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Bill Lawrence, television's anonymous mogul

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When he was in his early 20s, Bill Lawrence landed his first staff writing job on ABC's "Billy." In the first days of his new sitcom gig, he would get hungry and would secretly take food, mostly cereal.

"Finally the executive producer came around and he was like, 'Hey idiot, we pay for your lunches'," says Lawrence on a recent afternoon in his office on the Warner Brothers back lot in Burbank. "And I was like, 'Cool, I'll have a steak, you know, I'll have two steaks'."

More than 20 years later the 44-year-old writer and executive producer, who created "Scrubs" and co-created "Spin City" and "Cougar Town," is frying up even more steaks, so to speak. He is in the rare and fortunate position of being involved in four current and upcoming shows. 

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First, there's "Cougar Town," which migrated to TBS from ABC, where it initially aired in 2009. In addition, Lawrence is also executive producer on three other new shows: the Fox sitcom "Surviving Jack," the NBC sitcom "Undateable" and the TBS multi-camera sitcom "Ground Floor," which he also co-created with Greg Malins. "Ground Floor," a workplace sitcom that hinges on the relationship between a banker and a maintenance supervisor, premieres Thursday on TBS.

"I got very lucky, very young," says Lawrence, who has a habit of referring to himself as an "old man."

"I've been around for the death of comedy, the death of drama, and the death of comedy again," he says. "And then the death of everything with reality, and then the death of reality."

In his more than two decades working in TV, Lawrence has seen the networks go from being the main course to mere side dishes as the worlds of cable TV and now Internet TV continue to slice up entertainment into smaller servings. The changing dynamics don't seem to bother him though.

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"I think they'll eventually compete with the networks comedically the same way TNT does with drama," he says. "And for me the exciting thing right now is that content is king more than ever. It's great creatively knowing that if you have something you're really passionate about, and you make it well, then there's a place for it."

Lawrence made his way in Hollywood by developing comedies with a distinct style, one marked by rapid-fire wordplay, sardonic jokes, glib commentary and quirky sight gags.

On "Scrubs," for example, Lawrence crafted jokes around the surreal daydreams of lead character Dr. John "J.D." Dorian, who was played by Zach Braff. Sudden visions of crazed sex between co-workers or covert kidney removals and slapstick song-and-dance numbers were woven in with the main narrative, providing an offbeat tableau.

Today, Lawrence acknowledges that "Scrubs" was an unlikely sleeper hit. It was a forerunner of the basic cable comedy in that it relied on a devoted niche audience to stay afloat rather than the massive viewer numbers of a juggernaut like "The Big Bang Theory."

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"There are two ways to survive in television now," he says. "And one is really hard and I haven't cracked it, which is to grab hold of this giant zeitgeist hit like 'Modern Family,' where everyone in the world wants to see it and you just write your own ticket. The other way is to appeal to a very specific, very loyal group of people, and if you make that contract you can keep a show like 'Scrubs' alive for nine years."

Despite his widespread success, "Scrubs" remains his primary legacy. Unlike a Chuck Lorre or David E. Kelley, Lawrence isn't yet a household name.

"When you see 'created by' with Bill Lawrence's name on it, he's generally sharing it with others," says Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Even 'Ground Floor' is with Greg Malins.... But I know he's got four things going now, which implies that the guy is probably worth $100 million, and the fact that nobody knows his name just might change."

For his part, Lawrence doesn't stress over being recognized on the street. Some of his crew members have been with him for decades, and his strict "no jerk" policy has created an environment that breeds tightknit relationships.

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Even at home he is never far from work. He married "Scrubs" and "Cougar Town" star Christa Miller and the two have three children, which Lawrence says makes him three or four years older than he actually is and keeps his schedule busier than ever.

That Lawrence is spread thin is just fine with "Ground Floor" show runner Jeff Astrof.

"Bill will never say, 'Do it this way,' because he doesn't have enough time, and thankfully some of his other shows are really demanding," says Astrof with a wry smile. "That never makes me sad when one of his other shows has trouble."

The idea for "Ground Floor" has been kicking around in Lawrence's head for quite some time. His recently formed production company, Doozer, is producing the show in collaboration with Warner Bros. Television. (The company's name is a play on Lawrence's full name, William Van Duzer Lawrence IV. His great-great grandfather of the same name founded Sarah Lawrence College.)

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The show takes place in a high-rise office building in San Francisco. When an unlikely love affair blossoms between a banker named Brody (Skylar Astin) and a maintenance supervisor named Jennifer (Briga Heelan), Brody's boss, Mansfield (John C. McGinley), does his best to dissuade his young protégé from falling in love.

It's an "Upstairs, Downstairs"-style romance that both Astrof and Lawrence find particularly compelling. The two met while working as writers on "Friends." Lawrence was in his 20s at the time and got fired during the first year.

"I was a kid, I misbehaved a bit," he says by way of explanation, putting his feet up on a coffee table and folding his arms behind his head.

He apparently didn't misbehave enough to alienate "Friends" co-creator David Crane, who introduced Lawrence to "Family Ties" creator Gary David Goldberg. Lawrence credits Goldberg with putting him through "show runners camp." Before Lawrence was 30, the pair had co-created "Spin City" for Michael J. Fox.

"He's the Norman Lear of his generation and he's great at this discipline," says McGinley, who played Dr. Perry Cox for nine years on "Scrubs" and is now on "Ground Floor." "He's fantastic at single-cam, which was 'Scrubs,' but he's a genius at multi-cam."

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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