Friday, February 05, 2010

NATPE: Bill Lawrence, creator/showrunner Scrubs & Cougar Town

Full disclosure: I don't watch Scrubs. I don't mean I don't regularly watch Scrubs; I mean I've never watched Scrubs. I haven't seen Garden State either. Zach Braff doesn't do it for me. Having said that, I found Bill Lawrence genuinely entertaining, and more importantly, he seemed like a thoughtful guy. He was also extremely gratified when my colleage Kevin Sandler from Arizona State told him he shows the episode "My Life in Four Cameras" in his television course.

But enough about my personal feelings, and on to my "take-aways" from his talk, moderated by J. Max Robbins from the Paley Media Center. Since this is a blog few people will read, I am going to be sporadic in how I translate my notes. But I fear I'd better do it soon, before I forget what the nonsense I scrawled down means.

On the importance and shifting role of the showrunner, Lawrence stressed that he believed "TV is an execution business" while the movie business is idea-driven. Hence the showrunner's importance maintaining consistency, as opposed to the individual development (of an idea/story if not individual creative voice) in film.

On the difficulty of getting a new sitcom on the air, Lawrence said he was working with someone who wanted to make a show about an adoption agency. Turns out 11 adoption agency sitcoms had already been registered with the WGA in one year.

On empathy in comedy, he said he thought characters who actually care for one another make comic stakes higher, and that people (viewers) need something emotional to hang on. He said that he thought maybe that was what stopped Arrested Development from catching on. This was the second time that point had been brought up. Earlier in the day, there was a panel for Modern Family, the producers of which pretty much admitted that they wanted to make Arrested Development--but with feeling.

On how he would change the development process: get rid of all the extra hoops of mid-management that clog up development at the networks. He contrasted this to the "Grant Tinker" approach which didn't have all that.

On good and bad pitches:

One of ABC's presidents fell asleep when he was pitching Scrubs.  He was shocked because he thought the pitch was so good--everything was true, based on a real-life JD who was a huge screw-up.

Worst pitch: to Kevin Reilly, President of NBC at the time. When changes were suggested to Lawrence, he countered "you should write that." He then warned the audience to beware of comments which give you five minutes of joy followed by many, many, many more without it.

Best pitch: Clone High to MTV.

Lawrence also talked about Cougar Town, a show that purportedly has more women writers on staff than men--uncommon for a comedy. Since the core of the show is about how men and women approach things different, this was necessary.

On Scrubs moving from NBC to ABC, classic stuff on the dynamics of TV production, distribution, and ownership today. ABC owned the show, which meant NBC could only make money off selling ads. When ABC picked it up, they therefore stood to make more money through "syndie".

On convergence and comedy: Lawrence was asked how much he thinks about people watching "bits and bytes" of comedy online when he writes/produces the show. He admitted that they always are sure to incorporate some "internet-ready" bit that will self-promote the show. An example was an airband version of "More than a Feeling."

More: "There are no quick hits in network TV, but on the Internet...the person who can monetize" will make a fortune." He also stressed that the opportunities to hustle a small company are still there.

On "My Life in Four Cameras": Lawrence said he believes that there's nothing as immediate and gratifying as the multicamera sitcom, "nothing purer than the multicamera" sitcom for "pure escapist entertainment." However, he related that doors kept getting shut in his face when he pitched multicamera shows. The episode was a response to that; a "love letter" to the multicamera sitcom that he said many people thought was a "slam" of it.

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