Cultivating a Cult Audience: An Interview with Scrubs Creator Bill Lawrence

It’s the show that can’t lose. Despite being bounced around NBC’s schedule over the years, despite not making it onto the fall schedule this past season, despite doubts about renewal year after year, Scrubs is the Timex watch, the Energizer bunny, the Name-Your-Cliché-for-Durability of TV shows.

Its loyal fan base means ratings have remained steady, if never stellar, through the uncertainty. It’s gained critical acclaim, and nominations for best comedy and for Zach Braff as lead comedy actor at the last Emmys, whose September broadcast might have given a boost to Scrubs’ fifth season if the premiere hadn’t had to wait until January.

The show can’t lose with me, either. A cable package with both Eastern and Pacific time zone feeds became a necessity when it was scheduled against that other medical show I enjoy Tuesdays at 9 p.m. And despite getting stood up a few times for my interview with creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence, who’s been rewriting a movie script and directing a television pilot during Scrubs’ hiatus, I couldn’t give up on the show that won’t give up.

But the biggest indication the show can’t lose is that Lawrence has been vocal lately about surefire renewal. If NBC doesn’t pick the show up, he says, ABC is waiting in the wings.

“ABC not only owns the show, but the person who ran Touchstone Studios when it was developed is Steve McPherson, and he’s president of the network now,” said Lawrence. “So he’s basically told us that if NBC can’t work this financial deal out, it will be on ABC next year.”

The unusual arrangement – being wholly owned by one network and aired on another – has contributed to its ugly treatment by NBC, who don’t stand to gain as much financially from its success. But it’s also led to a more promisingly unusual arrangement by making Scrubs’ availability on iTunes “the first time two rival media companies have joined together in a digital download deal,” according to the LA Times. It’s a feat that isn’t quite equivalent to peace in the Middle East, but means competitors NBC and Touchstone were able to work out a precedent-setting profit-sharing arrangement.

Reaching out to the audience: “We happen to know our core group of fans are very Internet savvy.”

Explaining Scrubs’ tenacity, a grateful Lawrence kept coming back to those loyal fans. “We lovingly call them our nerds. It’s seriously a giant testament to them that the show’s still alive.”

“If you’re not that giant hit, you have to tap into what people who love your show like, and keep it interesting and satisfying to them,” he said, explaining the importance Scrubs has placed on iTunes, behind-the-scenes blogs, audio commentary, videos (such as excerpts from J.D.’s Dr. Acula movie, a running joke in the show), and other Internet-based extras, including a Name Carla and Turk’s Baby contest.

These aren’t all just products of NBC’s marketing department, either. “One of the cool things about Scrubs is it’s like a weird college filmmaking class,” joked Lawrence. “We work in this creepy, deserted hospital in the Valley. All the writers are there, all the actors are there, we all still hang out. And writers and actors alike come up with all this odd Internet stuff.”

More than a comedy: “Our fans want to get into the depths of people’s lives.”

But the content of the show itself is, of course, the reason these viewers are already engaged enough to lap up its creative methods for fan engagement.

The last episodes of the season air over the next two Tuesdays, and Lawrence promises to “drop a couple of bombs” – another sign of his confidence that May 16 is the season finale, not the series finale. “One of the things we like doing as a writing staff is ending the year with things we have to deal with or unravel the next year, because it helps us dive into stories when we come back.”

This season, Lawrence and his writers decided to embrace the creative freedom of a show that had nothing to lose. “We’ve just been doing whatever has made us laugh, and for whatever reason, it’s garnered us a bit of a critical renaissance,” he said. “So we’re going to keep doing that. This year we really stopped trying to be everything to everybody and just did the things that made not only us, but our core group of fans laugh.”

Scrubs is not just about the laughs, though. Recently it dealt with a decision by Dr. Cox that resulted in three patients’ deaths, and his subsequent drinking binge. That sombre storyline was surrounded by elements such as J.D.’s absurd fantasies and The Todd’s now equal-opportunity sexual innuendo.

“One of the goals we had on this show early on was to take shows like The Wonder Years and M*A*S*H as models,” said Lawrence, who co-created Spin City at age 26 and also wrote for Friends’ first season. “We feel the most successful episodes of Scrubs are ones that can make the transition from very broad, silly comedy to something with emotional impact and depth very quickly. When it works, usually they’re our favourite episodes.”

Scrubs has evolved as the core characters progressed from interns to residents to attendings, with newbie J.D. now the near-equal of his mentor, Cox, and with his own group of newbies to teach. “I feel like the show’s point of view has evolved from that child-like innocence into a more comedic, cynical, been-there-done-that atmosphere,” he remarked.

Another change is on the horizon, as Carla and Turk prepare to welcome that fan-named baby. Lawrence plans to introduce the new addition as just another factor in the characters’ lives rather than having “a thousand episodes about the cute little kid.”

“It’s not going to be the big sweeps episode: ‘Here’s the baby!’ They’ll have a kid somewhere in the early part of next season and they’ll evolve as any couple would and deal with the hassle of being a nurse and a doctor and working those crazy hours and having a kid to take care of.”

But he also hints at a patented Scrubs spin on the theme. “We certainly aren’t always treading new ground, but when we do stuff other sitcoms have done, we try to do it bigger and differently.”

DVD and soundtrack release: “We’re very nerdy about it.”

The season three DVD set will be released on May 9, and the same thought that goes into the Internet extras went into the DVD, which will include commentaries and numerous interviews. “We take great pains in making sure there are extras on the DVD that will make our fans happy,” Lawrence declared.

Another Scrubs soundtrack, a follow up to the 2002 release, also will be available May 9, exclusively on iTunes. Music for the show is hand-picked by writers, cast, and crew, who focus on relatively unknown artists with songs that reflect themes of an episode.

“A lot of times when we’re outlining a show, we’ll do it with a song in mind, because we really try to make the lyrics land with the visuals images that we’re showing,” he explained. “We’re especially careful about this nowadays, because so many shows are doing end-of-show musical montages now. If they don’t stand out and they don’t seem special and well done, then you seem like you’re just one of the crowd.”

Zach Braff’s college friends Cary Brothers and Joshua Radin feature on the new soundtrack. Lawrence’s wife, Christa Miller – who plays Cox’s wife, Jordan, and whose real-life pregnancy will contribute to next season being “inundated with babies and baby stuff” – selected Colin Hay and Tammany Hall. “She picks so much of the music for the show that a lot of the writers and actors don’t even go to me anymore when they have a song,” he laughed. “They hand it to her.”

Loyalty versus numbers: “That same core group has followed us from timeslot to timeslot.”

Tending to their “nerds” in everything they do, from music selection, to DVD extras, to supplementary Internet materials, to, oh yes, writing the episodes, fits with Lawrence’s philosophy on television in general.

“If you’re super, super lucky, you have one of those giant hits that just grabs the public zeitgeist, whether it’s Grey’s Anatomy or American Idol or one of those shows that seems like a giant steamroller that everybody in the world watches. In which case, you get to sit back and celebrate,” he said. “If you aren’t that, I feel the only way to survive is to become a cult show, in the sense that your core audience is so loyal that they will follow you and stick with you and truly keep your show alive and successful for the network.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great example of this,” he continued. “It was never a huge hit, but had such a loyal cult following that it basically drove that show into long-term success. The Family Guy, their cult following put that show back on the air.”

He credits Scrubs’ core audience with helping the show survive multiple timeslot changes despite lackluster promotion from NBC. But he rejects the notion that his show or any other has been the victim of a downward trend in comedy.

“The only thing that’s really changed in television is that people have so many options,” Lawrence claimed. “Sitcoms aren’t dead. It’s just that crappy television is dead. I think it’s so competitive out there right now that a middle-of-the-road show that’s just OK, nothing special, isn’t going to survive the way it used to.”

So maybe it’s obvious why this winning show can’t lose: Bill Lawrence has managed to veer skillfully toward the edges of that road, and has reached out to the audience who have demonstrated that they’re thrilled to be along for the ride.

For more of the interview, see the Q&A of our discussion.

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