Courteney Cox and Brian Van Holt star in the fifth season of COUGAR TOWN | © 2014 Jennifer Rose Clasen/TBS

Courteney Cox and Brian Van Holt star in the fifth season of COUGAR TOWN | © 2014 Jennifer Rose Clasen/TBS

Bill Lawrence is a very busy writer/executive producer/show runner. His new half-hour comedy series, SURVIVING JACK, launches Thursday, March 27 at 8:30 PM on Fox. The show is set in the Nineties, with Christopher Meloni as Jack Dunlevy, a successful doctor who thinks he can handle being the primary parent in the household when his wife (Rachael Harris) decides it’s time to get her law degree.

Lawrence’s COUGAR TOWN, starring Courteney Cox, is now in its fifth season – its second on TBS, Tuesdays at 10 PM, following a three-year run on ABC. GROUND FLOOR, a comedy about a romance between a stockbroker and a janitor, just wrapped its first season on TBS and has been renewed for a second, while Lawrence’s new comedy show UNDATEABLE is coming up later this spring on NBC.

Lawrence’s previous long-running comedy series are SPIN CITY and SCRUBS. He’s at Fox’s session for the Television Critics Association on behalf of SURVIVING JACK, though his other gigs inevitably arise in conversation as well.

AX: How much of the initial tune-in for SURVIVING JACK do you think is going to be people who want to check out Christopher Meloni doing comedy? Obviously, he was in two of the HAROLD AND KUMAR movies, but a lot of people don’t know he ever did that – he’s much better known for LAW & ORDER: SVU and OZ.

BILL LAWRENCE: I think in the modern landscape of television, what really matters is that your network needs to have an angle to tell everybody to watch a television show. Because if they don’t, if they’re lost in searching, there’s no way any more for anybody to go, “Hey! It’s wild and crazy guys and girls, check it out!” And there’s no such thing as a time slot hit. So what I know going in is that Fox is going to go, “There’s a gentleman with a huge fan base. We’re going to show clips of a different type of parenting with him all over it.” And that’s going to be their angle and it’s a real angle. He’s got a huge fan base; I’m going to lean into it. And then hopefully people will stay for the content.

AX: Although SURVIVING JACK is based on the relationship between series co-creator Justin Halpern and his own father, is any of your relationship with your dad in here?

LAWRENCE: Any writer puts their own stuff in it. I mean, one of the funny things we combine is, the more aggressive parent in my life is my mom. My mom is a true matriarch and super-strong and super-intimidating, and we drew from her a little bit, especially when the red meat jokes [involved] Rachael Harris’ character, to have someone who can stand up to Chris, because he’s a big presence. When you guys interview him and talk to him, he’s an intense dude. He scares me a little [laughs].

AX: Can you talk about casting Rachael Harris as Joanne Dunlevy?

LAWRENCE: For me, Rachael is so comedically gifted and she has such a good relationship with Fox, as someone who had done shows with them before and just hadn’t found one that popped. She was someone they were really passionate about and I’m lucky to work with her. I’d tried to before.

AX: Is Joanne concerned about Jack’s parenting style at all? Is she amused by it?

LAWRENCE: I think she’s concerned by his parenting, amused by him constantly and not remotely intimidated by him. And when they go toe to toe, one of the rules we gave the writers is, you have to treat it like a heavyweight fight. He can’t win all the time, she can’t win all the time. And that’s the way it was in Justin’s house. His mom is incredibly dynamic and sharp and intelligent, was actually a human rights attorney as a result of all this stuff, and she’s fantastic.

AX: Justin Halpern and his writing partner Patrick Schumacker previously created $#*! MY DAD SAYS, which did not do well in the ratings. Was there any concern from the networks about doing another series based on Halpern’s relationship with his father?

LAWRENCE: Well, yeah. I think that because of the way that first experience went down, and this is not to be self-aggrandizing, someone should have made this pilot, but to me, that’s why I can go, “Hey, Justin, Patrick, I know you want to revisit this world, I think with me, you’ll be able to.” And so hopefully, that’s the give and take of this stuff that I can help those guys with, but yeah, the networks were concerned. I was able to at least go in there and say, “Look, it’s a single-camera show, as long as it’s not Bill Shatner, no one’s going to make the comparison and it’ll be fun.”

AX: Do you think it helps that in SURVIVING JACK, the son is younger and it’s not set in the present?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, I really do. And I think, though, that the son needed to be someone strong enough to not look like he was getting picked on.

AX: Last time we spoke, you were taking the COUGAR TOWN cast and writers around the country for a number of promotional screening parties with fans of the series. How did that work out, and is that something you think you might like to do again?

LAWRENCE: It is. It’s really interesting, because the same time the traditional ways of marketing a show and the way that maybe these things used to matter – not as much on the immediate level they matter now – has changed, I would argue that COUGAR TOWN is still on in part because of that experience, because it created an opportunity for [the press] to write about it and to try and do something grassroots-y that people aren’t normally doing, and I think that it is in great part lined up with why TBS has picked up a show that was already moving into its fourth year.

AX: How did that tour go? Did you have some dates in Los Angeles? How did the fans know how to find the events?

LAWRENCE: I [went] on Twitter, because if we really announced it wide-scale – here’s a bad example. In L.A., I announced it on Twitter, we could only hold two hundred people at the venue, we had a nine-hundred-person [line] in half an hour. I didn’t want it to be [overbooked], so we sneak out the information, it fills up, we do that thing we do. It’s grassroots. We go there, we show two or three episodes, they get to hang out with the cast, not in a structured setting, really talking, having drinks. We give them t-shirts and at the end, I stand up, Courteney stands up and the writers stand up and say, “We’re doing this as a thank you because we have a very loyal fan base, we need you to turn out when the show comes back on. All we ask in return for you free drink tab is watch the show, tell all your friends that liked it that it’s back on and get five or ten new people to check it out, and other than that, welcome.”  Look, when I did SPIN CITY, the difference between being on was, in the demo, four or five million people [watching the show]. And now, the difference between success is six hundred thousand. It’s like the difference between 2.2 and 2.8, and that’s not insurmountable. And for us, [it was] really about turning the old core audience back onto the show by giving them content.

AX: Do you think you might do similar campaigns for SURVIVING JACK or GROUND FLOOR or UNDATEABLE?

LAWRENCE: I haven’t done a star project since SPIN CITY, and this show is built around this gentleman [Meloni] and his following, so I don’t know if the grassroots thing is the same thing. UNDATEABLE is a show that’s all standup comics, each one of them a headliner. I will be going around, I’m sure, doing a comedy tour with those guys, going from affiliate city to affiliate city. Chris D’Elia, who has two million followers just on Vine, you take opportunities. And I love doing it. I would show this show to anybody. I like it. I’d show that show to anybody. And the times you won’t see me doing it are when I honestly didn’t think that the show worked or made it.

AX: Are you developing more series right now, or is four as many as you want to handle at once?

LAWRENCE: No. I’m looking at development. You’ve got to understand – I didn’t want to just talk about our company [Doozer]. I’ve done this long enough now that I’ve worked with some of these writers – not Justin [Halpern] and Patrick [Schumacker], them I’ve worked with only three or four years – but some writers for twenty years and there are super-talented people that simply can’t get through the process, because getting through the process is tricky. I’d be the first to admit it’s skewed toward people who have had success before, and it’s not fair, but it’s going to be easier for me to get my pilot made than Rob to get his pilot made. It’s just the way the system works. And so for me, to take people who have worked with me for multiple years, who know how I run a show, who know how I want to treat people and who know how I do the post-production and all that, and in return, knowing they’ll do it my way, hopefully create a safety net in which I take the heat if it falls apart, I do all the hard conversations [with the networks], and create a creative environment for them.

Part of the thing is, not all of [Lawrence’s producing partners] are here, but Randall Winston, my producing partner, and Jeff [Ingold, president of Doozer]. Though I joke, the biggest gift of working with [Ingold] is, I was going to say, he’s a cheat sheet. He ran comedy at NBC for fifteen years. One of my biggest issues was always, as a creative guy, dealing with the hierarchy of the business side. To have a guy who was on the other side for so long, who can give me the answer key and say, “I’m going to handle it, this is how it’s going to go, this is what they’re going to say and this is what I’m going to do,” that’s freed up half of my life.

AX: What was the mood like on set for COUGAR TOWN when you were still shooting for ABC, but not picked up there, and TBS hadn’t picked COUGAR TOWN up yet?

LAWRENCE: I’ve told people before – I lecture all the writers and crew and actors about, if the show’s canceled, you can bitch and moan. [So long as a show is in production], I’ll have nothing to whine about. My dad lectured me back when I was doing SCRUBS, I used to whine about being mistreated. And then my dad one time said, “The show’s been on for seven f***ing years so far and you can shut up and stop complaining.”

AX: Do you ever look at shows you don’t like and think, “Why is that on the air?”

LAWRENCE: I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to work and what’s not. The other thing all these writers and actors will tell you, I’m very lucky, Courteney’s very lucky. Most of them are living hand to mouth, job to job. There’s not one actor or writer on this show who doesn’t have a friend or at least an acquaintance on all the other shows that you’re tempted to crap on, and I’m not in the business of going, “Damn, that dude who’s married and has two kids, I hope his job goes away.” That’s just not how it works. I tried to write an article about it for a magazine, the schadenfreude of it all. You end up hating yourself. You’re like, “I wish this disaster on this show,” but you can’t.

AX: Are you happy with the direction COUGAR TOWN is going now in its second season on TBS?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. TBS is such a supportive place to work. For me, those people there – I’ve worked with some of the people on that show since I was twenty-six years old, so the fact that they have not only a job to go to, but still like it creatively, still like being around each other, I couldn’t be more excited. TBS – they’re so nice. We’ll keep it going as long as Courteney wants to do it. I still love the show. I could write this forever. I think it’s a blast. I think it’s funny as all get-out.

AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about SURVIVING JACK right now?

LAWRENCE: I honestly think as a producer, one of the things I look for – and just to be completely candid, I’ve done shows that were failures, and I’ve done shows that were successful – the one thing that the successful shows have in common is they get significantly better as they move forward, and this show has that element, so that’s why I’ll gladly stand up here and be called to task next year if the show didn’t work, just because I believe in it creatively.

Related: Exclusive Interview with Christopher Meloni on SURVIVING JACK

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Article: Interview with Bill Lawrence on his new series SURVIVING JACK and COUGAR TOWN

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