A few weeks into his stint on Cougar Town, Josh Hopkins, who plays Grayson Ellis, the neighbor and future husband of Courteney Cox’s character Jules Cobb, found out what anyone who has worked for series co-creator Bill Lawrence has known for years: If you have a skill or personality quirk and he finds out about it, chances are that your character will end up having that skill or quirk, as well.
For Hopkins, that quirk was that he can noodle on the guitar and write quick, quirky songs—something that Lawrence discovered quite by accident. "One day I was just goofing around [on guitar] in front of my trailer and Bill pulled up on his new golf cart and just saw me goofing around. He goes, 'You know that will be in the next episode,' and sort of pulled off," says Hopkins. "Sure enough [it was in the] next episode."
From there, Hopkins and the Cougar Town writing staff have written numerous songs to punctuate episodes. Some have been only a few seconds long, while others have been as long as a couple of minutes. All of them, though, reflect Hopkins’ approach to writing songs. Keep it light, keep it goofy, and don’t take yourself too seriously. With the fourth season of the show underway on its new home, TBS, Hopkins talked to Co.Create about how he got started writing his goofy songs, how he enjoys being a part of the creative process, and how completely nervous he was when he was asked to duet with Sheryl Crow.
Literally I didn’t start playing the guitar at all until about 10 years ago, and I’m not very good. I mean, I’m fair-to-middling at best. I actually just finished doing the season of the show Ally McBeal and a buddy of mine that was on that show, James Marsden—he’s a big time guitar player, singer—started teaching me chords, and taught me the fingering of the chords.
I have a hard time taking myself seriously. Even when I would try to write songs on my own they always ended up being quirky dumb songs. One was called "Taking a Shit After Swimming." There’s no innuendo to it. "Man Crush." "I’m Awesome," just these ridiculous songs. One called "Feigning Interest" was about dating in L.A. basically and kind of making fun of men and women, and just a juxtaposition of how opposite we are and both [are] disgusting.
I ended up doing a video for the "Feigning Interest" song, just goofing around with some friends. We were like "Let’s make a video." And it ended up getting picked up on MySpace when that was still popular. It was like the video of the day, or something, and it got all of these millions of views.
The people from Lollapalooza called and said, "Do you want to do a set at Lollapalooza?" I honestly did not want to because I don’t play that well. I’m not super comfortable with singing. But I was like, "Can I look at myself in the mirror at the end of my life and say I turned down doing a set at Lollapalooza?" So I went from learning the guitar and a few years later doing a set at Lollapalooza. Jimmy Mardsen came and helped me out and sang background and played with me. And pretty much after that people were like, "So did you catch the fever when you were on stage? Did you feel it?" I was like, "Nope. Did not. Horrified. Not what I’m supposed to be doing."
So after that I even had interest in [signing] a little recording contract, or something, but then they wanted me to tour universities and play these dumb songs, and I was just like, "I have no interest in that. I just have no interest in that." So I pretty much, I didn’t quit playing, but I had done it, I thought.
I will say even since then I’ve gotten so much more comfortable, not better at playing or singing, but so much more comfortable singing and playing in front of people that when [the Cougar Town writers] ask me to do it on a whim now I’m much better.
A lot of the songs are just me. Most all of them are my music. In no small part it’s because I’ve got a decent ear and can put stuff together and whatnot, but if they write it too well I can’t play it. So it’s beneficial for me to write it just to make sure I can play it on the guitar because they give you this and they are [asking for] like, "A G5 with a jazz chord." I’m like, "I don’t know what you are doing."
We collaborate on the lyrics, but I’d say more than 50 percent of my lyrics are… at least sometimes in a script. They’ll be like, "And they say this, and suddenly Grayson sings a song. Josh, write a song about menopause, or something, and go." So that part has been truly rewarding and fun, you know, to act in that regard. Not a lot of people can say [that]. That’s what makes this such a dream job, one of the reasons.
Sometimes I’ll come in and I’ll sing the song for them, and they’ll suggest, or add things. Sometimes [the turnaround is] so down to the wire because the pace of TV. I mean it’s literally like I’ve got to go home that night, maybe even not that night, like that morning they’ll come like, "Oh we switched scenes. We have to have this song today." And I’ve got to write it in 10 minutes before we go do it. But those are obviously not very complicated ones. So it takes me at least a night before if they are going to really [ask for], you know, an extended song. But it is a lot of fun.
Some show creators have everything just laid out for you. Some shows you don’t even have emotions. You’re basically just telling the story of how you catch a murderer, and you’re spewing out information about characters, but [Cougar Town] is so much fun. We just want the funniest thing to come out. This is not about our egos at all. In fact we’ll each do a take or two and then they’ll be like, "All right just do some other stuff." And I’m always amazed how much they’ll pick our stuff. But again with the songs, the fact that they relinquish so much control and just trusted me, it does feel really great artistically to be a part of that process in a different way than just acting. It’s very rewarding.
I can’t even remember all of them. "Sex With Your Ex" is one that I definitely wrote the whole thing and thought was really kind of catchy. People really love "Confident in My Sexuality." And then the song that’s endured the most is Jules’s morning routine song. We actually add a verse or two to it this season.
One of the greatest days on the show and one of the worst, most fearful, [was when] they had Sheryl Crow come on as my love interest [in the first season]. So then they had us do a duet, and they had the music people write this song. What people that don’t really play music don’t get is that I could fake it well enough to where they all think, and thought, I could play really well, and, you know just do whatever. They just thought they could just show it to me and play it for me and I could just play it with Sheryl Crow. They didn’t get it ready until way too late for me to learn it and be comfortable, especially singing with Sheryl Crow. She’s a music ninja. I was supposed to sing a duet with her, and I was sweating puddles. I was so scared.
If I had to just sing it alone, at that point not knowing it that well, it would have been like, "What’s this for?" You know? And then having to try and keep up with Sheryl Crow, I was like, "This is horrifying." All at once. I was like, "I’m doing a duet with Sheryl Crow." If you had told me three years earlier I would be singing a duet with Sheryl Crow I would say, "Well what stage of cancer am I in? This must be my last wish. Wow. Horrible news." But then for that to happen, and be so excited that I’m… You know, what a lifetime opportunity. Tell your grandkids or whatnot. But then at the same time being so insecure about my abilities as a musician, it was the best and worst day.
Through the wonders of editing, and the ability to do it over and over, and her very kind patience it turned out as good as I could have ever hoped.