jules’s dad [played by Scrubs veteran Ken Jenkins] at some point?

BL: It’d be like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. The whole show would implode.

VW: Just about every Spin City principle turned up on Scrubs at some point, and actors from both shows have begun appearing on Cougar Town as well. Anyone scheduled so far to turn up in season three?

BL: I know, like, twenty people, and I like working them, they’re friends. I keep trying to bring the Scrubs and Spin City people through. Nothing’s booked yet, but there’s gotta be more Scrubs actors on. I got a chance to work with Connie Britton, so I’m trying to get here on there. I’d love to see Donald [Faison] or Johnny C. [McGinley], or Zach [Braff] – any of them, Judy [Reyes], Neil [Flynn], Sarah [Chalke]. Problem is, everybody’s talented and they’ve got gigs.

VW: What other TV are you enjoying right now?

BL: I’m doing a couple of things. I love Tosh 2.0 right now, it’s like immediate crack for me, I just think it’s hysterical. I love The Killing. I watch constant television, you can’t stop me from watching it. The ESPN [30 For 30] Fab Five documentary is fantastic, definitely dig that show.

I’m slowly catching up on The Wire. I have the DVDs. When it first premiered it seemed too smart for me, because I’m not that smart a guy. But once you get into it, it hooks you pretty solid. I’m also really digging Parenthood. Jason [Katims]’s new show is fantastic and funny and the cast is really good.

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, May 24, 2011.

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