Tuesday’s "Not Cancer" episode of House, co-written by series creator David Shore, marks the return of Lawrence Kaplow to the writing credits after a season away. Because I've interviewed him twice before, and because he’s one of my favourite writers on one of my all-time favourite shows, House fans might understand why I had to mark the occasion of his first episode back. I'm not sure the man himself understands ("it's not like there was a parade or fireworks"), but he agreed to another interview anyway.
Our first conversation occurred early in the second season, shortly after his heartbreaking and beautifully layered "Autopsy" episode had aired. He proved himself a great interviewee by providing thoughtful responses, raving about Hugh Laurie's performance, and mocking me.
At the time of our second chat, he was putting the final touches on his last episode with the show, the season three finale. By then, Kaplow had won a Writers Guild of America award for "Autopsy," was about to leave House after signing a development deal with another studio, and his heartbreaking and beautifully layered "Half-Wit" episode had recently aired. He solidified his place in my interview hall of fame by sharing insightful anecdotes, refusing to tease the Cameron versus Cuddy factions, and mocking me. (An enjoyment of mockery could be a clue as to why I like House. Or why I should consider therapy.)
Kaplow returned to the medical drama following the writers strike, after his was one of many development contracts cancelled under force majeure clauses. In our third interview, he shared what the show has meant to him, how it feels to be back for the fifth season, and the changes that occurred while he was away. He mostly mocked himself this time, and it turns out that's even more fun for me.
I guess it's been half a year for you now, but welcome back. How did it feel to return?
Thank you. I never really felt that I left, so coming back was sort of coming back home.
That's sweet. But how did it feel like you never really left?
This will sound ridiculous, but I guess I left a part of me in the show. I was invested completely. I love the show. I learned so much from David [Shore]. Since the learning stopped straight away, I had to find other ways to stay in contact with everybody here, which I did. So I always had my fingers around the outside of the pie, and got to watch it from afar. I always felt, not involved with the show, but a relative of the show.
Why did you leave in the first place?
Some would say it was a terrible, terrible mistake [laughs]. No, it was important to me to try. The timing of the strike, that sucked, and I didn't really get a chance to pitch my ideas around town.
House is David's show. We just try to do the best job we can to come close to the vision he created. Fortunately, some of us have similar feelings about the world and are able to do a pretty good job approximating David's vision. He always has amazing notes and ideas and is a tremendous writer. Still, at the end of the day, it's his show. I wanted a chance to try to see what I had. I've always been under his umbrella [previously on Family Law and Hack], which has been amazing, but I don't really know what I can do. Given the framework of House, I get to put some of my ideas in, but I never really expressed myself without limitation. What would that look like? I wanted to try. And so I did. And the Lord God smiteth me.
What can you say about your first episode back ["Not Cancer"]? I know this is the one that introduces the potential spin-off character, the private investigator. How did that come about?
It originated when David and I were going to write it together, so we were bouncing around ideas. Originally he was thinking about doing another lecture and calling it "Three More Stories," and I thought that was fantastic. From there, it became a story in flashback and present day, how House met Wilson the first time, how they became friends, with the parallel to how they were apart now. It was an ambitious idea that was extremely complicated, and the whiteboards were full of all sorts of insanity. Then, ultimately, David wanted to find maybe a new friend for House, since Wilson wasn't available. We kept the medical stories in an abbreviated way and went from there.
What are you working on now?
I was looking forward to writing with a bunch of different people this year, and one I've wanted to write with probably since the beginning is David Foster, who is the doctor on staff. We always hammered out really cool stories and have worked together unofficially not only on our stories, but on everyone else's stories, so this was a chance for us to go crazy.
We wrote four outlines that were all rejected, which was the first time in five years I'd ever had a story rejected. It was so humbling to hear, "Well, I don't really like the idea." "What? Of course you like the idea!" That was something, because we came up with four different medical stories, which isn't easy on this show, and we did it really fast. They were all different and fun and I'm looking forward to writing all of them eventually.
Then we found this one story that really works well. I can't let out what happens between our characters because the stories have gotten really busy with that sort of stuff, but the medical story is pretty cool and addresses some of the philosophical issues that House seems … um … I want to say prone? Leans toward? Can you come up with a better word? Fix it for me?
[I laugh.] OK then.
You can print all that if you want. I'm better with my fingers. I can't really talk.
Oh, you are so full of shit.
Print that, too.
[OK, but of course what I'd meant to say is "I disagree, Mr. Kaplow; as you know, I think you are quite articulate."] When is this episode going to air?
It's episode 13.
When you were writing the season three finale [with the departure of House’s original team], did you know then what was going to happen afterward, with the Survivor arc?
We had talked about it before I left. We didn't know who those characters were yet, but we knew that was how it was going to work, that we were going to do Survivor for seven episodes or something like that.
Has it been an adjustment to write for the expanded ensemble?
Yes, it was like coming into a new show. It was really hard writing the first episode back. The others had been with these characters for a year — well, a truncated year because of the strike, but 16 episodes, so they had a feeling for them. I came in almost like any new writer coming into a show. The structure of the show had changed. It's still the same show — I mean, there's still a mystery, someone's about to die, and House either solves it or doesn't solve it in the end. And it's primarily about House with these satellites of other characters. But with all these new people, I think in a good way it infused life into a show where we knew the characters who were already there. We gave House new shiny toys to play with.
If you had to pick one of the new characters, which do you find most intriguing?
The dead one. We explored her in a way we didn't with the other characters. In a way, we know her the best because of her relationship with Wilson and everything that happened in the finale with House. That exploration will happen now this year with the others.
Kal Penn's character name [Lawrence Kutner] sounds vaguely familiar. Is that a coincidence?
You’ll have to get that from someone else. [Or I could just put the "no comment" out there for interpretation.]
How do you see the old team fitting into the ensemble now? Is it different to write for them?
Oddly, yeah, they're completely different. Well, no. Yes. How was that? Did your head just come off? It is different because we're not with them so much, and yet when we do write for them, they have new roles. In this really odd way they're like the old guard. It's just funny how there's the new team and the old team and how they interact.
You always wonder what happened before the Big Bang. Just imagine that House probably had team after team after team to do his bidding, so you wonder how many are out there that have been just destroyed by him.
You think he's a destructive force? You don't think they've gone on to be these brilliant, world-famous doctors who sprouted wings under him?
I think it depends on the strength of the character. I think for some, he destroyed, and for some, if they survived, they became stronger. If you look at Foreman, I think Foreman's much stronger. And in some ways, Cameron and Chase are stronger for their time with House. They've all become better doctors and they all know themselves a lot better. So I don't think it's a destructive force. I think it's only a destructive force if the character lets it be.
Do you think House himself is in a different place from when you left?
TV characters don't change. Has he changed? [Ponders.]
You obviously don't feel a huge adjustment if you have to think about it.
He definitely is in a different place. Now, does that mean he's a different person? No. House will always be House. We'll put a lot of obstacles in his path. We'll throw a lot of people at him, a lot of unusual conditions, and it's always fun to see how he treats ordinary circumstances — it always has some Housian spin on it. But essentially he's the same person. Because who would want to turn it into House being, I don't know, pick somebody. If House were suddenly David Caruso, if House were suddenly Kiefer Sutherland, who's going to tune in to that show? [Gruff voice:] "Put the scalpel down."
Funny, Hugh Laurie said something about the Emmys recently, about how it's ridiculous that you're comparing completely different performances and it would be better if everyone played Jack Bauer for a week. So if you did do that, then you could compare. [Kaplow and I spoke a couple of days before the awards ceremony.]
I agree with that. The whole thing is ridiculous anyway. Who's the objectively better actor? What's the objectively better show? According to what?
Oh, there's no "objective" about it.
Exactly. Any sort of accolade we get is gravy. The most important thing is we get to write a show that we're proud of.
And see all the pretty Emmy dresses.
And see all the pretty Emmy dresses.
House airs Tuesdays at 8 pm on FOX.