You’ve probably seen those new promos for Franklin & Bash on TNT—with Zach Morris and the guy from Clueless in a hot tub wearing suits—and wondered what those guys are doing on a TNT, the network whose slogan is “we know drama.” Well, Bill Chais succeeded in his lifelong quest to bring bromance to your television. Along with his co-creator and good buddy, Kevin Falls, Bill Chais brings us a show that was pitched as “Superbad” at a law firm. Though he actually hates the term bromance, Bill has always been fascinated by the concept, and counts Cheech and Chong, Bill and Ted, and the Apatow movies as his inspiration for being a writer.
After a stint as a public defender and then starting his own firm with a close friend, Bill stumbled into a job as a legal consultant on a show called Family Law, where he got to work under Academy Award winner Paul Haggis. After toiling for all of one week, they liked him so much, he was offered a job as a full-time staff writer. From there, he went on to carve a very successful niche as the go-to-guy for law shows (The Practice, Shark, Head Cases). He expanded his repertoire with Dirty Sexy Money and the cop show Memphis Beat, and now he is getting the chance to showcase his talents with the buddy legal dramedy, Franklin & Bash. I haven’t seen it yet, but I can tell you it’s not your typical law show: we will see an episode with a topless girl on the witness stand, Malcolm McDowell letting loose, and Tommy Chong playing a hard-nose judge who hates weed on their “420 episode.” In a town where too many people take themselves way too seriously, Bill Chais really seems to be having fun. Oh and he still pops into court from time to time to handle a case.
Thanks for taking the time, Bill. Let’s start at the beginning. Law school, year and first job?
Pepperdine Law out in Malibu, class of 1986. Yes I’m that old. My first job was with the LA County Public Defenders Office.
So you’re from LA and you ended up being a TV producer, how did that not happen right away?
When I got out of college, I was at Berkeley, I came back to LA with a vague idea that I would get in entertainment. So I got a job as an assistant and was sort of on the path of moving ahead and I just decided I didn’t like it, and like so many other people who went to law school, I basically went there because it gave me 3 years to figure out what I wanted to do.
I think many of our readers can relate to that. So then while you were in law school applying for a first job did you already have it in your head that you were going to cross over to TV land? Or did you plan on getting on the law path?
I did plan on being a lawyer and I was a public defender. I used to do trials all the time, really being in the trenches. It gave me great stories for meetings later on, but it was also a great experience. Then I got out on my own, started my own practice.
What kind of practice?
Criminal defense with some plaintiffs work in there. One of the really great things was I hooked up with a buddy of mine and we became law partners. Fine and Chais.
Is that where the name for Franklin and Bash came from?
I don’t know. Maybe. All I ever wanted to do in life was work with buddies, have that kind of fun, bro kind of energy . . . and I had it working with my friend. But the weird thing about being a criminal defense lawyer is, the more accomplished you become the more heinous the cases you handle are.
So eventually the mob bosses come and say we need to see Bill Chais.
I wish it were that colorful. This is about as serious as I will get in this interview, but I ended up handling a really hard-core, really ugly death penalty murder case, I did my job, even though the guy is on death row now . . .
Yikes, he’s alive, so I guess you did your job?
He’s alive for now . . . but somewhere inside during that trial, I had this realization that I needed to do something else.
So the way I got into writing and ultimately producing was totally happenstance. I knew I wanted to change careers. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and a friend of a friend was handling the divorce of a guy who was starting a TV show about lawyers.
They wanted a lawyer around to be a network consultant or whatever for the legal jargon of the show. And I went and he ended up being my first boss. His name was Paul Haggis, he ended up going on to win Academy Awards. He wrote Crash, Million Dollar Baby, etc. He was a great boss to have.
Wow . . . so what did you do as a consultant?
I was initially brought on as a technical consultant for the show, and after a week or so they liked the input and they liked the energy I was bringing, and I started to pitch story ideas. I had been an English major in college, and in law school I wrote a decent, but not great, spec of law and order and they asked if by any chance do you have any thing you’ve written we can look at. I said sure. They read it and then said ok you’re not a consultant on the show, you’re a writer on the show and when I tell my fellow writer friends they want to kill me.
Of course they do.
I had a job as a writer before I even knew I wanted to be a writer. It was great.
What was this first show?
This was a CBS show called Family Law. Before I talk about the show, my bosses were Paul Haggis, Ann Kenney who is great. David Shore, who created House, was on the show.
Wow. That’s quite a start. So lets backtrack a second. You got the job, but you were still practicing with your buddy? You said goodbye Franklin, its just Bash now?
Ha, kind of, I did still have my practice and I was kind of wrapping up my practice as I was going into work every day to Family Law. You can see I’m dressed kind of schlumpy now, but I would come to the writers room in a suit, I would go to court in the morning and come to work in a suit so there was a definite transition period but I shut down my practice pretty quickly.
Were you the only lawyer on staff?
Yes, I was, and that has really changed. I thought that was such cool pedigree, look at me I’m a lawyer and a writer. Now you can’t throw a rock without hitting some kind of hyphenate.
Ouch. I mean I’m still hoping it’s somewhat cool?
Its been really, really useful.
That show lasted 3 years. Where did you go from there?
I went to the Practice, which was an interesting experience. I have great admiration for David E. Kelley. The year I was there, He really wrote nearly all the episodes.
You hear those stories about him controlling everything, so that’s not a myth?
He is the Wizard of Oz. In a way it’s frustrating but you just have to shrug your shoulders. In the year I was there he wrote 18 of 22 episodes that session.
Other than working under the Wizard of Oz, what other things did you pick up on the Practice maybe helped your career?
First of all, I think that was a nice credit, I wasn’t on very long, but I think I learned a lesson after that season. I told you how easy it was at first and then with the Practice, I thought, ooh this TV thing is easy, you just go and you meet with someone and you get a job. Then all of the sudden for the very first time I didn’t get a job right away and I was upset about that. An agent friend of mine said “shut up stop whining, you’re a writer. There’s not a situation you can’t write your way out of. So shut up and write something.” So, I said, ok, that seemed logical. So I did. What I wrote was a pilot that ended up getting bought by Fox and put on the air.
This was Head Cases…I did a little research.
You would have to do some research to find Head Cases. It was cancelled after two episodes.
Tell me about that show?
Well, it’s not too dissimilar to Franklin & Bash. I feel like I could teach a class on the idea of the bromance. I hate the word, but I love the genre. Going back through Cheech and Chong, Bill and Ted, now recently, the Judd Apatow thing, I’ve always felt very comfortable writing that kind of stuff.
I don’t think you hear a lot of higher ups admitting to loving and being inspired by Bill and Ted?
I love that stuff. Speaking of Cheech and Chong, it was a real honor on Franklin & Bash, we had our kind of 420, weed episode, and so there was a no tolerance judge who was a hardass about pot and we got Tommy Chong to play the part. I got to meet a real comedy hero of mine.
That’s amazing. Did you guys get high in the van together?
No. We did not, but “Up in Smoke” is a great movie.
So back to Head Cases. That must have been exciting and deflating at the same time to have your own show and then have it go away so quickly.
Very much so. By the way I still think it was a big shot in the arm for my career. It’s this huge ego thing, it’s hard. The narcissism that is attached to pitching something in the writer’s room or to an executive reminds me of being up in front of a jury.
So from there were onto the next legal show, Shark.
That was a really fun show, a pretty straight CBS procedural. The creator was a really smart guy Ian Biederman. I got to know James Woods pretty well, too.
That’s pretty much what everyone wants to know about, tell us about you and James Woods.
Its funny actually, the creator and Jimmy–
I wanna call him Jimmy too.
The creator and Jimmy didn’t get along and so there needed to be sort of an intermediary.
Personality clashes? Was it just two big egos? It wasn’t Lorre-Sheen level was it?
No, it felt like it was always about a vision for the show, it wasn’t about stupid stuff. I don’t want to tell any stories out of school, but the reason I mention it was because Jimmy and I became total buds.
The bromance with Jimmy Woods began. I’m jealous! By my count you’ve have worked on at least 5 legal shows. Is this a conscious choice of let me stick to my bread and butter, is it my agent is telling me this, at this point are you the writer who does legal shows?
It’s something I have struggled with and still do, part of why I like being on Memphis Beat is that it’s a cop show. I have a pretty good calling card so then I think do I really want to be pigeon holed? It’s not a bad pigeon-hole. So, I have to write another pilot and I’m going through the process again I’m thinking do I really want to do another law show and if so do I want to write something less bromance and more serious. It’s a good question. It’s an ongoing internal debate.
Let’s talk about Franklin & Bash.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Bill Chais. While you wait, here’s a preview of Franklin & Bash, which premieres on Wednesday, June 1st, at 9/8c on TNT: