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'Scrubs' Creator Bill Lawrence On 'Undateable,' the Multi-Camera Tradition and Surviving the Summer Schedule

Indiewire By Will Harris | Indiewire June 5, 2014 at 4:26PM

The prolific and opinionated showrunner also sounds off on the importance of proper casting, the likelihood of a "Clone High" movie, and whether or not he was responsible for naming Topanga on "Boy Meets World."
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Bill Lawrence at NBCUniversal's April 2014 Summer Press Day.
Ben Cohen/NBC Bill Lawrence at NBCUniversal's April 2014 Summer Press Day.

When it comes to behind-the-scenes figures in the world of television, there aren't many as gregarious as Bill Lawrence. Since the 1996 premiere of "Spin City," which he co-created with the late Gary David Goldberg, Lawrence's series have been a fixture on the small screen landscape, having also created "Scrubs" and co-created "Clone High," "Cougar Town," "Ground Floor," and "Surviving Jack." 

His most recent endeavor, "Undateable," is -- like the aforementioned "Ground Floor" -- a multi-cam sitcom, a breed of comedy which he believes doesn't get nearly as much love from viewers as it should. Lawrence spoke with Indiewire about the origins of the series, the importance of proper casting, the likelihood of a "Clone High" movie, and whether or not he was responsible for naming Cory Matthews' wife.

So what's the secret origin of "Undateable"?

"Undateable" is... a picture book. [Laughs.] No, it is! It's this book by these two ladies [Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle] that's just basically pictures of guys -- like, Fannypack Guy or Goatee Guy -- and saying, "Don't date this guy!" So it's a good title, and my company had that book and was showing it to the head of Warner Brothers, who was, like, "Man, you should make a show out of that!" And then when he said that, we decided to figure out what the show would be about. And Adam Sztykiel and I -- he's the co-creator and other head writer with me -- when we went out on our pitch, we got horrible pictures of ourselves from when we were undateable, and we said, "Look, here's the scoop: it's not a dating show, it's about a group of people who'd be kind of sad if it weren't for each other, hanging out in a bar. It's a throwback multi-cam." And the pitch was, "Every guy and girl goes through an 'undateable' phase in their life due to their wardrobe or their haircut or their job situation or insecurity or a broken-up relationship or whatever, and this is a story about seven people who, for whatever reason, are stuck there and can't get out of it."

How did the casting of the series come together? There's a sizable number of stand-up comedians within the ensemble. Did you know some or all of them prior to putting everything together?

Okay, first of all, here's the thing: I still like multi-camera sitcoms. It's such a weird disconnect for me that, critically, people don't seem to dig 'em. The coasts -- New York and L.A. -- and my industry, other than CBS, really doesn't seem to like 'em. And yet my family, when they watch TV and they watch comedies, they're still watching "Friends" reruns. They still watch "Cheers" at night or ("Everybody Loves) Raymond" or "Seinfeld" if it's on, or "The Big Bang Theory" now. I love multi-cams. I did "Spin City" years ago, and it's one of the things that I think is a huge skill set. We used to make all of these shows for comics, like Roseanne and Drew Carey, and "Seinfeld" and... "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper." [Laughs.] You name it! 'Cause comics are so good at not only adding to material with their own joke and their own voice, but vibing off the audience. 

You used to have a whole year to develop cast chemistry... and now you've got, like, three or four episodes, and everybody's supposed to seem like they've know each other forever.

So Adam and I first had the idea that it'd be fun to put a bunch of young stand-ups in the show, hopefully with their own fan-bases, just 'cause multi-camera sitcoms have kind of lost any hipness that they used to have, and we thought that maybe to put young comics that kids liked anyway might draw them to it. And the second thing is that you used to have a whole year to develop cast chemistry -- because, you know, you're thrusting six or seven strangers together -- and now you've got, like, three or four episodes, and everybody's supposed to seem like they've know each other forever. So we came up with the idea of -- as much as we possibly could -- casting people that knew each other and already had a shorthand and a rapport. And it worked! 

The first two people we cast were Brent Morin and Rick Glassman, two young stand-ups we saw where their acts kind of had them performing and doing sketch stuff, and as it turned out, they lived together already and had that shorthand. And they knew another stand-up named Ron Funches, who'd kind of been in the clubs with them, so all three of them were friends. The big joke of it was that we were trying to figure out who to cast in the lead, and Chris D'Elia was still on "Whitney," so we decided to roll the dice and cast him. 

The fun part for us was that he was Brent Morin's mentor. He met Brent when he was 18 or 19 and kind of helped get him into the comedy world. And for about three days when Brent had the part, he would go to the Laugh Factory or Comedy Store and say, "Chris, we're on the same level now! I've got my own show!" And then three days later we gave Chris the lead without making him audition. Chris was, like, "Brent, now your show is my show. You can't have anything without me having it!" [Laughs.] We cast Bianca (Kajilich) 'cause she's great and she knows the medium -- she was on "Rules of Engagement" -- but also she's someone who's known Chris for almost 14 years now.  So, really, the only outsider is this young British comedian named David Fynn. 

'Undateable' stars Brent Morin as Justin, David Fynn as Brett, Chris D'Elia as Danny, Rick Glassman as Burski and Ron Funches as Shelly.
Paul Drinkwater/NBC 'Undateable' stars Brent Morin as Justin, David Fynn as Brett, Chris D'Elia as Danny, Rick Glassman as Burski and Ron Funches as Shelly.

As you mentioned, your background is in multi-cam sitcoms. Has it been nice to be able to return to those roots with this series and TBS's "Ground Floor"?

Yeah, man! I love the live audience. But it's really weird, because one of the things I always police on Twitter... I mean, I certainly don't have any animosity, but on Twitter, a lot of the TV fanboys -- and I consider myself one -- are very elitist and snobby when it comes to multi-cam and are, like, "I don't like laugh tracks!" So I always have to tell people, "It's not a laugh track! It's a live audience!" What, like all of these shows have laugh tracks? There's no one there? [Laughs.] There are people there. They're laughing. You don't tell them to laugh. You don't prompt them. If they don't laugh, you cut it out. 

I got into an argument on Twitter the other day with someone who said, "Well, you sweeten it when you need to!" And I'm, like, "There's occasionally a time..." The only times on my shows and on, like, "Will and Grace" and "Friends" that I've really seen them alter the laughs are when the laughs are so big. Okay, not so much on my shows. [Laughs.] More like on "Will and Grace" and "Friends." But when the laughs are so big that, if they left them in in their entirety, they would have to cut actual content out -- I've seen people shorten them before. But the only shows that use a laugh track... I mean, "How I Met Your Mother" used one. They didn't have a live audience, so they put laughs in. But the rest of these shows... 

You know, I'm sure there's still sweetening going on. I don't like to do it. I've occasionally done it, like if there's a looping issue and an actor has to redo a line. But we always try to put the same laugh in that was there before. We try not to cheat. It's very weird, though, how people think that we do. I used to love that medium, but a lot of people -- not only fans, but people in the business I do -- are snobby about it. All my kids do, though, is watch multi-cams. 

Hey, my daughter's a fan of shows on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and those are multi-cam.

Yeah, that's what I mean! It's really hard to sell one out here unless it's to CBS, and yet when you start talking about "Big Time Rush" and "Wizards of Waverly Place," "Hannah Montana" and "The Suite Life of Zach and Cody," they're all classic multi-camera shows.

By the way, now that I've brought up "Ground Floor," how's Season Two of that series coming?

It's plugging along. I mean, to me, the tough thing there is just making sure that the quality stays the same or moves forward and doesn't just shuffle off. I think the cast is great. That was another tough one, though, because I knew that the network really liked the show creatively, and it slowly built, but... that was my first view of what it's really like out there. Because on Twitter, I've got, like, 85 thousand followers, and I assume that they're following me because they're fans of "Scrubs" or my other shows, but even on Twitter people were, like, "Hey, when's that John McGinley 'Ground Floor' sitcom coming out?" And I'm, like, "Uh, that finished its run about three weeks ago... and thanks for watching!" [Laughs.] But, by the way, I don't really get mad, because I'm the same way as a viewer. I'm lucky my DVR was set, because I didn't know that 'Louie' had started back up until about 10 days in. So I was, like, "Hey, cool, I get to watch four episodes at once!"

Next: Lawrence on 'Couger Town''s return, whether he'd ever direct television and "Clone High"'s chances of returning someday. 

This article is related to: Bill Lawrence, NBC , Boy Meets World, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Christopher Meloni, Christopher Meloni