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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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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. 

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. 


Sticking with TBS, "Cougar Town" is coming back for a sixth and final season. Do you have a mindset for how it's going to wrap up?

Yeah, we've always kind of known how it would finish up. I mean, look, the gift in TV that you rarely get -- and that we're going to enjoy -- is that, if you're invested in something, you get to go into a last year knowing it's the last year. And as performers and writers and crew members, you're knowing that you're not going to be dropped into some limbo, wondering "what if?" or "what's going to happen?" You can plan for the end and plan for your future at the same time. So I think everybody's kind of feeling nostalgic and pretty psyched about it. In fact, the writing staff just started back.

READ MORE: 'Cougar Town' Gets Naughtier, Alfred Molina Gets 'Sexually Ambivalent' at the TNT/TBS Panel at the TCA Winter Press Tour

You've directed episodes of "Scrubs" and "Cougar Town," but have you actually ever directed an episode of a multi-cam series?

I have not. I've never directed multi-camera. 

Are you scared? It's all right, you can tell me. 

[Laughs.] I've never directed a multi-camera sitcom... but I could! I mean, like I said, part of my background is doing "Spin City." I was young enough to kind of deal with the actors, and writing was enough. I certainly know how to direct one, but I've made no secret of the fact that, even when I do direct, I get bored pretty fast. It's more fun just to work with the writers. 

As far as other multi-cams in your back catalog, you may know that one of your past credits, "Boy Meets World," is getting ready to get a sequel: "Girl Meets World."

Yeah, I wrote on that show for about a second way back in the day. [Laughs.] You know, it's got a built-in fan-base, and it'll be interesting to see... I'm intrigued to see if the combination of nostalgia and their kids make that show work, because the only people that really know that show are people that are probably out of the demographic by now. But if they remember it fondly, hopefully they'll drag their kids and their families to it. 

There's a recurring rumor that you named the character of Topanga. True or false? 

Yeah, you know, I'm going by memory, but it is Topanga Lawrence, and I believe that was in my script when she first showed up. And I wrote mine pretty early, so I think they back-filled her into some of the early episodes because they liked the actress (Danielle Fishel). So, yeah, I'm gonna stick with it. I got no reason to take that stance, but... [Laughs.] I mean, certainly it was in my script, but there's also a chance that somebody on the show -- Michael (Jacobs) or whoever was there -- pitched the name "Topanga" and I was just lucky enough to throw it in my script first. 

Another of your past efforts, Clone High, has gotten an upswing in appreciation recently. Do you think there's any chance of the series getting revived?

[Long pause.] No. There's too many owners. But I think that Chris (Miller) and Phil (Lord), who co-created it and who were the real creative vision behind it, are so huge right now that we could make it as a feature if they were really passionate about it, and we goof around and talk about it and use it as an excuse to get a beer once in awhile. Those guys... I mean, The Lego Movie, they wrote and directed that, plus they've got 22 Jump Street coming out. They're just killing it right now. They directed and executive-produced the Brooklyn Nine Nine pilot, too. And it's cool when that happens in Hollywood, because now there are these two hot young guys whose career I was kind of part of starting. I'm hoping I get to a place where I need to go to them, hat in hand, and ask them to do the Clone High movie just to keep me in the business. [Laughs.] But it's a funny show, man, and I'd love to try and do that.

Even as many times as you've been around the block in this business, presumably you're still at least a little bummed that "Surviving Jack" had such an aborted run.

It's a noble failure... if you make a show that you can show your friends and relatives, everything else is out of your control.

Yeah, but you know what? I mean, I don't mean to sound cavalier: I'm sad for the crew, for Justin (Helpern) and Patrick (Schumacker), and for Chris (Meloni) and the cast and stuff. But, you know, we always give this speech at the beginning of shows that the landscape's so tough right now. It's a noble failure -- all I mean by that is that if you make a show that you can show your friends and relatives, everything else is out of your control. 

I think Justin and Patrick are bummed out right now, and Chris is too, but it certainly did great things for their careers. I mean, it was an exceptionally well-written show, well-produced, and well-reviewed for Justin and Patrick, and they deserve all the credit for that. And I don't know if everybody in the world knew that Chris Meloni was such an adept and nimble comedian, but I'm sure that he can do whatever comedy he wants off of this. I thought he was really funny. 

When you find out that a show has gotten a mid-season spot, does it matter anymore, given the landscape nowadays, or do you still find yourself going, "Oh, man, not mid-season"?

Okay, here's the truth: with the modern landscape of network television, plus cable having juggernauts and football and sports being huge, you don't really go "mid-season, summer, fall" anymore. Or at least I don't in my head. I think each network has one, maybe two plum spots, and if you don't get one of them, you're just part of everybody else. And to me, when you're part of everybody else, you just do the best you can and hope you get a toehold, because things do change. 

You know, somebody was, like, "Hey, are you bummed out that 'Undateable' is on during the summer?" and I'm, like, "Well, where would you have it on?" Thursday nights in the middle of sweeps when they were airing their comedies, they didn't have anything get number one. It'd just be aired there and go away. Otherwise, there's not really any Shangri-La on NBC for comedy. It's a very tough landscape. So, you know, I think you have to either be a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty guy, and I'm prefer to be a glass half-full guy. 

So for me, "Undateable" being on in the summer, I'm, like, "Hey, it's original programming all night on NBC, and 'Last Comic Standing' got a 1.7 last night, so we've got a real chance." The bar's set low for comedies on the network. If we can keep our show from not falling off the edge of the earth, they'll make more of 'em, I guarantee it. And if we can't, then we'll go away. So for me, it's no different than it's ever been. It's, like, if you go on ABC next year, you go, "Gosh, I hope I get right after 'Modern Family,'" and when they say, "You're not on after 'Modern Family,'" you just go, "Oh, okay." At that point, to me, it doesn't matter. You just cross your fingers and see how it plays out. 

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