Despite the fact that Scrubs, the quirky, cultish half-hour medical comedy hit, has always been owned and produced by ABC Studios, it spent its first seven years on NBC, where it was treated like a leper. So it came as little surprise last season, when after the writer’s strike (and years of shifting the show’s timeslot), NBC decided it had had enough, choosing to air a midseason, fantasy-based episode and billing it as the series finale. Thankfully, ABC Network President Steve McPherson stepped in to save the day, and Scrubs got a new home and a final, eighth, season. The Daily Beast talked to series creator Bill Lawrence about bringing the show back from death—and life after Scrubs.
The first two episodes of season eight are much sweeter and realistic than the silliness of previous seasons. Why the shift in tone?
Tonally those two episodes remind me of the early episodes of the show. I think after this much time you’ve earned getting to tell character jokes and characters' stories. The last season really focuses on the main relationships of the show. There’s a result for everybody.
Courteney Cox joins Sacred Heart this season as the beautiful and highly unethical Dr. Maddox. Why the stunt-casting?
Two reasons. One Scrubs-related, which is that ABC actually supports and wants to get behind the show, and the networks, whether they’re right or wrong, still believe in stunt-casting. Second, Courteney hasn’t done a comedy in forever, and she was looking to get back into it again. I knew her and worked with her on Friends, and we had started to talk about doing a new sitcom together, which we’re doing now. So it made ABC happy, which is cool, and Courteney and I got to work together and see if we enjoyed working together enough to make sure we’d never kill each other.
Speaking of stunt-casting, you bring back almost every major guest star this season.
The guest stars of this show, 99 percent of them are called friends of the family, because they’re buddies of the writers and cast. That’s why you see all the Spin City actors on here, like Michael J. Fox, and Matthew Perry, who I used to work with on Friends. Brendan Fraser’s an old family friend, too. Unfortunately, we killed most of the guest stars on the show, but most were all friends of ours, so we were able to call them all up anyway and they reunited for the season finale.
Didn’t NBC forbid their talent from coming back?
Yeah, NBC didn’t want Masi Oka [ Heroes] or Sarah Lancaster [ Chuck] to come by for their little five-second scene. Seems a little petty, but I get it, they’re still arguing back and forth about who owes who money, whatever. I’m past the point that I find the stuff like that surprising, no matter how ridiculous it is.
Finally moving to ABC must have been a relief.
You know, there's a freedom when you’re on a network that’s promoting you and being supportive, and you know you’re going to get to end the show the way you want to. We didn’t have to jump through hoops. I mean, have you ever seen a Scrubs commercial before?
So how do you go about establishing such a cult following when your network doesn’t back you?
There’s only a couple ways to survive in TV. You either have to be a giant hit out of the gate, like Lost—something that grabs the public zeitgeist and the attention of everyone. And if you have that, you’re super lucky. Otherwise, the only way to survive is if you come out of the gate with people that are really loyal to you, you have to be loyal to them. And that means to feed them content, you know, make the show accessible to them in ways that normal shows are not. You know, we had the character Turk change his cell phone number and we had the cast and crew answer that cell phone number for three years. I turn the phone on now and it still rings every five minutes because the episode is on in syndication. Don’t print the number because I’ll have to answer another 9,000 calls.
Scrubs is one of the few (if only) hospital shows the medical community has truly embraced as realistic, which is somewhat ironic given all its fantastical tendencies.
Well, Zach Braff’s character is based on my friend John Doris. And my friend, the real JD, and all of his buddies aren’t hyper-serious, dramatic people, they’re really funny, they joke around and like to laugh. For whatever reason, the medical community really embraced us, shockingly, as the most realistic medical show—not because of all the silly stuff we do, but because we acknowledge that 90 percent of being a doctor is trying to stay positive, getting through it by joking around, waiting around, down time, diagnosing, scut work. But the weirdest thing about this show is that every cast member or writer has spoken at some medical school graduation. At the Surgeon’s College in Ireland, they just flew the guy who plays The Todd over there to talk, which is insane.
Eight seasons later, any regrets?
When the show works, it walks this really weird fine line between drama and comedy. When it fails, those episodes are really bad because we try to switch too quickly. I especially like the second episode of this year, because we have really goofy character stuff and then something will switch on a dime and it’ll suddenly, hopefully, be a little heartbreaking or emotional and that’s when I like the show the most. So I think we’re going to go out—not on top, because we’ve never been there, business-wise, but creatively we’re going out in a big, very cool way.
Are any of the other characters based on real people?
There is a real Dr. Cox, it’s based on my wife’s dad, who’s an incredibly scary surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He loves that everyone thinks he was a great doctor who cared about his patients, but that everyone was scared silly of him. Turk is also based on an actual surgeon, who helped me out on the pilot. John Doris is still our medical adviser. On set everyone calls him “Real.” His wife is partly Elliot, too; he married a physician he went to med school with, and she’s a doctor out in L.A., as well.
Does that mean JD and Elliot will finally end up together?
I always pledged that the end of the show won’t be “will they or won’t they,” because it’s an ensemble show. But there was no way around addressing it, so the one teaser I will offer is that we address it early, when people don’t expect it, and then we don’t base the year around it. I never wanted to write the show like that, because I didn’t want it to be like Sam and Diane [from Cheers]. But those two [Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke] do have such chemistry in real life that people became invested in them, and a lot of people—including my wife and Zach and Sarah—wanted them to end up together, so I was sort of trapped in what I wanted to do. I stumbled on a way to make us all happy—me that didn’t want them to be together and then those guys that did.
The Janitor gets married in the Bahamas—that’s a good teaser!
Tell me about Cougar Town, your next project with Courteney Cox.
We’re planning on shooting that during the end of February. Courteney is very funny and ballsy and not afraid to look silly. In the modern landscape it’s so hard to get any attention, so we titled it Cougar Town, because when people see the show, they’ll realize it’s not what they think. It’s not a bunch of women in their 40s standing around talking about fucking dudes. But what we were hoping was it was a title that would get attention, both from people who thought it was funny and people who hated it, and it seems to have accomplished that so far.
It’s not what you expect. It takes place in suburban Florida, the local high school is the Cougars, they’re all psychotically obsessed with their local football teams, and everybody watches them on Friday nights. But it does star a woman in her early 40s who is single and looking to reenter the world of dating and romance, so there are both elements to it.
The season premiere of Scrubs airs Tuesday, January 6, at 9 p.m. on ABC.
Miriam Datskovsky is an associate editor at The Daily Beast. She has written for Conde Nast Portfolio, New York magazine, and nymag.com.