'Undateable's' EP Bill Lawrence: 'You have to reward fan loyalty'
Even for an usually brutal winter, it's a damn cold night in Boston as Bill Lawrence and the core cast of the upcoming NBC comedy "Undateable" roll into Boston this past March. Already unbearably cold for local denizens, the temperature seems to stun the Los Angeles natives that embarked on a multi-city comedy tour in order to promote a show that at the time didn't even have an official premiere date. Not only does Lawrence serve as producer on the show, but he also is serving as emcee for the evening's event on this, the second night of the tour. It's also Lawrence's second time on stage in nearly twenty years.
Since no episodes were available for review at the time of this interview, very little is about "Undateable" itself, which premieres May 29th at 9 pm ET/PT on NBC. Having seen most of the run since, The Boob Tube Dude can confirm it's very much in the Lawrence wheelhouse of hangout shows in which the central premise that helped sell the show to the network is largely abandoned after the pilot. So if you're worried about a lot of "men walk THIS way" shenanigans, fear not. Elements such as that inside the show are usually immediately undercut as shallow, unconstructive binaries. This is a hang-out show with a handful of nimble, fun performances that suggests there's plenty of life in the multi-camera comedy beyond "The Big Bang Theory". Chris D'Elia gives an energetic, larger-than-life performance as the show's nominal lead, but it's Brett Morin and Briga Heelan that give the show its romantic heart. (Think "Ground Floor" set in a bar and you get the jist.) Plus, Ron Funches! Anything + Ron Funches = a better version of that anything.
Before he went onstage in Boston on that frigid March night, Lawrence sat down with me to talk about the tour, the show, and the state of television in general. Many of the topics we discussed are slightly outdated (especially in terms of the fates of certain shows), but are still worth reprinting in full since they touch upon Lawrence's overall philosophy of producing and marketing televised content in 2014. As a fan of TV first and a producer of it second, Lawrence has a perspective that's always worthwhile to hear.
So where did the idea for this tour come from?
It's old school. What people don't understand is that this tour really isn't about these shows. I've never met a Nielsen family. You can't go see 500, 400, 300, 200 people at a time and make much of a difference. Chris has been selling out all over the country anyways. What this is really about: If people check the cities we go to, they are NBC's biggest affiliates in America. Each concert date comes with us going to meet the station owners or affiliate station managers with the next day. Because old-school wise, they are in charge of so much local promotion with their evening news. Yesterday, we were in New York on Live At Five. They'll do little features from when the guys were in town when we do get launched. In the old days, you would put a face to the names.
So we decided that since these guys are touring anyways, I got them to all agree to tour together. They can all stay out late, because they're young, but in the morning, they go see the affiliate station managers, tell them what the show's about, say, "NBC's crushing it this year, but they are having a tough time in comedy, so when we get on in the Spring, we're gonna need some help." This helps [the managers] get to know the guys and get invested. You'd be shocked by how few primetime shows do this. Yet talk shows and syndicated shows do this constantly. So it's a cool thing to try.
Is that why you're doing this without an official airdate, in order to solidify that relationship ahead of time?
We started this knowing we'd have an airdate before we finished. And we're pretty confident it's going to be in one of two time slots. We just have to see how it pans out. Part of the problem with being a midseason show in the modern landscape is that if you don't start before hand, nowadays, you often get the, "Hey, you're on in three weeks. Good luck!" And then, especially with actors who have been working and touring since the day we wrapped, it's impossible to get anything together. So for us: Meet the people, actually put faces to the names, and when we actually do get announced, we'll go back out and shoot stuff to give them extra promos and extra material.
Are you selling the characters on the show, or the personality of the actors?
The personalities, and here's why: The pitch to this show, which is going to be one of its selling points...I was worried about doing a multi-camera show, because a multi-cam show is half execution and half cast chemistry. It used to take the friends on "Friends" to get chemistry, or the actors on "Cheers" to get to know one another. Now, if by five episodes, it's not clicking like a machine, everybody goes, "Oh, well, this is not gonna work." And so part of the pitch of this show when I went to the network was, "For the four lead males, I'm going to cast stand-ups that are friends already, and have all known each other for ten years."
Part two of it was I knew I could sell the comics as well as the show is when I cast them, I said, "The rules on this show are even looser than they were on 'Scrubs'. People who go to tapings might eventually write or talk about it, but we had one take written so it could make sense, and then say whatever the hell you want. What grounds that are the people who aren't here aren't just comics. Bianca Kajlich is a really good comedian. Briga Heelan ("Cougar Town," "Ground Floor") is the other female lead...but they can't come out on tour.
So it's more about how stand-up skills help these four sell the show in a room?
Without a doubt. And we let them take that to their characters. None of these four are playing anything different than the personas you'll see tonight onstage. It's what we cast them for.
So did the show come out of their stand up material, or you had characters and these four fit into them?
We had a prototype pilot, and then when we started getting guys, we did a massive rewrite. We were open to any diversity, any type of character. I mean, when Chris D'Elia signed on, we went to see his tour. His character was more mellow on the on page originally. But he's like a watchdog on tour, always in leather. Even his hoodies have leather! So we changed it. We changed it to suit the guys. It's the most fun.
Two years ago, you did the "Cougar Town" tour. What's one thing that tour confirmed for you, and one thing that surprised you?
The saddest part is that it confirmed for me in a negative way that you can't reach Nielsen families through grassroots marketing. It's too small a sample size, and I've never met one. It's completely different from the model that's working right now, where Tyler Perry goes city to city saying, "Come see this show! Come see this movie!" That works, and we have empirical evidence to show it works. Look at the box office. On the other hand, if you say, "I'm going to go to 21 cities and find 21,000 fans that will randomly show up," it's not going to happen. So we had to ditch that.
The thing that made me happy, though, was the realization that networks know that, and that buzz and perception actually matter. As networks go from giant numbers to those that cable has, I would say "Cougar Town" stayed on and then got picked up again because people were writing about what we were doing and displaying a passion for the show. So for TBS, it made them not feel like they were picking up a reject, and the show continued on.
When we talked a couple of years ago, you said the network model was already dying, but just didn't know it yet. But here, you've got two shows this Spring that are going to be on networks. Have you figured out the ROI on network shows in the time since?
Here's what I'm hoping ... I feel like networks have evolved into a place where if they have a show they like creatively, they like the audience, and they like the perception of the show, if it has fan loyalty, they seem to be in a lot of circumstances keeping them on. I think that is the modern network model, because you either have that or the zeitgeist hit.
I make network shows because I work with Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers is getting out and doing shows on cable now, Damon Lindelof is doing that HBO show ("The Leftovers"), and they are really letting people go out. I think we're in a world now where things are much more fluid. The pilot process is changing. A show like "Community" is a great example: Remember when there was all this panic about the show's cancellation? If that happened now, people wouldn't be nervous, because they would say, "With that cultish core audience, if NBC lets it go, it'll be on somewhere else tomorrow." Maybe not now, because it's got its run. But back when we were talking about it, back in year two? I wouldn't have panicked at all, if I were running it. I'd say, "Well, it'll be interesting to see if we're on NBC, or Comedy Central, or WGN, or TBS, or wherever next year."
With all the shows you currently have a hand in right now, how much of it is you giving creative input and how much is you teaching people how to run shows and how to physically produce a product that gets aired?
The thing I've said a million times, and I'll say it here: Kevin Biegel, a huge creative part of "Cougar Town"...one of the things I promised him was that even if my name was all over something and you can't escape the perception, let's be straight: he and I co-created that show. I didn't create it on my own. The only way that I've kind of tweaked that is that I've reached a point in my career luckily where I don't really need my name on scripts. What I've promised people is, "Do it together. I'm your safety net. If it goes badly, I'll take responsibility. If it goes well, you get the credit, as much as you'll take it independent of me." My dream gig-as someone with three kids-is to be able to go home at night and then show up early in the morning asking, "What are you having trouble with? How can I help? Do you need me to rewrite the second act? I'll do that."
And this year, with "Undateable," Adam Sztykiel needed my help, and he'll tell you that too. Not because he's not amazing, but because he had never worked on a TV show before. So I jumped in, helped write for a multi-cam, which was a blast. Justin [Halpern] and Patrick [Schumacker] had this great support network of Bill Callahan and some "Scrubs" people. So my goal, if I could design my own career, is for you to write about shows that work, and for those kids to say, "Oh, right, and Bill Lawrence was part of this show once."
Do you find there's a connective tissue in the four shows that you currently have your hand in? Is there something that makes those a "Bill Lawrence" show?
It's weird, because I put the writers in the position of me being the first buyer, since they come to me about ideas. I still like characters, even in multi-cam, to give a s*** about each other. I can't do snarky comedy of meanness unless you make people really buy in to the characters liking each other, caring for each other, having each other's backs. It's a double-edged sword: If the show stays on too long, and it drifts away from the love, and it's just about snark I used to give you, but then you never see them in the end wink or have a moment...it gets dangerous. But those are the shows that I really dig on. I like shows where I actually give a shit about the characters.
You said on your Reddit AMA that you have to reward loyalty. How does that extend to the audiences of your shows?
To me, that's the biggest part of this new world of television. And Biegs (Kevin Biegel) is doing it really well. People think he's crazy, that I'm crazy ... but I love people that reward people with what they inherently want from that particular show. Rewards them with extra content. Rewards them with access. And say Bieg's thing doesn't work with "Enlisted," or say my thing doesn't work with "Undateable," I still think it says to your fans, "Man, I'm giving as much a shit about this as I hope you will." One of the biggest disconnects I see sometimes is when people care so much about a show, but then get disenchanted when a creator or an actor associated with that show doesn't seem to give a f***. You know? To them, it's a job. You have to care as much as they do in order to expect that from them.
So sure, I think that's part of what we try to do with the shows, but also inside the shows with the way the characters connect with one another. You can't just flip the lines around and have talking heads.
Does that get into whom you try to cast? Because it can't be just you selling the show. It has to be a collective effort, sort of like the "Scandal" cast with their livetweeting.
It's unbelievable. Shonda is the queen of it. I find myself as a TV fan gravitating towards shows where I believe the cast hangs out anyways. I love "Parks And Recreation," and I remember seeing a thing they did to promote their relaunch with Nick Offerman in a beard, and them all goofing around with each other. As a producer I knew this was something that had to take extra time and effort, and they have to like each other to do it. I like the show more because I know they like each other, and care about the show.
Audiences read social media as much as the shows. They can detect the b***s***.
And they can read the signs. By the way: There's a huge difference for the audience between, "Watch this show at blah blah blah" as opposed to Josh Hopkins giving Busy Phillips s*** all week because she misspelled my last name in a tweet. And everybody in the cast is TORTURING her! And fans read that and they think, "Oh, these guys f*** with each other in real life! It's not just some b***s***."
Do you think production companies are going to be the new "networks" as we get more splintered?
Ha. I hope so! The problem is you have to protect your brand. The problem is when you try to do that, and the first time you put out a s***bomb, people go, "That's bad!" and it has your name all over it...you get damaged a lot more than a network does. Because a network takes those hits all the time.
I think the next step that people are truly hoping for is that you look at Trey [Parker] and Matt [Stone] and Important Studios, and you can skip the studio system itself somehow. Someone was joking to me the other day: "If I was able to have an app that consisted of Chuck Lorre, Shonda Rhimes, and J.J. Abrams shows, and you paid $50 for that app, and paid $10 for 10 episodes, that would crush!" But they are all under studio deals. So that's the eventual hope for some.
The Amazons, the Netflixes, the Hulus...do these feel like more of the same or a paradigm shift in and of itself?
I think it's a paradigm shift. First of all, it's great, because content is king. The one thing I tell young writers when they panic because network ratings are coming down a little bit is that more people are watching TV than ever. It's just that you have access to so much content. If you're bringing content to the game of ANY kind-even as a journalist, you have so many more places to put it-so long as people can get to it, who cares?
The playing field that's happening right now-the network/syndication model, "The Big Bang Theory," shows like that-is still worth so much money that it's still worth chasing. The Netflix model has not proven to have any back-end worth whatsoever. So what's going to happen is that Netflix is going to figure out how to provide a little back-end worth, and the syndication pods are going to keep coming down, and eventually, both will be in the same circle and won't matter what you do.
So that magic number of 100 for syndication goes away?
Yeah. The networks cracked this in drama. If you research it, one of the things that's started to happen is shows with big stars-the Tom Sellecks and James Spaders-are almost instantly profitable for the network because of their international sales and the way they are multi-platform. So the network is already making money off each episode they air. So if it pulls a decent rating at all, they say, "Every piece of this here is gravy." It's the networks changing the business model in a way we never thought they would.