‘There was a no-asshole policy on set’: An oral history of Scrubs

To celebrate the hospital-set sitcom’s 20th anniversary, Simon Bland speaks to the show’s creator and stars about off-screen friendships, that first table read, improvising on set, and getting treated like The Beatles on the street

Saturday 02 October 2021 14:14
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<p>‘I was doing some of the craziest s*** I’ve ever done in my career’: Donald Faison, Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke in ‘Scrubs’ </p>

‘I was doing some of the craziest s*** I’ve ever done in my career’: Donald Faison, Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke in ‘Scrubs’

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Twenty years ago today, Scrubs first skewered sitcom expectations by inviting viewers into a wild world that blended escapist humour with genuine cockle-warming heart.

Set in the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital, Scrubs followed medical newbie JD (Zach Braff) as he navigated the various ups and downs of modern healthcare while frequently escaping into fantasy, desperately trying to win the approval of his ruthless higher-up Dr Cox (John C McGinley) and facing near-constant torment from the hospital’s resident oddball janitor (Neil Flynn).

Beneath that goofy exterior, though, series creator and Ted Lasso mastermind Bill Lawrence created a show that underpinned the importance of community, the fragility of life, and the resilience of our healthcare professionals.

With the pandemic shining a much-needed light on the latter, Scrubs has emerged as not only a fan-favourite comedy but a charming and timely reminder of how we’re all better together.

To celebrate this key anniversary moment, Scrubs cast members Sarah Chalke, John C McGinley, Judy Reyes and Neil Flynn take us back through the halls of Sacred Heart to discuss the show’s creation, craziness and lasting legacy.

Hot off his Michael J Fox-fronted sitcom Spin City, Bill Lawrence starts work on a new medical comedy inspired by stories shared by his doctor-in-training college roommate. As the show gathers speed, his cast – and the wild, fantasy world their characters inhabit – begins to take shape…

Sarah Chalke (Elliot Reid): My best friend and I decided to move to LA, and a couple of months in, I got the Scrubs audition. We didn’t know anybody, and never had plans, and finally we had plans to go to a concert. Normally I’d be like: “I’ve got an audition in the morning, I can’t go,” but I was like: “I’m not cancelling – we’re going to the concert.” I get home at midnight and open this package and it’s the Scrubs script. I start reading it and I’m like: “Oh no. Oh s***. This is so good. This is the best thing I’ve ever read,” and it’s midnight and my audition is in the morning.

John C McGinley (Dr Perry Cox): My primary focus was to find a gig that would keep me in Los Angeles. I wanted to be with my son Max, who was born with Down’s syndrome – and that was an unrealistic goal. I was doing two, three, sometimes four movies a year on the road and I couldn’t imagine being away from him for extended periods of time. That’s why I put the feelers out for all things Los Angeles-based, and that’s when Bill’s script came along.

Judy Reyes (Carla Espinosa): Carla was just so strong, smart, funny and familiar to me. I flew to LA to test for the studio, with Bill [Lawrence] and the casting directors, with at least three other women. There were about 25 people in an office and I remember somebody told me: “When you go in, take a moment and look at everybody before you begin.” I looked around the room and there were all these people looking at me, so I just said: “No pressure…” They cracked up and I relaxed. When I was done, someone walked me to the elevator and whispered: “I want you to know, you’ve got it” – then I got the call from Bill. It almost happened before I could take it in – but I was beside myself.

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Neil Flynn (Janitor): I’m not sure I read the pilot script because a lot of times, if you’re being considered for a lead [role], you don’t see anything but a few pages of the scenes you’re going to audition with – and the pages I got were for Dr Cox, which John McGinley played so well. As far as I know, there weren’t auditions for the Janitor.

McGinley: I go in to meet Billy Lawrence for the first time. This is a guy who’s had hit TV shows with Michael J Fox and was one of the original writers on Friends; he was a big deal. I told him I thought Dr Cox and Dr Kelso [Ken Jenkins] were redundant – it was just the single most suicidal thing you could do. I don’t know why I did it. I guess I had to tell the truth, because if we were playing to win – which I was – we’d do this for a while. I said Dr Cox and Dr Kelso are both authority figures. Cox has got to have some love somewhere that he doesn’t want to show or he’s confused about – and of course that was Max. Max had to be part of Dr Cox. I knew Cox had to become me, and me at that time was defined by Max. When those two met, that’s when Cox was solidified.

Reyes: [For a Latino actor, Carla] offered so much more. Usually the role is a victim in a cop show or something like that – nothing consistent in terms of an identity, personality or impact on the story and the people around her. This was just so heavy with opportunity – I loved it. I was laughing out loud [at the pilot script]. It was so smart and quick and the writing was so good. It was unlike anything I have read.

Flynn: I read the part of Dr Cox for Bill and he said: “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve already picked the actor for this part but do you want to read this?” He handed me a couple of pages of a scene as the Janitor and I read it. It took about 10 seconds and he said, “Good. You want to play that?” I said “Sure – I’ll take the job.” It was only a one-time thing – a day of shooting – but I was glad to have it, and it turned into a much better deal than I first anticipated.

Zach Braff is directed on the set of ‘Scrubs'

With its cast assembled, Scrubs began production – with cast and crew taking over a decommissioned medical centre in north Hollywood and transforming it into the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital for eight seasons. It was a process that would foster lifelong friendships...

Chalke: Bill had the first table read at his house, with all the cast and writers, and it was one of those table reads that gave you goosebumps. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Obviously, all of us had never seen any of the others play their parts and I was just on the floor watching these other actors. I was like “Oh my God, I’m so lucky to be a part of this with these people.”

Reyes: [The chemistry] was instant. I got here and everybody was just like they had been together their entire life. Zach [Braff who played JD] and Donald [Faison who played Turk] were instantly in love, and Sarah Chalke was the perfect foil and addition to the friendship. Johnny C was intense in his own way, but he put it brilliantly into the character, and Bill was such a constant element – there all the time, guiding the vision of the show – and I was doing some of the craziest s*** I’ve ever done in my career, still to this day.

McGinley: After the pilot, when the show was picked up, Billy got everybody – the grips, make-up, hair, actors, drivers – together in what was the cafeteria [of the show’s hospital set] and articulated that there was a “no asshole” policy on set. All he meant was, it’s not that you have to come to work and walk on pins and needles, but you do have to come to work and be nice. It set the tone. It wasn’t a Mr Tough Guy thing – it was just putting it out there that we’re going to be here for long hours, and you’ve got to be nice. Everybody knows what “You’ve got to be nice” means.

Flynn: There was a sense all along that we were an ensemble, and no one person was more important than the show itself. Bill officially said, as a policy, “This is a no-asshole situation. Do as you wish, but don’t be an asshole. That will not be tolerated.”

McGinley: It was emblematic of the attitude on set and in that ensemble. The ensemble gelled immediately – everybody knew it was really good. Billy cast the living hell out of that thing, and that fraternity-slash-sorority feel? That happened immediately.

Reyes: Every single person – from lighting, background, hair and make-up – had an opportunity to really be part of creating the show, which is what made it a true ensemble, both in front of and behind the camera.

Chalke: We were doing 16, 17 hour days, and spent a lot of time all together – and still the whole crew would go out on a Friday night after work and hang out. You know when you’re spending that much time together at work, and then hanging out afterwards, that it was fun.

‘The chemistry was instant’: Sarah Chalke and Judy Reyes in ‘Scrubs’

Debuting on 2 October 2001, Scrubs invited audiences into JD’s world (and head) as he navigated the weird, wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking world of hospital life. Together with JD’s best bud Turk, their stuffed dog Rowdy and his close-knit hospital colleagues, the show set off on what would become a nine-season run…

Reyes: We had access to the real JD – Dr Jonathan Doris – who was the inspiration [for the show] and Bill Lawrence’s best friend. Also my sister was a nursing student at the time, and my other sister is a social worker, so I had the opportunity to spend time in a hospital. It’s all about the type of person who chooses to do the work that they do and how they handle the environment. You have to handle the environment a certain way or you’re just not going to survive and be good at your job. Seeing that was a lot of fun – but I could never do it myself.

Chalke: It was just fun every time you got a new script. There’s no way you could guess what was going to be in there and the things you were going to get to do. The character just grew and changed so much over the years.

Flynn: From the beginning, the part [of the Janitor] presented itself as an intimidating blue-collar labourer, and I’ve been around such men, so I knew I could play that. Then, as the character began appearing in every episode, the scenes would get a little deeper – but it kind of quickly became absurd. I asked Bill early on: “Let’s not make this guy dumb.” Here’s a guy who’s smarter than his job, so in order to keep himself amused, he wreaks havoc on other people – JD in particular.

‘I don’t suffer fools’: John C McGinley in ‘Scrubs'

McGinley: I don’t suffer fools and Billy could write that. Cox is an infinitely, deeply damaged person, and what that allowed the writers to do was never make him redundant. To me, that was the gift of doing Dr Cox for nine years. As you peel back the onion, it felt like there was an unending litany of damages and eccentricities that the writers were bringing to me.

Chalke: You would sometimes get scripts or scenes right before you shot them, and sometimes they contained monologues that were supposed to be delivered really fast. That was one of the things about Elliot’s character – she talks at a faster pace than a normal human. My whole life, my friends would get together and talk so fast that nobody understood what we were saying, so I’ve always had to focus on slowing down. When I read that I was like, “OK, this I can do!”

Flynn: At one point, I said: “In one of these scenes, one of these days, shouldn’t I be actually working?” Rarely was the Janitor doing anything. I’m just walking by. Could I at least have something in my hand? This man never works.

Reyes: What I loved about playing Carla is her strength. She owns her job, she’s dedicated to it, she loves it, she’s good at it – and she’s no less on the show, in that environment and in the hospital, than any other doctor. That’s one of the things I observed when I shadowed a nurse, and that strength and power came through in Carla. In the Latino context, it was very familiar to me because of all the women in the environment that I grew up in. She’s the kind of person who, when she was six years old, dreamed of being a nurse.

Flynn: Bill has said that if the show had only gone on for a year or two, he would’ve revealed that the Janitor was a figment of JD’s imagination, because, up until that point, I never spoke to anybody else except JD. It would be me representing his anxieties – therefore, anything was possible because maybe I wasn’t real. When the show stayed on the air and I became real, it was fun to interact with the other characters as well.

‘We’re going to be here for long hours and you’ve got to be nice’: Donald Faison and John C McGinley in ‘Scrubs'

As the series progressed, viewers got to escape into JD’s fantasy world as the show took its characters to some wild places – from maniacal medical monologues and catchy musical episodes to relationships, deep friendships, and a seemingly never-ending mystique surrounding its resident janitor…

McGinley: I’d maybe get a script on Saturday and spend all Sunday in my rehearsal space cramming the stuff into my skull. A lot of the time, [Dr Cox’s monologues] were lists, and when they didn’t make sense, trying to string together these completely nonsensical lists that Billy would write was the stuff of madness. I’d paint medical terms on my walls – it was insane –and because I was so competitive, and Billy’s very competitive, I was not going to let him get the better of me. I was like: “Bring it, motherf*****!” Monday morning I’d get to the hospital and there’s new f****** pages put under my door, so everything I’ve memorised on Sunday is gone. The real kicker is that the new pages were even better, so I didn’t have a foot to stand on.

Flynn: Bill had come to an improvised show I did before we started shooting, and so he felt confident allowing me to improvise and ad-lib to offer alternative lines. Most of my scenes were with Zach, and Zach was good at going along with that, so that made it a lot of fun. Instead of just being a blue-collar guy, the Janitor became a very unusual person that just happened to have a blue-collar job.

Chalke: There would be so many fun challenges. One time, my line was “I told you so” and Bill was like: “You know what? Do what you want. Do an I-told-you-so song and dance” – so I got to do that. There was this feeling that you could try anything and fall flat on your face, and if something doesn’t work, that’s fine. I think that’s where there’s an opportunity for a show to come together and for a comedy to work.

Elliot does the ‘I told you so’ dance on Scrubs

Flynn: People say “I heard you made up all of your lines?” and that’s ridiculous. I would enhance the scenes I was in, some of the time – but I did not make up all my lines. The writers were very good and gave me plenty of good lines.

McGinley: Our dressing rooms were on the third floor of this four-storey hospital where, in the past, people had been treated, lived and died – and you could feel it. I was so obsessed with getting Billy’s words into my head that I hired an acoustic firm and soundproofed my dressing room, because I didn’t want to hear anybody or anything. I just wanted this quiet place where I could go – and the pages would slide under my door, almost like in a movie. I’d look at them, and of course it was Dr Cox, and of course it was a page and a half of single-spaced s***. So I had this insane asylum of a soundproofed room – but it worked.

Chalke: We were given a lot of freedom to try and do all of our own stunts. There’s lots of scenes where JD is flying out of frame, and [Zach] was doing that on his own and falling onto a stunt pad with a stunt coordinator there. We got to do a lot of our own pratfalls, which was super fun.

Flynn: I was told about [the episode where JD sees the Janitor while watching The Fugitive] before we shot it and I thought: “This is crazy. What do you mean? That makes my character me.” I thought it was very strange. I don’t know if that’s been done on a TV show before or since – to actually show a clip of the actor playing a different role? Then again, because the Janitor was the way he was, sure – he was in a movie. It didn’t make any sense at all –but OK, yeah. He was an actor for a while.

I felt like the fandom was bigger [in the UK] before it was big in the States ... I think the humour just translated so well

Sarah Chalke

McGinley: The luxury of the musical episode was that we had a week to rehearse and record all those songs. Most of the cast had done musicals, and I think that’s why Billy felt pretty good about doing it. It’s a very ambitious episode. The woman from Avenue Q who came in to play the patient was amazing. She had the most incredible voice, and Zach is great at that stuff. Donald is miraculous, Kenny [Jenkins] is fantastic, Judy was crushing it – that was one of those things where everything that could’ve gone right, went right. Usually it’s the antithesis.

Reyes: Bill came to me and discussed a storyline about Carla becoming a nurse practitioner and it really bothered me. I was like “Why? She’s a nurse – that’s the point of who she is, and just because she’s a nurse doesn’t make any doctor better than her. She’s really good at it.” He totally got it, which I so appreciated. We even touched upon that idea in one of my favourite episodes, where JD picks up on it. We were touching on the truth of how it works, and the things women and nurses sometimes have to confront with doctors.

Flynn: I thought we handled [revealing the Janitor’s real name] well – and I say “we” because for that last scene where I say his name, we hammered it out together – me and the writers. Yeah, he says his name is “Glenn Matthews”, but immediately after someone else says “Hey, Johnny” and I say “Hey, what’s up”, so it appears that he’s quite likely lying. Towards the end, I thought it would turn out that he worked for the CIA or something – which is totally possible. I could’ve ended the last episode by jumping into a helicopter and disappearing into the sky. People would say, “I guess that makes sense” – because nothing makes sense.

‘The Janitor became a very unusual person that just happened to have a blue-collar job’: Neil Flynn in ‘Scrubs'

There were also moments of genuine friendship and unexpected heart – plus guest appearances from stars including Ryan Reynolds, Elizabeth Banks, Brendan Frasier, Heather Graham and more…

Chalke: Zach and Donald’s best-friendship in real life and on the show is the best example of [the writers being inspired by off-screen chemistry]. It was so sweet and cool to watch because they truly are best friends in real life, and all that stuff got written in. Donald and I had a handshake that we kept adding to – it was about three-and-a-half minutes long. Bill saw us do it one day and said: “OK, we’re putting that in the show.” If the writers asked what you did that weekend, you’d tell them a story and read about it in the next episode. You had to be careful what you shared.

Reyes: [On Carla’s relationship with Turk] I absolutely adore Donald. He’s the type of person where we just felt like we’d known each other forever. One of the first scenes we had was a kissing scene. I kissed him for real and he completely busted me about it – “You put your tongue in my mouth!” I was like: “Oh my God. Just for that, I’m never going to kiss you for real again.” The fact that he teased the s*** out of me for it was even better. We could do anything around each other and that’s exactly how it grew. We were always goofing around – and goofing around too much, where I had to roll my eyes and be like, “Alright!” It felt natural to inject that into the character.

McGinley: I had Max on my shoulder every second of every day on that set – and any time I found a second for his voice to be felt, that was my truth. It was a brand new, really scary period of my life, and I was OK sharing that fear in front of the lens. Sometimes men compartmentalise or manifest fear or push it away. That resonated for me in a huge way in how I was dealing with the fear of “What is special needs? What is Down’s syndrome?” I wasn’t interested in hiding that. I was living in a great deal of fear. That was a very fragile time, so that’s what I brought to work with me every day.

Chalke: For me, [the show’s emotional depth] was cemented in the fourth episode, “My Old Lady”, where they give us the stat that one out of every three patients admitted to the hospital will die here – and then Turk, JD and Elliot all lose their patients. It set us up for what kind of show it was going to be, and I think Bill got some blowback. I think the network thought that was too much and too sad for a comedy. Bill said: “No, I think it’s important because it’s going to set the tone for what the show is.” That’s the incredible gift of Bill and all his writers: they take you to the point where you’re falling out of your chair laughing, and the next minute you’re brought to tears. A hospital is a neat setting for that.

The cast of ‘Scrubs’ – plus creator Bill Lawrence (second from right) – reunite at the 2018 Vulture Festival

Running for eight seasons on NBC, Scrubs transitioned to ABC with a reduced regular cast and a handful of new recruits for its ninth and final series, before coming to a close in March 2010. However its legacy, and the way it is loved by fans, remains strong...

Chalke: One of the big moments was when we did press in the UK, because I felt like the fandom was bigger there before it was big in the States. I remember we had a much different experience walking in the streets there than we did here. I think the humour just translated so well.

McGinley: I go to Ireland every year with my brothers and I got a sense of it. We went to Dublin one year and it was like being Ringo, John or Paul – it was great. I had done 50, 60 movies by then, and appeared in Academy award-winning films, and they were nothing like this. It was crazy.

Reyes: People can relate to it in so many different ways – particularly during the pandemic. So many things that we touched upon completely resonate with everyone. I think that’s what the fantasies give way to – they give us the freedom to go into everybody’s head, not just JD’s.

Flynn: I was in San Francisco once, at a deli, and a young guy behind me said: “I’m having a surreal moment. I was sick last week and stayed in bed and watched the entire series of Scrubs. Now you’re standing here with me and I feel like I know you.” That kind of thing can happen, where a show has some relevance to someone’s life – or just their week – and means something to them. That means something to me, and it’s nice to be a part of something like that.

Chalke: People really have reached out to let us know when they were going through a hard time, and what a difference Scrubs made to them. We have people reaching out saying “This is why I became a doctor” – actually saving people’s lives instead of us just pretending to. It feels like such an honour.

McGinley: If you’re lucky, every once in a while you get to be part of something that’s really good. There were times on Scrubs where, even though you’re grinding this thing out, working 15-hour days and doing 24 episodes a year, you got to be part of something great – and that sticks, that gets on you. There’s empowerment there. If you get to be part of something that resonates, that’s a big deal – and Scrubs resonated.

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