In this week’s issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. Two of those people are Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel, the co-creators of Cougar Town, which has its season finale next week. We spoke with the two of them about how Cougar Town has changed, the best script you’ve never read about a masturbating time traveler, and Lawrence’s claim that he named Boy Meets World’s Topanga Lawrence.
Do you have a showrunner philosophy?
Kevin Biegel: Listen to people. Listen to yourself at the end of the day, but listen to people a lot. Also, you can’t do all the work, so surround yourself with people you trust; if this is your show then everything is ultimately your call, but the more faith you have in people who have proven to be capable, the more sane you get to be.
Bill Lawrence: The biggest one of mine is: You have to lean into the turn. On every creative aspect, you have to lean into what’s working. One of the things I’m proud of is my ability to change directions if something’s not working. As writers, we write these characters, and we imagine how they’re going to talk and what they look like. I used to search and search for that actor or actress who’s exactly what’s in my head. But you have to realize you have to cast whoever’s super talented and super funny, and then the character has to become at least partially theirs. Sarah Chalke’s character was just an absolute bitch on Scrubs. That’s funny — but it’s not Sarah Chalke. Some showrunners would fire Sarah Chalke and then go off to find someone who can play that part in their head. But I think that, more often than not, if you find someone who’s funny and can turn a joke, you take it. If something’s working, you lean into it. You don’t fight it.
Along those lines, Cougar Town has changed a lot …
BL: I’m really proud that Cougar Town has turned from a show that I might have written a pilot for and got up and going, and turned it into a show I’m so passionate about. It’s a show that’s changed so quickly and completely. I go back now to watch one of the early episodes and I don’t even believe it’s the same show.
KB: We all work together on this; we help each other create this thing, and I’m proud to work with who I do doing what I do. The fact that I can say that and not feel totally full of shit is great. I’m proud as hell that the show is set in Florida. And I love that we’re secretly the nerdiest show on TV. If you doubt this, please tell me what other show is doing riffs on eighties Cambodian action movies that maybe twenty people have ever seen. I don’t say this to be cool, I say this because I love that sometimes we do it.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned, and from who?
BL: I essentially got to go to showrunning camp with Gary David Goldberg. When we created Spin City together, I got something that a lot of young writers don’t get anymore. He taught me how to talk to actors and how to run a writers’ room and edit. It wasn’t one specific thing. It was the fact that someone took the time to show me how to do things. These days people are just sort of thrown to the wolves. I’m lucky and blessed because someone as successful as Gary taught me how.
The only thing since then is: The micromanagers in this business fall apart quickly. If you got into it to be a writer, stay a writer. Empower other people to do their jobs. There are plenty of other talented people out here: I’m surrounded by good editors, music directors, directors of photography. There was a while there where I didn’t have much of a life because I tried to do all that stuff. But now I get to check in when I want and stay a comedy writer. With showrunning, the more successful you get, the more you’re pulled away from the writing. And the writing is what’s most important to me.
Are you a control freak or a collaborator?
BL: I’d say I’m 50 percent of both. I found a way to be a collaborator until the very last minute, when I become a control freak.
KB: I collaborate with people who know I’m a control freak. To my credit, I think I’m a gentle control freak. Maybe even a little manipulative. If I can convince people that their idea is great, and know inside that their idea was actually a little my idea, then I feel okay. I don’t feel too douchey. I may sound douchey describing myself, but I can live with myself and no one gets yelled at.
What are the best and worst ways to push the envelope?
BL: One of the worst ways we’ve done on my shows is being risqué for the sake of being risqué. Any time you try to be edgy just for the sake of being edgy, that’s the worst way. On Scrubs, Kevin wanted to have a fantasy where Turk farted himself out of the building and up into space. We shot it and spent money, but afterward, it felt like, “Oh look, a bunch of snarky comedy writers doing fart humor on television.” The scene aired, but I joke with him that it’s the one thing that almost ended any chance of him co-creating a show with me. He still claims it was funny.
KB: The best way would be to do stories/ideas/characters that exist but that maybe people are too scared to talk about. See pretty much everything South Park has ever done. I believe Curb Your Enthusiasm is great with this, too; they do stories about the little things we feel but that maybe we’re guilty we feel. The worst way is to have someone on an ABC sitcom call another character “a dirty stupid cunt!” and then have the fact that the words are said leaked to some website so headlines scream, “You gotta see what someone says on this show, it’s crazy!” Does anyone really do that anymore, though?
What’s your worst experience on a staff of writers?
BL: Until I created my own shows, I had nothing but bad experiences on staffs. I was fired off the first year of Friends. I was fired off of The Nanny. And I was fired from Boy Meets World. It was mostly my fault. I got started very young, and the lesson that I learned was: When you’re on a staff, it’s not your job to write what you think is funny. It’s your job to write what the person who created the show thinks is funny.
KB: I would never rat out a bad show experience because all shows are ultimately the responsibility of the showrunners and as I’ve learned this is a very demanding job, and even bad showrunners are working their butt off to try to make things better. Unless they are terrible bosses/writers who have lucked into the position — and luckily I’ve never worked with one of those. I will speak to my friend’s worst experience. This writer’s showrunner was, to put it mildly, a talentless, shit-fueled demon: mean, condescending, and a bad writer to boot. The experience that stood out, the one that said, “This person should not be in charge of anyone,” was that the writer I knew broke their arm at work. Shit-fueled showrunner would not let the writer leave to go to the hospital. Showrunner said the person had to stay until the rewrite was done, and if the writer left, they would be fired. This writer was young, it was his first job, he was scared — so he stayed. And he ended up going to the emergency room at one in the morning. I hate people like that. We’re making TV for a living. Silly, silly TV. Give me a break.
What was your first job?
BL: I was a staff writer on a sitcom called Billy. It was a spinoff of Head of the Class with Billy Connelly. It was a Green Card ripoff. It was a great job; I learned a lot. But it was also a weird gig because the show wasn’t on TV yet. And it was called Billy. And I got all this swag from the show that said “Billy,” which is my name. So I had a jean jacket that had “Billy” written on it, with a heart over the “i.” To all my friends, it just looked like I was really wearing odd clothing with my name on it. I just stopped wearing the clothes. I didn’t want to keep explaining to people that it was a show that wasn’t on.
KB: I wrote for a year on Howard Stern, The High School Years. We did like twenty-something scripts. A few were really funny. The best one I wrote was about Ben buying a new color TV, and Howard staying home and pretending to be sick so he could whack off to the Catwoman on Batman. I wish they would’ve made that. Then I could’ve shown it to my mom and dad and said, “Now aren’t you happy that I didn’t become a banker?”
What made you want to work in TV?
KB: I did roundtable punch-up on a few of the Farrellys’ scripts, like Shallow Hal, The Ringer, and that process is basically a TV writer’s process minus the story-breaking: You sit around a table, go through a script, and try to add in a bunch of jokes, fix plot holes, etc. I was this idiot 25-year-old sitting at a table with Peter Farrelly and guys like Patton Oswalt and Jeff Ross, and just in awe. Those guys were hilarious and encouraging and kind to me, and even though I totally sucked, and I think I made them laugh maybe once, that was enough. If I could do that with people like that, that was the job I wanted.
What show do you wish you had created?
KB: It’s more a list of shows I love rather than “I coulda done that!” I could not write Friday Night Lights, Mr. Show, Seinfeld, South Park — although I did write on South Park for the twelfth season, that was pretty rad — but I’d love to be able to say “I did that!” because those shows are amazing and timeless. But shit, a show I wish I could’ve created? Sesame Street. And also, The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
BL: MASH. That’s the show that caught my eye as a guy who wanted to write comedy but didn’t want to just sit around and write jokes. In the early years of that show, the way they were able to switch gears from the operating room to big comedy: My doors would be blown off. They could mix goofy comedy with life-or-death stakes. It’s what made me fall in love with TV.
What’s the best show pitch that didn’t make it on the air?
BL: Nobody’s Watching. It got made as a pilot for the WB. They flew our producers to New York — but then didn’t pick it up. Then NBC picked it up as a backdoor special, and they told us we were going to go to Pasadena [for the critic’ press tour], and it was “un”-picked up. The pitch at the end, when we refined it for NBC, was akin to Tosh.0. It was using what was funny on the Internet as content that can be made fun of. But both networks got scared at the end.
KB: Well, the best pitch I’ve ever heard that’s not mine, is there’s a script floating around out there — a real script — for a show called Time Jack. It’s about a guy who, every time he masturbates, he travels through time. So if he ends up in the Cretaceous period and there’s a T-Rex bearing down on him, all he has to do is whack off and poof, he’ll be in a new time. But if he’s in a time he loves? Then he can stay — as long as he doesn’t masturbate. This idea is exactly the low point of us as a society, but it’s such a tremendous — and relatable! — low point, that I wish I had created it and that it made it on air so that in one million years when the Mecha’s dig up our society they will go, “Oh, that’s why mankind failed.”
Is there a form of television that should die?
BL: I am done with the hour-long [true crime] shows: “She was a happy married wife. Everything was perfect. Until the trip to Aruba.” I’m done with the shows about “women got murdered by husband.” My wife watches them constantly, but it makes me want to kill myself. They serve no purpose. They’re not news shows. They just exploit all of these murder victims.
How much do you care about what fans think?
BL: Immensely so. The only way to keep a show alive is to stay loyal to your fans and not betray them creatively or ignore them when it comes to extra content. I’m on Twitter because I’m trying to answer their questions. In a landscape where a 2.8 [demo rating] keeps you on the air, you can maintain that just by treating your fans with respect.
KB: I care what they think. I want them to like it. Ultimately, though, if Bill and I like it, we can’t care what you think. If we don’t always go with our gut, the show isn’t the show anymore .
Do fans ruin shows?
BL: No and yes. Fans can’t ruin shows. Only creators can. If your show chooses to change direction creatively, that’s the showrunner. Part of walking the line as showrunner is trying to please people and still be true to what you believe creatively. Glee is a good example. My daughter still loves it; it’s her favorite show. But it stopped being a show I would watch because I don’t think they pay attention to character or story enough anymore. But who am I to say? It’s a juggernaut and they’re literally printing money.
KB: True fans can’t ruin shows. They can be totally insane, but fans are our lifeblood. No one can ruin shows, but Internet trolls sure can make things miserable. I think my generation has grown up knowing that you don’t pay attention to trolls because trollin’s what they do.
Do you tweet? And how is that changing TV?
BL: Yes. The only way it’s really changing TV is that it gives you a way to self-promote to people who might like your show. It’s the quickest way I’ve ever found to provide real fans with almost instant content and insight. By engaging someone for five minutes, you can make them a lifelong fan.
KB: I tweet too much. I can’t even pretend it’s because I’m talking to fans. I tweet because it allows me to say anything I want and sometimes people respond. It also creates the illusion that I’m affecting the process/viewership of the show; deep down I know that my tweets to “watch the show!!” are only seen by a few thousand people, but at least it’s something, you know? At least I’m attempting to help the show.
Any trivia info about characters on your shows that you want to share?
BL: I wrote one episode of Boy Meets World before I kind of got canned. But I believe the script I wrote invented the character name “Topanga Lawrence.” I could be wrong. But I’m claiming that. I never went after character payments. I’m pretty much terrible at naming characters, so I usually name them after people I know. So the mayor in Spin City is Randall Winston, who’s my producing partner. Spin City was surreal for Randall because the black, shaved-hair character played by Michael Boatman was actually based on Randall, but the mayor was named Randall. He said it constantly gave him weird personality conflicts. And on Cougar Town, Laurie Keller is named after Joel Keller, a writer for TV Squad.
KL: Travis is named after Travis McGee, a Florida-based character created by John McDonald and one of the greatest literary creations of the twentieth century. I don’t use the word that much because you end up sounding like a snob, but the McGee books are essential. Jules is named after Julia Franz, a former television executive and a super-cool lady.
Other Showrunner Transcripts:
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur