When Indiewire sat down with Bill Lawrence, he was clenching a piece of paper with jokes written on it — because we were backstage at Esther’s Follies in Austin, Texas, and he was about to open a stand-up comedy show featuring the cast of “Undateable,” the show he now produces for NBC about a group of unlucky-in-love friends living in Detroit.
Having created the shows “Scrubs” and “Cougartown,” Lawrence has an established track record with single-camera comedy, but the self-professed television nerd is happy to be working again in the multi-camera format. Below, he reveals why they stacked the “Undateable” cast with stand-up comics who were all friends, and what he loves about multi-cam.
So, what’s really interesting about “Undateable” is how much it’s rooted in sitcom tradition.
I love sitcoms — I’m a TV nerd. I know you’re a TV nerd.
[Note: This was the first time Lawrence and I had ever met.]
I grew up around multi-camera sitcoms, even though I’ve done a lot of single-cam stuff, but the first show I created was “Spin City,” and it had Michael J. Fox in it, and watching him use that medium, where he takes what you wrote and expands it and says whatever the hell he wanted, basically — he’s so good at it, you know, and it made it exciting for me, as a writer, to see stuff get better.
I also love stand-up comedy, and I decided in my head two things: Comics are the last performers that really have the training to do a multi-camera sitcom. They’ve got to hold for laughs, they’ve got to play with the audience.
What I think makes TV shows work is when you think the cast are friends in real life — that cast chemistry. It used to be that you had a whole year to work that out, and now you have like three weeks before the network cans it? So we cast all comics and all comedians — most of these guys have known each other as friends for at least five years, and in Chris [D’Elia] and Bianca [Kajlich]’s case, 17 years. So they have an instant rapport. I wanted people who were comfortable around each other riffing and talking — we’ll do one take as written, and the second take, play around, use stand-up acts, find new bits. If they don’t work, who cares? If they work, we’ll put them on the show.
How often do you go with second take vs. first take?
50/50, and not because the second take is… Here’s what’s hard if you do sitcom: Sometimes, the second take laugh is just because it’s something different — but sometimes, it’s truly inspired. The only reason I say it’s 50/50 is because they’re comics, sometimes it’s too blue for network TV, when we let them play around. What I more often than not do is, if we have a good joke in the first take, they won’t change it, but they’ll expand on it, because that’s what good comics and comedians do, that’s the start of a bit. So what I thought was, run the line, and often the second take will become the entire scene.
So, are there director’s cuts?
Yeah, we’re trying to release them — we have not shot an episode of this show that has not been at least 17 minutes over.
Yeah. But it’s cool, because what you do afterwards is — if there are great scenes, you might have to go back and reshoot some little lines to rebuild it so the story makes sense. But I love it. I think it’s fun.
If you removed all the bits it would be on time — we write short scripts — but we don’t want to. So what we do instead is try to isolate the bits that we enjoyed, that the network enjoys as well and they don’t find too weird — you know what I mean. And if we have to shoot some extra lines to make the show make sense, we will.
I was just reading an article about “The Big Lebowski” today that pointed out that people have come to embrace the fact that people don’t really care about the plot of the movie — that they’re just engaged with the characters, the dialogue and the world. Is that kind of approach something you look for and try to build with your ensemble?
It’s interesting. In “Spin City,” which was multi-camera, it was a very story-driven show. A, B and C story, sometimes 27 scenes. But [“Undateable”] rarely has more than nine scenes. What we try to do is find enough of a framework that there’s at least a little bit of a story — you can buy into it at the end when one of the characters gives a shit about it emotionally, and hopefully people can play, and it can be about their friendship and hanging out in the middle.
I feel that we can fail on either side quite easily. You can either have it be too much of a story that’s trying to be manipulative, and be about something when you don’t really have the time. We’ve also done episodes that were them goofing around too much, and it seems like it’s about nothing. But first and foremost, I love multi-camera comedy. Man, do I like doing a half-hour comedy again where your ultimate goal is still to maybe make people laugh, you know?
Because I think there’s half-hour dramedies on everywhere. And cable is doing so many amazing ones — I’m watching “Veep,” and “Silicon Valley” to the end of time. But network is still the home of big, juicy multi-cams. Critics might not love it at first, it doesn’t seem like anything new, but if you grow to love the characters… it’s what I grew up on, I love it. And the big lie is when they say that they’re old school — because my kids love them. The thing that drew me back? My kids watched nothing but “The Wizards of Waverly Place,” you know, “Hannah Montana” — they’re all multi-cam! You know what I mean? They still like it!
Nickelodeon’s been keeping the format alive…
Without a doubt!
In Hollywood, they go, “Oh, you know, the younger generation doesn’t like that.” And I think the “Friends” re-runs are on for like the billionth cycle.
Yeah, they’re doing all right.
I’m not comparing our show to “Friends,” but you know.
It’s interesting you brought up the dramedy thing, because now, with the Emmys rules being a lot stricter in terms of submitting, do you feel like that’s a fair move, or…?
You know what’s interesting? I feel like it’s really hard to categorize TV shows in any way, shape, or form. To me, there’s just good ones and bad ones. I don’t mean to sound holier-than-thou, I’m just not an awards guy, you know? But, I think it’s tough to say — I got in so much trouble once, because someone said, “‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Scrubs’ are both nominated for best comedy — Is ‘Desperate Housewives’ a comedy?” And I was like, “Yeah, it feels like a nighttime soap. It’s really good, my wife loves it and watches it,” and they’re like, “Well, there’s a lot of funny lines in it,” the reporter, and I said, “Well, ‘West Wing’ I find hysterical — the banter, you know?
Yeah, it’s amazing.
So I said, “Well, ‘The West Wing’s got a ton of funny lines in it,” you know? And then the reporter said, “Is ‘The West Wing’ funnier than ‘Desperate Housewives?'”
And I wasn’t thinking! So, I thought both shows were great — and I’m like, “To me, ‘The West Wing’s’ hysterical.” So that whole interview became —
“Bill Lawrence Hates ‘Desperate Housewives’!”
…”And Thinks ‘The West Wing’ Is Funnier.” And the truth is, I think both those shows are great. It’s really hard to get that specific to categorize stuff.
I would agree that “The West Wing” is probably a funnier show.
The banter in that was so witty to me. So fun.
They had some great pratfalls too.
Oh my gosh — it killed me.
In terms of the tradition of old school versus new school, do you think that the sitcom format has really evolved?
I do not think that the multi-camera sitcom format has evolved that much, and I think it’s a good thing — and I’ll tell you why. I think single-camera comedy has evolved, because as soon as you’re doing jokes in a visual medium, and trying to create comedy with editing, and looks, and music — the format’s changed. And I think comedy’s evolved — I think sketch has gotten huge again, like “Key and Peele.” I think the beauty of multi-cam… the people who have tried to reinvent it, I don’t think it necessarily succeeds. I’ve tried before with weird shows, we had this show called “Nobody’s Watching” once, where they knew the audience was there. It was very weird, it was a disaster — which is a lot of pilots.
But my favorite thing about multi-cams is, they feel like a radio play. My favorite ones could have aired 20 years ago or next year. “Raymond,” “Friends,” “Cheers,” “Family Ties,” “NewsRadio”… I think they put funny people together and made it about cast chemistry, and not that much about reinventing the medium. Maybe someone will come along and do it. But I think it’s comfort food, and I don’t think that’s a negative thing.
You know what’s so key, maybe, is the fact that there are people in a room together. There’s no technology involved, aside from texting jokes, maybe. It’s people talking to each other.
It’s the conversation of banter. It’s the comedy of conversation. And the way that [multi-cams] evolved, which I think drove them away from the air, was that for a while, it became about people being mean to each other. And my favorite ones — which might be because I’m an old dad and I’m a hokey — I like it, even when they’re snarky with each other, that you know anybody would kill or die for each other. That they like each other.
I used to argue with my friends that worked on “Seinfeld” — they loved saying the show was about nothing, and I was like, “You want it to be about nothing, but unfortunately for you, people give a shit about George, and Jerry, and Elaine. They aren’t watching it going, ‘I don’t care if bad things happen to them’ — you actually do.” Whether you want it to happen or not, people care.
Bill Lawrence’s set was very funny, and he didn’t look at his notes much at all. “Undateable” airs Tuesdays at 9pm on NBC.