Eight years ago, Bill Lawrence conceived of a single-camera, laugh track–less sitcom that, while drawing humor from cartoonish cutaways, remained grounded in its characters' lives, helping usher in an approach to be repeated further down the road by shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock. Scrubs takes place in a hospital, follows the lives of the doctors and interns within (starring Zach Braff, Donald Faison, Sarah Chalke, and John C. McGinley), and has received much critical praise over the years. But a lot of drama has gone on behind the scenes: Though ABC owns Scrubs, it aired on NBC for seven seasons—which meant the show didn't get the promotional support it deserved/required, Lawrence has speculated. Then, at the tail end of Season Seven—and right in the midst of a creative slump—the WGA strike forced NBC to air episodes out of order, and cut the season short. But Lawrence bounced back, negotiating a deal with ABC to snag an eighth season. And creatively, this quite-possibly-final season has been just as snappy and fun as the early ones. Lawrence—whose previous credits include work as the co-creator on Spin City and Clone High—has been quite open about all the behind-the-scenes goings-ons, so it was only natural that The A.V. Club would call him before the final two episodes screen tonight to talk about the end of Scrubs' run—the season and possibly series finale airs tonight—the heartache of shifting networks, and bromances.
The A.V. Club: Having recently wrapped up your run of the show on ABC, how has this year compared to previous ones on NBC?
Bill Lawrence: You know what’s weird? This year was fun for me as a producer/writer because it was a challenge in the modern economic times to keep the show going. We had to do it on a shoestring budget, in half the time, and do it like an indie movie. Instead of taking six days to shoot episodes, we had to do them in four and half, every cast member had to be out of three episodes. We had to do that without feeling like the show completely changed, and figure out ways to make it more claustrophobic and smaller in scope, but stay the same show. Even though that sounds kind of depressing, after eight years of doing this show, it’s actually kind of exciting—it made it feel like we were doing something new.
AVC: So the limitations actually helped you tremendously?
BL: Yes. [Pause.] But I’m not an idiot, man… I love television… If you ever talk to a TV writer or a movie writer who say they don’t like TV or movies, you should find them and hit them in the face. I love television, and I’m well aware I’m lucky enough to do a show for eight years. All my shows run into this same thing: At the six or seven year mark, I always go, “Jesus, this is the same show. I’m so sick of it. It’s time for it to end.” But if you change it too much, then you’re like, “Hey, what happened to the show I was watching for six years?”
AVC: What stand out for you as the most obvious tweaks this season?
BL: Well there are a bunch of different things. The shows became intensely claustrophobic. It’s a lot easier to shoot 30 pages in four and a half days if you are staying in the ICU. [As far as] what we used to do on Scrubs—which is having people ride scooters through town and into lakes, or having people on horses—it is hard to do that stuff in four and a half days. One of the other subtle differences that I wish we didn’t have to make is that it takes twice as long to do a scene with five characters as it does to do a scene with two characters in it. One of the things that used to be a hallmark of the show was three, four, or five people all working together and interacting. We didn’t have much time to do that, so it became more of a personal show.
Now the creative change—bringing in the new characters. Two reasons to it… One, the show went forward. At best, I expected one or two of those people would pop enough to continue to exist. The other reason was that after eight years, we were sitting around as writers going, “I can’t write anymore about when J.D. learns a lesson, and the voiceover talks about how he learned it," you know? We were like, “How can we stop doing that without inherently changing the show?” We had said that maybe this was the year we will finally make young student characters that are more than just plot devices, and our characters—Turk, Elliot, Carla, and J.D.—could be throwing out the lessons instead of receiving them. So we can do, essentially, the same show without it seeming like we are playing the same record over and over.
AVC: As long as you brought up J.D., over the years, he seems to have made the shift from character to caricature—too silly for silliness's sake.
BL: I would say, not this year
AVC: This year is different for sure.
BL: But, if we’re going to take shots at the show—which I don’t mind doing by the way—I would say that the first five years, the show was one thing; but there’s a good year and a half period, maybe midway through season five, where this show became very broad. Without a doubt cartoon-ish, and it wasn’t only Zach [Braff]. I always like to protect him; he wasn’t doing anything that I didn’t tell him to do. It's all on me. I’ve taken a lot of heat from it before; I don’t think we lost our way, it’s just that after five years… I don’t know how a show does it, to tell you the truth. There are some shows that have been on six or seven years, and they just stick with exactly what they are. They never change. I would even argue that you can name any show, and every one of those has a two year period that writers and viewers say, “This show sucks.” Then they hopefully have a bit of a renaissance where people go, “It's going back to it’s roots.” I would also argue that shows who stay the exact same and stay on for seven years, around the sixth or seventh year, everyone goes, “Good God, when are they going to do something different?”
We made a conscientious choice for about two years to let the humor get really really stoner-riffic and broad cartoon-ish. I wouldn't have put that stuff in there, except that a lot of it made me laugh. The place where I made a giant mistake was that I really blurred the line for two years between fantasy and reality. The show had a big fantasy base for the early part of the show, which never bled into the real stuff; but by the sixth year, we could have J.D. stuffed into a backpack, or J.D. strung up on a flagpole, and we wouldn’t be saying it was a fantasy, we would be saying, “No no, he is actually in a backpack.” Even though it made me laugh once in a while, it was a mistake, because it prevented us… the thing that I didn’t realized until we had done it was that there is a tightrope for the show, and I used to like to try to bridge this gap between broad, silly comedy and moments of emotional depth and drama. But the show got too silly except in isolated incidents, so it was really hard to do the dramatic stuff and get anybody give a shit or pay attention. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have gone that far. It wasn’t just Zach; Zach takes a lot of heat because he is front and center. It was at the same period of time when Johnny Coz was doing crazy rants, Sarah Chalke had bug eyes and was blowing her hair out of her face and giving people bloody noses and stuff in every scene. It’s very funny, man—I like the show this year and most of the people on the various fan sites really responded to it; but now, the same way they did when those big broad goofy shows were on, people are going “What happened to our old Scrubs?
AVC: These are fans of season six and seven?
BL: Yes, but you can see the age gap on the Internet. Those are usually younger people that found the show late and thought it was funny, you know when those guys were riding unicorns and flinging across onto flag poles and getting attacked by the Blue Man Group. That’s what they liked. You can’t win.
AVC: So things changed so drastically because of a creative slump?
BL: Maybe I’m more impatient than some people, but the only thing I can say in my defense is a lot of shows that take hits, take hits because the creator leaves. Like Seinfeld, when Larry David left, for a while, or Friends when David Crane left and did other stuff. And people go “Wow, the quality’s changed,” or “It’s a different show.” I never left, and I see why those guys did leave to do other things, because right around year five, I was a horrible guy to work with. I was in the writers’ room going “I can’t write another Doctor Cox speech.” What the shit is that about, you know what I mean? And like, who cares? I think that the show, in retrospect, would’ve been better off if I’d taken a year break and let some of the new writers keep it the same way.
AVC: Go to a spa or something.
BL: Exactly, right?
AVC: Can you talk about the network shift? Have you noticed a palpable difference working for ABC now?
BL: I noticed two things that were great. One of the weird things is, at the beginning, if somebody had said “Hey, you’re show’s gonna be on for eight years and financially successful, and never be a giant hit but get lots of critical blah blah blah, awards nominations and stuff,” I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat, so I’m very very happy. That being said, a couple people are going “Why do you think Scrubs wasn’t a bigger hit?” And I’d say the main reason was maybe because it’s not for everybody—I shouldn’t be talking, but I’d also say shows like The Office and 30 Rock could easily have been shows like that, but the difference is Scrubs is a dinosaur. It was a show that was owned 100 percent by ABC, and was on NBC. I would have probably done the same thing, but [I'd think they said,] “Hey, what should we do, should we keep Scrubs in this cherry time slot and promote it, because if it really takes hold, ABC will make hundred of millions of dollars? Or should we take a shot at this new show, Inside Schwartz?” Nobody knows what’s gonna work on TV and what’s not, so every year for us, they went with the show that [were it to succeed,] they would make millions of dollars. And every year, Scrubs—the show was on 17 different time slots. And that’s not a made-up, exaggerated number. We counted them up. I tell you this story because the reason it went back to ABC was partly creative, but it was mostly because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—they picked up a show that every episode they air makes money for their company. The biggest initial difference was, we got more promotion for the show the eighth year than we had gotten in the previous six. When Reagan deregulated the industry, and networks could own their own product, it really changed things around. You’re gonna be hard-pressed to be successful if you’re on a network and not partially owned by them, because they have no financial incentive to support you. The only creative changes I noticed… I tell everybody, but The Todd is not allowed to wear his thong anymore, because it’s the Disney company. Sorry man. So even like, in the Bahamas episode the other week, there’s a shot of him on the beach flexing, and they made us cut the shot in half. I’m like “Are you sure? This guy’s been in a thong 900 times.”
AVC: How are the numbers doing this season? Are people finding the show?
BL: It does the same as it always does, man: It’s not a giant hit, but in the modern landscape of things, they… fine. You know, what’s really interesting about ratings is, I’d say the reason they picked up the show so gladly—because we don't have numbers where anybody’s gonna go, “Wow, those are great!”—is… there was an article about the comparison between the top ten shows viewed online, as opposed to the top ten shows on network. Scrubs, I think is in the 60s on the network and it’s number eight online. And it shows we’ve got a nerdy cultish fanbase. What’s interesting is not that that’s good for Scrubs, but that that’s enough to keep a show on nowadays.
AVC: When NBC was going back and forth about renewing the show for the final season, were there moments when you just wanted to have season seven be the last season?
BL: If there wasn’t a writers’ strike, I would’ve loved it to be the last season. But there was, and when we were done, I was like, “I’ll wrap up this season in three episodes. You know, the series.” And they were still not happy with what the strike cost them financially, and they didn’t want to do it. That made me—you know, after seven years it’s very frustrating, I wanted to finish the show. So when ABC said “If you do have a season, we’ll let you finish the show,” I said, “Of course.”
AVC: What are your thoughts on the sustainability of the show after this season? Zach Braff is leaving, and right now there's only speculation that you will be back.
BL: Oh shoot man, oh no. I’m back and forth on it. When I originally pitched it, Steve McPherson, who now runs the network, was the president of the studio; and when we pitched it. we pitched it as a sitcom like ER, where you could rotate cast in and out. If you couple that up with the fact that ABC owns it and makes money from it when it’s on the air, I could see it going forward. Mostly because there’s like six live-action comedies on TV now, and if there’s an opportunity to have a hundred and five people have a job for another year, that’d be great.
AVC: Would you be involved?
BL: I’m a control freak, man. I’d try to something else, but I’d work on it a little, if it went on. That being said, if it goes forward in any incarnation without the old characters—and especially since we wrote, essentially, a series finale this year—it’d have to be a completely different show so people… I’m not a big fan of shows like Happy Days, “Hey Richie’s gone, and everybody else is gone, but we’re gonna pretend it’s the same show.” For me, ER pulled it off well. Do like what ER did, which is “There’s a couple characters for stability, but otherwise we’re telling different stories and have different people on the show.” Then, uh, it wouldn’t bother me, because it’ll either work or it won’t.
AVC: That's pretty open ended.
BL: I don’t get hung up. I was talking to a friend about this, because people—it’s only television—get hung up on “Waah, what about the legacy of the show?” I’m like “Fucking, the legacy of the show? Who cares?” I mean, I’m proud of the show and I thought it was great, but who am I to say [no to] doing another year with new actors if they wanted to, in these economic times, that many people getting to work? There are a lot of talented comedy writers out of work. I think this has just as good a chance of being good as anything else. The only thing I wouldn’t let happen is have it pretend it’s the same; that would be a cop-out.
AVC: Is it particularly hard to work on a comedy show nowadays? The market is very saturated.
BL: I think you’ve caught onto one thing, which is: The landscape is television has changed so much, because there are so many outlets, that the odds of getting a zeitgeisty hit—you know how American Idol seems to appeal to every human being on the planet? Doing that in comedy nowadays is very, very hard. There’s too many choices to come up with one thing that’s for everyone. To me, in retrospect, it was amazing that Seinfeld was a show that had such mass appeal. At first it was a disaster in the ratings, but then it became a cultural phenomenon. I don’t know if that’s possible anymore, but I don’t try for that. It takes the pressure off trying to be this big juggernaut comedy hit that everybody in the world wants to watch. Nowadays, the way to survive is to get yourself a loyal fanbase in an advertising demo that these guys like. And you keep feeding them content, even beyond your show, and you interact with them, and you make them part of your show’s community. And if you do that successfully—I mean Scrubs is an example—you get to stay on for eight years. What was fun about this show is: Once I realized what it was gonna be like after the first two years, we decided to stop trying to bring in the entire world, and make the people that liked it stay with it. [But to go back,] it’s hard if you’re trying to make something that everybody wants to see. Even with comedy movies. This happened to me in the theater the other day: A trailer came up with a joke so lame, or so corny, or something we’ve all seen 9000 times, that just as I’m thinking the thought “I will never fuckin see that lame hacky movie,” I hear someone laughing behind me going “I’m definitely going to see that!"
AVC: Do you remember when you decided to take the J.D.-Turk friendship to the Bromance level? That's been such a popular trend in movies and TV lately.
BL: We were talking about it from the start, believe it or not.
AVC: So way before the craze.
BL: One of the pitches for the show initially was that J.D.’s best friend would be this uber-jock. I never thought that J.D. and Elliot would be something that went through the show, and jokingly when we were pitching it, I said “The romance in the show is between the two guys.” And everybody’s like “Whoa, J.D.’s a little fey.” And I was like “No, you don’t understand, the other guy’s gonna be such an alpha-male jock guy’s-guy, that there’s not gonna be any hazy issue’s that it’s some kinda gay thing.” And I always believed in guy love, I think best friends behind closed doors are almost more lame and lovely-dovey and girlie than girl best friends are. That always made me laugh. I thought it was cool because it was something nobody had done on TV yet. The closest was maybe Frasier and Niles.
AVC: How does the show's medical backdrop continue to inspire in this final season?
BL: It’s hard to generate stories for a show, and the one thing the new writers do every year is interview five doctors, and we have this standard questioning—we hit ‘em up for their stories, and their weird diseases, and their weird cases. The one thing we’re proud of is, even though we exaggerate them for comedic effect, every story from the show is taken from a true story from one of the doctors. If you look at surveys amongst medical professionals, what medical show they consider the most realistic, for whatever reason they always pick Scrubs because of the way the doctors interact. Because of the hierarchy and because of the amount of time they spend just shittin’ around and dealing with each other. And the show is based on my actual best buddy from college. The real J.D.’s a cardiologist here, and he's still a medical advisor on the show. He would bust our chops if we forgot about this stuff completely.