The TV Doctors Will See You Now: Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Scrubs
Scrubs took the medical TV genre by storm when it first aired, officially kicking the concept of "medical drama" to the curb in favor of a much lighter — okay, downright hilarious — approach. Serious medical conditions were addressed on the show, but not in the way TV fans had come to expect — and they loved it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many new viewers are turning to Scrubs as a way to break free of the real fear and seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis.
Existing fans were delighted in March 2020 to hear the cast would be remotely reuniting on two of its stars’ — Zach Braff and Donald Faison — new podcast, Real Friends, Fake Doctors. Throughout the unique (and hilarious) podcast episodes, Scrubs’ former cast members share their fondest memories of the show. They have also revealed some interesting and hysterical behind-the-scenes secrets. Let’s take a look — stat!
From Waiting Tables to Watching Yourself on TV
When Zach Braff landed an audition for the affable young doctor, J.D. Dorian, he was waiting tables at a French-Vietnamese restaurant in Beverly Hills. He had starred in a couple of indie films before landing the role, but very few hungry patrons recognized him or even gave him more than a glance.
As he noted in "My First Day," the name of the first episode of Fake Doctors, Real Friends, "Only in Hollywood can you go see a movie and then have the star of the movie wait on you for dessert." Don't feel bad for him, though. At least the experience proved inspirational and influenced the plot for Garden State.
Not as Simple as a Single Audition
Some tales of Hollywood fame and success revolve around one lucky break that went exceptionally well for a rising star. That wasn’t the case for Zach Braff. He auditioned several times for the role of Dr. Dorian before the producers were convinced. His first audition was filmed in New York, and even Braff says he would label it "underwhelming."
Upon returning to Los Angeles, his agent contacted him and encouraged him to re-audition for the part. Considering he didn’t even receive a response to the first audition, it’s more than a little amazing that he was allowed to give it another shot. Braff tried again (and again), ultimately making it through about six auditions before landing the part. That's dedication!
Very Close Call in Early Casting
Donald Faison's auditioning process was a lot shorter than Braff's. In fact, it was almost too short. On an episode of Fake Doctors, Real Friends, Faison recalled that he thought his first and second auditions went off without a hitch, and he felt like he was "crushing it."
In truth, Bill Lawrence — one of the primary producers behind Scrubs — shared that Faison actually bombed his auditions and was almost cut from casting. Lawrence advised Faison at the time to "bring it down a little bit," and Faison quickly complied. The end result landed him the coveted role of Dr. Christopher Turk.
Unique Location for Filming
The pilot episode of Scrubs was filmed in a real hospital in Burbank, California. After that, most of the episodes in the show’s nine seasons were shot in a decommissioned hospital in Valley Village, California. All the sets and areas needed to create the show, from the dressing rooms and writing offices to the hospital room and surgical suite sets, were inside this hospital.
Even the sets for other interior locations, such as J.D.'s apartment, were housed in the massive hospital building. In contrast, the very last season of Scrubs was filmed on a backlot movie studio using elaborate sets. This change didn't please many fans, who claimed to easily tell the difference.
Backwards Approach to Humor
Every Scrubs fan remembers how the intro sequence ends — with Dr. Dorian hanging an x-ray with the title of the show stamped across ghostly images of vertebrae in what looks like a pelvis. Only medical professionals would have caught that he positioned the x-ray backwards. Was it deliberate or accidental?
Well, this small detail certainly seems to annoy health care professionals to no end, but Braff and the producers laugh it off as a tribute to the humor of the show. Hanging the x-ray backwards makes a lot of sense when you think about the spirit of the show and the general silliness of the show's doctors.
The Case of the Stubborn Baby Teeth
It’s a rare issue, but Donald Faison didn't lose his "baby teeth" until he was well into adulthood — although he did lose his hair when he was still a teenager. To mask his tiny teeth, he often wore fake metal braces. In the first season, the decision was made to ditch those braces.
During the course of the show, Faison opted for dental surgery to remove his baby teeth and replace them. It's a sensitive subject for the actor, and he was hesitant to open up about it at first, even with longtime friend Zach Braff. No judgments here, Don!
A Little Improv Makes a Big Difference
John C. McGinley famously played the sadistic and uptight Dr. Cox on Scrubs. Fans loved him — or loved to hate him — but most aren’t aware of just how much of the character came from the talent of McGinley and not the writers. A lot of Dr. Cox's absurdity comes from his improvised mannerisms and ad-libbed jokes.
Everything from his characteristic head scratch to his bizarre jokes and introductions were on-the-spot improvisations created by the actor. His over-the-top additions proved to be so successful that he was encouraged to keep up with the persona in future episodes, and those elements became a core part of the character’s identity.
Taking It Off for the Camera
Hindsight is 20/20, or so they say. When Braff and Faison reminisce about their auditions and their early filming experiences for Scrubs, they occasionally circle back to just how sexual the show was at times. Of course, as long as you aren’t watching with young children in the room — the show isn’t generally kid-friendly — you may not have a problem with that.
Still, the show pushed the limits for television in the early 2000s. In a bit of a twist, however, Faison has pointed out that most of the nudity in scenes was male nudity, not female. In one anecdote, Faison recalled having to wear a sock around his member while walking through a parking lot during filming.
The Imaginary Janitor
If you’re a die-hard fan of Scrubs, you may have heard that the hilarious janitor on the show was supposed to be a figment of J.D.'s imagination. It’s not clear what was behind the original thinking to make the janitor fake, but the show’s writers decided to scrap the imaginary janitor idea after the first season.
The change of heart was mostly because they believed it would completely change how the audience viewed J.D.'s mental health and his ability to practice medicine, and that wasn’t what they were trying to do. They also recognized that Neil Flynn, the actor who played the janitor, was simply too funny to be imaginary or expendable.
Just Like Kissing an Ashtray
Although J.D. and Turk may have had a bromance made in heaven, Turk's relationship with his longtime lover, Carla, was far more dynamic, relatable and intense. Their scenes together inspired thousands of real-life couples to keep the flame alive. Behind the scenes, the build up to the kissing scenes was anything but hot. Judy Reyes, the actress who played Carla, smoked cigarettes before filming the scenes.
Faison has joked that this was because acting should be a challenge, and Reyes simply wanted to challenge his skills. We’re not sure if that’s true or not, but it does seem to be a fairly common practice among thespians. Maybe it’s a bit of a defense mechanism to minimize their appeal before fake making out with a coworker.
Taking the Work Out of Pet Care
When producer Bill Lawrence introduced Braff and Faison to a famously deadpan dog — okay, really just dead dog — named Rowdy, the actors were more than a little weirded out. Let’s just say working with a taxidermied golden retriever is sure to be a bit tricky. Even stranger, Braff, in particular, became attached to the stuffed pup during the nine seasons the show was on the air.
Sadly, the Scrubs star wasn't allowed to keep Rowdy when filming was completed. When asked why Turk and J.D. owned a "fake" dog, Lawrence explained that medical students don't have time to take care of a real dog, and the stuffed version was a valid substitute. He’s not wrong, but it was still an incredibly odd choice, even for such a unique show.
Turning Up the Heat
To minimize unwanted outdoor light and interference from exterior sounds, the crew built the sets for Scrubs in the basement of the deserted hospital. You know what that means, right? Yep, nearly the entire show takes place in an old, semi-abandoned hospital basement. Not creepy at all, right?
Well, the stars didn’t have much energy to worry about the creepiness of it all. They were too busy worrying about staying comfortable while filming in a stuffy basement with poor cooling and ventilation systems. Both Braff and Faison remember sweat constantly pouring off them. During the brief moments when the cameras were off, the entire crew rushed to cool themselves off with personal air conditioning units. Obviously, filming in the summer was the worst.
Doing a Little Spooning on Set
Donald Faison was already a father of two when he was cast as Dr. Turk. He had a lot of life and career experience behind him, including a notable role in the 1995 film Clueless. In spite of all that, it took a special snuggle scene in one of the earliest episodes of Scrubs for Faison to realize he had a lot to learn about the art of spooning.
While filming a scene with co-star Judy Reyes, Faison realized for the first time that spooning involves both a "big spoon" and a "little spoon." Even better, he realized he could occasionally be the little spoon, and he claims it changed his life forever — for the better, we assume.
Masking Up Long Before COVID-19
Medical workers across the world have praised Scrubs for portraying a fairly realistic picture of what it's like to work in a hospital — from a medical perspective. This includes the detail that surgeons and doctors in hospitals often wear masks while working, and they don’t usually remove them to speak.
Many television shows about medical professionals leave the actors’ faces unmasked to make it easier to see their emotions. When Faison and Braff realized they would have to act "through" their surgical masks, it inspired them to up their acting game by 100%. While it was an initial challenge, it proved to be a fantastic acting workout. In a post-COVID-19 pandemic world, the entire world can appreciate the difficulty involved in working under those conditions.
A Pleasant Surprise
When Bill Lawrence picked up the show and began filming, his focus was on the little details, rather than the broad picture. He admits that he didn't really expect the show to last more than a few episodes or a season. Shows taking a similar approach, such as Arrested Development, weren't pulling in strong viewer numbers at the time.
However, Scrubs scored almost 12 million viewers by the end of the first season. It also earned two Emmy nominations, cementing its reputation as a new, up-and-coming hit show that boasted quality as well as comedy. Surprising or not, viewers quickly realized the show was worth watching.
Following in the Footsteps of a Real Person
While Braff played the fictional John Michael Dorian (J.D.) on Scrubs, a real-life J.D. was working his butt off as a legitimate doctor. Producer Bill Lawrence's best buddy throughout college was a medical student named Jonathan Doris. Although he had a heart of gold and plenty of dedication, he struggled to get through his pre-med track in a timely manner.
Throughout the show, Doris worked closely with Braff to help him understand and replicate medical terminology and techniques. Currently, the real J.D. is in Los Angeles, doing his part to help fight and treat COVID-19.
Off to a Slow Start
After the pilot episode was filmed and accepted by the network, the actors had to wait several months before filming on the show began. While this sent Faison into an anxious tizzy, it proved to be beneficial for co-star Braff. During the several months of downtime, he quit his restaurant job and wrote the script for Garden State.
As many Scrubs fans know, Garden State helped turn Zach Braff into a household name. However, viewership for Scrubs still dropped significantly after the release of the movie. This had nothing to do with Braff's fame or talent and everything to do with scheduling. More on that later.
A Death in the Family
John Ritter's sudden and tragic death in 2003 put a quick end to his new role as Dr. Dorian's father, Sam Dorian. Ritter, Braff and the entire Scrubs cast only got to enjoy filming two episodes together. The late actor's first appearance on the show featured him on the set of his hit show 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.
Tragically, Ritter's life was cut short due to an undiagnosed aortic dissection that led to his unexpected death. He passed away on September 11, 2003. A little more than a year later, a special episode of Scrubs entitled "My Cake" premiered, honoring Ritter's memory.
More Than One Fan of Improv
While Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) may be known for his blatantly outlandish and often improvised remarks, he wasn't the only one on set who liked to toss out deliciously random and hilarious lines. Most cast members recall Neil Flynn, the actor who played the janitor, doing a lot of ad-libbing and improvising as well.
Of course, Flynn's fantastic comedic timing and naturally deadpan expression helped solidify his position on the show in the first place. It certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of his dialogue came from the actor's own wit and natural charm — plus a natural flair for outrageous story-telling.
Sharing Some Fictional Space
North Hollywood Medical Center was the home of Scrubs for nearly its entire run, but it didn’t operate as a hospital during filming. However, the producers didn’t always have exclusive use of the facility. People may recognize the same hospital from a few other television shows and movies, as it was frequently used by production crews before it was demolished in 2011.
While the site is now home to a set of apartment buildings, the former hospital served as a set location for other popular television shows, including The Office, Children's Hospital, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Although it reached the end of its run years before in the real world, this hospital remained swamped for many years in terms of fictional ailments and illnesses.
Creating One Big, Happy Family
Scrubs filmed for nearly a decade, and with the exception of a small number of cast members, most of the actors stayed with the show for the entire nine-year run. When you spend that much time with the same group of people, it's easy to bond and form long-lasting relationships. That was certainly true for the Scrubs cast.
Unlike some sitcoms and dramatic television shows, Scrubs seemed to unite and solidify the cast behind the scenes, turning them into a lifelong makeshift family. That's probably why Braff and Faison's new podcast is so entertaining and feels so natural. They have never stopped being friends, and the dynamic comes across as very genuine.
Donald Faison can thank co-star and lifelong buddy Zach Braff for introducing him to his wife, CaCee Cobb. When they were at a party together, Braff noticed a cute blonde who kept looking Faison's way, so he decided to be the best wingman ever. He approached the young woman and told her that his friend really wanted to ask her out.
Cobb's initial response was utterly hilarious, and it nearly embarrassed Faison into simply giving up on going out with her. Fortunately, they were able to turn the situation around with Braff's help, and Faison and Cobb were married in 2012. They now have two children together.
Getting a Second Opinion
Dr. Jon Doris wasn't the only medical professional hired to keep the cast acting, speaking, looking and thinking like real doctors. Overall, Scrubs had several doctors, nurses and other health professionals keeping tabs on the content and acting to make sure everything was as legitimate as possible. The only thing the producers wanted blown out of proportion was the humor.
It's fascinating to think about how easy it would have been for Bill Lawrence to take the easy route and ignore actual medical practices while developing the show. After all, the primary point was always comedy. Instead, he faced everything head-on and won the respect of millions of loyal viewers. Scrubs is a show that truly celebrates health care professionals and workers in the most uplifting way possible — with humor.
Extras No One Will Ever Forget
Sometimes, background actors do an extra-good job and become long-term residents on a TV set. Doctor Beardface and Snoop Dogg Intern were beloved minor characters, but they didn't start out that way. These seemingly random and nameless medical professionals were actually extras that were too good to go unnoticed.
Their names came from the real nicknames given to them on set by fellow cast members and the crew. So, the next time you're watching and happen to see Colonel Doctor, you might want to take another moment to appreciate just how extra that background actor really was.
Keeping It Real
As any fan of Scrubs can tell you, Dr. Cox is a force to be reckoned with on the show. While a certain amount of the credit for the amazing character goes to the exceptional writers, a lot of Dr. Cox's personality and intensity are hyperbolic representations of John C. McGinley's real nature and demeanor.
When McGinley was younger, he played cowardly, devious Sergeant O'Neill in the 1986 film Platoon. One of his memorable lines from the film is "What do you say there, Bob?" He makes sure to say it as often as possible throughout the movie. What does that have to do with Scrubs? Dr. Cox also uses the phrase as a humorous throwback to his Platoon character.
Stunt Doubles in Love
Season two's seventh episode features an unforgettable moment of growth for both J.D. and Elliot. They decide to bungee jump together, and the result is magical, pure and more than a little romantic. Of course, Braff and Chalke aren't really the ones dangling from a bridge during the scene.
While acknowledging this truth is a little deflating, especially when you consider what that moment means to the characters, there is a silver lining. The stunt doubles in the scene met for the first time on the day of filming, and they are now happily married with children of their own.
The Most Difficult Roles to Play
Donald Faison discussed which roles he felt were the most challenging to portray in the first episode of Real Friends, Fake Doctors. His chemistry with Braff seemed to make his role as Dr. Turk incredibly easy to get into and play.
As a result, Faison feels that the burden of harder acting for the show really fell on the shoulders of Judy Reyes (Carla) and Ken Jenkins (Bob Kelso). Jenkins had to play the "likable villain" in a way that would inspire viewers to truly like him, and Reyes had to play the all-loving, long-suffering work-mom for the group. Both roles required a huge level of expertise and dedication as well as an understanding of character nuances.
Putting on Their Lucky Outfits
Sarah Chalke (Elliot) and Zach Braff (J.D.) both repeatedly wore the same outfits every time they were called back for another audition for Scrubs. Chalke remembers wearing a pair of jeans with a huge belt, and both have admitted that wearing the same clothing wasn't the only superstition they followed.
They also both listened to the same songs before the auditions, and Braff even committed to performing the same routine before each audition. While part of this is pure superstition, of course, some of it comes from the process of method acting. Getting into the right "headspace" for a character often involves committing to repetitious routines.
The Reason It All Ended
Numbers mean everything in the world of television, and the number of people watching Scrubs fell from about 10.4 million during the third season to only about 6 million by the fourth season. These numbers were a tell-tale sign of the tragic slide in viewership for one of NBC's most beloved shows. While the writing remained strong throughout the show’s history, the broadcasting time slot did not.
Viewers and fans were confused and uncertain about when — and sometimes if — Scrubs would air. For reasons only the network could know, NBC did not keep the show scheduled to air during a consistent time frame, and the ratings plummeted. After the Writers Guild Strike and the switch to ABC, there was no going back.
The Mysterious Case of Disappearing Cast Members
During the final six seasons of Scrubs, the cast managed to stick together and support each other, even when things got more than a little crazy on set and behind the scenes. However, when the decision was made to switch the show from NBC to ABC, a couple of cast members were left out in the cold.
Masi Oka and Sarah Lancaster were both cut from the show. They didn't do anything wrong or anything to deserve the abrupt dismissal. The decision was handed down by executives who simply didn’t want all the former NBC stars to remain on the show.