Interview: Bill Lawrence and Adam Sztykiel on 'Undateable' and The State of TV Comedy
Going back and transcribing the 35-minute interview is bittersweet.
At the time, Lawrence had two shows in limbo -- TBS' "Cougar Town" and FOX's newly premiered "Surviving Jack," which he EPed along with creators Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. While Lawrence wasn't directly involved with "Enlisted," he has a close relationship with "Enlisted" and "Cougar Town" creator Kevin Biegel, whose comedy was newly shelved.
Since that time, "Enlisted" and "Surviving Jack" were both cancelled. "Cougar Town" was renewed for a final season on TBS.
At the time, Lawrence also wasn't feeling especially confident about "Undateable." The multi-cam sitcom, which features Chris D'Elia as seemingly cocksure ladies man Danny, who mentors the less confident Justin (Brent Morin) and his group of allegedly "undateable" friends.
"Undateable" had been announced for NBC's 2013-2014 slate at the May 2013 upfronts and went without a premiere date until spring. And when a premiere date was slated, NBC gave "Undateable" a launch on May 29, after the conclusion of the season. The network also announced plans to double-pump the comedy, airing two episodes per week.
Normally, that would be a sign of pessimism, but just because Lawrence wasn't confident doesn't mean he lacked confidence. A network veteran who burst onto the scene as a wunderkind on "Spin City," had a huge hit with "Scrubs" and has most recently been shepherding a series of protégées including Biegel, Halpern and Sztykiel, Lawrence has watched the TV business shift and watched the business of TV comedy shift and he's never been shy when it comes to holding court on Small Screen State of Affairs.
In this wide-ranging interview, Lawrence and Sztykiel talk about why they're not discouraged about "Undateable," why they think the show is special and why they think the cast is special. They also talk about TV ratings, the eternal battle between multi-cam and single-cam comedy and other industry shifts.
It's a huge interview -- 6200 words of transcribing -- but I think it's a good one... [And remember the timing of the interview as it relates to "Cougar Town," "Surviving Jack" and "Enlisted." Lawrence was hopeful on all three shows. Oh well...]
HitFix: There was the whole long period with the show not having a premiere date at all. Give me your immediate reaction when you heard the premiere date and its airing pattern. And then give me your current take on it.
Bill Lawrence: The message was presented to me really well. Look man, when the show was picked up, there's no way that anybody's got me on tape going, "Hey, I hope it premieres on May 29." But NBC and Warner Brothers were pretty supportive of the show and spent a lot of dough, so when Bob [Greenblatt] called us about this, he presented the message correctly, so I didn't get to have two reactions. He said, "Before we figure this out, let's talk about the landscape." He said, "Let's talk about what comedy is like for us on Thursday nights." He said quiet honestly -- and he should be happy that the shows on Tuesday night are working -- and he said, "So for us, the options right now are Thursday night, where shows we really like and believe in don't have one doing a 1 [rating in the 18-49 demo] and Wednesday night from 8 to 9, trying to launch you with with two weeks." And the biggest issue right now in television is awareness. I'm doing this show with Justin [Halperin] on FOX and I saw the premiere ratings and saw a 1.3 and I was like, "Aw, s***" and then I heard from the FOX people, they're like, "Hey, you're our second highest scripted show on television." I'm like, "What?!?"
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Bill Lawrence: And we've gotten to the place where our show went from a 1.3 to a 1.2 the next week, "Idol" dropped 0.2 and we only dropped 0.1, and it's like a victory in the company, which is insane. So in that landscape, it didn't totally dampen my initial reaction, which was, "Oh f***ing summer!" But Bob, early on said, "I promise you NBC will do the most original material this summer." I think NBC's gonna win the summer because they're gonna try and win the year and I think they've got a shot right now. And the bar is so low, man. I know that if we can get a 1.1 as a multi-cam in the summer, our show's gonna be on again, which is insane. That's just the new landscape. The one thing I really don't like, and I don't see any way around, I never liked to be double-pumped. It worked for "Scrubs" when it was on NBC in the seventh or the sixth year, one of the years I thought it was gonna be over. By the fourth week, the second episode went up from the first and so it made us look good.
So I talked to NBC about it and they're like, "Look, if we had literally anything else to put with you, we would do so." You do this for a living. They just don't. So what do I think's gonna happen? Because we have a way to promote this since we have four comics so we're ahead of the curve, in the end we chose "time," having the time to launch it. I think we have a real chance to put in enough of a number that the show will continue to exist.
HitFix: If I'm watching this and I'm assuming that you [Bill] are Danny [the Chris D'Elia character] and you [Adam] are Justin [the Brent Morin character] how close is my impression?
Adam Sztykiel: I think some people would say that you're pretty close. I don't sing, though.
Bill Lawrence: I think the biggest thing is that you'll see that Chris is Danny and and Brent is Justin. One part of this show that came through from pitch to the end was Adam and I pitched that multi-camera shows, when you audition them now, some actors haven't even done multi-camera before. Bianca's done it before, so she's on the show. Comics know how to vibe off an audience. We don't use fakes laughs. We use a live audience. You used to have a whole year to establish cast chemistry and now after two weeks they'll go, "Cast doesn't seem to have chemistry." You're like, "They've known each other for 13 days, dude. Gimme a break." So part of our pitch, believe it or not, is we wanted to cast people who are friends otherwise and see if it actually shows through. Bianca and Chris have known each other for 10 years. Chris D'Elia is Brent's mentor in standup. Brent met him when he was 19 and Chris got him into all the clubs and through all the doors. Brent and Rick Glassman live together. They all tour with Ron Funches. We made the pilot and NBC was like, "We really love the cast chemistry." I'm like, "That's weird. I wonder how that happened." So Chris and Brent, you'll see, are that way in real life. Chris tortures Brent.
Adam Sztykiel: We cast Brent first, because Chris was still on "Whitney" and unavailable. So for a few days, Brent was sorta marching around with Chris saying, "We're equals now, Chris. I've gotta TV show. You've gotta TV show. We're the same guy." And then two days later, "Whitney" went away and we cast Chris, so immediately Chris went, "Well, now it's my show, Brent."
Bill Lawrence: Right. "Remember your TV show? It's my show now." And the best part was right then, we were at the Laugh Factory and Chris is pretty popular and a girl came up to him says, "Chris, can I get a picture with you?" and he's like, "Sure, sure. Brent. Take this picture of us." And that's their dynamic in real life. They torture each other.
HitFix: How frequently does a script just say, "Chris does... something."
Bill Lawrence: Tell the truth, because I had to be honest about "Scrubs." Tell him what the second pass is like.
Adam Sztykiel: "Do whatever you want." Every time. I would say that well over 50 percent of the takes we ended up using in the show are the "Do whatever you want" takes. Those guys, what they can come up with off-the-cuff, on-the-spot, just because they know each other's rhythms and stuff so well...
Bill Lawrence: They're used to Ron Funches sounding like a space alien.
Adam Sztykiel: And Rick's insane ramblings.
Bill Lawrence: The only weird thing, and the network wasn't ready for it at first, was that at the live tapings, second pass, they'll go so far away from what they're doing and they don't really care about the audience. They care about the audience laughing, but they'll stop in the middle of a scene that they're supposed to be lost in and Chris or Brent will be like, "Hey Adam, Bill... How do we say something that makes this kinda what the scene's supposed to be about?" And this is literally while the cameras are rolling and executives sprint back and forth going, "I don't think that people..." and I'm like, "It's gonna be fine."
Adam Sztykiel: "It'll all make sense."
Bill Lawrence: Or it won't.
HitFix: Which things have you found are Chris' go-to moves? I've watched five episodes and I can already pick out a few of them...
Adam Sztykiel: Chris and Brent both have this skill which I love to see, especially on multi-cam, is they can do these monologues where it's not traditional set-up/joke, set-up/joke. It's sometimes half-a-page.
Bill Lawrence: Chris does things in one breath like no one I've ever seen other than like Sarah Chalke or John C. McGinley.
Adam Sztykiel: Yeah, fast-talking. And Brent, we write a lot of singing for Brent, just because he has a tremendous voice and I think I'm jealous.
Bill Lawrence: There was an episode we sent out that I think was the most proud of them ever, because even if the show doesn't work, the audience really was laughing and we had to cut tons of time out. There's this episode about a sexual move on a piece of paper. Chris, in front of an audience, he made up that he learned the move in Italy, so that you had to apologize to a piece of paper in an Italian voice. And the scene, we hadn't written any of the stuff. There were people from the studio, these actors were speaking Italian and they're looking through the script and they're like, "What the heck?" [WBTV Chief] Peter Roth, who's great, he's like, "What the hell is going on?" We're like, "Don't worry about it!" That, to me, is what multi-camera comedy used to feel like.
Adam Sztykiel: Later, this is what we're talking about with the cast, is that then three scenes later, we're on a "Do whatever you want" pass and David Fynn, who plays Brett the bartender, says as an aside, "Hey, if you guys can get me to singing... If you can get there, great..." And, sure enough, Chris says, in his Italian accent, "You have to sing to the move" and David starts opera-singing in Italian.
Bill Lawrence: The danger is at 11 o'clock, because I'm old, I'll have to leave and go, "There's eight jokes we haven't done... Please make something up on-stage." I can't tell if any show's gonna work anymore, man. This show made me laugh when I was watching it and it feels throwback-y, like "Cheers." And I guess I've seen a lot of comedies that just don't have hard laughs lately and I really respect that Adam and these guys are doing shows with hard laughs.