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Interview: 'Cougar Town' co-creator Kevin Biegel on fans, screenings and that terrible title
Producers have to engage with fans in this day and age, he argues
As I mentioned in this morning's other story, the cast and writers of "Cougar Town" crashed the press tour last night, hosting an unofficial event at the hotel bar where the liquor flowed and everyone talked freely about their expectations for a show that still has no timeslot or premiere date, and about their current plan of hosting episode screenings in cities around the country.
The longest conversation I had was with the show's co-creator, Kevin Biegel, a one-time writer for Ain't It Cool who knows a thing or 12 about how fandom works and had some very clear, unabashed thoughts on how creative types on this day and age should best deal with their fans.
Warning: Biegel was not only very blunt at times, but profane - particularly when we got to the subject of the show's admittedly horrible title, which won't be changing - so read on at the risk of your own sensibilities.
You were supposed to be back on by now, Tuesdays in between seasons of "Dancing with the Stars." Then ABC dragged their feet until a mid-season schedule came out and you were not on it. What was the reaction at Casa "Cougar Town" to that?
The real reaction was it felt like a kick in the balls. This is nothing against ABC, this is not saying they made a poor choice. But it felt like a kick in the balls because we're really proud of the damn show. I've worked hard before on shows. I know it's weird to say you work hard on a TV show, because at the end of the day, you're writing silly jokes for people. But this year, especially, we busted out ass this season. We wanted there to be a progression for the show where it's getting better and better. We wanted it, thematically, to be bigger. We wanted us to do bigger stories and try to tell them in a different way. We hit a stride in season 2 where it was, like, 'This is the kind of show I want to tell.' It was no longer a show about a girl hooking up with guys; it's just about a group of friends hanging out and drinking wine.
The thing about "Parenthood" that I admire so much is that, at the end of the day, that's a show about people being nice to each other. I think that's something that isn't shown enough on TV. Even though it sounds like the most clichéd, boring thing in the world, I think there's a ton of merit to watching a show about characters you care about, and all they want to do is help each other and be nice to each other. We have a show where we've spent 2 seasons now setting up these nice people who want to do nice things to each other. Well, we can do anything with that! And season 3 turned into that. We could do crazy shows with a weird conceit like Sarah Chalke as a woman Bobby's trying to impress on a date. We can maybe seriously entertain the idea of Travis and Laurie finally hooking up. We can do so many things.
That's a long-winded answer, but I was really proud of the work all the actors did. But then they said, "You're not going to be on the air," and I said, "Well, shit, I wish ABC liked the show as much as we do." That was my initial reaction, but that was not the right reaction. Because ABC does like the show as much as we like it. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is they have other shows. They've picked up "Work It," and they need to put that show on the air. That literally is their job. If they don't put that show on the air, financially that's not great for them.
I knew our show was good. If it meant people would see our show two months later than they otherwise would have, I'm okay with that. In the grand scheme of things - 10, 20 years - who cares when the show came on? The shows are still the shows, and they're still really good.
But part of the fallout of this is that you had less shows to do. For instance, you talked about Laurie and Travis maybe hooking up at the end of the season. I assume that got chopped off altogether.
No. It was going to be a 22 episode season, but we did all the stories we wanted to do in the first half of the season. And then when we found out the season was going to be 15, we really had to look at the board of stories we had left and go, "What's the most important thing to do?" There was a whole Bobby golfing thing, there was a whole Bobby taking care of a drifter thing that was really sad and good for the character, and we just didn't have time for it. So basically we just pared down the stories and asked what were the most important ones to do in the final three episodes. In a weird, selfish way, now we have a ton more stories for a fourth season.
So back to "Work It" for a minute: it was not a hit, it was not a bomb, it was just sort of there. Everyone is just assuming that the ratings will trend down, it will be gone soon, and that seems to be a place where ABC would put you. Is "Last Man Standing" a compatible show with yours?
You know what? I don't really believe anymore in the idea of shows being compatible. Aside from NBC on Thursday nights, I can't think of any other network where I just leave the channel on. All I do is bop around to different channels. I've never seen Tim Allen's show; I'm sure it's a fine show. If we're on TV, I'm just happy we're on TV. I think that enough people like us - I don't believe in the model anymore of, "If people watch this show, they're going to watch that show right after it." I think people are just going to watch good shows. People are smart, and they're going to tune from this show to "Ice Road Truckers," to "House Hunters," to whatever show is on the Food Network to ESPN. I think that's the way people watch TV now.
Have they given you any sense, though, of when and where you'd be back?
There have been inklings that, yes, we're going to be on after "Last Man Standing." They said, "Look, after 'Work It' does its run," we will be on after "Last Man Standing," and I am totally fine with that. You don't always realize when you go into the writers room and write these stories, what you do is actually going to be on the air and people across the country are going to see it. Any real estate I get - after the Tim Allen show, on at 11 o'clock, 2 in the morning - that's still on the air, and that's an amazing thing, and God bless ABC for putting us on. So I believe in the show, and I know that when people see it, it's pretty emphatically not a show anymore about her effing younger guys, and they can look forward to seeing what it is now.
Well that brings up the fact that Bill, once again, on the Twitter, started making noise that this would be the year you finally change the title. He asked for suggestions, but you're back and you're still "Cougar Town."
I swear to God, there were days, maybe even weeks if you add all the time up together, where all we did was talk about the title. There were times where I said, "Maybe we should change it," and Gregg Mettler, who's one of the producers, said, "No, we shouldn't," and Bill would say, "We should," and I would say, "Yeah, we should change it because no one's ever done it quite like that before." But at the end of the day, if you change the title, the DVRs don't have the technology to record a new title; they cannot automatically switch over and say, "The name of the show is now 'Sunshine State,'" and we'll lose some people who just don't realize.
And also, not to sound like an asshole, but I kind of like that our title is so awful! We're just going to own it, you know? I love people coming up with new titles, but fuck it! It's called "Cougar Town!" It's the stupidest title ever! What, am I going to run from it? When I'm dead and dying, am I going to be proud because I changed the name to "Wine Time"? Who gives a fuck? I want to go down saying, "The name of the show is 'Cougar Town.'" We pulled up in the bus tonight, and it said, "Cougar Town Party Bus," and I'm like, "That's so much better than 'Wine Time Party Bus.' No one gives a fuck about 'Wine Time.' 'Wine Time' is the lamest, weakest name. "Cougar Town" is so stupid that if you think it's about her fucking young guys, I don't care. People have found us and embraced us despite the horrible, horrible title. I think the discussion about the title is totally over, totally done.
We're a terribly named show. Deal with it and suck my dick. There's a quote and you can use it.
You and "Community" became sister shows last year, ("Community" producers) Neil (Goldman) and Garrett (Donovan) used to work with you on "Scrubs," and now you're both in this strange limbo. Has there been much commiseration between the two groups?
We're in the same boat. One thing I'm wondering is why they aren't doing these viewing parties that we're doing. They're so much fun, and they're just for the fans. The fans seem to really like them. I don't know why "Community" isn't going all over the country. This is going to sound like me being humble, but it's true: if we have a hundred people who will show up for a viewing party in Austin for our show, "Community" is going to get a thousand people, for God's sakes. Go out there and embrace it! That's a great show; they should take that thing on the road!
With the viewing parties, are they just preaching to the converted, or do you think they're actually accomplishing something in terms of when the show comes back?
I think, not to be crass, but the reason why we are doing those parties are twofold: One, we're doing it for the fans. People like the show, the damn thing hasn't been on for 10 months now, and if I like the show a lot, and I found out the creators of the show were doing viewing parties, I'd think that was very cool. And that's me; I'm a fan. If I saw someone doing one of these parties, I'd want to go to it. So, yeah, I think a lot of these parties are for people who like the show anyways. But I think the fact that we're doing them would maybe make someone thinking, "Maybe I should think about watching the show" actually watch it. If it gets people to check out the show, that's awesome. But at the end of the day, these things are totally for the fans, because I fucking love the fans. It's the reason I'm still working, and they should get something as fans. I don't know what's going to happen next year. I don't know if the show's going to go away. If the show goes away, I can't exactly do a victory tour of past episodes. There's a very small window to show them new episodes and to say "Thank you," and this is it.
And it's not that hard, and it's not that much effort. Every single time we try to do one of these things, every city we've gone to has been so enthusiastic, so wonderful, the fans have been so great. TV anymore isn't just about sitting in a fucking writers room and making jokes and not engaging fans with Twitter and Facebook. The fucking Internet, for God's sakes! You can't act like it's 1990 anymore. People like to be part of the experience, and you should let them be part of the experience. If I was a fan, I would want to be in position to watch one of these things.
(Note: the next two questions are courtesy of Fienberg, who had been sitting in on our conversation to that point.)
How much is this political to some degree for you? How much is "The system is broken, and we are fixing a system"?
You know what's funny about this? And this shows how nerdy I am? I am reading "The Hunger Games" right now, and those books are fucking great! It's so good! I'm halfway through the second one. And I love how the books are a very simple idea of revolution from a girl's point of view, basically, and she doesn't want to be part of it. And I swear to God, don't make me look like a douchebag - "I'm Katniss Everdeen, fighting in the capital!" - but there is something serious to say. TV now doesn't just exist from the writers room to the television. People like to be engaged. People like to know that you care about them caring. I really believe that. As a fan myself - for God's sakes, I started as a writer for Ain't It Cool - I love to know when creative people care that I care about their stuff. It makes me feel good. I love when people actually like the work that we've done. When I've been away from my family for 90 hours a week, and haven't seen my little daughter, and the payoff is some person in a viewing party goes, "You know that thing thing you guys did? It made me happy" - that means the world to me.
If I can do these little events and people actually respond to it and feel like they're getting something special, I think that's awesome. And I don't understand why other TV shows don't do this. And I literally think - I don't care if I get in trouble; fuck it - there's a laziness on the part of a lot of TV writers, where they think, "My job is just to write the show and produce the show and that's it." Bill and I are on the same page: "Fuck that. That's not true. Your job now is to go out there and sell the show and tell the fans how much you appreciate them." Because one little spark - like Katniss in "Catching Fire," book 2 - can really start a whole big thing.
I really do think people talk about this stuff. If you say you're enthusiastic about the show because the creators came and talked to you, and you tell your friend, and your friend watches it because the creators were really cool about it, that might lead to something. So why not go for it? Really? What's the alternative? I sit on my own in the writers room and the show goes away? That's so lame! That's so defeatist! That's so 1980s, "Okay, we'll just write a shitty sitcom, and people will like that." Fuck that! That's not the world anymore.
What's your impression of ABC's awareness of what you're doing?
I think they like it. I think they're kind of scared of it. It's new, and they don't know what it means. But at the same time, I'm like you guys. I've grown up on the internet, I've grown up writing for sites and reading comments. I know that by putting yourself out there and actually acknowledging people means something. I hate to say "ivory tower," but I think there's an ivory tower mentality where you just put the work out there and it speaks for itself. I don't think that's true anymore. I think you have to actually go out there and speak for the work and tell people that it's good. Because if you don't engage fans and don't engage people, what are you doing? Internet, TV, media is all about engaging.
(Back to me)
So when you told ABC specifically, "We're going to get a bunch of reporters into the bar on our own dime," what was their response?
"What are you doing? You can't do that! Don't do that!" They were not happy about it. It's just like "Hunger Games": "That's not protocol. You're not supposed to do that!" They weren't for it. They thought it was just weird: "Why do you want to go in a bar and talk to people? You're supposed to go on a panel and talk to everyone from the stage." Just saying that, doesn't that sound insane? You have to go on a panel and talk to people in this weird antiseptic atmosphere where people are scared to ask personal questions? That's horseshit! You go and talk to people face to face.
Okay, from the network point of view, they're going to say, "This is fine and well. Your engagement is awesome, no question. But how am I monetizing this? How is this making success for me as a network?"
There's no way to monetize it. There's absolutely no way to equate this into, "This was worth it." From their perspective, that is. From my perspective, doing this and talking about the show I love and busted my ass on in front of people who appreciate it, that's all the satisfaction I need. I guarantee, if our show comes back on the air and we do halfway decent, you will see other shows do this in a heartbeat. You will see a "Touch" panel across the country where Kiefer Sutherland is fielding 90% "24" movie questions to audiences in Topeka. That is going to happen because it has to happen. You guys know: there are 9000 channels on TV. There are so many shows on TV right now. Why would you watch X show? Because they care about you! You want the feeling that the show you care about cares about you back. And I hope that people who like this show are getting that feeling. That's why we're doing this. Doing something like this is like a thank you to them. I think you have to do it.
I hate saying this, because I get in trouble for it - "Don't say bad things about the old guard!" - but I hate old comedy writers who don't think you have to go out and engage fans. That's lame.
Have you heard from anybody on other shows about what you're doing?
I haven't. I don't think it's because they haven't cared. I just think it's that running a TV show is so goddamn hard. Now I sound like an asshole! "Oh, it's so hard!" It's not that hard. You write a bunch of dick jokes and go home. But it takes a lot of time. "Bones" doesn't need to do something like this because "Bones" has a core fanbase. But maybe the next show Hart (Hanson) starts, or the next show Dan (Harmon) starts if "Community" goes away, which I hope it doesn't, they're going to be doing something like this. You need to. And by the way, it's fun! Why would you not want to do this? This is fun! We're drinking beer and talking about TV!
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org