It’s a Wednesday night in March at DC Improv and famed TV producer Bill Lawrence is nervous. The man who has spent nearly two decades behind the camera for multiple hit shows he created (“Spin City,” “Scrubs,” “Cougar Town”) will shortly go on stage to perform about 15 minutes of stand-up. He knows he has to — it’s all part of a grassroots effort to promote his new NBC comedy, “Undateable” — but he’s still talking really fast, moving around a lot, and endlessly apologizing for being so nervous.
A waitress arrives in the small room and hands him a drink: Club soda with a splash of cranberry juice and a lime. The lime falls on the floor, and Lawrence quickly scoops it up and puts it back in the glass. The waitress ignores it, and briefly chats with him. She leaves and Lawrence laughs. “She didn’t get grossed out at all that I picked the lime up. I love that about her.”
Lawrence’s whole life has been one-liners and comedy, but that still doesn’t calm his nerves — about the stand-up and or the late-spring launch of “Undateable,” his latest sitcom that premieres Thursday night on NBC. It’s always a rough mission to debut a new TV show, but at this time of year, it’s especially difficult.
“The problem with doing a midseason show is too often you get told, “Hey, guess what you’re going on in two weeks’ and it’s way too late to do anything,'” Lawrence explains. A seasoned TV producer who has had many hits and also a few misses (such as Fox’s “Surviving Jack,” which just got canceled), he knows the drill.
Thus, the “Undateable” stand-up tour was born. Lawrence came up with the idea to go on the road through the spring, traveling from city to city with his cast — Chris D’Elia, Brent Morin, Ron Funches and Rick Glassman — hosting showcases starring his actors who are all stand-up comedians. (Though in D.C., he decided to take the stage himself.) It served a dual purpose: Not only did it spread word about the show but they went to the cities that are home to NBC’s biggest affiliate stations: New York, Boston, Philly, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.
Lawrence knows he’s making an over-the-top effort, but he believes so much in his show — a half-hour “Cheers”-type comedy set in a bar — that he wants to get the word out any way he can. Even with a grueling schedule that involves traveling mainly by van and by train. “It’s been insane, but it’s been so fun,” he said. “I’d also kick myself if I didn’t do it and the show didn’t work.”
The show is also a tough sell because it’s part of a fading genre of shows: multi-camera comedies. “Undateable” is set in Detroit, mainly in a bar owned by a 20-something guy named Justin (Morin) who also happens to be absolutely hopeless with women. So are his friends, so it’s cool; they just all hang out together. That changes when Justin’s new roommate, Danny (D’Elia), meets the gang and is horrified by their lack of skills — and he tries to help.
Mostly, though, the series is just about funny friends hanging out together: A description of a comedy you generally won’t find succeeding anywhere these days except CBS. But Lawrence, a self-described TV nerd, still wanted to create a multi-cam sitcom. He had a new idea: Don’t go the traditional route, trying to find a star and building a show around that person. Instead, hire all stand-up comedians that are also friends. After all, many actors don’t really know how to do sitcoms anymore since there are so few of them: And stand-ups — especially ones that know each other — easily feel comfortable as they vibe off a live audience, and occasionally wind up improving scenes.
The catch, of course, is that a network generally needs a star to send to talk shows and do interviews to market the series: D’Elia (formerly of NBC’s “Whitney”) is a big name in the stand-up world, though not so much on TV. Lawrence and his co-creator Adam Sztykiel had to promise to do everything they could to promote the series, including the stand-up tour.
And so, Lawrence is here, in D.C. in late March, talking about all these challenges and also why the show is called “Undateable.” It’s technically supposed to be based on a book (Anne Coyle and Ellen Rakieten’s “Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating Or Having Sex”) but it’s really not. Mostly, it’s just a good title. And about the four guys just trying to help each other navigate adult life, sort of like regular friends the real world. As Lawrence puts it, “No one’s destitute, but these people are all struggling.”
“The network was like, ‘Hey I know you have background people, but how come this bar is never crowded like the ‘Cheers’ bar?” Lawrence said. So he would tell them: “It’s a show about a guy who invested his last penny at a bar in Detroit and is kind of stuck and not killing it. Is that depressing? No, I don’t think it’s depressing. That’s kind of the subtext of the show to me — these people that would probably lonely and sad if not for each other.”
Lawrence hopes that very real issue connects with an audience when the show launches — at the moment, he’s more focused on his upcoming set. His cast convinced him to try his material, even though he briefly tried and failed that route in his early career. (“TV writing’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at or loved,” he says.)
Still, Lawrence goes on stage. Guess what? The audience loves him, as he riffs on the usual stand-up topics (relationships, sex). D’Elia also gets huge applause — he seems to be the main draw for many people — and even more so when he catches someone secretly trying to film his new material, and lays down the law.
Meanwhile, between acts, Lawrence tries his best to sell his show and his actors by talking about how much he loves the series.
“I have three kids, I’m fairly wealthy and I have a nice house,” Lawrence tells the crowd. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in it.”
“Undateable” (30 minutes) premieres at 9 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, May 29 on NBC.