I spoke with Scrubs creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence last Monday for the Blogcritics article Cultivating a Cult Audience, but for more words of wisdom from him and fewer attempts from me, here’s a minimally edited transcript of our talk. He started with an apology for the scheduling issues that preceded the interview.
DK: That’s OK, it sounds like you’ve been a little busy. You were directing a pilot?
BL: I was, and I’m doing a rewrite on a movie Zach [Braff] did, with Zach, so recently I’ve been on phone demand with Harvey Weinstein. It’s my first foray into the film business, so it’s been fascinating.
Are you still confident you’re going to get a 6th season of Scrubs?
BL: Oh yeah, without a doubt, I think the show will be on next year. We didn’t do a series finale for that reason.
Scrubs is kind of a dinosaur, because it’s on one network, it’s on NBC, but it’s 100 percent owned by ABC, which is very rare. Most times now, they’re co-ventures, where the network owns half the stake in the show, if not all of it, so they stand to be a profit participant in its success. The bad part of that for us was the first five years, business-wise for NBC it did not make a ton of sense to spend a ton of time and money promoting the show when they don’t stand to make any profit off its syndication. But the good side for us now is that 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. So he’s basically told us that if NBC can’t work this financial deal out, it will be on ABC next year.
When do you expect an official announcement?
BL: You know what I expect, because this is Hollywood? I expect it will go to the absolute last hour, because both sides think they get more leverage if they wait until the 11th hour before upfronts [where networks announce their schedules in mid-May]. So it will be about a week and a half from now at about 11 o’clock at night that we’ll find out what channel we’ll be on next year. But it’s a much better situation than wondering if we’ll be on at all.
Because this is Hollywood, everything’s written in sand, so everything could blow up, but I’d be quite shocked.
Do you know what direction you want to take the show for the new season?
BL: For the most part, we’ve stayed fairly consistent. Scrubs has evolved a bit simply because we take great pride in not being one of those shows that has a bunch of 30 and 40 year olds who are still in high school. I feel like the characters have evolved and doctors have gone from interns to residents to attendings and become more and more responsible and more and more adult-like, the students become the teachers, etc., as the show goes on. So I think we’re going to stay true to that and people will be moving forward.
One of the things we like best on the show is, especially this last year, we’ve just been doing whatever has made us laugh, and for whatever reason, it’s garnered us a bit of a critical renaissance. 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. We were really successful with it so we’re going to stick with it.
You’re obviously going to introduce Carla and Turk’s baby at some point – is that going to change the dynamic?
BL: It’s part of the evolution of the characters. You’ve seen that couple go from dating to engaged to married, and now to have a kid, and that’s going to be a regular progression. I certainly don’t think we’re going to do it the way other sitcoms have. 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.
We drop another couple of bombs in the finale that we’ll have to deal with next year. 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.
Without spoiling anything, can you tell me what the next couple of episodes will deal with?
BL: I can spoil one thing. One I can’t spoil, because there’s a big thing with Zach’s character, with J.D., that happens over the next year. But the one I can spoil is that my wife [Christa Miller] is pregnant in real life, and she plays Dr. Cox’s wife.
Oh, congratulations. Sounds like that might have to be worked into the story somehow, then?
BL: Thank you, yeah, I would think so. That’s not a huge surprise because if anyone sees a picture of her, they know I have to either make her pregnant next year or she’s going on a giant eating binge.
[laughs] I don’t think that worked very well on Frasier.
BL: Exactly, right? So there will definitely be some baby themes next year, but it will be fun for us. 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. So hopefully the show will be inundated with babies and baby stuff.
It can be a bit of a risk for a show, to introduce a baby and risk moving the focus, but you’ve done it before, really, with Cox.
BL: I don’t think it’s any different from how we’ve treated other things on the show. Yeah, they’ll have a kid. There’s not going to be a thousand episodes about the cute little kid as much as it will be yet another thing that will affect the characters’ lives that we enjoy watching. I would say, yes, it’s a risk if you change focus, but if you look at a show like Everybody Loves Raymond, I doubt even big fans of the show still remember the names of all their kids, because you saw them so infrequently.
How has your vision of the show evolved over the years?
BL: The main thing is this is a show that was built early on around innocence, and the characters being naïve and wide-eyed, and dragging the audience along with them to the scary world of medicine as they see it for the first time. The reality of that theme is you can’t play it over and over again because it gets repetitive and the characters grow up. 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.
I said it before, with the students becoming the teachers, I feel like the dynamic shifted a little. The good thing for us is it keeps you from getting stale, because it forces you to find character relationships every year, whether it be J.D. and Dr. Cox, who are now on more or less a level playing field, or even Turk as a surgeon, who is still in his last year of residency. He won’t be an actual attending, a full-scale physician, until next year. That will be interesting for us to do next season. We can finally do those stories where he’s off on his own doing those risky surgeries. Even though it might seem we don’t pay attention to that stuff, that’s why he hasn’t done it in the past. We try to at least pay attention to the rules of medicine.
The fact that you’re not expected to reach a Friends-like audience now seems to have given you more creative freedom. Do you think there’s merit to networks cultivating more niche shows instead of always focusing on the next big thing? [I shamelessly stole this question from Denis McGrath’s post Does Scrubs point the way?]
BL: I feel personally …. This is going to be me pontificating about the state of television.
Great! That’s exactly what I wanted.
BL: Here’s the deal. Hollywood, especially networks and studios, they love to see what the trends are. Most recently, one of the things people have been saying is the sitcom’s dead, three-camera sitcoms are dead. Before that, it was dramas are dead. And before that, it was sitcoms are dead. Now it’s going to be reality is dead. It’s a never-ending cycle.
It’s all just hogwash, first of all. The only thing that’s really changed in television is that people have so many options. My dad, who’s 60, has 150 channels and will tell me about shows he likes that I’ve never heard of before. The one thing you have to realize is that 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.
Because of that, I think you have one of two options. 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. 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. 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. For us, for Scrubs, that’s what we’re so grateful for. Because we weren’t a huge financial asset for NBC, the show’s had I think seven or eight timeslots in five years. Luckily our fans are so loyal, that same core group has followed us from timeslot to timeslot and from evening to evening and really helped to keep the show going.
You’ve cultivated a relationship with fans online using audio commentary, video blogs, etc. How has that been important to the show?
BL: I feel like 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. We strive to go to great lengths to do this. Because we happen to know our core group of fans are very Internet savvy, we made sure Scrubs was one of the first shows that NBC didn’t own that was released on NBC’s iTunes. We do blogs and tons of Internet stuff and try to keep them as loyal and hooked in as we possibly can. We lovingly call them our nerds. It’s seriously a giant testament to them that the show’s still alive.
How involved are you in all that, and the name the baby contest – where do those ideas come from?
BL: We’re very involved. One of the cool things about Scrubs is it’s like a weird college filmmaking class. 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.
Earlier this year we did an air band episode, partly because we knew it would be really funny, partly because we knew we could release an air band video on the website. We came up with a story where we released Turk’s cell phone number on one of the episodes with a real number, and then the cast and crew took turns answering it. We still occasionally answer it because, believe it or not, it still rings. It’s very odd to me. I think it’s when people get the DVD. So we answer it and talk to them.
We’re hands-on from everything ranging from the Internet components all the way to the music of the show, so we pay attention to all that stuff.
How is the writing process different from a traditional sitcom like your other creation, Spin City? Do you look for something different in your writers on Scrubs?
BL: I love traditional multi-camera sitcoms. A really well-done one is such great comfort food. I was one of those guys watching Everybody Loves Raymond until the very end. I thought it was a brilliant show. A lot of the writing staff here came from a sitcom background because we’re a comedy, and that was really 99 percent of the comedy before this. When Scrubs came on, people said single-camera comedies didn’t work. Now they’re all over the place.
But you’re not just a comedy, either. Like the last episode, I have to admit I might have cried just a little bit at the end [where three transplant recipients die and Cox blames himself and … wait, I have something in my eye].
BL: The big difference between traditional multi-camera sitcoms and this is writing visually. Sitcoms in front of a live audience are dialogue-driven. With Scrubs, maybe there’s a lot of dialogue comedy, but I would say still 50 percent of the comedy is visual. You know, funny pops to things, weird-looking fantasies, pratfalls, all sorts of things you could never do as a writer for a sitcom.
And besides that, 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. 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. When they don’t work, they’re our biggest failures. That’s the other thing that’s really been fun is we try to write dramatic elements into the show, for the very reason we were talking about before — that’s one of the things that really hooks our loyal fans. On this show especially, they want to get into the depths of people’s lives, and the fact that it’s a single-camera, realistic-looking show in a hospital, we’re able to do that.
I always cite M*A*S*H, because they’re the forerunner and the first ones for me to do this really effectively. It was a great, funny sitcom if you watch the first few years of that show. Yet it could turn on a dime because it was set in a war hospital, and suddenly really move you emotionally, make you cry or make you get caught up in something. We were always trying to aspire to that type of show.
Do you think that puts networks in a tough position? They don’t always seem to know how to market comedies that aren’t purely comedies.
BL: I don’t know. I believe truly that advertising is such a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s so silly to me. The recent phenomenon of stunt casting is a great example. You’ve probably noticed over the last six or seven years, during sweeps you’ll suddenly see: “This week on Will & Grace … God!”
[laughs] I think I missed that episode, actually.
BL: God, or, you know, Sean Penn. The networks will tell you, look, we put these big stars on and millions more people watched. That’s not really the case. If you ask me, what happened was they put those big stars on so they promoted that show 9,000 times more than they usually do, and then more people watched.
So I feel like it’s not so much of a burden. The truth is, if you promote a show, no matter how you do it, people will check it out, and then it’s about the quality of the show as to whether or not they stay around.
Since the soundtrack is being released next week [May 9], can you tell me how music is chosen for the show? Are you involved in that?
BL: We’re very nerdy about it. The writers, the actors, and even the crew, everybody has iPods, everyone goes out and sees bands play. We’re obsessive about finding small bands that have been overlooked.
The biggest proponent of that is my wife. 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. They hand it to her. Zach picks songs, and Neil Goldman, one of our writers, picks out a ton.
What we generally do is, yes, we put a song at the end of an episode. But 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. 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. We’re really psychotic about it.
The cool thing is so many of the bands have been personal friends of ours, or were bands that hadn’t popped, and then because our Internet crowd starts talking about them on the Internet, suddenly they’re selling more albums. So the artists are very cool and loyal to us, and we’ve been able to do a soundtrack album with little hassle because they’ve all been very generous about lending us their music for it.
For example, Cary Brothers and Josh Radin, who were all over the Scrubs soundtrack, are both friends of Zach Braff’s from college. Colin Hay — my wife was a huge fan for years and years. Tammany Hall was another band she knew from New York. So they’re all for the most part kind of obscure artists we think deserve more play.
And the season three DVDs are released the same day. What can we expect from the set? What’s the coolest extra?
BL: We take great pains in making sure there are extras on the DVD that will make our fans happy. It’s not so much bells and whistles as it is a ton of interviews. I know I had to sit around and talk for the better part of 24 hours about random things, ranging from dogs at work to practical jokes played on people to how the actors got cast, and all that stuff. I know Zach Braff had to do the same thing, from talking about Scrubs Factor, which is this thing we do to get through the day where people have to do horrible tasks for cash, to how he got the part.
The one thing we take great pains to do is there’s always stuff beyond just the episodes and the commentaries, on how the stories came to be and how the actors got their parts and how we hang out and stuff. I’m sure it will be much the same.
Anything else you want to add?
BL: No, just, I know it sounds sycophantic, but I’m always extremely grateful to people such as yourself and our nerds, the people who traffic in and read this stuff, because I’ve got to tell you, this show has been such an underdog that it’s only because of writers and critics such as yourself and our core fan group that the show is still around.