‘Ted Lasso’ and ‘Shrinking’ Creator Bill Lawrence: “Everything Goes My Way” (He’s Kidding! Sort Of)
The veteran showrunner behind the Apple hits — not to mention sitcom favorites 'Spin City,' 'Scrubs' and 'Cougar Town' — revisits the ups, downs and biggest surprises of his long TV arc, including “the weirdest thing that ever happened to me” in Hollywood.
Bill Lawrence has lost count of how many episodes of television he’s made at this point. There were 145 episodes of Spin City, he tallies, and another 182 of Scrubs. Before he co-created Ted Lasso (34 episodes) or Shrinking (10 and counting), he made one season of Clone High, three seasons of Undateable and six seasons of Cougar Town, with several other series mixed in. “So, it’s got to be close to a thousand by now,” he reasons.
The real marker of career longevity, however, is the fact that the prolific showrunner can be watching a sitcom now and if any one of his three children are to hit pause after a joke setup, Lawrence can, nine times out of 10, deliver the punchline. “It’s like my magic trick for my kids,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, well, you’ve read this script,’ and I’ll be like, ‘I definitely didn’t read the new episode of Night Court’ or whatever it is. This is just what I do.”
Though Lawrence jokes that his “bangs-y, boyish looks” can be deceptive, the 54-year-old Titan, as THR has crowned him for his contributions to TV, got serious about the lessons of his early rise, the advice he has for young writers, and the pride and sting of having an Emmy-winning smash that’s moved on without him.
There’s a piece of advice that I’ve heard you give early on in every room you run, which is a variation on, “The job is to write what I think is funny, not what you think is funny.” Talk to me about that.
It’s an evolving philosophy, but I got fired from my first three great jobs: Friends, Boy Meets World and The Nanny. And all deservedly so. But here’s what’s interesting: Everybody comes out here like, “Wow, I hope I get to tell my story eventually.” People don’t come out with the ambition of, like, “Man, I hope someday I get to write on somebody else’s show for years and years.” The lesson you’ve got to learn is that someone created this show, and more often than not, they’re hugely personally invested in it and it’s going to exist in their voice. So, if you don’t very quickly get in line with “I’m writing what this man or woman sees as the world of the show,” it’s dangerous for you, careerwise, because you’re not doing the job.
You’ve been very open about your firings. Were you always, or did that come with age and success?
I’ve gotten really lucky, and it’s also easy to look back on the mistakes you made when things are going well. But when I got let go from Friends [after season one], and the second season it was the biggest show in the world, I was in the fetal position on a futon in my shitty apartment. I just didn’t understand how TV worked at all. And there used to be a cliché, which I always thought was so silly, but these older writers would say to the staff writers, “Don’t talk for the first few weeks until you understand.” Now, looking back, and it’s been something that’s haunted me in my marriage and with my children, I realize I was never that good at reading the room. I’ve gotten better at it.
By 27, you’d created a hit show in Spin City with your mentor Gary David Goldberg. In what ways did your naivete help and hurt you?
I’ll tell you the weirdest thing, which is that my daughter [singer Charlotte Lawrence] got very successful very young, and it’s brought us closer because I can speak to her as somebody who made certain mistakes and didn’t realize how fleeting it could be. I told her a story the other day, which was very Sopranos-esque, where I behaved badly. I was a 27-year-old kid with a loft in New York, and this was when upfronts were still a thing. The next morning, I get a call that Bob Broder, who at the time ran the agency I was at, was outside my apartment building. I’m like, “Wait, what?” So, I go down, and he says, “Get in the car.” We drove around in circles and he says, “Bill, there are 20 people in Hollywood, and you are very young, but you’ve reached a level where when you behave in a very bad or very good way, those 20 people will all know about it in the next 12 hours.” I’m like, barely awake and really hungover, and he’s like, “Everything affects your career now.” I’m like, “OK. Anything else, man?” He’s like, “Nah, get out.” I’m in my pajamas, and I walk back to my apartment, thinking that’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me.
I suspect the fact that you still remember it also means it maybe scared the crap out of you?
Yeah. (Laughs.) You just aren’t taught these things. The craziest thing about this job — and it’s why I love supporting and teaching at the [WGA] showrunner training program — is that most people are drafted into it completely unaware of all the peripheral stuff: of being a shrink, of being responsible for group dynamics, of being responsible for other people’s livelihoods. Learning that young was very helpful. The other big advantage, for me anyway, was that I became super aware, super fast, about the cyclical nature — not only of Hollywood but of your career in Hollywood. My joke is that my voice is my voice and I’ve been doing the same thing all these years and sometimes it’s cool and sometimes it’s not cool and then it’s cool again. I couldn’t have predicted that at age 54, I’d have another window of “Oh, it’s cool to do comedy with emotional undercurrent again.”
Were you always able to maintain that confidence that your brand of comedy would come back in vogue?
I’d say the biggest hit my career took later in life was with [the 2019 ABC dramedy] Whiskey Cavalier. I’ve had tons of garbage shows that didn’t get on because they were awful. And I’ve had shows that were flawed that got on and I’m like, “That’s flawed, maybe we can fix it in time,” and they went away and I got it. Whiskey Cavalier was the first show where I was like, “This show is really good and it should pave the way to me going, ‘I want to do this type of thing but on a streaming thing at a little bigger budget.'” When that show didn’t make it, I was like, “What’s going on? My type of TV might be dead.”
You’d tried for years to sell the Carl Hiaasen series Bad Monkey, which you now have coming with Vince Vaughn. What changed: the marketplace or your place in it?
Look, I grew up with a mentor, Gary, who was, for whatever reason, antagonistic toward the notes and development process. It was famously not his thing.
So much so that he had a deal where he didn’t get notes, right?
Yep, and when Gary split from [Spin City,] he was very supportive of me and told me it was going to be great. Then I went to the next table read, and I’m like, “Wait, there are like 30 people here I’ve never seen before, and they have opinions.” (Laughs.) Someone’s like, “They all work for ABC and DreamWorks,” and [I think], “Oh, this is going to be bad for me.” But [Jeff Ingold,] the guy that runs my company, was one of the first executives who gave me tons of notes, and I found it very helpful. By the way, once your ego gets a rest, you realize the more the merrier. Notes are only a problem if you don’t have the leverage or the ability because of where you are in your career to say, “I appreciate it, but I’m not going to do that one.” So, the answer is I learned empathy for the people in these gigs who have kids and spouses and are struggling to hang on and make a buck just like you are. When you have success, the way to leverage that is to tell an executive or a gatekeeper, “You’re not going to get punished for taking a shot with me right now.” That’s a huge leverage point.
Ironically, Ted Lasso was a project you and Jason Sudeikis pitched all over and nobody bit. Why?
Nobody but Apple. Ted Lasso was the first time that somebody brought my brand to me. I’d done other people’s shows and maybe added my voice to [them], but here I’d seen these Ted Lasso Premier League commercials and they were broad and funny, and then Jason came to me going, “I want to make this show have the emotional undercurrent of a show like Scrubs.” What was hard about that was we would show the IP, and no matter what we said, [buyers] would immediately assume, “Oh, so it’s a silly, broad, sketchy cartoon show.”
Your involvement has lessened over time, correct?
I ran that show the first year because Jason was still shooting movies while we were doing the writers room. Then, at the end of that year, much like Gary with me, I was like, “Ah, I’ll spend a couple of months teaching him how to edit.” But after like a day or two, he’s like, “Yeah, I got it.” (Laughs.) So, the second year, we ran it together, and I’m only able to do other things now because that guy ran the show himself the third year, as it should be. It’s his voice and his world this season.
On a personal level, was it hard for you not to be involved in the third and ostensibly final season?
Well, the positive was I got to do two things, Shrinking and Bad Monkey, that I’ve been dying to do. And it was healthy for me to let go because Jason is Ted Lasso and certainly deserves, especially landing the plane, for it to be his vision. If I were to take a slam at myself, I think I’ve reached a point in my career that I’m certainly not the best at having to listen to other people over my own opinion. And he has, without a doubt, earned that with this show. So, it didn’t sting as much as I thought it would, but that’s also partly because I think he crushed it.
How are you feeling about additional seasons or spinoffs?
If you hear anybody hedging, it’s just because everybody’s super comfortable with the fact that Jason gave up a lot to move his family and his life to London, and it’s really rough. The truth is, he’ll come out of the smoke of cutting this show and doing all this stuff, and if he feels like doing more, he’ll do more. And if he doesn’t, he won’t. I will tell you, I’ve never met a dude less motivated by dollar signs. I mean, I’m a producer, I’d be doing Ted Lasso cartoons already. (Laughs.)
Speaking of doing more, how many times have you been approached about rebooting Scrubs and how close to “yes” have you come?
A bunch. Here’s the thing, everybody on that show is killing it today. So, I think we’d all do it to have the excuse to spend time with each other, but no one’s in dire need of work and we see each other anyway. If we ever come up with an idea that would be fun to revisit, we’d do it just for the hang of it. But I reached a point on that show, and maybe I stayed too long, but by the sixth year, the writers would be like, “What should Dr. Cox’s rant be?” And I’m like, “Why does he have to be fucking mad every week? Who cares what he’s mad at? My God!” (Laughs.) So, nostalgically, it’d be fun to revisit, but the idea of doing it as a series is a bit of a bummer to me.
You’ve been back writing season two of Shrinking for a while, yes?
Yeah, they got us going right after it premiered. We had pitched them a beginning, middle and end. We were like, “Hey, the first year is about grief, the second year’s about forgiveness and the third is about moving forward.” But it’s weird. Remember when a renewal was such a big deal? You’d sit around like this (crosses fingers), and now they tell you almost immediately if you’re doing another season.
How much are you rushing scripts in anticipation of a potential writers strike? If so, does that make you uneasy? You’re effectively supplying the studios with content to make while the writers picket.
It’s without a doubt [rushing in anticipation of a strike]. But to not work your ass off, what if there’s not a strike and you didn’t [prepare] anything? Truth is I try not to get too caught up on it. I’m a generally optimistic person. I finally wrote this into Shrinking because all the writers make fun of me for saying [as Michael Urie’s character on the show does] that my mantra is, “Everything goes my way.” I say it mostly to annoy the shit out of people. But, if you put that out into the ether, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Your wife, Christa, plays a different, less strident character on Shrinking than you’ve historically written for her. Why the change?
It’s going to sound corny, but she’s very muse-like to me and we make each other laugh. You read about the whole “nepo” trend — we talk about it in our family because I also put my daughter’s songs in Shrinking — and we’re all painfully aware of how lucky we are to do this and what a gift to do it with your spouse or kid. That said, it took me a long time to learn how to write women. I still don’t think I’m great at it. Even when we did that goofy show Cougar Town, I remember it became a story — and it shouldn’t have — that even though Kevin Biegel and I were the creators, there were more women on that staff than men. People would sometimes go, “Oh it’s cool and noble.” Yeah, it’s also out of fear because my wife is one of those women. If they get pages of dialogue that sound like they’re written by a bunch of dudes, it’s not going to be good for me.
Oh, I’m sure not …
The point is, I find my wife so funny and, without a doubt, I underestimated her as an actress. So the opportunity for me to be confident enough to go to Jason Segel and Brett Goldstein and say, “Hey, this character, my wife could crush this.” She’s not just an acerbic, edgy wiseass. She’s studied and I’ve seen her in movies and plays and kill it. So, it’s been really, really cool to see her do it, man, and to get props for it.
What’s the most valuable advice you can impart to young writers today, and how is it different than it was, say, five or 10 years ago?
One of them is a Writers Guild issue, which is about training. The first year of Spin City, it was a joke that didn’t go over well, but for Christmas, Gary bought me and the writing staff comfortable cot beds for our offices because we worked all the time. The upside was, out of necessity, everybody was around all aspects of production. You had to throw writers into editing. You had to have writers on the stage talking to actors. You had to have one room outlining and one room punching up. The new model today has taken even that modest training ground away.
So, what do you advise they do?
Try to find a way in, whether it’s asking showrunners or just hanging around. I screwed up on Shrinking because I was so under the gun. Luckily, some of the writers called me and asked, “Hey, when you’re editing, can we sit in?” I’m like, “Oh, fuck, yeah, I should have offered.” So, find ways to familiarize yourself with the other aspects of TV production or you’ll be dropped into a world and in over your head immediately. There’s also this weird culture around the word “showrunner” that’s dysfunctional. There’s something appealing to the narcissist in all of us about the term, as in, “I get to run everything.” And it’s true, I get final cut, but the thing I tell people now is, “If you don’t learn how to surround yourself with talented people and empower them, you’ll drown and burn out.”
Anything more I haven’t asked?
There’s never been more awesome TV on that I haven’t even heard of, and I consume this stuff voraciously. I love TV. A big pet peeve of mine is when I meet young writers and ask them about their favorite show, and they say, “You know, I’m not a huge TV person.” I’m like, “Hey, please go do something else. I’m begging you, man. If you love movies, go do movies.”
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just “cool” to say you don’t watch TV.
You may be right. It’s funny, my wife and I were once on a plane, this was a long time ago, and some dude was like, “Did you go to University of Michigan? Because I recognize you.” And my wife’s much brasher than I am, and she’s like, “No, but it might be because I’m on The Drew Carey Show.” He’s like, “Nah, I don’t watch a lot of TV.” And she just goes, “Well, you do because you recognized me. It’s not a crack habit, it’s just television. You don’t have to be embarrassed about it.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
THE HIT FACTORY
Bill Lawrence jokes that his brand of “comedy with emotional undercurrent” hasn’t changed, regardless of whether it’s in fashion.
Spin City (1996-2002)
The ABC comedy, which Lawrence co-created with mentor Gary David Goldberg, was set in a semifictionalized version of the New York City mayor’s office, with Emmy winner Michael J. Fox as the deputy mayor of New York. Lawrence had initially pitched Fox’s character as either a reporter or a guy who ran City Hall, and Goldberg and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg responded to the latter.
The Peabody-winning NBC turned ABC hospital comedy wrapped after eight seasons, only to be revived later. “I said, ‘I’ll do a spinoff called Scrubs Med and have it be med school,’ but they panicked at the eleventh hour and gave Zach [Braff] a lot of money to be in some and it was no longer a spinoff,” he says. “Now, at least once a day, someone will go, ‘Aren’t you bummed you ruined the show’s legacy?’ “
Cougar Town (2009-2015)
The ABC comedy, which Lawrence co-created with Kevin Biegel and almost immediately regretted its title, centered on a recently divorced mom (Courteney Cox) and her wine-loving friends, including Lawrence’s actress wife, Christa Miller. Lawrence stepped down as showrunner when the show moved to TBS after three seasons.
Ted Lasso (2020-present)
Lawrence co-created the Emmy-winning Apple TV+ soccer dramedy with Brendan Hunt, Joe Kelly and star Jason Sudeikis. That a show inspired by a series of silly Premier League promos would ultimately become a smash hit surprised everyone. “It was just cool to be working on something optimistic and hopeful,” says Lawrence, “because we all needed that shit in our actual lives.”
Lawrence initially pitched his version of the therapist dramedy years ago, but the iteration that premiered on Apple TV+ is an amalgamation of his idea and Ted Lasso star Brett Goldstein’s. Together, the duo recruited Harrison Ford to star opposite Jason Segel. The team is currently prepping a second season, which will be about forgiveness.
This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.