Q&A: 'Cougar Town' Boss Bill Lawrence Airs His Frustrations With Disney
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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.
THR: What was their explanation?
Lawrence: The legal guy said, "What if you can’t do all those things? Or what if you don’t do them? We made promises we can’t keep." I was like, "You’re going to get sued for me saying that?" It’s an insane way to think, and you’ve missed your window. ABC has been incredibly supportive creatively, but these big companies are still going to have giant problems capitalizing partly because they’re trying to hold on to the old business model where no one is allowed to pop on and put clips of shows and songs up there.
THR: Frustrating, and yet not altogether surprising given the nature of public companies…
Lawrence: Yes. It’s just frustrating when I turn in a video that says, "Hey, I’m sorry these things are so late but the Disney attorneys are weenies," which is incredibly innocuous, and it gets edited out when it goes up on Facebook. Because, what, that would be such an uproar? David Letterman does it about every two seconds to his bosses.
I guess the disconnect, too, is as an employee of Disney when you open these doors to interaction with our fans, they see you as an individual. You’re walking this tightrope because you might try to respond or do something for them but you’re prevented by the company. But the fans don’t know that and they aren’t blaming the company; they’re blaming you. That’s a double-edged sword.
THR: I’m still trying to envision Paul Lee, a proper Brit, reading your tweets.
Lawrence: Yeah. [Laughs.] Paul and his team have been so supportive about outside-the-box thinking, and I think we’ve gotten more leeway than many shows. I’m the one that gave Cougar Town a crappy title, not them. It was a pop culture joke of the moment and the only thing I can say in my defense and Kevin’s defense is that we thought it was going to be a show about that. We thought it was going to be campy and we very quickly changed it to a show about adult friendships and booze. Now we’re walking this fine line because the uber-fans and the media world are sick of me apologizing for the title, but I’m from Small Town America and my parents will call me and say, "We tried to get our friend Tina to watch the show but she doesn’t want to watch a show about older women f---ing younger boys."
THR: If you had it to do it all over again, what would the title be?
It would be called Stay Tuned for More Modern Family. [Laughs.] The problem is that Courtney’s show Friends had already been titled. It could be called Wine & Friends or The Cul-de-sac Crew. But we’re sticking with Cougar Town -- it’s a badge of courage and I’m having more fun mocking the title every week.
THR: Now what’s behind the recent Cougar Town story line in NBC’s Community?
Lawrence: I love the idea of cross-promoting with a show on another network when you’re not against each other. We’ve been doing that on the sly with Community and I’m really fascinated to see if it takes. The funniest thing to me is that not only fans but also executives will be like, "Did you see what they said on Community about Cougar Town?" As if we had no idea. No one ever takes the time to go, "Oh look, the two executive producers of Community were the exec producers of Scrubs." They like our show and we like theirs. It could be a new wave. Television used to be so competitive. Now, as long as it’s not your direct competition, I like the idea of shows that like each other rallying for each other. It will be interesting to see if that happens.
THR: Should we expect to see a shoutout on Cougar Town?
Lawrence: If you were a Community fan, I certainly think you have reasons to watch Cougar Town. I wouldn’t let them do that whole show without doing something on ours.
THR: As a showrunner, what’s the thing that keeps you up at night?
Lawrence: The biggest challenge is not to be overwhelmed by all the challenges. TV writing is a young man and young woman’s business. It’s very easy to get lazy and find yourself writing the same old jokes. Then you’re jealous when you see someone else doing it better and funnier. We always post a list on the wall with stories you can’t do anymore because they’ve been done 9,000 times.
THR: What’s on the list?
Well, you certainly can’t do the whole making excuses for not attending something with your wife because you have tickets to a baseball game and then get caught in that lie. That’s a big one. You certainly can’t be taking care of any kid’s animal and accidentally lose or kill it and have to hide it from the kid or get a new one to replace it. At the beginning of every season, we try to keep ourselves fresh as comedy writers by making a list of jokes that you can no longer do: Too much information; she’s standing right behind me, isn’t she?; who are you and what did you do with blah, blah, blah. Or, worse, Hey, 19-something called and they want their something back. Now, if you can come up with a new spin on any of those jokes, you’re allowed to use them. On Scrubs somebody said, “Hey, 1984 called, it wants its joke structure back.”
Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com and Twitter: @LaceyVRose