Bill Lawrence Sees the Upside of Streaming as He Launches AppleTV+ Show 'Ted Lasso'

21biz_CS-Bill Lawrence- Publicity - H 2020
Zach Braff/Courtesy of Subject

The comedy vet opens up about how he's navigating his improvised home office, recent 'Scrubs' nostalgia and the burn of premature broadcast cancellations.

Bill Lawrence may be under a rich overall deal at Warner Bros., having created Scrubs, Spin City and Cougar Town, but the 51-year-old TV scribe spends most days now banished to an unadorned guest bedroom of the Los Angeles home he shares with his actress wife, Christa Miller, and their three children.

Earlier in the pandemic, Miller grew so tired of her "bored and lonely" husband following her around the house, she and their son hung a sign over the guest room door with his company name. "We have house rules,” he says now with a laugh. "I’m expected to be in here at 9:30 a.m. I’m not expected to leave until 5 p.m. I am allowed to come out and get lunch — but not in a way that forces everybody to stop what they’re doing to engage me."

The Aug. 14 debut of Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso — which he co-created with Jason Sudeikis — should bring Lawrence his first reminder of normalcy in months, not to mention a reminder of his power outside his own four walls. The comedy, loosely based on the bumbling character Sudeikis once played in a series of NBC Sports promos, is the first streaming effort for Lawrence, who was once inextricably tied to broadcast. Over the phone from his "tiny little cage," he opened up about an evolving TV landscape, toxic workplaces and how he’s navigating the fame of his daughter, singer-songwriter Charlotte Lawrence.

Ted Lasso has had an odd path to air. How did you come on board?

I was hunting down Jason. He’s one of those actor-comedians that has this kind of affability. I asked him what he wanted to work on and he said he always thought Ted Lasso would make a cool TV show. I, like every other comedy writer had seen these very sketch-like promotional videos he’d done for the Premier League [in 2013]. He said, "Just so you know, I’m more recognized when I go abroad as Ted Lasso than I am for SNL, Horrible Bosses or anything." It’s funny, but it’s like Airplane. You can’t do it as a series. That’s why Police Squad, which I loved, lasted only six episodes. But Jason wanted to surprise people and give the guy three dimensions and emotional depth and do our take on a classic sports movie, like Rudy or Hoosiers or Bull Durham.

Why Apple?

The international popularity of football [American soccer] really helps. I was always pleased to find out that a show did well internationally [in the past], but that part always came later. We’re streaming this in 100 territories that are just as important [as the U.S.], because of Apple’s product base and business. They’ve encouraged us to have international flavor within it. So that was one of the main reasons we went there. Plus, I’ve been doing this for 100 years. It was cool to try something new.

This is the first time in your career you aren’t working with a broadcast network. What’s your current relationship with broadcast?

The trigger finger is so quick in network television that you’re asking all these young writers not to choose between a 22-episode season and a 10-episode season on cable, but between an initial 10 episodes on a streamer that’s liable to go three seasons or a network show that, odds are, will be 13 episodes and gone. They have taken the business incentive out of doing network TV. I am always behind network TV, but if I were the president of a network I would say, "Hey, we know how hard it is to find an audience. If the show is good, we’re going to stick with it for two seasons and see if it can grab a toe hold." I really argue against the itchy trigger finger that they get. It’s probably sour grapes because I thought Whiskey Cavalier [which Lawrence exec produced], on ABC, should have lasted more than a season.

You’ve had a couple of short-lived shows in recent years. What are the conversations like with executives?

The challenge in TV, especially for a dinosaur like me, is to either change with the times or get passed by. I don’t find myself being that confrontational with executives. I try to play with a new paradigm. I just haven’t really figured out what the new version of the network game is for me. My best relationship out there and the guy I’m really impressed by is [CW president] Mark Pedowitz. He was a mentor of mine when I was first creating Scrubs. To watch what he has done at The CW — building a brand, sticking with shows because of how they survive off of his own network and redefining what his paradigm is for success — that’s a place I’m desperately trying to get a show.

What’s a Bill Lawrence CW show?

Part of the joy at this point in my career is some things I write myself and some stuff I supervise and help people get through the system — the same way that Gary Goldberg helped me on Spin City. The starting point for a CW show looks like me exploiting a very young, talented writer who has a very distinct young voice.

You’re a frequent participant in Donald Faison and Zach Braff’s podcast, Fake Doctors, Real Friends With Zach and Donald. Do you enjoy nostalgia?

It’s a cool excuse to get off of a Zoom writers room for 15 minutes. It’s awesome what they’re doing and it’s super fun for me to revisit a show that is a long, long time ago. I mean, my kids were watching old DVDs of Spin City and my youngest was like, "Was this ever on TV?" "Yeah, dude. What, you think I just showed it to people in our backyard?" There’s a permanence to TV now.

They make the Scrubs experience sound great at a time when we’re re-examining a lot of toxic sets.

There’s toxic folk in every profession. They often fail upward because it’s the unwritten rule: If you make a lot of money, people look the other way. I don’t think that is specific to Hollywood. I was lucky enough to be brought up in great workplaces. Gary Goldberg was a leading proponent in establishing child care at Paramount for his employees with Family Ties, and he was so uniformly lovely. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t have their own issues, but working on a TV show is like being with your family at Thanksgiving — only for six or seven months at a time. It’s going to be a dysfunctional mess at times. You only get through it if people are kind.

You worked with Chris D’Elia, recently accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women (charges that he denies), on Undateable. How do you think the industry should approach casting and finding collaborators given how many ugly truths have come out?

You’re often being thrust into very close partnerships almost immediately with people — be it actors, other writers, directors — that you don’t know. What I always say is, "Hey, we’re going to anecdotally check on you and talk to everybody that’s worked with you." I tell people this up front because they should do the same about me. And I say that.

Your daughter, Charlotte Lawrence, is a successful singer with 3.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify. How have you and your wife digested that?

I went to see my daughter perform in Germany. She has to do meet-and-greets [after the show]. I was by a green room as she was whisked by me, like, "Hi, Dad, great to see you. I’ve got to go." I was like, "I’m in Germany. You owe me more than 40 seconds!"

Have you given her any advice?

The cool thing for my wife and me is it has connected us to her in a way. We all had the weird experience of your life getting very big very fast. It can be overwhelming. I was completely overwhelmed doing Spin City when I was 26. My daughter joked that me at 26 was about as mature as her at 19, which is probably fair. I think she should wear full, floor-length jackets and robes more often, but I couldn’t be more proud of her activism with voting, civil rights issues and gun control. I don’t even remember if I was smart enough to vote when I turned 18.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.