Interview date: 11/04/2008
Run date: 11/12/2008
I would not presume to suggest that Bill Lawrence and I are friends, but we do share a common bond: the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. I’m a native, and he lived here while attending the College of William and Mary, so I’ve interviewed him before for the local alt-weekly (“PortFolio Weekly”), and on the occasions when I’ve met him in person, he’s always purported to remember me from that conversation. I’ve always taken him at his word, but at the same time, the guy meets and talks to hundreds of journalists, so I always secretly figured that he was just being polite. Now, however, I’m quite sure he really does remember me. When I contacted Lawrence on behalf of Bullz-Eye to see if he’d be up for talking about the impending return of “Scrubs” to the airwaves, this time on its brand new home at ABC, he not only readily agreed to chat, but, indeed, was a little freaked out about the fact that he might not have made good on an assurance he made me when we last saw each other.
Fair warning: Lawrence discusses the new season of “Scrubs,” and offers some teases about what to expect, like who’ll be guest starring, what sort of facial hair J.D. will be sporting, and the prognosis for a patient in the season’s second episode. But there’s nothing here that can really be called a “spoiler” in the traditional sense.
Bill Lawrence: Hey, is this Will?
Bullz-Eye: It is!
BL: Hey, man, it’s Bill Lawrence. How’re you doing?
BE: I’m good, sir. Good to talk to you again!
BL: I’ll tell ya, I was in a panic attack because I saw that you and I were gonna talk, and then I remembered…the publicists send me articles and stuff, and awhile back you wrote an article about me, where I said that I’d give you some advance (“Scrubs”) episodes, but I only gave ‘em to a few people, and I’m, like, “Oh, man, if I did not give them to this guy, I’m gonna be screwed!”
BE: (Laughs) No, no, Eren (Bill’s right-hand man) hooked me up.
BL: Okay, cool, because I was having a panic attack that this whole thing was gonna be about how I don’t live up to my word. (Laughs)
BE: Don’t worry, I promise that won’t be the lead.
BL: Yeah, as long as you bury it, man, I’m cool.
BE: Well, I don’t know if Eren told you why I wanted to talk to you, but Bullz-Eye’s doing its TV Power Rankings, and we’ve got “Scrubs” rated pretty highly amongst our shows that we’re looking forward to having return in 2009.
BL: Oh, hey, I’ll take it! I need it!
BE: But given the fluctuation on the ABC schedule, I’m wondering: are they going to pull you guys off the bench before 2009?
BL: You know what, man? I gotta tell ya, I take everything with a grain of salt because of the past, but the thing is that ABC has been really cool and supportive, so much so that I unexpectedly started seeing commercials for the show. It’s not even on…and even when it was on, I don’t recall seeing any on NBC (Laughs) which is really neat. I know that with Steve (McPherson, president of ABC), at one point, there was a little talk about how they might need to put some shows on in November, but I got to talk to him, and I don’t think he was receptive to putting this show on without promoting it correctly. And he’s got something at stake, too, you know? So far, it’s been great. To tell you the truth, most of my interaction with these guys has been on finally getting the Web site going and getting webisodes produced and getting us extra money for that. It’s been a great push, so I don’t think it’s going to be rushed on. I think it’ll probably come on right at the beginning of January.
BE: I wasn’t sure, because “Opportunity Knocks” left the air a little earlier than they’d planned, I think.
BL: Yeah, and it’s really interesting, because I think that, on NBC, our show would’ve been in that timeslot the very next week. And I think here, if he has to air it early, you’ll know because you’ll see a thousand promotions for it. And if he doesn’t, then I think it’ll be launched as if it were a new show for the network.
BE: Ironically, over on NBC, they’ve pulled “Law & Order” off the shelf and put it on the air again way earlier than had been anticipated.
BL: Yeah, man, and it always bums me out, because…I don’t know, I feel like the message that that network sometimes gives is that it doesn’t matter, that these shows that you get invested in can come and go as they please. And it sends kind of a pervasive message out that’s, like, “Scripted programming? Who gives a shit?” You know? And I think it turns people off.
BE: Well, I have watched the first two new episodes…
BL: Oh, cool, man! What did you think? And you can be candid, by the way. I don’t care at this point. I just…I mean, I do care, but I’ve taken plenty of lumps and I’ve had plenty of nice stuff said. But I hope you dug ‘em.
BE: Well, I did, and although I’m totally going to be accused of kissing ass, I have to assure you that the second episode, the one that focuses on a terminal patient, is arguably one of my favorite episodes of “Scrubs,” ever. Seriously.
BL: Oh, thank you! It was really weird, because it reminded me…I keep telling everybody that we’re going to try to get tonally back to what we did before, and what was tough was that we wanted to do that right away. And I think that, rightly so, what was a little off-putting to ABC was…they said, “On a new network, I’m not sure we’re looking for you to come out of the gates and have somebody that we like die right as the first show.” But the cool thing there was that I said, “What about if the first show has a high-profile guest star (Courtney Cox) and we just kind of remind people that we’re back on and you get to meet some new faces, and then what if the second show we do that one?” And they said, “Sure.” It reminded me of the first year, because in the first year of the show, Will, we kind of had this similar fight with NBC. I said, “Hey, the third episode of the show, we’re going to say, ‘One of these three people is going to die,’ but then all three people are going to die.” And they fought me for weeks, saying, “Well, maybe just one of them can die, and maybe he should be, like, a racist or be really mean?” (Laughs) No, they’re all nice, and they all kick it. And that became kind of a defining show for our series, because it said that there’s actual stakes. And I just want to remind people that our show is like that. That, right off the bat, people die and it actually matters. And I think it’s important, too, to see Zach acting like an adult and kind of reminiscing about the way he used to be. I thought it was good.
BE: And the first episode does a really good job of setting up the new class of interns at the hospital.
BL: Yeah, you know, the first episodes are tough, Will, especially when you know that, by the time it goes on TV, your show will probably not only have been off the air for a year but, due to NBC locking down our rights to open up a Web site, we weren’t even able to get a “Scrubs” site up and going until just recently, because of legal reasons. So it was kind of, like, “Hey, remember these are all the characters, and this is all the stuff going on.”
BE: I’ve heard through the grapevine about these webisodes you’ve been filming. Now, are those going to start being rolled out prior to the season premiere?
BL: Yeah, these guys have been really supportive, because we…it’s very weird, because we’re an eighth-year show, and we had a bunch of new interns, but all of the regulars in the cast got into them, too. So ours are populated by both the new characters and Zach and Donald and Johnny C. and Neil Flynn and all of those people, who all kind of dove in and took them seriously, which is not what I expected. We’re gonna premiere a bunch of them before it starts, to hopefully give people some content before we get going again, and then they kind of inform the show as we go along. We made six, but we got so over the top into it as a cast, and we all improv so much, that we have enough material for them to be 12! So, now, ABC in a bad economic time is trying to dig up the financial support to make that happen.
BE: I’d think that the fact that the regular cast is in them as well would help. That’s relatively unprecedented.
BL: Yeah, it’s not what usually happens. But I think that people, and it sounds corny, but on this show, people were just so grateful to actually get to come back and have a chance to end it that people really were gung-ho. And I think I’m the only one who would ever have the courage to say it, because they would never want me to be mad at them, but I felt like there was a feeling…this was such a weird time, the year or two beforehand. You combine the fact that our show was a little older, maybe getting a little long in the tooth, in a very weird time in TV history, with strikes and having to rush episodes and then being dicked around a bit. I think that, as a group, I’m the only one who would say it out loud, but…we didn’t feel like we had put our best foot forward in our recent history, and so everybody, top to bottom, we had a meeting and were talking about coming back for a last year, and we said, “It can’t be because people want to bank checks. It has to be because we’re all going to bust our humps.” I didn’t think it would actually work, but, y’know, you see Zach Braff running from where he’s shooting his show upstairs to shoot a webisode. After eight years? I don’t think you see that a lot. It’s pretty cool.
BE: There’s definitely a “the end is nigh” feeling to the first two episodes, particularly with Dr. Cox’s monologue in the season premiere. Is there going to be a sense of finality to the season, or will there be in-jokes referencing that you’re wrapping things up?
BL: I would say “no,” and I’ll tell you why. I think you’ll feel that, story-wise, the show is progressing. But I feel like -- and we were guilty of it, as I’ve seen many a show that I’ve loved be guilty of it -- when you get tired and lazy, you get to this kind of meta area where you do self-referential jokes. You’re basically joking about the type of show you are. And I like those, but if you overdo them, it’s because you’re out of energy. One of the things that made it easy to do this season was that we found a way to track stories so that the only person it will really feel like an end for is Zack. And for a lot of other people, it’ll just be changes, but not necessarily changes that take them away. The finale of the series definitely plays like a finale of a series, because it plays like the finale for the person who was essentially the main character: J.D. That’s the way we got around the fact that we’re done with production and there’s still a coin-flip of a chance that the show will be on after this year. I’ll put it this way: it’s a show where it would be easy to do another year if it was creatively viable, but even if I’d been told that there’s no possibility that the show would ever be on beyond this season, it’s still the way I would’ve ended it…mostly because I’m lazy, Will. We’ve had the ending pretty much outlined every year for the last three years (Laughs) because I always thought the show was going to end.
BE: Now, I have never claimed to be Nostradamus, but J.D. seems to be particularly disgruntled with this class of interns.
BL: You are a smart guy.
BE: If you were a betting man, what would you say the odds would be that J.D. would retire from medicine at the end of the series?
BL: I would say…no, but here’s what’s really interesting, man: I would say you have stumbled onto somebody’s future. But not J.D.’s.
BL: There you go.
BE: This is gonna get me on Ain’t It Cool News, you know.
BL: (Laughs) What I think you’re sensing is that I really wanted to make an effort -- especially for Zach’s character, and he really embraced it -- to make this guy still be funny and childish and goofy but still seem like an adult. And the things we hooked across was that we had to give him episodes of emotional weight, like the one you saw. I’ll tell you right now that both the second and the fourth episodes…you saw the second one, but the fourth one is the same, tonally. They’re a little darker than ABC comedies usually go. And the other way we thought that we would really help Zach’s character is…say what you will about the character of J.D., but he was always somebody who cared almost more than anybody about being a doctor, and about patients. So for him to be saddled with interns that have shortcomings that he would find intolerable throughout the show is a great way to establish him as a guy that’s still a real character. You know what I mean? I always feel very guilty, Will, because sometimes I’ve heard or read things like, “Wow, Zach’s playing this thing so goofy and so over the top,” and I just always want to throw it out there that the moments that people don’t like, Zach is a great guy in the sense that he does what I tell him to do. If I had told him to do it differently, he would have. So that stuff’s on me. And he really embraced going back to being a doctor.
BE: I’ve asked him before if there was anything that he wanted to see J.D. do before the series was over, and he’s always…well, not really evasive, but he just didn’t have much of an answer. It was more like, “I’d like to have more stoner comedy,” or, “I’d like to have the J.D. / Turk love story explored more.”
BL: Well, you know, I think the best thing about these actors is that they’re always very…well, you’ve talked to them. They’re always very careful and respectful toward the writing, and they all worry about treading on my footsteps, I guess, or on hallowed ground. (Laughs) The only thing he’s ever been really passionate about…and it’s because it’s been an open argument on that show…is whether his character and Sarah’s character end up together. And that’s been the central conflict to all of our writing this year, because everything else was kind of simple.
BE: That reminds me: you lied to us at the TCA Press Tour! (Laughs) You told us Sarah was going to be the mother on “How I Met Your Mother,” but she is so not the mother!
BL: (Laughs) Yeah, man, I was just goofing around! Hey, Will, I know how to get the “Scrubs” name out in the press!
BE: So whose idea was it for J.D. to sport the beard in the new season? Or was that just incidental to how Zach looked when he showed up on the set?
BL: No, but, actually, it’s a funny story. In the hiatus, Zach was just traveling around and hadn’t shaved or gotten a haircut in awhile. And I said, “I gotta say, man, the beard kind of makes you look a little more like an adult.” And to me, I thought it was symbolic. But the funny thing was that Zach said, “Hey, if you want, I’ll come back wearing a beard for a couple of episodes.” So I said, “Cool.” But then, because we shot the first three episodes without the guest star part, because Courtney’s schedule was such that she couldn’t come shoot them ‘til the end of the year. We were able to do that, because we were essentially done with production before we ever aired, but Zach suddenly got stuck as a nice guy who said that he’d wear a beard for a week having to wear a beard for a year. Literally, the day that we wrapped, he walked into my office and said, “Are there any pick-ups that you need? Is there anything else that I have to shoot.” I said, “No,” and within 45 minutes, he was clean-shaven. (Laughs)
BE: Okay, now’s your chance to do some NBC bashing, if you want.
BE: The treatment of the show during the last few seasons…I know it’s a business, but over the years, the preferential treatment they give to the NBC-Universal-produced shows has become really overt.
BL: You know, it’s weird, man. I’ve got two different schools of thought here. The number one school of thought comes from the business angle, which is that I, unfortunately, have a business background in my family, and one of the things that I tell when I talk at the Writer’s Guild to other potential show runners and stuff -- there’s this show runner’s training program – is: “Look, you have to remember that it’s a business, because if you were running the network, and let’s assume that you have no idea what’s going to work and what’s not going to work on TV, that you have absolutely no clue, if you have to choose between a show that’s going to make your company, in success, hundreds of millions of dollars or a show that, in success, is not going to do so, you’re always going to side with the show that’s going to make your company hundreds of millions of dollars.” That’s how business works. I understand that. I would make some of the same decisions. I think that, in the modern landscape, it is a huge gamble to allow yourself to create a show that is 100 percent owned by one studio or network and is on another. I think if that show is not a giant hit, you are doomed unless you can find a way to literally stay afloat and cultivate a cult audience and keep the show cheap enough that they can make some cash. Otherwise, the show goes away.
That being said, I noticed a trend at NBC when I was there that…I thought, like, the way that “Scrubs” ended is a lack of respect not for the “Scrubs” fanbase but for the network’s fanbase. We’re talking two different things here. I understand when shows are cancelled, okay, but when a show has been on your network for six or seven years…even “Las Vegas” got shuffled off the coil very quickly. I think that if a show has made your network millions of dollars and been there and been supportive, then it’s disrespectful to your network fanbase to not let it end. To me, it does create a bit of a “why should we bother getting invested if something can just go away” type of atmosphere, because...I used to feel, watching television, that I knew that even in tough times, I was going to get to watch a resolution. And I think that when that’s taken away from you a little bit, it’s harder to hook fans. And I think it’s a mistake. I understand the business side of it, but I do think that it’s a mistake.
BE: And, seriously, how tired did you get of that whole “let’s make ‘Scrubs’ a mid-season replacement” bullshit?
BL: (Laughs) You know what? Here’s the thing. I got tired of it, but on any new show, you watch numbers every week, it premieres and you see the ratings the next day, and you do all that stuff. After awhile, it goes away, and after awhile, if you’re just the biggest hit of all time, I’m sure it’s a different existence and a different set of pressures and joys that comes with that. But if someone asked me if I could go back in time seven years and know that, seven years from now, “Scrubs” won’t be a huge hit but it’ll have a real loyal fanbase and be really popular on Comedy Central and amongst college kids and stuff, and you’ll still get to do it without people driving you crazy, would you take it? I’d take it in a heartbeat. Especially in this landscape! If someone showed up at my door tomorrow and said, “Hey, Bill, that show you’re gonna do next, it won’t be a giant hit, and it’ll be shuffled around and it’ll be on mid-season one year and one year you’ll do 24 episodes and another you’ll do 18 and you’ll never know for the last four years if it’ll be ending or not, but it’ll be on for eight years, what would you say?” I would still say, “Sign me up.”
BE: Do you remember how you reacted when you found out which episode NBC was going to be airing as the last “Scrubs?”
BL: I understood it, but, to me, my reaction was, “Yeah, I get why you’re doing it, but I wish you wouldn’t.” Y’know? Because…it’s really weird, man, because I track our fanbase, and a lot of people were, like, “That episode sucked!” And I still maintain that, though I wouldn’t say it was one of our best episodes ever, if it were just a normal episode in a normal season when there were supposed to be seven episodes behind it, people would’ve been like, “Oh, that one was kinda cool.” Because there wouldn’t have been the same stakes.
BE: How do you deal with those fans? Because you seem like you’re a pretty accessible guy.
BL: I am, man. I did something really dumb, which was -- and you can put it in there if you want -- when they re-upped our Web site, I felt like I’d made a lot of promises to people that I’d be accessible and talking about the show. But then they shut the NBC Web site down. And I knew that there were still some pretty active communities on the fan forums and on ABC.com when they opened the “Scrubs” thing, so I put threads on both of them that said, “Bill Lawrence Answers Your Questions!” And you can be as nice as you want or a jerk if you want. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve got pretty thick skin at this point. So, yeah, I am fairly accessible, and you can go on those two threads and you can see me answering questions. The one thing I said in one of them was that I’m really…my new pet peeve, Will, is that if you catch a TV writer saying, “I don’t watch TV,” you should just hang up on them. I love television, and I’m really hard on my favorite shows, you know? Even my favorite shows that I never miss…like, Damon Lindelof is a really good buddy of mine. I’m a sycophant: I became friends with him after loving “Lost.” And I would tell him what part I thought was stalling and not good and what part I thought was amazing. We’re harshest on the things we like, so I don’t mind harsh criticism, and I don’t mind it when people are harsh on the show, and I especially don’t mind acknowledging it if sometimes they’re right. It’s tough to write the same show for eight years, man. I made some mistakes. I let it get too broad and goofy in the middle, and, y’know, we got a little lazy sometimes and were a little bit of a caricature of ourselves. We would still do an occasional really good episode here and there, and we’d still have some laughs, but we got away from what we liked a little bit. And by the same token, I think that getting away from that made it easier to come back to it, so it didn’t feel like…it’s very hard not to feel like you’re repeating yourself.
BE: Okay, I’ve got a few questions that’ll only require a one-liner answer. First off, did you finally get (John) Cusack to come on the show?
BL: (Sighs) No. I struck out, man. He was very cool, we almost had it hooked up, but the problem is that he’s a working actor, and the guy works all year. But I will forever give him crap for it.
BE: Hey, it’s an excuse to go on for a ninth season.
BE: Is Elizabeth Banks too big a star to come back now?
BL: She’s back. She’s back on the show in a really cool way. That’s why Elizabeth Banks is gonna do really well: she’s such a good gal. She’s a huge star, and it was in between features and stuff, but she was, like, “Ah, you guys were cool to me when I wasn’t the biggest star in the world, so whenever you want.”
BE: Why did you retire Dr. Kelso? Had it just reached a point where people were asking, “Geez, isn’t he old enough to retire by now?”
BL: The reason was because, if you remember, when it happened, we thought it was going to be the last season. He was going to retire, but he won free muffins for life from the coffee shop, so he was still going to lounge around the hospital all the time. He’s the quintessential old dude at the golf course. He’s in that coffee place, reading his paper and eating his free muffins every morning, driving everybody batty. And it was also a transitional thing for us, as to who was going to be the next Chief of Medicine, and how the dynamics were going to change. And we were able to still do that this year, but it’s just spread out a little bit.
BE: Is Aloma Wright (the late Nurse Laverne Roberts) coming back?
BL: She’s back this year in flashbacks.
BE: I remember you did a NBC conference call where you suggested that you were going to kill off her new character (Nurse Shirley), too, but that no one would care. That it would be, like, “Oh, really? Hey, where are the doughnuts?”
BL: (Laughs) Yeah, I never got around to that.
BE: I just wanted to mention that we just included Sam Lloyd (Ted the Attorney) in Bullz-Eye’s list of our All-Time Favorite TV Punching Bags.
BL: That is pretty cool. That guy is one of the best character actors working out there. He’s funny just walking onto the screen. He’s incredibly featured this year because, by his own doing, he took very small amounts of material and made it into a character that we could actually write stories for.
BE: He really can take three words and get a 30-second laugh out of them.
BL: Oh, he kills me. I really think that that guy is super talented, and I love it when I see him on other shows, too.
BE: I just finished writing up my review of the “Spin City” set that Shout Factory just released.
BL: Oh, look at that, man! That’s not bad, huh? But it was so weird for me, seeing that show. (Laughs) That was way back there. And you regress to what you were then, like when you go to a high school reunion, so when I was sitting there, doing that commentary with Gary (David Goldberg), I felt like I should be calling everybody “sir” and “ma’am” again. I was, what, 25?
BE: Did you enjoy revisiting it to do the documentary about the history of the show?
BL: Yeah, you know, I did. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. I was running that show when I was 25, 26 years old, and it was more of a party, since it was the only sitcom in New York. We’d do the show, and then we’d go out at night. It was like Letterman. There’s no other sitcoms there. It was Mike Fox, and you’d come to work on Friday to film, and there’d be a line of people there already, trying to get in. It was crazy fun.
BE: During one of Alexander Chaplin’s commentaries, he talks about how he and Mike had a feud -- well, not really a feud, but there was some tension between them on the set.
BL: Yeah, I think Sandy is very funny, because I think one of the cool things about that ensemble is that they were very competitive comedically. And I think that Sandy, also being a young lad, may have imagined a giant feud. And there may have been one from his side.
BE: It’s possible that he was exaggerating a bit, since he claims at one point that they once had to clear the set.
BL: (Laughs) Sandy is never shy about the drama. I love that guy. I keep bringing him back onto “Scrubs,” you know.
BE: So how about “Cougar Town?”
BL: “Cougar Town!” Oh, geez. Y’know, I love that Kevin and I, the writer from “Scrubs” that I’m doing it with, we were talking about titles, and we were, like, “We should do something like ‘MILF Island,’ on ’30 Rock.’ I’ll tell you how we can get publicity: no matter what this thing ends up being called, we should refer to it as ‘Cougar Town,’ just to see what happens.” And it has just snowballed on us. It’s really funny. Because it’s not a broad, silly show. The writers at “Scrubs” said that all of the interstitials should start with claw marks scratching across the scene, and then you hear (Imitates a cougar growl, then bursts into laughter.) But it’s not that. Once you see the script, it’s kind of a cool ensemble piece about a 40-year-old, recently-divorced lady with a 17-year-old kid. And Courtney is brave enough to take some shots at herself, y’know, and be self-deprecating. And I think it’s funny.
BE: Of course, you realize that you’re just setting yourself up for yet round after round of TCA tours.
BL: (Sighs) Oh, man, I know. You know, though, I don’t mind that stuff. I feel like, at those things, I’m actually around people who watch television. One of the things that bothers me about the industry…it’s not everybody, but you’ll be around executives who have kids and say, “I don’t have time to watch TV.” And I’m, like, “Please find another job.” (Laughs)
BE: And last question: do you ever have any regrets that the “Fletch” film never happened?
BL: I do, because Greg MacDonald recently passed away, and I not only loved those movies, but they don’t do them anymore. And by “those movies,” I mean, like, “Fletch,” “Midnight Run,” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” But I was a huge fan of his books, and I think I would’ve done a really good job with it. And he was a good guy. It was just one of those things where, with the business part of something, it’s very easy for it to come in and muck everything up. I actually hope that somebody does get a shot at redoing that thing, because the “Fletch” books are awesome, and the second movie was lame, and it was a half-assed attempt to make some money. It wasn’t one of the books. But Greg MacDonald’s novels are fantastic.
BE: Oh, yeah. Obviously, I’m a writer, but once upon a time, I thought I was going to be a proper newspaper writer…
BL: …so, of course, you loved them.
BE: Oh, yeah. What are there, something like a dozen “Fletch” books, all told? However many there are, I’ve got them all.
BL: Yeah, and from there, he did a couple of “Flynn” novels, which are good to read on a plane.
BE: I loved the character of Inspector Flynn. In fact, I want to say there was a “Flynn” TV movie at some point.
BL: I don’t know that for sure, but I know there are still people bandying about for the rights and whatnot.
BE: Sweet. Well, I think that’s everything.
BL: Will, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And if you want to check these webisodes out when we start sending them out, I think you’ll think they’re really funny.
BE: I’m sure I will. Thanks again, Bill, and I can’t wait for the new season to premiere.
BL: Me, neither, man!Post-script: Longtime fans of the show will know that Lawrence has always said that you’ll know the show is over when the janitor’s name is finally revealed. Although I neglected to ask him during the interview, I dropped Bill an E-mail after the fact, and he confirmed that, yes, he did indeed film the name-revealing scene…but if the show ends up going for a ninth season, one presumes that he’s positioned it so that it can be easily edited out of the last episode of Season 8.