exit interview

Bill Lawrence Is Still Figuring It Out

Despite a rapidly shifting TV landscape, the Shrinking co-creator hasn’t abandoned his earnest worldview.

“In Shrinking, we didn’t know Harrison Ford aside from being scared of him. We were like, “We’ll just write him as grumpy and stoic.” But then we saw very quickly in the second episode, This dude is game for some comedy moves.” Photo: Beth Dubber/Courtesy of Apple
“In Shrinking, we didn’t know Harrison Ford aside from being scared of him. We were like, “We’ll just write him as grumpy and stoic.” But then we saw very quickly in the second episode, This dude is game for some comedy moves.” Photo: Beth Dubber/Courtesy of Apple

“The joke about myself,” Bill Lawrence says, “is that I’ve been doing the same thing for 30 years, and sometimes people think it’s cool, and sometimes people think it sucks. And then they think it’s cool, and then they think it sucks. Whatever. I’m lucky to do it.” A Bill Lawrence show is usually a comedy. It’s often a sitcom. Whatever else might be in the background (a hospital in Scrubs, a sleepy cul-de-sac in Cougar Town, a mayor’s office in Spin City, a British football team in Ted Lasso), the classic Lawrence show is almost always about friends of circumstance, neighbors or co-workers who like hanging out with one another, usually alongside a few sweet, sensitive men who love one another platonically.

Having a long conversation with Lawrence about the arc of his career feels a little like participating in the outlines of a Bill Lawrence show. He loves to tell stories about his friends and the people he’s worked with and to point out all his own missteps — a signature Lawrence-protagonist move. He was fired from not one but three blockbuster sitcoms early in his career. He accidentally outed his best friend! He knows his shows have repeating patterns, and that’s why his new Apple TV+ series, Bad Monkey, is trying to be something different — except, if he’s honest, it might be disastrous. As a bonus, Lawrence often casts his wife, Christa Miller, in his work, so when the Shrinking actor pops into the Zoom frame several minutes into our conversation to bring him a coffee, it only underlines the similarities. (After a brief greeting, Lawrence tries to pull the focus back to himself. “No!” says Miller. “This is about me!”)

Lawrence’s tendency toward both self-awareness and self-confidence feels familiar, too. His characters often move through the world with hubris, but also with sincere good intentions, and Lawrence is conscious of walking both sides of that. “My cheat sheet is that I just lift shit from my life,” he says. Bad Monkey will be a departure in that respect, but when he explains his motivation for doing it, it still sounds like a Bill Lawrence show. “The fun of it, if it works, will be that I get to goof around with the people I grew up being a fan of. So we’ll see!”

What was your first spec script? 
Mad About You, Larry Sanders, and Seinfeld. I wrote all of them like they were term papers due in a two-week period. The Larry Sanders one was funny, and we changed some of the character names and did it as an episode of Spin City. One scene was Rip Torn and Hank in the bathroom and Hank’s trying to engage him in conversation, and we ended up shooting that scene with Paul and Mike Fox.

Those were desperate times back then. We had to do 100 episodes of that show in four years, 26 episodes a year. I don’t think writers nowadays have any idea how insane that was.

You’ve now made two comedies for Apple. What’s translated from those network-sitcom days, and what now feels like a completely different kind of comedy writing? 
The genre has changed completely. I find it exciting because the sitcom writer’s lot in life, especially old network men and women like me, was very Sisyphus-like. Your characters didn’t change a lot. Even Scrubs, where we tried to make the characters change a little, the writers used to make fun of me, because by the time I got to year seven, people would be like, “What’s Dr. Cox mad about this week?” and I’d be like, “Who fucking cares! He’s got to talk so much and be mad every week. I’m bored of it!”

It’s a lot of TV to write!
When I look back, I’m blown away. When I started on a comedy show, I think it was nine writers — eight other white dudes and one woman. And the change, not only in how TV is made but in who’s making it — I can only compare it to life before and after the cell phone. Sometimes I hate talking about it because I’m like, Am I that old? It happened very fast.

Your first staffed writing job was on a comedy called Billy, is that right? 
I had a very loose connection from my mom — she was an auctioneer, and she did an auction once for a gentleman named Norman Barasch, who wrote on The Dick Van Dyke Show. I’d written a bunch of plays in college, and he told me to send them to his old agents, George Shapiro and Howard West. I sent them my three scripts, and I got a note back that said, “These are pretty good, but we’re not looking to add other clients. And they’re a little raw and rough.” A month later I sent them two more scripts. Howard West signed me as a client on a Thursday, and a week and a half later I was at Billy as a staff writer. Their other client, Rich Eustis, was there.

So then Billy gets canceled and you go on to Boy Meets World?
I did Boy Meets World because the co-creator, April Kelly, was on Billy. She thought I was young and funny and energetic, but I screwed up and got fired off Boy Meets World.

One of the things I didn’t realize is that how you behave and what energy you bring to a show … every job begets another job. I’m a big believer in mentorship, and one of the main things I tell young people now is, “If you get paid to write — even if it’s not your thing — if it generates an audience, it has massive worth.” If you can embrace doing what you have to do to then get what you want to do, things go very well out here — if you’re good enough. But, man, if you live in this cynical, judgmental, snarky, “I’m working on this thing, but it’s a piece of shit” — that stuff will come back to haunt you. I was embarrassed about Boy Meets World and should not have been. A lot of people loved it.

I made it fairly clear that it was like, “Oh man, this is not my type of comedy,” and that was a monster mistake. And they were right to let me go.

Eventually you go on to develop Spin City
Here’s how it worked. I worked at Dreamworks first. I got fired from Boy Meets World, The Nanny, and Friends — all deservedly, and all great shows.

Did you get fired for the same reason each time?
No, but learning to do what you have to, and to be part of a group dynamic to get to do what you want to, is a weird lesson to learn. You generally land out here not with a fantasy of, I want to write jokes for somebody else’s show that they can rewrite and change if they want. It’s, I can’t wait till I do my own thing. It took me a while to learn that skill set. Sometimes the young men and women that end up being the best showrunners are not immediately the best in a group dynamic as part of a staff.

Friends was a great experience. I lasted the whole first season, and David Crane changed my life because he thought I did well on the show. He called up Gary Goldberg and said, “This guy didn’t work on Friends, but I think he will do well with you.”

I went to work with Gary on a sitcom called Champs. Failed immediately. About a month later, he had an idea for a pilot he wanted to do about a girls’ high-school basketball team, and he asked me to co-create it with him. I had the courage to say, “I don’t think so.” It was not because I didn’t love Gary, but because it wasn’t in my voice. It took me a long time to be decent at writing women, and it had to get hammered into me by the women in my life.

Then Jeffrey Katzenberg got Michael J. Fox and Gary Goldberg together to make a show, and Gary called me and said, “Come over to my office with three or four ideas for Mike Fox,” and I said, “Definitely.” I was so excited about it, and Mike had just returned to acting. I thought he was so good in The American President. Gary taught me how to run a writers’ room, how to talk to actors and actresses.

What did he teach you about how to talk to actors?
He got mad at me one day because Barry Bostwick came in and was talking about his character. I was really interested in it, kept him blathering on and on and on. When he left, Gary said, “You can’t engage on those things. If you’re not careful, it’s almost a complicit agreement to what they’re saying about their character and the direction he’s going. He’s not just riffing. Those are things he wants us to do.”

Gary would talk about how, on set, particularly for multi-cams, the rehearsal process is exploration. This is one of the things I’ve stuck with: You’re allowed to say, “I don’t think this line works for my character. It’s not working for me.” But you can only say that if you haven’t intentionally sold out the line during rehearsal. If you do something that’s supposed to be funny or dramatic or interesting and put your heart into it, we’ll feel like shit for having put you in that situation and we’ll fix it. But if you say, “I don’t like this so I’m going to mail it in”? Fuck you. And I will cut it! But no, you won’t get anything in its place.

There was a joke — it was a silly joke, not character based, which meant anyone could’ve done it. In the rehearsal, the actor just mailed it in. Gary stopped the rehearsal and went, “What’s going on?” The actor said, “I don’t like that joke. I don’t want to do that joke.” Gary’s like, “No problem! Anybody else want to do that joke?” And Alan Ruck said, “I’ll do it!” Gary said, “Cool, Alan, do it in rehearsal now, and then we’ll make it even better, because I think it could use some work.” Alan did it in rehearsal, it was kind of funny, then the writers got together and made a huge joke out of it. The other dude was like, “Message received.”

That’s a key difference between network-sitcom production and how most streaming shows are made now. Back then you’d go back and forth between writing and watching actors perform the characters, so you could see dynamics develop in person and then write for them. My understanding is that many streaming shows are mostly written before shooting ever starts. 
I don’t do that. It might be because I’m a dinosaur, but I think comedy suffers for it. For me, pilots are harder than the show. I’m always super-excited when I think I’ve written or shot a good pilot. Because then we watch it as a group and watch what dynamics work.

I always say in a writers’ room, “After the pilot, we’re going to lean into the things that are working.” The one great thing about network TV back in the day was if Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally yelling at each other makes the audience apoplectic, then guess what? The writers are going to get it. Sometimes you’ll see a show nowadays, on streaming especially, and you’re like, Whoa, is that actor good! Or, Whoa, was that dynamic electric! And then it won’t be there the next few weeks.

In Shrinking, we didn’t know Harrison Ford aside from being scared of him. We were like, “We’ll just write him as grumpy and stoic.” But then we saw very quickly in the second episode, This dude is game for some comedy moves. So we said to him, “Jessica Williams likes all these one-hit wonders. Would you ever sing one of them if you were driving with her character to work?” And Harrison goes, “If it was hard to learn the lyrics, maybe not. But even then I’d dance.” Then he showed up that morning and knew all the lyrics to a Sugar Ray song.

We got lucky on Shrinking — everybody’s super-duper talented. Even there, though, Ted McGinley was someone I had almost cast 1,000 times, so I thought I’d bring him in for this little thing. And then people were like, “That guy’s funny.” We had to go back in and say, “Maybe this dude needs to exist more.” That’s why he seems a little wedged in. He didn’t exist in the initial scripts.

Shrinking and Spin City both depict friendships between straight men and gay men. Spin City was so unusual at the time for having Carter, a gay Black man, in the main cast. How did that come about? 
When I started on Champs, I became close friends with Randall Winston, who’s a six-foot-seven gay Black gentleman, head shaved — which I mention because of the resemblance to Michael Boatman, who eventually played Carter in Spin City. I was a staff writer, I think he was Gary’s assistant, and we used to shoot the shit because we were the only two people under 35. We became super-tight and made a commitment: He wanted to be a producer and director, I wanted to create shows, and we had this feeling that if we both learned our skill sets well and partnered up, we could pull each other from gig to gig.

So on Spin City, Randall became the co-producer in charge of all the post-production. Long story short, I accidentally outed Randall. In an interview, I said, “Barry Bostwick’s character is named after the real-life producer Randall Winston, but Michael Boatman’s character, Carter, is the one who’s really based on Randall. Stuart and Carter are me and Randall and our friendship dynamic.” And afterward Randall was like, “Dude. You realize I hadn’t told everybody in the world yet that I’m fucking gay?” And I was like, “I was not aware of that, man. I was not aware of how that works.”

Because you were a straight white guy from Connecticut and it was 1997.
I felt like, If I know, everybody must know! Because I’m pretty clueless! But I’ve written about that dynamic a lot. J.D. and Turk in Scrubs are also me and Randall, except I’m Turk and he’s J.D. I remember putting a conversation Randall and I had into Scrubs — the white character asking the Black character whether or not Black guys could get bedhead — and afterward people saying it was so cool the show was about an interracial relationship. Back then, if you had best friends who were Black and white, we were only five years removed from a special episode of some fucking sitcom.

It’s happened a few times in your career where a show you were involved in creating continued on after you or the main character leaves. For Spin City, you left when Michael J. Fox did. On Scrubs, there was the challenge of transitioning the show after much of the cast left. Now you’re no longer as involved with making Ted Lasso. Is it challenging to work through these big transitions on long-running shows? 
Ted Lasso was a rare thing, because I would be disingenuous if I were sitting here saying it felt like mine from the start. I was so personally invested that if this was not in Jason Sudeikis’s skill set, I would still be there.

The first year of Ted Lasso, I used to get these compliments about the dart scene, and that speech came from Jason. We had a speech that wasn’t as good, and he came into work with that dart speech written out for him to do. It was like that show had an answer key in the writers’ room because Ted Lasso was next to you.

After the first year, I remember telling Jason, “Hey, I’m editing, come in.” It took me a year to learn editing from Gary, and Jason did one episode with me and we immediately shifted to, “You do that episode, I’ll do this episode.” By the second year, it was 50-50. The third year, it would’ve been criminal for it not to have been 100 percent his voice. That’s the way that show should work. It was his vision from the start.

You mentioned it’s taken you a while to get good at writing women.
It started with Cougar Town, which started as a joke. Mark Pedowitz, who was head of Disney at the time, had a deal with Courtney Cox, and he called me up and asked if I’d ever do a show with her. I was like, “I don’t know, man. I’m not great at writing female leads. I haven’t done it before.” Then I was in another writer’s room and the joke was me saying, “It’s a bummer it’s so hard to get shows picked up right now. If I said I was going to do a Courtney Cox show called Cougar Town, and instead of cuts between the scenes there was a big claw that went [makes ripping gesture], we could sell it and it’d be on TV tomorrow.” And Kevin Biegel, to his credit, was like, “I’ll do that with you.”

We tried it. It was disastrous for six episodes, and then we realized we really wanted to make a show about adult friendships, hanging around and eating food and drinking wine with the people you want to spend time with. Which, by the way, is a show that would’ve worked in the pandemic.

The biggest challenge was my wife, who said, “If you’re going to write the dynamics of women sitting around and driving the comedy of the situation, then you have to surround yourselves with strong-voiced, talented women who would bust your chops.” The women who wrote for the show were like, “That’s not how women talk. That’s not what they fucking care about.”

I told the actors, “When you do a pilot, the character is 50-50 with you and the writer. I own half the character, you own half the character. But this show’s only going to succeed if by the 13th episode, it’s more like 80-20 for you.” The women on that show ran with it. Nobody could do a Busy Philipps character better than Busy Philipps. No matter what we wrote, she was going to Busy Philipps it up.

It was the same on ShrinkingJessica Williams, as a young Black actress, understandably had reservations about a character who was not huge in the pilot. She came to me and Jason Segel and Brett Goldstein and my production company partner Jeff Ingold. And we’re not just white guys. We’re the whitest guys. I said the same thing: 50-50 in the pilot, and then take ownership of the character.

Your new Apple show, Bad Monkey, sounds like it’s meant to be a departure from the kind of show you typically make. It’s got more of a dramatic, mystery-solving engine, right?  
It’s hard. There’s a big thing in Hollywood where, when you feel like you’ve done the same thing for a long time, you think you have to do something different. So on one hand, I love doing shows that have emotional stakes, that are about something. And Bad Monkey is another weird genre thing; it’s an hour-long but very Elmore Leonard. Bad Monkey is a book by Carl Hiaasen, and he and Lenoard were buddies before Elmore Leonard died. They’re character books that masquerade as airplane books.

But for Bad Monkey, there is no indie music or emotional undercurrent. It’s just a goofy, fun, rompy caper thing in the Keys in Florida. I hope it works. I feel unsure of myself, but the cast, I got lucky again. Jodie Turner-Smith is so good, and Meredith Hagner from Search Party, and Michelle Monaghan, and Alex Moffat, and Vince Vaughn, and John Ortiz.

Is it challenging to work on caper-style plots after writing comedy plots for so long? 
Yeah, I had to hire a lot of really good hour-long writers who said things like “body drop” and “stakes.” Look, it’ll either be a disaster or a success. The same way these shows are a mixture of drama and comedy, it’s a mixture of raucous dialogue-driven comedy with stakes and murder.

Is it meant to be a limited series? 
The first season is Bad Monkey, which Carl wrote with a beginning, middle, and end. But Carl was my favorite author as a kid, and he wrote a sequel to Bad Monkey called Razor Girl that we also have. I don’t want to get caught in the thing where you’re like, “It’s okay that there’s no other book! We’ll do another year and it’ll be great!”

Another thing that’s shifted from earlier in your career is that episodes no longer have to hit set run times. This is something I’ve noticed changing quite a bit in Ted Lasso, and it seems to have settled down in Shrinking.
The younger generation of writers in my room love these episodes that meander, where you get to find out details you would otherwise not find about characters, and you get to live in the scenes a little more. If you look at Ted Lasso, you know which camp Jason’s in. And he’s not wrong, because people seem to enjoy living with the characters longer than I do. I’m wrestling with this on Shrinking because I’m like, “We don’t want to get too self-indulgent in any of these episodes,” so they’re all hovering around 28 to 32 minutes. I like having the parameters of what a comedy is and how it should end and how it should take you to the next week.

But I have seen 42-minute episodes of a half-hour comedy that seemed shorter than 33-minute episodes of a half-hour comedy. It is a case-by-case thing. That’s the thing that makes it such a weird argument — the fine line between self-indulgent and great storytelling depends on the specifics of that show. I guarantee you’ve watched 35-, 40-minute episodes that flew by, and 28-minute episodes where you’re like, That thing is still on?

Eustis worked on television throughout the ’70s and ’80s and created the ’80s sitcom Head of the Class. After their time together on Billy, Lawrence brought Eustis in as a writer for Scrubs. “I was so inept, and so not Hollywood. For the first four days of work, a PA would come in and ask what I wanted for lunch. I had no money, so I’d be like, ‘I’m cool!’ and would then go have a monster bowl of cereal in the kitchenette. The next week Rich Eustis walked in and goes, ‘Hey asshole — we pay for lunch.’ I’m like, ‘I will have 23 cheeseburgers.’” Goldberg worked on iconic TV throughout the ’70s and ’80s, including M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show, and was the creator of Family Ties, Day by Day, and Brooklyn Bridge. Bostwick played Randall Winston, the mayor on Spin City. McGinley plays Derek, the husband to Christa Miller’s character Liz, in Shrinking. Crime novelist Elmore Leonard, who died in 2013, has an unbelievable record of writing books that go on to become impressive adaptations: His work inspired the movies The Moonshine War, Killshot, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, and Be Cool, as well as the TV series Justified. Journalist and novelist Carl Hiaasen’s Florida-set crime thriller novels include Strip Tease (which became the Demi Moore–Burt Reynolds film Striptease), Double Whammy, and Tourist Season, as well as the Newbery Award–winning children’s book Hoot.
Bill Lawrence Is Still Figuring It Out