ATX TV Festival 2022: Bill Lawrence on Life, Death, and Scrubs

A rewind of our 2020 interview with the series creator

Scrubs, the medical comedy that gained new relevance during the pandemic, gets its delayed 20th anniversary reunion today at the ATX TV Festival

Two years ago, Bill Lawrence woke up early for a Zoom chat, and Zoom life was starting to wear on us all. "It's like going to the beach. You think you're just going to lie there, but it sucks the life out of you," he joked.

Talk about the best of times and the worst of times. Like everyone else, he was navigating the early days of the pandemic, but in less than two months his new show, Ted Lasso would become a critical and ratings hit. At the same time, he'd just finished showing Scrubs, the medical comedy he created 20 years ago, to his youngest son – a landmark, since all his kids were born while he was working on the show. Meanwhile, stars and best friends Zach Braff (who played nebbish medical intern John Michael "J.D." Dorian) and Donald Faison (his closest pal, trainee surgeon Christopher Turk) had launched a successful podcast Fake Doctors, Real Friends, going through the show episode by episode.

Moreover, the following weekend, Lawrence, Faison – and other cast members, including Judy Reyes (Nurse Carla Espinosa) and Sarah Chalke (doctor-in-training Elliot Reid) – were supposed to be part of a retrospective panel/cast reunion for the streaming version of the ATX Television Festival. They'd been booked for the in-person festival, but that had been delayed by the pandemic. On the positive side, Lawrence wouldn't have been able to make the in-person version because he would have been wrapping Ted Lasso, but he could do the Zoom version. Then George Floyd was killed and, because the moment didn't feel right, the virtual reunion was cancelled. The next step was to reschedule for the in-person event on 2021, but the pandemic had other plans. So, finally, in 2022 Lawrence and the the staff of Sacred Heart training hospital are coming back together this Sunday for that very delayed 20th anniversary reunion. Not just that, but Lawrence and Braff will be working two shifts, with a second panel about their time on Ted Lasso.

If anything, the delay has made Scrubs more relevant. It wasn't just that people were interested in a comedy medical show during a pandemic. It's that a clip had gone viral after popping up on the news. It's a moment from the season 5 episode "My Cabbage": An infection spreads like wildfire through the hospital, and it's shown by whatever touches the virus, whether it's a hand or face or surface, suddenly glowing green. It could have been filmed specifically for the coronavirus pandemic, but Lawrence blanches at any suggestion of prescience. He said, "My wife tells me I'm really bad at taking compliments," but the reality, he conceded was that "interesting to me both in a great way and a sad way that Scrubs has become oddly relevant again very quickly during this health scare."

Pre-Scrubs, Lawrence already had a legitimate smash success – political comedy Spin City – under his belt when he first pitched his humorous and sensitive look at hospital life. The two shows were superficially similar – both being a wacky take on life in an unconventional working environment – but for Lawrence that was the only similarity. "Spin City was a classic American sitcom," he said. "One of the things I talked about on Scrubs was, 'Man, I'm trying to do something different,' and I fully expected the show to run one season."

Only in production would it show itself to be so much more poignant, morbid, tragic, heartfelt, and weird – all elements that could be the death knell for a show. He pointed to Freaks and Geeks: "It really captured the incredible pain and emotional anguish of that time and adolescence, but it did not live purely in the comedy world." Critically adored, held by writers as a classic, it didn't hit quickly enough with audiences and was canceled after one season. By contrast, Lawrence said, "Where we got lucky was that people received it better than we thought they would."

“You have to believe that people that go into those businesses give a crap, and they’re trying to be of service in some way. Then you can have them be ridiculous or behave inappropriately, and still be protected as characters.” – Bill Lawrence
Take that viral transmission sequence. It's not just a teachable moment but a profound insight into the thinking behind Scrubs. The last person to contract the disease is an already sick patient. The next episode, she dies, and this wasn't some "very special episode" one-off piece of shock writing. Scrubs reflected the reality of hospital life: Patients die, and their deaths can seem arbitrary. Lawrence recalled, "We're going to kill these three patients right away, and we're going to bring a movie star, Brendan Fraser, and we're going to give him leukemia immediately. The only decision we made was that we weren't going to kill him immediately, because that might be too much even for our networks."

The writer/producer blanches at the idea he was a trailblazer, pointing to a long tradition of comedies made stronger by moments of unapologetic drama. "There were M*A*S*H episodes that just gutted you. Or The Wonder Years. There's an episode where [Kevin's] friend Winnie's brother dies in Vietnam and they just lay that on you. I remember as a kid going, 'Wait, whoa, what's this about? Why aren't they almost kissing and being funny?'"

Scrubs could be wildly weird, littered with pratfalls and surrealist cutaway fantasy gags (Lawrence's favorite: Turk and Carla accidentally raise a pumpkin instead of their baby). Yet for Lawrence, it wasn't that the silliness brought them space to be serious. As with Spin City and its glimpse inside the hustle and bustle of the New York Mayor's Office, "You have to believe that people that go into those businesses give a crap, and they're trying to be of service in some way. Then you can have them be ridiculous or behave inappropriately, and still be protected as characters."

Jason Sudekis, Zach Braff, and Bill Lawrence on the set of Ted Lasso (Image courtesy of Apple)

The literal life-and-death environment of Scrubs allowed him to amp up the craziness, but it wasn't always easy to balance out the zaniness and seriousness among all the characters. It was particular struggle when writing Carla, and lead to several discussions with Reyes over her concerns the nurse was becoming a killjoy. "[She] would come to my office and go, 'I don't get to do enough silly, fun, goofy stuff.'" That created a problem for the way he was writing the show, because "my idea was that the moral center of the show, from the start, was Carla. Even though she is the same age at Turk, J.D., and Elliot, she's like an adult, and she is always going to be the moral guide. She could go to Doctor Cox and tell him, 'You're being an asshole,' or she could go to them and tell them, 'You're not paying attention to the stuff that matters.' It was a burden to her that she was awesome at because she is as funny and goofy and silly as everyone else, and we let her do that as the show got longer in the tooth."

Yet part of why the show worked was because the characters never reached for the jokes. Lawrence pointed to Neil Flynn, who understood that the janitor, bane of J.D.'s life, "is truly insane but because he's a Steppenwolf actor from Chicago, he played it incredibly real. If that guy had played broad and silly that would have messed things up."

Lawrence got that balance in part from the inspiration behind Scrubs, his "goofy friend" Jonathan Doris, and seeing him go through medical school. "He'd meet us at a bar or at a basketball game, and if he'd be 15 minutes late, sometimes he'd be shaken because he, at a very, very young age, was dealing with people dying and families falling apart on a day-to-day basis."

If Doris' name seems familiar, it's not just because he became a medical consultant on Scrubs but also was the real-life J.D. (Lawrence freely admits that naming characters is not his strong point, having called characters in Scrubs and Spin City after his longtime producing partner, Randall Winston). He's also back in the headlines as part of Los Angeles' COVID-19 command center, providing an organized response to the pandemic. Lawrence said, "He goes home on weekends, he changes clothes in the garage and showers in the tiny outside shower he has before he sees his kids, so he doesn't get them sick."

It's a reminder of how Scrubs was always an antidote to the typical disease-of-the-week medical drama. Lawrence said, "I used to laugh with [Doris] that all these doctor shows, people push open doors, and they look very serious, and they say 'Stat!' and you're an idiot, and I would both be terrified and happy if I woke up in hospital and you were standing over me going, 'Hey, man, you're going to be fine.'"


Scrubs Reunion Presented by Hulu

Paramount Theatre, Sun., June 5, 10am

GOAL! With Bill Lawrence and Zach Braff

Driskill Citadel Room, Sun., June 5, 1:15pm

ATX TV Festival, June 2-5. Tickets and info at atxfestival.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

ATX TV Festival, ATX TV Fest 2022, Scrubs, Bill Lawrence, Ted Lasso

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