Q&A: 'Cougar Town' Boss Bill Lawrence Airs His Frustrations With Disney
On the eve of his ABC sitcom's return, the showrunner talks about his promo grievances, his banned-jokes list and the thing that keeps him up at night.
If you didn’t know Cougar Town was returning from its spring hiatus Monday night, you haven’t been reading Bill Lawrence’s Twitter feed. Or checking his Facebook page. Or watching his bobblehead theater productions.
Lawrence, along with his co-creator Kevin Biegel, has taken it upon himself to get out the message, a reality of the current economic environment, he says. These days, his job as showrunner on the single camera Courteney Cox comedy is as much marketer as it is creator.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the former Scrubs boss to talk about his corporate gripes, his Community cross-promotions and his unfiltered Twitter feed.
THR: You have been particularly vocal about ABC’s handling of promos – or lack of promos. Any pushback?
Lawrence: I’m not pointing fingers at ABC; I don’t think it’s the network’s fault. There’s a new economic reality. What these companies can do is put their money and financial backing behind launching a show and they really did that for us when we premiered. But you can’t ever get that again. I remember when I first started in TV doing Spin City. We would always complain that we didn’t get enough commercials or enough promos. I never do that anymore because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think that people watch television that way. I think a promo during one show saying that your show is on next still matters. But a week ahead of time? I love television and I don’t pay attention to them. I don’t think it works that way anymore.
THR: So what does work?
Lawrence: There are some shows like Modern Family or American Idol where lightning strikes. Otherwise, you have two options. First, you build word-of-mouth.
THR: And the second?
Lawrence: Keep your loyal fans interested by giving them as much access, content and interaction as possible. That’s what I like as a TV viewer. For me, every show that I’ve felt like, "Wow, they actually care what the fans think" or "they’re actually writing for somebody," I’m more loyal to. On Scrubs, we gave our fans extra content and access to the cast and writers. And in return, we could count on them to find the show on a network that moved the show about 20 times. On this show, Kevin and I realized that in our older age we weren’t making as much of an effort in our first year to interact with these guys and so we decided to do it wholesale now.
THR: What is the role of the showrunner today? Is it as much marketer as it is creator?
Lawrence: I think it is. I think the days of, ‘Hey, I’m a really good television writer and eventually I’ll get to do my own show even if I don’t know anything about budgets or promotion or marketing or branding,’ are over, especially when you talk about network TV. To assume that someone else is going to do it for you if you don’t lead the charge yourself is silly nowadays. I’m talking to you while Kevin, the co-creator, is on Twitter right now running a promo contest to see who can create the best commercial for Cougar Town. And I think being proactive is one of the things that makes television exciting now. When someone says to me, "Wow, I never heard from you like this back when Spin City was on," my response is, "Twitter didn’t exist!" I was doing Spin City when I was in my 20s and I never slept -- if there was a way to interact with fans, I would have done it 24 hours a day.
THR: Your Twitter feed is as much about your show as it is your relationship with your wife, (Cougar Town star) Christa Miller. Why divulge the latter?
Lawrence: I overthink television and promotion all the time. I obsess over it, and I got to thinking that one of the reasons that reality TV blew up is because people in this modern media age like to feel included. They like to feel like they’re part of it. I feel like opening your doors, whether it be to your personal life or even to your creative life, is a way to bring them in. And that’s what the Twitter thing is about.
THR: You two are talking about afternoon quickies on there…
I was doing it as a goof at the beginning and Christa said she’d never do it. Then Howard Stern started Tweeting and my wife worships him, so she went on there too. It wasn’t a plan; we organically started fighting a lot on Twitter. It’s kind of healthy not to do it face to face. [laughs] Now it’s mostly just me tying to get people out in the world to help me hook up with her, which is really inappropriate. The weird aftereffect is I saw a bunch of people saying, "Wow, I didn’t know that the guy who did Scrubs does Cougar Town" and "These two are really funny, I’m going to check it out."
THR: How has ABC reacted to all these different efforts?
Lawrence: This will get me in trouble, so it’ll be fun. My feeling is that it’s going to be hard for these big companies like Disney to embrace this. I went to take over the Scrubs’ Facebook site and I couldn’t just film things and post them, even though I have the ability to do it with a flip cams and the technology. Why? Because they still have to go through a 48-hour vetting process with the Disney attorneys. That’s why these companies are not able to crack these things. They don’t let creative people see something and react immediately by posting something funny because they’re worried. In the first video that I posted I was joking around about all of these things that I’m going to try to do on the Scrubs site and they wouldn’t put it up.