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- Michael Cera on the evolution of George Michael Bluth and working in Arrested Development’s writers’ room
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
- Amy Schumer had to be talked into making the show of her dreams
Many recent trends in television have been welcome. The shelving of beloved yet low-rated network comedies is not one of those. After NBC angered Community fans by leaving the show off its mid-season lineup, ABC decided to leave Cougar Town off its schedule in favor of the critically savaged Work It. Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence decided to take matters into his own hands, employing a DIY approach to keep fans of the show happy and to demonstrate to ABC that ratings alone couldn’t measure the fan base for the program. Viewing parties were announced across the country, at which lucky fans could screen early episodes of the as-yet-unannounced show. With Work It cancelled after only two weeks, a spot once again opened up for Cougar Town on the ABC lineup. Before that announcement was made, Lawrence sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the show’s rocky launch, the nature of network comedy as a whole, and that little issue concerning the show’s title.
The. A.V. Club: At this point, how sick are you of talking about issues surrounding the title of the show?
Bill Lawrence: [Laughs.] It hurts my soul so much. You know what’s tough? It’s an inherent problem with the television and entertainment industry, which is that we make assumptions based on what people on the two coasts think, where our industry is: New York and L.A. I’ll give you a quick example. One is, for instance, that “multi-cam sitcoms were dead.” Because people didn’t like them anymore, because they weren’t hip enough anymore. And they were only dead among entertainment types and writers in New York and L.A. And this got encapsulated for me when I was in New York with my wife, and someone came up to her and said, “Hey, you’re on my favorite comedy!” And in an arrogant way, I said, “Hey, I’m actually the head writer on that show.” And he said, “You’re the head writer on The Drew Carey Show?” And that show hadn’t even been on for two years!
And another example: For a while, there was this feeling amongst ABC where they said, “We’ve really messaged that Cougar Town isn’t about cougars.” And I had to say, “Well, you haven’t. Because you know, and New York and L.A. knows, and people that read entertainment sites or interviews with me know. But I went to a meeting this year at ABC, and I brought them a clipping from the Daily Mirror, one of the papers in the U.K., about five weeks ago. And the story was about a rash of high-school teachers sleeping with their students. And the opening paragraph said, “It could be because of this, or it could be because of shows that glamorize this, like Cougar Town.”
And I put out on Twitter: “How many of you still have problems telling your friends to watch the show, and tell me why.” And I copied them all off to show ABC, because they were 100 percent “I don’t want to watch a show about an older woman sleeping with younger men.”
AVC: So ultimately, whose fault is it, when it comes to the name of a show?
BL: Mine. Mine and [co-creator] Kevin [Biegel]’s. This one was weird. I’ll tell you why. We’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching. If this show continues on, if it lasts six or seven years, then who cares what we title it. If it gets cancelled, then part of its fatal flaw was that we gave it such a polarizing title that kept some people from sampling the show. The interesting thing, when we’re doing revisionist history, that we wonder about is—do you know what a “room bit” is?
BL: In TV writers’ rooms, you often have “room bits,” which are things that can never go on television, but are jokes, almost like a callback, that you return to in order to waste time and goof around in the writers’ room. Cougar Town exists as a room bit because I like Courteney [Cox], and Mark Pedowitz, who ran Disney at the time, called up and said, “Do you want to do a comedy with Courteney Cox? She’s thinking about doing comedy again.” And I said, “I dunno, man. I’m pretty busy with Scrubs, and I’m not sure I’m a female-lead writer.” And that was the end of it.
But then a room bit started in the Scrubs writers’ room. I couldn’t get a passion project of mine sold. With my track record, I couldn’t go to the networks and say, “This is a project I’m passionate about.” Because it wasn’t hooky enough. It was just about a father and a son. So a room bit started where I said, “You know what sucks? I can’t sell my passion project. But if I go to [ABC President] Steve McPherson right now and said”—and this was just off the top of my head—“‘I’ve got a Courteney Cox comedy, she just got divorced, she never had her 20s, and she’s gonna fuck younger guys, and it’s called Cougar Town,’ I could sell that without doing any more work than I just did.”
And it became a joke in the writers’ room, where instead of having cuts between scenes, a claw would just rip it. Just rip the image right off the television. We kept joking about it week after week. And then, finally, after three weeks, I was like, “Should I do this?” And Kevin Biegel, who was on Scrubs and was a smart young writer, said, “I’ll do that with you. I don’t care. I’m in.” And we convinced ourselves, so it wasn’t totally a sham, that you could to a campy, Ab-Fab type comedy with a woman discovering her 20s for the first time. But I will say that I went into ABC, I said just what I told you, and I sold the show. When I went into networks four months earlier, with a full outline and a good track record, I couldn’t sell it. So Kevin and I, when we get twisty about the title—I don’t know that I could have sold the show by saying, “Hey, it’s about adult friendship, and it’s about people in a cul-de-sac drinking wine, and it’s called Cul-De-Sac Crew.”
AVC: How much of that Cul-De-Sac Crew was there early on, though?
BL: Nothing. We thought that we found the show, it was about a woman and her friends that tried to support her as she had her 20s now. And you have such a small amount of time to change course in modern network TV before they pull the plug. Even before we premièred, we made a couple of episodes, and we were watching them, and Kevin and I didn’t feel good about them. And even Court said, “The construct of the show has me doing a lot of my scenes out with guest casts, when the core seems to be this group and our relationships.” And secondly, I told Courteney, as an actress, and this wasn’t anything to do with her, “That’s not a color I like on you. I don’t believe it.” She’s such an all-American sweetheart. I look at her and I say, “I don’t think Courteney Cox is out fucking 21-year-olds. Or 23-year-olds. I just don’t buy it.”
So we changed course almost immediately, and it has a great deal to do with her willingness to do so, and saying this show was about the ensemble, and adult friendship, and how we while away the time. What are people really doing out there when they hit 40? And with Courteney, every Sunday, it’s out drinking wine with her friends. The idea came about because I went over to her house. This was one of those starting moments. She pours me a glass of wine that you can’t even walk around with, because it’s got a meniscus on it. And she’s like, “Where you going? We’re just gonna drink wine, hang out, and talk.” And I thought, “Ah, that’s gonna be the show.” We literally turned that into the show.
AVC: Would the show’s history be different if you lopped off those first episodes before changing course, and simply never aired them?
BL: Look, every show is like a child. I have three kids, and you always say, “I’m not going to make the same mistakes with this kid that I did with the previous one.” I make a huge mistake on every TV show I do. I think every show makes a mistake, and depending on how egregious it is, they correct it and move forward. Your favorite shows, I bet there are characters that you thought were “eh,” or had plots that weren’t working, but then the show fixed them.
The problem with this show is that our mistake was such a big one. We had such a huge sampling audience that left thinking they knew what the show was. And I believe some of them have not returned. Our most loyal viewers are the ones that came in and didn’t even check out the show until it was already changing paths. I think it would be perceived differently. I don’t know if it would be on TV. That’s what’s so weird about network television. I don’t know if I would have gotten on a show called Drinking With Friends or The Sunshine State. I’m just not sure it works the same way.
AVC: What episode did you start thinking, while you were either writing it or editing it, “That’s a show I want to watch”?
BL: There was an episode very early on [“Don’t Come Around Here No More”], in which we broke from pattern: You know, Courtney going out and dating a younger guy, or whatever. She was challenged by her neighbor to spend a day alone. She started smuggling people in, and he was singing songs on his guitar, and she was doing anything she could to have this world of people around her. And it was a little outrageous: There was an alligator in her pool, which is something that happened to a friend of Kevin’s family, because his family is in Sarasota. And that was just a show that was claustrophobic, and about a character that needs to be surrounded by the people she cares about, and drinking, and we found it more satisfying than any of the “We’re out on the town” episodes. Or the “I don’t know how to break up with this young guy” episodes. And we as a unit said, “This is the show!” And we almost immediately changed course. By the time we got to the Thanksgiving episode, I think we knew exactly what is was.
AVC: Both Scrubs and Cougar Town have these tonal shifts you like to throw in. You go broad, but then like to sucker-punch the audience.
BL: That’s my style. We should talk about it.
AVC: What attracts you about that balance, and do you find it difficult to pull those shifts off in a network model?
BL: That ties into something that I’ve been spinning about lately. Because I do think a lot of writers have a tone, or a style, and I’ve always gravitated toward shows that have both comedy and emotional resonance. Everyone used to always ask me what my favorite show were as a kid. And I loved M*A*S*H, and I loved The Wonder Years. And both were shows that mixed that stuff up. With Scrubs, I knew it was really easy to mix moments of drama with broad comedy, because you had the benefit of sick people. In a single-camera environment, what was so great about it was that it looked like a hospital. You could shift gears just by showing someone hooked up to the machines. And people bought into it.
With this show, it’s a bit dicier, and while there are elements of heart, I don’t think there are as many gut-punches as there are on Scrubs. I wasn’t trying to be more subtle. I do think it’s more difficult on a network show, because the preconceived notions about a single-camera comedy on network, NOT cable, is that it isn’t funny enough. When they read the script, they think, “What’s going to be funny in here?” I remember, even with Scrubs—the big mistake I made in Scrubs? Here’s an example: The reason that all those sound effects were in the first year of the show—I hated them, and I eventually pulled them out—was, at the time, the networks were horrible about watching single-camera rough cuts. Because they’d get these shows that weren’t hard jokes—setup, punchline—and they don’t hear any audience laughing, and so they said, “Well, this isn’t funny.”
So I said, “I’ll tell you how I’m gonna get this show on the air. I’m going to put in cartoon sound effects where they normally would expect laughs. On a very base level, they are going to like that.” And they did. But right now, when I look at The A.V. Club and Myles [McNutt]’s review of old episodes of Scrubs, and then I look back at those episodes and listen to the sound effects, I want to kill myself. They are so bad. So yeah, I think it’s a lot easier on cable. But I was always really attracted to the idea of trying to do it on network.
The reason I love the question so much is now I’m testing out new things, and I’m twisting about whether or not I’m repeating myself. I just like my comedies to be about something. I used to fight with buddies that wrote on Seinfeld. Because remember when they said, “No hugs. No messages.”
AVC: No learning.
BL: The show wasn’t supposed to be about anything. And I said, “Whether you like it or not, this show is so popular because people love those characters. And they have an emotional connection to them.” So even though they wanted to cheer about how there’s no emotional connection, the reason that people were so annoyed about the finale was that, whether or not they intended it, people had a connection with these characters and they still wanted, at the end, that these folks were going to be happy and everything was going to be okay because we love them all.
AVC: So if the network wants the funniest episode possible, what constitutes for you a “successful” episode of Cougar Town?
BL: My favorite episodes of this show are the ones that walk the tightrope. What I enjoy about that tightrope of broad comedy and drama is that you can fall on either side and blow it. That’s why I am jealous of cable: A cable episode of a comedy can be the most dramatic thing you’ve ever seen. In a network scenario, you’re either too goofy, which I don’t think you get punished for enough. If it’s just a funny, silly episode, I like those sometimes. But the other side of the tightrope is one that’s either too dramatic or that you were so goofy that when you try and switch gears it seems fake or forced. To me, my favorite shows are just fun and silly and surprise you with some emotional resonance, rather than going all the way to jam you with some of that resonance.
AVC: You seem to be employing more actors from your Scrubs arsenal in season three of Cougar Town. What is it about those particular actors that enables you to walk the tightrope you just described?
BL: It’s not really that there was a plan to bring Scrubs people on here. It’s that I used to always get mocked. I know, like, 20 actors. If I work with a nice actor or actress who is a fun person to be around, and come with a cheat sheet for how I can make them funny, I just work with them again and again. A lot of people may have noticed that Barry Bostwick is immediately on [Cougar Town]. He was the mayor of Spin City, for God’s sake. I’m still using him. On Scrubs, all the Spin City guys were on it. Alan Ruck’s already been on this show. I keep channeling through the actors I know and like.
I do think it’s a cheat sheet to bring the Scrubs people on here, because they know how to walk that line of being goofy but also protecting their character well. They can be funny, but they can also still be real. And I just like seeing them again.
AVC: You talked before about “room bits.” How many of those actually have turned into stories on Cougar Town?
BL: Well, Penny Can. A lot of them appear on the show, because if they are making us laugh consistently, we can doctor them and get them on the show immediately. One of my favorite ones was actually a Scrubs one. It was one writer, Garrett Donovan, who is one of the EPs over on Community now, and he used to do these fake “The More You Know” things, and they were always much edgier. Like he would say, “Hey, you get home from work, you have a beer, you fuck your kid, you go out to a movie, you get a nice meal, it’s all good, right? Wrong. Don’t fuck your kids.” He would do that every day, and I’m finally like, “We need to put that on TV.” We need to find a way to do it that we’re not gonna get hate mail. And it became one of my favorite jokes on Scrubs.
And it’s the same thing here. Josh Hopkins singing songs was just something I saw him doing a lot, and I thought, “That’s funny. We should do this. It would be good for your character.” Penny Can was something we did to procrastinate in the writers’ room to waste time, bet money on it. We said, “That should be their favorite game. And just start inventing stupid rules.” So more often than not, if they are actually funny, and they aren’t filthy, because you know writers are filthy, they get into the show.
AVC: It sounds like in some ways it’s better to have your actors in place first, and then develop the show from there. But is that even possible within the current model of television development?
BL: It’s not possible. I teach sometimes over at the Writers Guild. They have this “Showrunners In Training” program that I think is really cool. And one of the things that I tell people is a mistake, specifically in networks, is that you write a pilot, you look for the most talented person for each part, but then you’ll have writers who stay so locked down to that part they wrote, not who the actor is. You know, I’ve had a writer before say, “Yeah, this actress is funny, but I always pictured this character as taller, or blonde.” And I’m like, “Fuck it. Change it.” In cable you can sort of get the actors together and write parts to them. But one of the things I try to teach, network specifically, is that there’s this whole testing process, so you find the best actors and then make the characters best suited to them as performers.
A great example of this: In Scrubs, if you watch the pilot, Sarah Chalke was written as a cold, bitchy girl from Connecticut. She was supposed to be an ice queen. Sarah came in and read. She was so charming and funny and klutzy and clumsy that we really wanted to put her on the show. But we had to quickly overhaul the character. This is a girl who talks 9,000 miles per hour, and gets in her own way, and is a total klutz. But because wardrobe had the original script when they were putting things together, I remember one scene where she’s wearing glasses, and she looks very edgy and severe. That’s because they had built her around the character she was. I wasn’t going to go back and reshoot it. I thought, “Eh, who cares?” But it’s the only scene in which that character is on Scrubs.
AVC: Which character on Cougar Town has changed the most from conception to what’s now on screen, based on the actor you cast for that role?
BL: They’ve all changed significantly, but the biggest one is Josh Hopkins’ character. He was written as a standoffish, pretentious, above-it-all smug character. And Josh did it very well, and I think he’s done it before, in dramas. And the more we got to know him, the more we realized that he’s a goofball, plays songs on his guitar, and is fine when we make fun of how small his eyes are. He’s self-conscious about the fact that he’s got the leading-man thing going, and that we can throw stones at that. So very quickly, he was dancing around in acid-washed jeans and suspenders with Courteney, and that’s not what we envisioned at all when we started.
AVC: Was he always going to be a love interest for Jules?
AVC: I think it went back and forth, depending on casting. At one point, there was a lot of talk about whether she would rekindle something with her ex-husband. But we just liked the chemistry that she had with Josh Hopkins. But pretty quickly, because Courtney found him to be appealing and handsome, he became a love interest for her.
AVC: Was Bobby always written with that depth of sadness? In some ways, he seems like the saddest character in any of your shows.
BL: Look, it’s fun to write a dumb guy, right? And one thing that Kevin and I and the writers always spoke about was that if you were going to write a classic, funny, dumb character, it can’t just be Friends. It can’t just be Joey. There’s got to be something there that keeps him from being just a comic foil. It’s cool that you ask the question, since nobody talks about it a lot, but for us it was a current of sadness and loneliness for him.
[This paragraph contains season three spoilers. —ed.] And I love it, because we had this big screening thing last night. The best moment in the first episode, and I like the first episode, but the best moment for me is when Jules says “yes” to marrying Josh Hopkins, the camera goes by Bobby and he looks bummed out. And the audience here, they were bummed for him. They were taken out of the moment, and all kind of had an “awww” moment for him. That made me happy. That’s why he can be a dumb guy, and still be a complete character. Because people root for him that way.
AVC: You have characters like Ellie and Andy, who have places to go but are also set in their ways. Jules and Grayson aren’t set but have a path. But who among Travis, Laurie, and Bobby have the furthest to go overall?
BL: Bobby. I’m not a fan of will-they-or-won’t-they scenarios. Once we had the idea of getting Jules and Grayson together, we decided to do it quickly. We wanted to parallel Ellie and Andy’s relationship with a couple that’s the same age but it’s still new. I think Jules and Grayson still have some distance, but the longest to go is Bobby. If you ask me about the other characters? Travis is a young man, but he’s got his life ahead of him. I know who that character is, and he seems pretty stable. Laurie I would say is a very put-together girl. She’s very self-aware of who she is. The next thing for her, because we don’t do a lot of things with her career-wise, is something relationship-wise. It’s tough. It’s a TV show, and you don’t want everyone getting married and juggling other things. But for Brian van Holt’s character, I would be depressed because I like my characters to evolve. If this show got to its sixth year and he was still living on a boat as a sad loner, I’d say we made a big mistake.
AVC: You say you don’t like will-they-or-won’t-they scenarios, but there’s also a lot of talk about the chemistry between Laurie and Travis. Are there plans, either in season three or beyond, for those two?
BL: I’m never good at this stuff. What’s really hard about this one is a problem specific to this TV show, which is if you walk by set, they are contemporaries in real life. Busy [Phillips] is 31, and Dan [Byrd] is 26. And being around them all the time, because I believe in a very claustrophobic set, where the actors and writers really know each other, there’s nothing creepy at all. Those two are tight on set because they are the only two in each other’s age range. Everyone else is a slightly different generation.
And yet, we have to remember as characters they are 29 and 21. Is it creepy? Is it not creepy? We can’t tell. So we’re addressing it, and we can’t decide where it falls. It’s one of the only things we fight about in the writers’ room.
AVC: Why did you decide Laurie would be the one to bring Travis back from Hawaii? What about that relationship made that make the most sense?
BL: For us, it was two things. One, chemistry between actors sneaks up on you. So what we originally thought the first year would be—he has a crush on this garish, ballsy friend of Jules—had a weird subtext. Because she played it as a girl who was really flattered to have someone as smart and bright and together as him interested in her. She didn’t play it as a cool high-school chick who has a sixth-grader that likes her. She played it as having this real undercurrent.
So we never expected to be at this point. So when we broke that episode last year, it was about, on a bigger scale, her caring about him making a right or wrong decision. And her knowing how she could pull him out of it. Because to us, it was simple. Who fixes this? You have Jules. Jules can’t fix it. Who can? It’s easy. Laurie could flirt with him, in a harsh way, just to prove a point to him that he shouldn’t be changing his entire life over some chick. But I ask everyone to weigh in on this. Do you find it creepy or not creepy?
AVC: It’s asexual at this point. And comparatively speaking, given the Year Of Incest that seems to be happening on cable, this seems pretty tepid.
BL: So this is what’s weird: I like it just fine now. And then I have this nightmare where I say, “Let’s just have them kiss and make out. It’s no big deal. They are close to the same age.” And once you do that, it suddenly feels creepy and incestuous. So we haven’t figured out way through it yet. We know we’re going to have to do it eventually. But given that ABC shafted us this year, we intentionally made him 21 by the end of this season, because a) we’re writing the finale right now, and I like a world in which he’s allowed to drink, and b) we need to see if it changes how we feel about the dynamic between those two.
AVC: In terms of the characters’ arcs, would you say this is a show about adults or about parents? You have elements of both, but which comes first and foremost?
BL: I believe this is first and foremost a show about adult friendships, for two reasons. One is out of necessity. Even though early on we decided there would be kids and babies around this show, it’s just too hard, production-wise, to have them on the show a lot. Secondly, because even talking about Courtney’s relationship with her own child on the show—and we think it’s a key point—one of the things we’ve always said is that her child exists in this world very easily because he’s the most adult of all of them.
So to us, it’s about adults and adult friendships and how adults lean on each other at that time in their lives. A lot of the writers, me being one of them, have hit their 40s, when the jokes of “I’m not going out past 10 o’clock” start. I make this joke to some of my friends in L.A., because I still have some friends who live in Hollywood, and they ask if I want to go out for dinner at 10 and I’m like, “I’m in bed by 10.” And moreover, if I drive to your house at 10, I might as well go all the way to Las Vegas, because it feels halfway already to me. We really wanted to talk about that time in people’s lives.
AVC: You finish season two, everyone comes back from Hawaii, everyone’s ready to go for season three. Then you learn season three is not happening. You have 15 episodes now, but what was the original order?
BL: 22. 22 down to 15.
AVC: You usually start each season with a mini-arc, then end with one as well…
BL: Yeah, we do. We got shafted. It’s tough, because I don’t want to talk about the business stuff, in case it bores you. The reality of network television now is that it’s a business. There’s a lot of dough. I think I’d be in a different position, anger-wise, if we came on TV, didn’t do well, and they said, “Hey, we’re pulling you off, or reducing your order.” We haven’t been on yet. And they reduced our order because—look, ABC owns this show. If they pick this show up next year, that means they are picking up for two more years, because financially that’s what makes sense for those guys for the syndicated stuff. And if they don’t pick it up next year, they’ve saved $10 million. Because it costs $2 million per episode, so that’s really all it’s about.
[This paragraph contains season three spoilers. —ed.] But you’re right, it screwed up these major arcs we had. And it changed something else, too. We decided, okay, if you saw the finale last year, you left it saying, “Okay, the issue on the table is whether or not these two characters were going to have a kid.” The second we knew we were a midseason show, we thought, “Let’s shift gears a little bit. We could easily argue that no one would deal with kid issues before they were married and secure as a couple. So let’s write a first episode that almost feels like a re-entry into the show.” I would argue that this first episode could have been a pilot. You come out of this first episode saying, “Okay, this is a show about a woman and her group of friends, including her ex-husband, and she’s marrying her ex-husband’s friend. I could watch this and know what that year entails.”
But yeah, we got screwed, because we had some fun arcs in episodes 15-20 that just went away, and we’re going to have to condense the shit out of them or just pick them up next year. Luckily, we had the first episode provide the key story for the year, and we could keep following that even though we lost out on a lot of cool stuff.
AVC: You and Kevin Biegel both took to Twitter quite vehemently after being told about your midseason status. ABC can’t censor you for what you tweet. But can they punish you?
BL: They can’t punish us, because—look: We have a good relationship with ABC. You know what’s fascinating? Someone asked me, “How angry are you at ABC right now?” I said, “Um. A two. Out of 10.” They said, “That’s impossible.” And I said, “The reality is, you can’t whine.” I’ve had a show on ABC or owned by ABC for 18 straight years. So, if you call me up in a few months, in May, and the show’s been cancelled, and you said to me, “How mad are you at ABC, one to 10?” I’ll say, “11! The show is mismanaged. They own it.”
I love Happy Endings, I really do love Happy Endings. A lot of the writers are old Scrubs writers. Eliza Coupe’s on there. They’ve spun the Happy Endings story really well, but they have the same retentions we did, and they are being protected, and being taken care of. I don’t want that to not happen to Happy Endings, but I don’t understand why they didn’t do the same thing for us.
AVC: Do you think it’s the demographics of the cast that makes the difference, as far as ABC is concerned?
BL: It can’t be, because we do the same ratings in the demos. But, right now, back to your original question, ABC really intends on this show being on past this year. I know for a fact that they like it creatively. One of the good things about working with Paul Lee and the other people over there is that they are candidly honest. Producers that are writing shows that they don’t like, you know it. And if they do like it, you also know it. And if this show gets picked up next year, this will be nothing but a blip for me.
I used to learn this hard lesson on Scrubs, when I used to whine a lot. NBC didn’t used to own our show, so Scrubs had like, 15 different time slots. And I’d whine, “Ah, this sucks. We get mistreated!” And my dad called me up and said, “Your show’s been on for seven years. You gotta stop whining.” He said, “It’s a win. No one mistreated your show. It’s still on television.” And by the way, that’s the win these days. If your show stays on for five or six years? Happy as a clam.
AVC: You mentioned that you’ve worked for ABC for 18 years. Is there any continuity to your experience there, other than the letters “ABC”?
BL: In waves, I’ve seen them stick to a brand. But no. In the Spin City days, there was a very specific, multi-camera ABC world, and a very specific brand that disappeared. In the middle of it, with Scrubs, it was on NBC, but ABC owned it. But I didn’t know what ABC’s brand was then. I knew what it was dramatically, not comedically. Any given year it would be silly family sitcoms or single-camera comedy. I could never tell.
One thing I will say now about ABC is that I’m starting to get it again. I thought they tried to expand their brand to “man comedy,” for just a second. Just to take a shot at it. And it didn’t work. But I look at Wednesday night, right now, even when we’re not on there, as a really strong, branded night of comedies. I like them.
AVC: But you still feel Cougar Town fits into that night.
BL: Look, Happy Endings is a great show, and at this point, I hope they would leave it there. I’ll tell you why. Every show wants to be behind Modern Family until you’re behind Modern Family. Everyone wants to be behind a hit, until you’re behind a hit. The reality is: If you’re behind a big hit, you’re not going to retain all their audience. The most you can hope for is that the network likes your show so much that they leave it there and hope that the gap closes, like CBS does. Everybody points to CBS, and if they like a show like How I Met Your Mother, they leave it there and let it grow and hope that someday it passes its lead-in.
Unfortunately, the other networks seem to be operating under this umbrella of, “This show is getting a 5.0, so let’s move this show behind it! Oh, that’s doing a middling number, so let’s take this show and move it behind it.” What you get is no continuity and you damage everything. So I would hope that they leave Happy Endings on there, and be happy with it. Because I think if they creatively believe in the show, two years from now, if that show is pulling in the mid-3.0s, they are going to be happy as clams. If two years from now they’ve tried four other shows in that slot, and keep bouncing them around, they are just going to have a bunch of shows without time slots that aren’t doing stable ratings.
AVC: Kevin Biegel has said that timeslots and pairing up shows no longer matter, because people watch what they watch how they want to watch it. Do you agree with him?
BL: Here is what I unfortunately believe: I believe that is true for almost everything other than Nielsens. I think that Nielsens are not an accurate gauge of the way people watch TV. I think they are a sham.
Just so I don’t sound like Sour Grapes Guy, I’ll crap on one of my own shows. Anecdotally, I heard 9,000 times more that Scrubs was a show that they liked as opposed to Spin City, when I was working on that show. If you looked at the ratings, Spin City was watched by 9,000 times more people than Scrubs. I don’t think that’s true. I think those two are flip-flopped. Scrubs is a great example, with the DVR thing. Because you can get DVR ratings. We always did very well. We were always in the Top 20.
I think timeslots are very important for sampling when you’re first starting a show out, to deliver a massive amount of audience. If you’re not one of the shows—comedy or drama—that your network has chosen to put ad dollars behind, then you need a place for people to sample you. But man, there are arguments to be had on every side. I know my dad has 150 channels, and he doesn’t watch TV the way I used to watch TV.
AVC: How much of your distrust of the current ratings system fed into your plans to develop the viewing parties across the country?
BL: Here’s what I’m interested in, and I don’t know if it’s going to work, but it’s a good experiment. First of all, television’s great. But there are more good shows on now than ever. There are just hundreds of channels. For networks, things are going down. Which is a bummer. It’s not a bummer, I don’t mind. Network is becoming cable. You know as well as I do, that on any given week, a Comedy Central show can beat a network show.
The good thing about that is when Spin City was on, the difference between your show getting cancelled and your show getting on was probably three, four, maybe five whole ratings points. Nowadays, you live in a world where 2.2 means you’re cancelled, and 2.4 means you’re picked up for two years. To me, that’s such a small tick of the dial, I’m fascinated to see if you can move it yourself.
So we starting talking about these viewing parties, and when we do them, there are two points to them. Three points. One is to thank the people, because I think the only way to survive as a TV show and break out of the box of a giant hit is to have a very loyal, cult audience that will follow you from timeslot to timeslot. So as a thank-you to them, not just for their loyalty, but also to keep them watching, you have to feed them extra content. So that’s one of the reasons that we’re doing this.
The second reason: Every time we do it, there are 200-400 people. We say, “What do we want in return? Your drinks are free. Your stuff is free. Hang with the cast. Watch the show when it’s on TV. Try to tell 10-20 friends to check it out, see if they like it.” And then I jokingly say, “If you can prove that you got a Nielsen family to watch, I’ll give you $500.” But that’s illegal. So. But I’m interested to see if that will work.
The third part of it is with the ratings being so low, championing by writers doing what you do can actually make a difference between a show being alive or dead these days. We did these parties because we knew people would be interested in covering them and that it would keep us in the zeitgeist while we were off television. And I think these are the things in the modern television world that make a difference.
Do I think that Twitter specifically can turn out people to watch a show? I don’t believe that yet. I think that it does work, but I don’t think that the people on Twitter are Nielsen families, necessarily. I think what’s really interesting about Twitter is that it’s a branding tool. Every writer I know imagines a future in which you can use Twitter instead of saying, “Hey, I’m doing this Tom Selleck show,” you could say, “Hey, I’m writing this new show, check it out.” I think that’s what people are excited about.
AVC: You seem to be talking about a decentralization of television publicity. Should shows be publicizing themselves rather than leaving it to the networks?
BL: They should be. That’s a great, great question. Look, we were just having a conversation the other day. The days are over where a network can say, “We’re going to help your show out.” When I was on Spin City, we used to count how many promos we had on each week on air. Because they mattered. We’d be like, “Hey, we have two 12-second promos on Home Improvement.” Those were the days when ABC could go, “Hey, watch ABC this Tuesday!” and it mattered.
I love TV. I watch more TV than most people you know. I haven’t seen a commercial for Cougar Town in a long, long, long time. It’s not because they are lazy. It’s because the networks know now that watching a show means not watching commercials. It means watching a show. It means spending a lot of money on off-air promotions. And trying to look at it like a film. So, yeah, I think publicizing your own show is going to be, for a lot of shows, the difference between disappearing into the night and getting to stay on.
AVC: You mentioned that you’ve spent 18 years with ABC. Is ABC even going to be a network in another 18 years? Are we moving that rapidly?
BL: Network TV, as we know it, will be gone. I think that the problem with network television is that they cling the whole business model like they are clinging to the side of a cliff. But I think that they are smart enough to evolve, and get into a world of more reasonably priced shows that turn in a 2.0 rating. What would I do if I had Community? I would say, “I know that the fan base for this show is so damn loyal that if I can make a basic monetary equation so that I’m not getting crushed financially, and I’m going to get it all back when I get to 100 episodes, then I’m going to lock it down in a time slot until it has enough episodes, at which point I get my money in syndication for the studio.” I think the problem with network television sometimes is that they are still chasing the giant hit. I don’t know if they exist anymore.
AVC: So you envision smaller stories, but more of them.
BL: Yeah, I think so. I hope so. I hope that what happens is network TV becomes cable, and that they are beating cable at least slightly because they have paid premium money to get great writers and producers locked up. People ask me, “Why hasn’t someone just gone out and done what Louis C.K. did? Because he’s so amazing.” Well, first of all, he’s on-air talent. And on-air talent is a little different. But, why hasn’t J.J. Abrams gotten an independent film model together, gotten investors, and said, “Here’s 13 episodes of a TV show, and I’m going to find a way to get subscribers, and I’m going to see if we can get this to sell”?
The reason is that J.J. Abrams is so talented, and at that level it’s like being on a sports team. One of the big conglomerates hired him to work for them, hired him to not go work for himself. And so that will not happen until someone has the wherewithal, financially, to say, “I’m not going to affiliate myself with a studio that pays me a salary, even though I’ve got kids in college, and I’m going to take this roll of the dice because I can.” But if you say TV is all about execution, the people you’re the biggest fans of are often affiliated with somebody that’s really not interested in them doing that.
So I think that’s going to be the next big change in TV: A younger person, through sheer force of will, will manage to crack that. I always use this example: If Trey [Parker] and Matt [Stone] came along right now and made South Park, which is low-budget because of the animation, and found a way like Louis C.K. to market it and for people to buy it, I think it would kill. And it would change the face of TV.