Supervising a sitcom means having your hands full most of the time. Having three separate shows in rotation the first half of 2014 alone, however, means having your hands full, your feet full, and possibly growing some extra appendages to shoulder the burden. Fortunately, Bill Lawrence has been doing this kind of thing long enough that he makes the process look easy.
When Lawrence was a scrappy, young sitcom writer, industry legend Gary David Goldberg mentored him in every facet of TV-making. The Family Ties impresario taught the future Scrubs creator how to cast, edit, and direct episodes of the show they made together in the mid-90s, Spin City. Although Goldberg has since passed away, Lawrence has paid forward the tradition of molding younger talent, frequently teaming up with less experienced writers to help bring a shared vision to life. (Past beneficiaries include writer-director team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who created Clone High with Lawrence before going on to huge success with films like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie.)
With Cougar Town still on the map and his TBS series Ground Floor recently renewed for a second season, Lawrence launches his latest, Undateable, which follows a group of characters who do not have their romantic affairs in order. On the eve of the sitcom's premiere, its executive producer spoke to Co.Create about conceiving show ideas, articulating their appeal to buyers, and staying open to change.
I look for two things when people come to me with show ideas: 1. They’re passionate about the idea, not just trying to sell it as a piece of business, and 2. They can actually do the gig. TV is not as much about the idea as people think—it’s about the execution. When you think about Cheers, it’s just a bunch of friends in a bar, and if they couldn’t execute that, it would've been disastrous. That’s why there’s not a lot of overnight success in TV. Mostly, people need to work on and produce shows for a number of years. Some sitcoms might have a high-concept to hook you in, but then they become an ensemble piece about the characters.
There are still new stories to tell, but for me—I’m a tone guy before anything else. When I was going around pitching Scrubs, there were people interested in it as a multi-camera sitcom, and I had it in my head that it wouldn’t work that way, because with the live audience, it would be hard to buy in to the drama moments and into the patients’ life or death stakes. I knew the show was gonna walk a weird line between broad, silly comedy, and moments of emotional depth.
I also said that we’d be able to do that because I was going to kill off some people in the early episodes so you see that characters live and die in hospitals. And they said ‘How are you going to keep it funny?" I said, "Well, I think the funny part is that there’s a voiceover and you can see into that character’s head a lot, fantasy-wise, and hear his thoughts." We had a good argument about it with the network because in the fourth episode, three people die. The network basically said "Hey, what if only one of them died and the other two got really sick," and I was like "Nah, they all die."
Pitching is everything you'd imagine it to be. It's walking into a room and getting them to buy… nothing. You're trying to get them to buy an idea. Some people try to pitch an encyclopedia version of every tiny detail, every character, every storyline. I generally try to go in and tell people what the show is about, why it will hit a button with people, and beyond that I just try to make people laugh for 15-20 minutes in the tone of the show and get out of there. I'm not really a long pitch guy.
For Undateable, we mentioned that every single person at one point in their life, for one reason or another, was undateable. The show is about a group of people who all seem to be stuck there and can't get out of it. And when we pitched that show me and the other producers, we all brought in pictures of ourselves at our most undateable. I'm from Connecticut and I was so desperate to be cool when I was trying to be a comedy writer. I had peroxide white hair and earrings.
You might think after writing a script that you can definitely get 100 episodes out of this, but you don’t know anything until after you’ve shot the pilot. Everything has to come together. So many TV shows thrive on friendships or families that are supposed to be connected the whole time, right from the beginning. You just have to hope that those actors and actresses seem like they’re connected and friendly right off the bat. It used to be that you had a whole year to build chemistry, and now they’ll pull you off the air after four or five episodes if it’s not working.
You create these characters, and because you wrote the script, you think they’re yours. The truth is, when you wrote the pilot, the characters were yours, but when you cast actors and actresses in the role, it becomes 50/50. And then once you do the second episode, it becomes more theirs than yours. And a mistake young writers make is that they keep writing the characters the way they were in their head, rather than the way the actors and actresses are playing them. Those are the moments that don’t work. The people who are the most successful see what their cast’s strengths are and lean into them.
These things aren't just one piece of work like a movie. They kinda take on a life of their own after a while. It's a mistake not to be open to change over time, depending on what's working. In success, you will both be tempted to change and scared of changing your characters at the same time. TV is a mass appeal medium and you can’t please everyone. When shows go on for a long time, you run into this nightmare thing of feeling like "Oh god, Why is Dr. Cox still angry about everything?" But if you change him and make him a friendly guy, some people will be outraged. So it’s very weird to work in a medium where people don’t want the characters to change, even if you’re on for 5, 7, 9 years. TV writers who say that they don’t pay attention to what people say—they’re full of crap. Every show you love finds a way to look at and gauge what the fans are responding to or not responding to. The danger is that we give more credence to one negative thing and we can ignore hundreds of positive things.