Welcome to Variety’s Writer Family Tree. In this series, we take an established showrunner and look back on some of the shows they have created and the writers that have worked for them. Many of those writers have since gone on to successful careers of their own and have carried lessons from those early days in the writers’ room along with them.
In our inaugural entry, we take a look at Bill Lawrence, the co-creator of “Ted Lasso” and creator of “Scrubs,” who also co-created “Cougar Town,” “Spin City” and “Clone High.” Variety spoke with Lawrence as well as several successful writers who have worked with him on his various shows. Read their full Q&A’s below.
What was it like the first time you walked into a writers’ room on your own show?
Unbelievably surreal because, for me, it wasn’t so much about the writing staff. It was the first time I saw Michael J. Fox do a cold read with other actors. You know, when we were auditioning people, I was 25, and he was such an iconic film and TV guy. For me, I couldn’t even judge the acting. And he was so kind. He would sometimes read with other people auditioning. And I couldn’t even judge the people auditioning on my own show because I just stared at Mike, and I was losing my shit. I was like, “That’s f—ing Marty McFly reading s–t I wrote!”
Does any of this still feel surreal at this point in your career?
I love it so much, but you start to take these things in stride. But I always tell other showrunners there’s a huge value in always
making sure that you have young people on your show. They’re still showing up to work and being like, “Wow, a TV show.” It’s so inspiring. It makes you remember that stuff. You have to occasionally drink the blood of young writers. Also, as you can see thematically in a lot of my stuff, I’m really into that kind of mentorship role. So, to have young people around, I find it mutually inspiring, hopefully.
What do you think it is that makes a good showrunner?
Well, I just want to say something first, and you can use this or not use it. I love the notion of this family tree thing, but I do find the premise a little flawed. … It’s not like you’re taking young people by the hand and going, “I’m gonna make you a showrunner and you a showrunner for the fun of it.” If you stay around long enough, the good thing is getting to point to
hyper-talented young men and women that cross your path at one point or another, and then say, “Hey, I’m going to pretend I had something to do with your career.”
I hear you, but that’s not the premise. It’s more about discovering interesting connections between successful people that you didn’t know existed.
I’ll tell you my favorite one. You’ll have to dig deep and I have very little responsibility for it. But The Lonely Island guys were PAs on “Spin City.”
I don’t think I ever met them face to face. They had to be there through Gary [Goldberg]’s daughter Shana, who is a very successful comedy writer.
That’s nuts. But to circle back, what do you think it is that makes a good showrunner?
To be someone who creates shows, you have to have a very specific voice of your own, and what’s really interesting is sometimes those people are super strong [at] writing on your show, but sometimes you can tell right
away, “Oh, that person has such a specific voice. Even though they’re great and useful here, they’re going to be much stronger when they’re kind of creating and doing their own world.”
Beyond that, I hope that the thing they glean working with me the same thing I’ve gleaned working from Gary: not to be a
control freak, to empower other talented people to help you in the process, because anybody that tries to do everything eventually melts down. You should be collaborative and hopefully, create a work environment that everybody feels kind of safe to have an opinion, safe to say they like or don’t like something, and it just feels like a safe place creatively.
–Will Berson: Will Berson is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” formerly a writers’ assistant on “Scrubs” with one produced episode.
What was it like working with Bill on “Scrubs?”
I think, in the best possible creative way, he was kind of flying by the seat of his pants — which is not to say he’s not particularly organized. I don’t remember exactly when our orders got bumped up. Both years, we were doing 26 episodes or something, so by the end of the year, there’s just a lot of improvisation. I think part of Bill’s madcap genius is just being able to seemingly not address something and then magically fix it. That was sort of my main takeaway, at least on my script, because at the end of the year, you saw how totally chaotic stuff was, and — on my end at least — I sort of felt desperation all the time. He always brought it together, which I guess is exactly what good showrunners do.
What was the vibe like in the writers’ room at that time?
I think in good ways and bad, it was totally cloistered. We were in this disgusting old building in Valley Village where there were literally rooms that still had soiled linens and bloody sheets in them. And it was creepy and weird, but none of the executives really wanted to come visit us. So there was a lot of creative and personal freedom in working in an abandoned hospital with no one else. I think it was a little more like theater camp than most writers’ rooms — again, in a really good way.
What lessons did you take away from working with him?
I learned the value of efficiency in TV. Narrative efficiency and production efficiency and not in a mercenary sense but in the kind of beauty of having to do it. Not to go back to the theater metaphor, but TV is kind of like being in a rep company and you just have to do it. And the only way to do that is to do it streamlined — to do it once every seven or eight days for 30-plus weeks a year. What I think is so great about his aesthetic in general is that it’s a really great mix of comedy and pathos, but he’s always sincere and never snarky, which is really anomalous in this age of comedy. And I think that is what allows all the pathos to work within the comedy, because it’s always completely sincere. That’s definitely something that I’ve tried to replicate in my work.
You got your first onscreen writing credit on “Scrubs.” What did that mean to you?
It meant the world. I became an associate member of the Writers Guild, which I was incredibly proud of. It felt like getting called up to the big leagues, or at least getting a cup of coffee in the big leagues. It was amazing to feel included and respected by people like Bill and Matt Tarses and all the incredible writers there at the time. It was exhilarating and totally a confidence booster.
–Prentice Penny: Prentice Penny was the showrunner of “Insecure” with credits on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Happy Endings.” He was formerly a co-producer on “Scrubs.”
What was it like when you first joined the writing staff of “Scrubs?”
It was interesting because it was also at a time when “Scrubs” had already had their finale and then it got brought back for one more season when it’s like, a med school year. So, Bill also had “Cougar Town.” I remember we were both in the same building. We were at one end, “Cougar Town” was at the other end. So, Bill would go back and forth between those rooms. Watching Bill go back and forth between rooms and managing both shows was just really great to watch. Watching him pull it off successfully was pretty amazing.
What did it mean to you to get that job at that time?
It was awesome. I mean, it’s so funny. It was really a full circle moment. The spec that got me my first job was a “Scrubs” that I wrote… I had seen almost every episode of “Scrubs,” and so I wrote a spec. Then one day, I just happened to be watching and it was almost the exact version of my “Scrubs.” I was so distraught because I spent so much time writing it. But as I was sitting there an idea came to me and I was like, “Oh, this shouldn’t be what my other ‘Scrubs’ is about, when life throws you things where don’t know why this was happening and then you learn why it does happen.” Then that’s what I ended up writing and that’s what got me the job.
What were some things you thought Bill did well as a showrunner?
One of the things I took away the most was just the way that I thought Bill really fostered family. It really fostered community on this show between the writers. He really encouraged the writers to do more things together that
have nothing to do with writing and just find ways to enjoy being with each other. Whether that was going to a Dodger game, or a Lakers game, you would just start talking to people about what their husband does, or their wife. You would get to know them better as people, which made us write better together.
Identifying talent was another thing that I thought Bill just did really, really well — and not just in the writers’ room. I remember Bill saying he begged NBC to put Aziz Ansari on a deal and they didn’t want to do it. So to then watch Aziz obviously go on and have all that success was just so great. Or Bill’s eye for casting Dave Franco, who hadn’t done anything yet, or Kerry Bishé. All these people, he was just really smart at picking people that were talented.
What were the biggest lessons you took away from your time working for Bill?
The way he would break story is something that I still do today. It was what I did on “Insecure,” the same way that we broke stories on “Happy Endings,” which is doing stories in a loose way and then doing stories in a deeper way.
–Phil Lord & Chris Miller are producers and co-writer (Lord) of the Oscar-winning film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” directors and co-writers of “The Lego Movie” and co-creators of “Clone High.”
You worked with Bill early in your careers when you co-created “Clone High.” What was that experience like?
Lord: We were selected by Bill as the only people with a deal at Disney who were younger than him. I think he was like 30, and so he was like, “I want to work with some younger writers and help mentor them.” And they’re like, “Well, these are the only people who are younger.” So, we developed “Clone High” together and we learned a ton.
Miller: He was just incredibly generous. We were working on an MTV budget, which was not very much money. We’re getting paid mostly in MTV bucks, which were redeemable at the MTV store. But Bill, for “Scrubs,” had full use of this abandoned hospital where they shot it and to save us on the budget, he let us move our writers’ rooms and some artists’ office into a wing of the hospital that they didn’t need to use, mostly because it was so damn scary that nobody wanted to go there because it was a former psych ward.
When I spoke with Bill, he said he likes to mentor young writers so he can basically suck the youth out of them.
Lord: And that’s now our constant joke when we work with young writers. Another thing I remember from that time, Bill
tries to make everything seem like it’s going to be a cinch. He’ll be like, “Yeah, we have these notes on this script and we have to do this, this and this, but it’s going to be really easy.” And that point of view of things will be easy and fun, it’s really helpful, because it’s not punitive.
What were some of the other lessons you learned from Bill in the “Clone High” days?
Miller: Like Phil said, keeping a positive attitude that anything is fixable. We can roll with it. That’s something that we’ve definitely tried to take forward with us. And especially when we’re dealing with unexpected setbacks, I think similarly, the generosity and trying to say, “Oh, how can I help and how can I go around the system to make other people’s experiences easier?”
Lord: He encouraged us to cast people that make you laugh, and then write to those people. And he does the same thing with writing staff, to cast people into the writing staff that crack you up. Because everything else you can figure out. What you can’t teach people is to make you laugh.
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