Q&A: 'Cougar Town' Boss Bill Lawrence Airs His Frustrations With Disney

Bill Lawerence - Winter TCA Tour - 2010
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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.
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