Self-described TV junkie Bill Lawrence packed up his car after college and headed to California to find a job in the business. He waited tables before getting his first job on the short-lived TV show, Billy. After bouncing around family shows as a writer, a play of his caught the attention of an agent. That led to a prestigious writing job on Friends.
His work on that hit sitcom set the stage for a new opportunity in 1996, when Lawrence co-created Spin City with his mentor Gary David Goldberg. Now Lawrence is the creator and executive producer of Scrubs, a half-hour comedy that follows the lives of three medical interns. The show, now in its second season, airs Thursday nights on NBC after Friends.
“It’s a tough spotlight because the show Friends is such a juggernaut and does such giant ratings that the shows after it always get put under the microscope. But I think it’s pretty neat.”
Scrubs is is written in the standard two-act format for a half-hour show with a long teaser at the beginning. Lawrence says he wanted to write a television series like his childhood favorite M*A*S*H, which he thought was funny and touching at the same time. The idea for Scrubs came from a college friend’s stories about the trials and hilarity of a beginning doctor’s residencies. “It blew me away to hear all the stuff he was talking about and so I basically just stole all that stuff from his life and made a pilot out of it.”
That same college friend is now the medical advisor for the show. But he isn’t the only doctor to help inspire story ideas. “We have this giant pyramid of doctors that periodically we’ll all sit down with them and pick their brains and ask about weird stuff that’s been happening and stuff that they are went through.”
Since Scrubs is a “single camera” show, Lawrence says it’s hard to rewrite an episode once production starts. “We do most of our work on the outline beforehand just so we know the story really works. They’re constantly shooting here, so its just a machine that just keeps running forward like that as you go.”
Writers on the show have over a week to write a first draft, then it goes to Lawrence for notes. The writers submit their second draft, then it takes about a day or two to insert the jokes.
Lawrence has worked primarily on all half-hour sitcoms, but says Scrubs is a different type of show. “As a comedy writer, you put a lot more work into story, and a lot less work into jokes, which is a weird mind-set for all of us since we all come from the other school where you sit around and put as many jokes in as you can.”
Scrubs uses stories from new scriptwriters each season, but rarely do freelance writers pitch an entire script. Usually Lawrence says he looks for new ideas presented in a way consistent with the outline of the show.
“The story is not as important as the fact that the characters actually sound like the characters do on the show. The thing that I obsess about it whether or not the main characters are speaking like they do speak on our show.”
As for beginning scriptwriters, Lawrence recommends they keep their patience.
“I think the toughest lesson out here is patience. Because I honestly believe that there is a bar of talent that if you’re over that bar, whether or not you get a job, is really going to be dependent on your staying power and how long you’re willing to wait. Working hard and being in and around the industry is so important because lots of people’s jobs started from relationships. I think it’s a combination of actually having the material and finding your foot in the door.”
This article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Scriptwriting Secrets.