Anatomy Of A ... Hit?

NBC is betting on 'Scrubs' as its next big thing. BUt on the set, it's funny business as usual -- mostly

Cover Story

September 22, 2002|By DAVID FOLKENFLIK | DAVID FOLKENFLIK,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

LOS ANGELES -- On the ground floor of a shuttered health clinic several miles north of Hollywood, Zach Braff -- John "J.D." Dorian on NBC's hospital comedy Scrubs -- is spending an alarming amount of time deciding whether it would be funny to wear a "onesie" in a scene set in his bedroom.

As an extra mills about wearing sneakers with foot-high soles (so he can stand in for a taller actor), Braff is discovering that, funny or not, the oversized pajamas are wildly uncomfortable.

"I'm not accustomed to being interrupted," he says archly, pretending to admonish a staffer -- and poking fun at his status as the first among equals on the ensemble show. For Braff, an engaging young actor with a mop of unruly hair and a seemingly limitless supply of facial expressions, the notion of being a "star" is something new. His last job before J.D. was as a waiter at a French-Thai restaurant in Beverly Hills.

While Braff struggles with his wardrobe two floors below, his co-stars in the critically acclaimed sitcom find other ways to prepare for their scenes. Sarah Chalke, who portrays the neurotic but driven young doctor Elliot Reid, scoops up and cuddles a producer's puppy, one of several pets scampering around the thinly carpeted hallways. Nearby, Donald Faison, the jock surgeon Christopher Turk on the show, takes a superhero's pose, fists on hips and elbows jutting out, while his bathrobe falls open.

"Admit it," he calls out to anyone within hearing range. "You want to touch the boxers."

His boxers are, in fact, unquestionably impressive -- certainly more than Braff's onesies. But most impressive of all on the set of Scrubs on this late summer day is the easygoing, good-natured camaraderie of the cast and crew. They are, after all, only the people that NBC has picked to make Scrubs its next big hit, its next Thursday night sure thing, possibly the must-see heir to Seinfeld and Friends.

Pressure? What pressure? On the set of Scrubs, it's all about the unapologetic self-indulgence that makes the show's frenetic creativity possible. Or, as Turk might say, it's all about the love. As much as possible with a network staring over your shoulder, anyway.

Co-stars Faison and Braff enjoy each other so much that they roomed together over the summer in a Greenwich Village apartment while both had work in New York City during the show's hiatus: Faison, who has already appeared in Clueless and other films, had a role in a movie with Heather Locklear and Brittany Murphy; Braff starred in a Central Park performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

"We love coming to work and seeing each other every day," Faison says.

Now, inspired by a line in a forthcoming script, the actors have begun singing theme songs from old sitcoms. The theme from Scott Baio's Charles in Charge draws a particularly reverent rendering. Outside, John C. McGinley, who plays Dr. Perry Cox, J.D.'s caustic mentor, is storming around the parking lot, muttering lines to himself between takes. He is desperately attempting to avoid eye contact with a woman sitting in a wheelchair nearby so he can keep his focus.

The woman turns out to be not a Scrubs extra, but the mother of one of the show's assistant directors. She stops one senior producer to offer this bit of encouragement: "You have a lot of viewers 49 [years old] to dead. I know that's not your demographic, but it's a lot of people."

Indeed, a fair number of people are already watching the show, which got its start last season on Tuesday nights. But executives at NBC want far more people between the ages of 18 and 49 to see it. If you already have the Scrubs habit, they want you to make it a compulsion. So for this fall, they have scheduled it to air immediately after Friends, the half-hour, money-minting Thursday night juggernaut that is likely to come to an end next spring. With Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC entertainment, himself leading the charge, the network sees Scrubs, which has its season debut this week, as a potential runaway hit.

It could be the show's big shot -- or its undoing, if the pursuit for ratings were to lead Scrubs' producers to water down its flavor.

Not that any of this makes a particularly compelling reason to watch the show. Caring about the whims of network officials is like rooting for the guy who approves ATM fee increases at major banks.

No, there are far better reasons why you should watch, reasons that come into focus in a visit behind the scenes of the show. Above all, Scrubs is funny. It's funny because it is uncommonly well written. It's funny, paradoxically, because it has a heart and takes relationships seriously. Some doctors who watch say that combination allows the show to represent hospital life -- the back- biting, paperwork, furtive romances, office politics, and, at times, sheer boredom -- more honestly than any other program. But Scrubs does it while actually making people laugh out loud.

How often does that happen while you're watching network television?

Reason 1 to watch:

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