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Interview with ENLISTED/COUGAR TOWN creator Kevin Biegel

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Interview with ENLISTED/COUGAR TOWN creator Kevin Biegel

A conversation with Enlisted creator Kevin Biegel by our guest writer Ron Clements about the new FOX show and other entertainment related material.

While watching Missouri and Oklahoma State play in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 3, I saw another trailer for Fox’s new show “Enlisted.” I thought the show looked terrible and I tweeted that sentiment. That tweet prompted a reply from show creator Kevin Biegel, who admitted that they got a lot wrong in the pilot episode and asked me to give the show a chance. After a lengthy conversation on Twitter, I agreed and his assistant, Colin, sent me four episodes of the season’s 13 episodes to watch. I was happy he did because the show is actually quite good.

That led to Kevin’s assistant asking me if I would want to interview Kevin and I said I’d be happy to. What I was expecting to be a 15-minute long conversation with the 37-year-old Biegel turned into a 40-minute Friday afternoon conversation in which we discussed several things.

Biegel was born in Chicago but raised in Florida with his two younger brothers. After high school, he chose not to follow in his father’s Army footsteps and instead attended Boston College. That’s where his big break into show business began. He’s best known for being one of the writers on “Scrubs” before helping to create the show “Cougar Town” and then “Enlisted.”

In 1997, he was fortunate enough to see an unedited version of the Farrelly Brothers movie, “There’s Something About Mary.”
And that’s where I’ll let Kevin tell the rest of the story.


Kevin Biegel: “I was in communications, I wanted to write for magazines. I was a big movie nerd and I still am. So, I was writing for website in college; I wrote for Ain’t It Cool, this was right when it was starting to pop, and I was like, hey there’s this movie site to send reviews into, you can do screenings and I was doing screenings for my college newspaper. I bring it up because I was going to graduate and go work in New York for a magazine. But my senior year, I was walking through campus and there was this flier on a lamp post, and it said, ‘Come out to the movies, see a test screening.’

“I was like, OK, so they put us in the basement of one of the buildings and it was the Farrelly Brothers bringing “There’s Something About Mary.” They used to do that; they would take their movies and just show it to kids and would be like, ‘What do you guys think?’

So, randomly, we see ‘There’s Something About Mary’ and it was much longer than the version that came out. It had different stories in there that didn’t make it, so about a month went by and I had written a review for Ain’t It Cool and this was a time in my life when I was such an obnoxious, hard-to-be-around film nerd. I knew how films should be and what edits should be made to this movie. So I wrote this 10-page thing on how great the movie was, but with all the things they should cut, and I put it up. And it was totally stupid, like who the hell is this kid telling them what they should do with the movie? But, the next day, I woke up and my phone was ringing and it was Pete Farrelly on the phone. He said, ‘Hey, the studio’s mad at us.’
“And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Who is this?’

“And he said he was talking about ‘Something About Mary’ and all the cuts that they had been lobbying for with the studio, I had written down everything they had been thinking. They thought it was Pete Farrelly writing under an assumed name. It was like, look, these random people want the same things we do. It was amazing, so he totally offers me a job.

“I’m sitting there, hung over and was like, ‘What?’

“He said, ‘You want to come to Los Angeles and come work for us when you graduate?’

“’Um, OK.’ So I graduated and came out to L.A. It wasn’t anything glamorous, but it was a job. I wrote a little bit. I was Pete Farrelly’s assistant on ‘Me, Myself and Irene’ and I thought it was funny. I read and then there were times where we would sit around a table for like a week and just throw jokes out there. I was just this 22-year-old kid and I’m sitting across a table from Patton Oswalt and Jeff Ross. It was insane. That was my first chance writing with a group. That was basically eight years of a couple wonderful things happening and just the shittiest jobs trying to scrape by. So I tasted a little of it and wanted to get back to that point somehow. I would take any kind of work I could – data entry on, like Telemundo or something, which, I did and it was a great job. We would stretch a day’s work into a week because they had crackers and the girls were pretty there at Telemundo. I just kept writing on the side and eventually got a job as a writer on ‘The Tracy Morgan Show.’ The people there thought I was funny and they showed my work to the people that represented them and those people ended up representing me. And I kind of just moved on from there.
“My first job, I think it’s off IMDB because it never went anywhere, my first writing job was for ‘Howard Stern: The High School Years’ – this animated Howard Stern show. It was going to be on Spike TV, but they never put it on TV because they couldn’t figure out what style they wanted for animation, but I worked on that for a year. I did that, then after that I got a job writing on ‘Scrubs’.”


Ron Clements: “Did you know (Scrubs creator) Bill Lawrence before then?”


KB: “No, I didn’t. I knew ‘Scrubs’, I knew the show, but I didn’t know Bill. I had a meeting; they were hiring a new writer for the show. They hadn’t hired anybody in awhile and, so someone who knew me and knew Bill was trying to be savvy and was like, ‘Hey Bill, this guy Kevin, he’s like a young you.’ And Bill was like, ‘Oh, he’s like a young me?’ (NOTE: Lawrence is eight years older than Biegel.)
“So, we have the meeting and, I’m not tall, I’m 6-1, but Bill loves to play basketball, he’s in a pickup game like once a week, so somebody said, ‘Hey, do you play basketball? You could play basketball with us.’

“I totally lied because I am so awkward and can’t play basketball, but I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can play basketball. I’m great. I can dunk on anybody.’”


RC: “So, the first thing you said to your new boss was a lie.”


KB: “Pretty much. He saw the scripts I wrote and said they were good. As a writer, you want to make sure you can be conversational with people, and just talk and shoot the shit, throw out ideas and be funny. We had that kind of relationship from the get-go. But, finally I had to tell him, ‘Hey, look, I can’t play basketball. I’m terrible.’”


RC: “So, what led you to ‘Enlisted’? Were you in a military family?”


KB: “Yeah. After we started to work on ‘Cougar Town’ and ‘Cougar Town’ is awesome, I love it, but it led me to write about a lot of personal stuff on that show. But I always wanted to write about me and my two younger brothers. It’s the longest, most personal relationship I’ve ever had. From birth, those guys are my best friends. We were around each other all the time; we’d get into fights and beat the crap out of each other all the time. We’d act like we’re 16 years old, even still now that I’m an adult with kids. But we’ve also gone through a time when we dealt with some pretty heavy, life and death stuff. But we love each other and can go from being emotional to saying something idiotic and getting into a fight with someone for a week, so that to me, was an interesting thing to write about because it was so personal to me.

“And then, the military stuff, yeah, a lot of my family had served. My dad was Army, my grandpa was Army, my dad had kind of hoped at one time that I would enlist, but that wasn’t my path. But my uncle was a Navy pilot, my brother-in-law was Navy. I had a lot of friends who grew up in the service and I have a good friend who is still in. He does a lot of undercover stuff with the Coast Guard so I’ll take the stuff he tells me and secretly thank him for some of the little military things he tells me. That world and seeing the people I love in that world and hearing stories about it reminded me of ‘Scrubs’ because it’s a really specific workplace in a comedy, but it’s not all jokes. It’s far from it because it’s an inherently dramatic and emotional situation you’re in. ‘Scrubs’ was the best and most satisfying thing I’ve done because in the show, there is a dramatic backdrop and there is heavy stuff that happens. You don’t shy away from it and you actually engage in those things because it makes the comedy more interesting and the characters more real.”


RC: “My girlfriend watched three of the four episodes Colin sent me and she said she recognized the style of writing from ‘Scrubs.’


KB: “Oh, did she really? That’s awesome. Thank her for me.”


RC: “Can we expect any ‘Scrubs’ cameos on ‘Enlisted’ like you’ve done with ‘Cougar Town’?


KB: “I don’t think there are any this year. We were trying to do one, but couldn’t make it happen, timing-wise. But I still want to make it happen.

“It won’t be like that one ‘Cougar Town’, where Zach Braff is in it. That was my favorite episode. It was based on this old movie called ‘Gambit’, this old Michael Caine, Shirley McClain movie, if you can find it on Netflix or something, it’s incredible. I don’t want to ruin it or anything, but there’s still style they do in ‘Gambit’ that I said we’ve got to do this story like this and we were able to do it and it was the most satisfying thing ever. And then, it just so happened that one day Zach Braff was visiting and we were shooting that scene and said, ‘Zach, would you be interested?’ ‘Oh yeah, sure.’ So, there was like every ‘Scrubs’ person there and then Zach showing up at the end with the pizza.”


RC: “Yeah, that was so awesome. That’s still probably my favorite ‘Cougar Town’ episode.”


KB: “Oh, thank you. That’s very nice of you to say. That means a lot because it’s my favorite too.”


RC: “By the way, the title ‘Cougar Town’, you made fun of it last season with the title cards, was the show originally supposed to go in a different direction than where it is now?”


KB: “Yeah. The show started, to be totally honest, as a room joke at ‘Scrubs’. The writers will say things like, ‘Here’s a funny name for a show…’ And then, one day someone said, what if we had a showed called Cougar Town because it was right when the term was at its height and it was just as annoying as it sounds – Cougar Town – a town full of cougars. And, we joked that we could have like a cougar claw ripping the scene apart during transitions. But, at the same time, Bill was like, ‘Hey, would you like to work on a show together? Let’s create something.’

“I had done it for a couple years and Bill and I worked great together, so I thought this was amazing. We could come up with ideas, it could take place in Florida, because I’m really obsessed with Florida because I grew up in Florida. Then, one day Bill said, ‘What about that Cougar Town thing?’

“And I was like, are you kidding? It’s so hard to get any kind of show on the air. They make hundreds of pilots and of those pilots, they only pick a handful of them to even get on the air and once they’re on the air, you have to do everything you can to just get any kind of attention. So, it was a dumb title and the kind anybody could pitch and we actually came up with an actual version of that and it seemed really great. Courteney (Cox) was wonderful and fully on board. So we pitched the show to (ABC) and it was a bunch of suits and the president of the network and said the show is Cougar Town. The president of the network said, ‘Oh, I can sell that.’

“So, then we made the show and it was great, but then it kind of hit us, like four or five episodes in, we were all sitting down together and thought, ‘This isn’t sitting right.’ Just because we knew that for one or two episodes, it was kind of fun, but to do that, if you think of it as if we’re going to do five years of this show, do we really want to have every single episode having Courteney, the funniest person and the star of the show, away from everybody else? The cast that we built, all those actors were amazing. So, if every week, Courteney was off with someone new, the rest of the cast was all gone. It didn’t make sense. So we thought what if the show is just about this group of friends hanging out and drinking wine, screw the concept? The only thing we kept was the idea of this woman, who was trying to relive her youth and, why was she doing it? Because, at her core, she’s lonely, and all of these people around her, this neighbor across the street, they don’t have anyone else. They’re incredibly lonely people too. So, what if we just kind of built the show around a group of people who, on their own would be pretty lonely, but they come together and they’re this fun family that drinks together and does funny shit and really cares about each other and tries to be there for each other? And that, once we started doing that, it was a totally different show and it became so much fun. It great, it was cool and it was neat that we were able to totally change the direction of the show.”


RC: “I can’t tell you how many times my girlfriend and I will just randomly yell out, ‘Penny can!’ or how often I just say, ‘Come on!’ So it has definitely entered into our everyday vernacular.”


KB: “That’s awesome. (laughing)


RC: “Back to Enlisted, how much better did the show get after the pilot?”


KB: “I think just from a technical standpoint, it was night and day. I know it’s still not up to code, but as far as the look of the show, we got some really good military consultants and they’re all veterans and they’re all just awesome people. Pilots are different because are only there for a few days and don’t feel like they can speak up. But, once you’re on the show, this is your job. So we told them to speak up. We had an active duty guy who had just got out. I wanted to work with a Wounded Warrior and wanted to have some of those guys there to do the show year-round and be there every single day. We had a guy, who was a Special Forces dude and he was just a wardrobe consultant – just so we got it right. If something was wrong, we wanted them to see if something wasn’t right, to call us on it. We weren’t trying to be a documentary, but if you get the technical stuff right, it makes everything else better. That was important to me as far as the look of the show and things got much better after the pilot. But, as far as the show itself, as far as characters and stories, when you do a pilot, everything has to be loud and look at us and pick us up because we’re different than everybody else. Nuance doesn’t really enter into a pilot because you’re just trying to make some noise for people so, if the president of the network is watching with a group of people and watching 10 other pilots, yours stands out. Once we got into the series, we knew we could slow the show down and make some of the characters humorous, but not in your face. I like the pilot, but once the actors were around each other more, after the pilot, things got better and better, especially with the platoon because they didn’t really have a chance to shine. Once we got into the series, we can explore the people and make them interesting.” (NOTE: For those wondering, Ron Funches, who played Private Huggins in the pilot, was pulled away for another project, and does not appear in the rest of Season 1 of ‘Enlisted.’ Biegel hopes to get him back for any future seasons.)


RC: “The first four episodes you sent me were, in order, pilot, Pete’s Airstream, Randy Get Your Gun and my favorite episode, Prank Wars. Why did Fox choose to not show them in that order?”


KB: “It’s pretty normal. There are only a few episodes where this one had to come in front of this one and this one had to go before this one. It’s kind of a usual thing to air them out of order. Like next week, Fox is airing (“Homecoming”) because it has a football element to it and, OK, we can tie it in with a promotion for the Super Bowl and that’s great. They want to promote it more and I love them for that. But people might think, ‘Wait, what, Derrick’s dating a girl now?’ That was supposed to be the ninth episode, but it turns out to be the fourth episode. You just have to hope that audiences will go, OK, this guy’s dating that girl and they’ll figure it out. I know they’ve done that with ‘New Girl’, but to be honest, it’s kind of nice because it’s takes a few episodes to kind of find your rhythm and you don’t figure it out after one episode. So this we can kind of lead with an episode where we had everything kind of figured out. There are character moments that may not have been funny in the second one that really work. It’s the mannerisms – if you don’t know the character, you’re not sure why it’s funny, like if Chubowski (played by Mel Rodriguez) says something some way, now it’s funny because you know who that character is. It’s a normal practice. In ‘Cougar Town’, we would shoot things out of order.”


RC: “Do you film in Florida?”


KB: “No. I’d love to, but we film at the Fox studio in Century City out in California. We’re on the stage where they shot ‘Die Hard’, so it’s awesome. There’s this big old picture of John McClane on the side of one of the buildings. It’s really cool to take over the entire thing. Once you’re on the Fox lot, a lot of the soldiers were like, ‘Wow, this looks a lot like where I was stationed.’”


RC: “Do any of the cast have prior military connections?”


KB: “I can’t speak for them, but I know they’ve all done charitable work. I know that Geoff’s (Stults) best friend is a Marine. I don’t know about Angelique’s (Cabral) family. I think there is some military in Parker’s (Young) family. I’m not sure about Chris Lowell. But I know Keith (David) and Geoff have done a lot of charitable work with different organizations. But as far as being in there family, I don’t think they have it.
“One thing that was huge, even if it was just a drop in the bucket, was that
mini-boot camp. It really had a big effect. That was very important to me. Once we got picked up, I said here’s the first thing we have to do, the actors have to go to boot camp. ‘The Hollywood one,’ I was asked, and I said, ‘No. They have to go, and even if it’s only for four days, for those four days, it has to be real. We can’t pussyfoot around this. They have to know what it’s like, even if it’s just a tiny taste of what someone in their position would go through.’ It was a huge benefit and the folks at Fort Bliss were amazing. It was only four days, a drop in the bucket, but especially for Angelique, I know it changed stuff in her life, knowing what the men and women in the service do for this country. She came out of it a better person.”


RC: “I think it was kind of funny to watch their reactions once they get there and they’re like, ‘Holy shit, these people are yelling at us.’”


KB: “Yeah, and to be honest, I didn’t know how real it was going to be for them. I told them to please not have them go and it’s one of those things where they have their feet kicked up on the cafeteria table. That’s not the way to accomplish what we wanted to do.”


RC: “Obviously the show is personal to you, were you nervous when Fox slated Enlisted in a dreaded Friday night time slot?”


KB: “Yeah, a little bit just because I worry because, like well shit, nobody’s home on Friday night or watching. And usually if you’re home on Friday nights, you’re watching shows that you’ve loved forever like ‘Blue Bloods’ or ‘Shark Tank’, but it was also a great opportunity because it’s a little protected. We have room to grow. You’re not expected to blow the doors off like if we were coming on after ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’, which would be great, but it’s like you better be amazing. They know we’re not in a top time slot, but we can hopefully grow a little bit. And, they also know that, on a Friday night, most people are going to be watching that show two days later. I think the word quite hasn’t gotten out yet, and I hope it does, that this is a show that is for all audiences. I can watch it with my friends and laugh, but also with my grandpa, my wife and kids as a family and laugh at it because we’re not trying to push dirty jokes or see how crass we can be. Wholesome gets a bad rap sometimes, and I don’t want to say we’re wholesome, but we’re good for you and coming from a sincere, heartfelt place and I think that comes across in the episodes. So it is a good thing because it’s a great option to stay in on a Friday night and watch it with your kids and not have to worry about it being too dirty. I can watch it with my kid and she’s three-and-a-half.

“Mike (Joyce) and I both aren’t big fans of trying to be crass. We want to be funny and want to be make a show that is funny without being crazy sarcastic. I like sarcasm, but I’m not down with real pissy comedy and snide comedy. I’d rather have something that’s funny because the characters are funny and you love them and they’re in interesting situations.

“That’s why I’m curious to see what people think of the Airstream episode because, you’ve seen it, it takes (on) some of the heavier stuff. It’s a season-long thing, obviously we’re not going to do one episode and be like, this guy’s cured of everything that’s going on in his head. But I do think it’s interesting to get to a point in an episode where we’re like, oh, hey, there’s something going on with this guy and we’re going to hopefully follow up on that as the season goes on. I’m curious to see how people react to that kind of stuff.”


RC: “How have DVRs and Tivo and even online outlets like Hulu and YouTube changed television viewing?”


KB: “It’s totally changed it for most people. The idea of watching something live, and I know that’s how they base a lot of the ratings, but unless if it’s a football game or a big event like a series finale or something where you have to talk about it the next day, like ‘The Walking Dead’, to find out who’s going to get eaten by a zombie, that’s the kind of stuff the numbers go through the roof for. But there are certain things, like ‘The Big Bang Theory’, which has a huge core audience – they love it – but as far as watching it live, I don’t have any friends who do that anymore. Heck, I don’t do that anymore. I haven’t watched something when it’s on, I watch our show because we want to do live tweeting, but, like ‘Community’, I watched at 11 o’clock at night. I don’t watch anything live. The stuff that’s really not being taken into account by some of these ratings systems is the online stuff. All of my friends are streaming stuff, torrenting stuff; they’re finding it on random sites. There’s a massive audience out there that’s not watching this stuff when a show comes on at 8 p.m.”


RC: “So the ratings have not yet taken into account online viewing?”


KB: “They kind of do, but they don’t put as much importance into it as they should. They don’t take into account when people watch it, I mean, they count if someone watches it within three days, but I’ll watch something within seven days, not necessarily three. And I think most people are like that, too. I think that’s why a lot of people are getting hired by Netflix because that’s what their audience is. So sometimes we’ll have somebody wearing a Nike shirt the entire episode, because then the commercial is within the context of the show. Call me a sellout, but that’s how people dress, so as long as it’s not hitting people over the head, who cares, it’s fine. It always bugs me when people try to fake it. It’s like, hey, let’s go get some sandwiches, let’s go to Subway. No, just say Subway. Nobody will think you’re artistically dead because you said Subway. That’s just insane. There are ways to do it where you can be subtle, but you’re not destroying the show and you’re letting the show survive. That can really help keep a show on the air, especially in the future when the ratings folks are wondering where the audience went. The audience is still there, they’re just not taking into account the massive audience that’s watching online.”


RC: “If I have a Nielsen box in my living room – I don’t – but if I did, can Nielsen monitor DVRs and what’s being recorded on a Thursday night but I don’t watch it until Saturday morning?”


KB: “Yes. If you have a Nielsen box, it’ll monitor what your DVR or Tivo is recording. But it’s not like every DVR is being counted on what’s being recorded. It’s an interesting system that someday someone is going to go this system isn’t quite doing what it should be doing, but it’s the best one we’ve got.”


RC: “I know you got some good news when Fox bumped you up half an hour, but Enlisted is still on Friday nights. Any hope, if you get renewed for a second season, of getting it moved in the future to a different night?”


KB: “I think there’s hope for everything. To be honest, if the audience starts coming to us in bigger numbers on Friday, that’s awesome. An audience is an audience. If we get a second season, many things are on the table. We can grow the audience that we have. What’s been amazing is that, even with just two episodes, they’ve been passionate and not afraid to reach out and contact us. It’s been awesome. It’s a conversation and not just, oh, hey I saw this show on TV. This is actually making me really laugh. Even people who saw the trailer for the pilot and went this looks terrible, I like going to those people and say, hey give us a chance. There’s more to it than overweight guys stuck on a wall.”


RC: “How effective was the mea culpa with you and Angelique and Geoff and Mel, to really take to social media and say, hey, we realize there are errors in the pilot, but give it a chance? Obviously that worked on me.”


KB: “It’s an ongoing story, but it’s definitely been highly effective. I think it was something we had to do. In some ways, it was like a love letter to the people who put their hearts and souls into the show to make it happen. Some people thought that show is making fun of people and that’s not what we’re doing. I just wanted to make sure that was clear. But what’s been great about it is that it started a dialogue and a conversation about it with people. It was really cool to go into different military sites and have military reporters come to it and say they’ve heard about the show and asking questions about the show. They’ve kind of seen our intentions behind it and have picked up on it. That’s kind of cool. We’re not doing this in a vacuum. What we wanted to accomplish, we’re starting to accomplish. I have to imagine that if they’re feeling that way, they’ll start telling people on the post that, hey that show that looked terrible is actually pretty good, you should give it a shot.

“I think the error contest was the right thing to do. When we first went to Fox and said, hey we’re going to do this and basically apologize because we fucked up too many things in the pilot and we shouldn’t have done that. It’s our fault, but I think we can have fun with it and make fun of ourselves and do this coin giveaway. Fox said, ‘No one does that. That’s weird. But if you want to do that, go ahead.’

“So we did it and I think they were happily surprised when the response was so good. I think Mike and I are of the same mindset where we’re just sincere people and that’s what we lead with. We go with our gut on stuff and we felt like it wasn’t just the right thing to do, but something we had to do.”


RC: “How has social media changed things? When ‘Scrubs’ was on, there really wasn’t social media. There was Facebook, but it was still very new. How has social media changed television – not just how people watch, but how things are promoted?”


KB: “It’s given it a level of grassroots interaction that we’ve never had. Before it was, hey, I like this show and I’m gonna send a letter in. Or you could show up at our studios every once in awhile. But now, if you have a feeling about something, we can engage them right away. It’s the kind of thing I always wanted to do as a kid. I’ve always loved TV and wanted to know the behind-the-scenes stuff with the actors, hearing why they did certain things a certain way, and now, instead of waiting for these little opportunities here and there, we’re living on the same island. It helps grow that idea that people on the show do care, and we do. We want to keep the show on the air, but we also care when people have reactions to it. I think fans really enjoy that too. It helps make them passionate and I think a passionate fan base helps keep shows on the air. It’s a win-win for everybody. We get to work and hear from them and, at the end of the day, like with ‘Cougar Town’, it had a really passionate fan base and that’s why TBS picked it up, because they knew people would support it.”


RC: “That was one show I was disappointed when ABC canceled it, but happy when TBS picked it up.”


KB: “Me too.” (laughs)


RC: (Laughing) “There are two other shows that I’m so sad they’re off the air – One was ‘Pushing Daisies’ - I loved it - and the other was ‘Heroes.’ I thought ‘Heroes’ was awesome.”


KB: “‘Pushing Daisies’ was great. ‘Heroes’ was cool. My wife and I were upset at that one.”


RC: “Well, I’ll get you out of here. Dude, it was great talking with you. If you find yourself in St. Louis, my girlfriend works at Anheuser-Busch, so we’ll definitely get a beer together.”


KB: “That sounds like a great night. OK. That’s awesome.”


RC: “Thanks again, Kevin. Have a great weekend.”


KB: “You too, man. Have a good one. It was nice talking to you, Ron. See ya.”


-Written by Guest Writer Ron Clements


Ron is a Wisconsin native writer who covered the NFL for three years, including Super Bowl XLV and is a true movie buff.   His taste in film is unique and he offers the blunt analysis that Film-Addict desires.


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