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How Fake Doctors, Real Friends With Zach Braff and Donald Faison Became a Quarantine Hit

Zach Braff and Donald Faison get in depth with E! News about how their podcast Fake Doctors, Real Friends has evolved over the past six months.

By Lauren Piester Sep 25, 2020 2:36 AMTags
Fake Doctors, Real FriendsiHeartRadio

"Ladies and gentlemen, little did she know but welcome to the show, Lauren Piester!"

That's how Donald Faison, in his standard Oprah voice, introduced me when I thought I was signing on to be a silent observer on the Tuesday, Sept. 15 episode of the iHeartRadio podcast Fake Doctors, Real Friends. I had been thinking I'd just get to sit there for an hour and watch my fake podcast friends record the show before our real post-podcast interview, but instead I was on the show itself, not even totally sure that I was until about 20 minutes in. That's how chill Fake Doctors, Real Friends is—you might be on the podcast, or you might not, and it might not even matter.

Donald and his best friend and former Scrubs co-star Zach Braff started the show at the end of March, just a few weeks after the coronavirus pandemic had shut down much of the United States. It was meant to be a show sort of in the vein of Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey's Office Ladies podcast, in which the two friends would rewatch episodes of Scrubs and share behind-the-scenes stories.

Six months later, you could say Fake Doctors, Real Friends is that and so much more.

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"When I heard Office Ladies, I just didn't think we would be able to be so methodical," Zach told E! News, referring to Jenna and Angela's meticulous note card and fast fact formula. "We can just kind of go wherever we want. Sometimes we end up talking about the episode more, sometimes we barely do. When we started, I don't think we knew what It was gonna be, but as it's become more and more popular, we were just like, ‘Well, let's not fix anything that's not broken.' Let's just keep doing what people are responding to, which is basically just the four of us sitting around shooting the s—t."   

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At this point, the show very much is about Donald, Zach and their producers Joelle Monique and Dan Goodman (who they call Danl based on his social media handles) "shooting the s—t." Tangents jump from Star Wars (Donald and Joelle's favorite topic) to politics to whatever movie Zach is currently writing to whatever hobby Donald is currently exploring. It's a group of people who sound comfortable with each other, who like each other, and who always sound genuinely happy to be together on a Zoom call, which is delightful given the fact that only Zach and Donald knew each other beforehand. The four of them have spent quarantine bonding over the podcast, creating a community of fans and listeners for whom the bonding is a lot more one-sided but still very present.  

"I think one of the reasons this is working is that I think people are really isolated right now," Zach said. "And this is like a little mini silly club, and it's free."

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If I've gotten used to my weeks in quarantine being structured by two episodes of Fake Doctors, Real Friends, then other fans certainly have too. The episode I was part of was the first one back after a weeklong break—only the podcast's second break since it debuted—and the fan response to the time off was unexpectedly intense. As the keeper of the fan emails, Joelle took the brunt of it. 

"When we took this week off, I got so many—I wouldn't say angry, but like, ‘Where are you? What am I gonna do without you guys this week?'" she said. "I'm like, ‘Go listen to an old episode you haven't listened to in a while! I'm so sorry! We'll be back as soon as we can!'"

For Donald, that response is just so gratifying.

"That felt good, you know what I mean?" he said (and that's one "you know what I mean," for those keeping track of Donald's favorite phrase). "It wasn't just a few people. A lot of people were like, ‘What the f—k am I gonna do today?' And selfishly, that made me feel good. It was like, ‘Wow, I'm so much a part of your everyday ritual on Tuesdays and Thursdays that the fact that I'm not going to be on this week, the fact that Joelle, Zach, Danl and myself aren't going to be on this week, throws a monkey wrench into your program is one of the biggest forms of flattery.'"

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That said, those messages gave Donald a moment of pause.

"It threw a lot of anxiety my way like, dude, am I letting the fans down by not doing this? Did we make a mistake by not doing this? Did we mess up our momentum?" he said. "Because at the end of the day, we started this truly for the fans, and what's come out of it is something incredible."

Below, Zach, Donald, Joelle and Dan explore exactly what it is that makes Fake Doctors, Real Friends so incredible.

The Fans and the F—ked Ups

The podcast has been welcoming fan callers for months now, but the Sept. 15 episode was the first one that really didn't go as planned. It was supposed to be a fun birthday surprise for a doctor in a hospital, but it didn't seem to be much of a surprise, and the caller missed her cue. Zach, Donald, Joelle, Dan and I ended up staring at an empty hospital breakroom for several minutes.

When she finally got to ask a question, the only one she could come up with to ask was whether or not the cast had hooked up with each other offscreen (which Zach and Donald declined to answer).

"Yeah, that is not usually how the guest goes," Zach said as soon as the podcast was no longer recording. "They're usually excited and have something to say. They're usually stoked to be here."

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There was a brief mention of cutting the fan segment, but that was quickly nixed. Not a lot gets cut from this show. 

"I like the vibe of sort of showing the seams of the show [even when] it's like that was f--ked up," Zach continued. "Because I feel like it's relatable. No matter what you do in your life, you're like, ‘Oh, that's not how I wanted that to turn out.' I think people just relate to that. We're just four friends hanging out and s--t gets f--ked up. I think it's better to have mistakes happen."  

Usually, the fan segments end up taking Zach and Donald on a fun journey, especially after they incorporated the segment "Fix Your Life," where guests can ask them for random life advice. But they've definitely started to notice people reaching for new questions and are always hoping somebody comes up with something new.

"I mean, how many more Scrubs questions can we answer?" Zach said. "I always try and listen to the show from the audience perspective and like, we've heard those 20 questions already."

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Donald particularly likes sharing what life was like when Scrubs was filming.

"We have some people come on that want to ask straight up about certain scenes and certain episodes, but it's always fun to have somebody that wants to know what we were doing while making the show," he said. "To take what Will Smith says in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, our lives got flipped, turned upside down by the show at this point. By this moment in season two, we were a bona fide hit. We were very young, like 26, 27, and it was very easy to get caught up in what Hollywood was. It's really interesting and a lot more fun to answer those questions."

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It's Joelle's job to sift through the many, many emails from fans hoping to ask their own question on the podcast—some of whom send messages daily, like one lucky fan who eventually, finally got to be on one episode.  

"I'll read anywhere from 10 to 15 emails a day and star the ones that I really like," she explained. "Usually what pops out are either really great questions or good causes. I'm such a softie, I love a surprise."

That day's guest was supposed to be a fun birthday surprise, and while it didn't work out that way, many others have. Donald got to inform one fan that his wife was pregnant, which annoyed Zach because he wanted to be the one to break the news. 

"Typically when you get a surprise, it's like, ‘Oh my god!'" Joelle said. "It takes them a few minutes to compose themselves. It's just so cute."

She doesn't like to prep the fans too much because it's better to get that authentic reaction.

"I try to think of it like when you get a Q&A at a con," she said. "I want to keep that kind of energy where it's a little bit distant, a little bit fresh."

Instagram/Donald Faison

From Producer to Part of the Show

It took a while for producers Dan and Joelle to become a more vocal part of the podcast, and neither of them ever decided it was time to talk more. It just slowly started happening.

"I have nine other shows outside of this show," Joelle said. "Inserting yourself into the thing, it's rare. It's typically like, ‘Here's a quick producer note, please don't mind, let me disappear instantly.' But the more Zach and Donald were just comfortable opening up their space to us…"

Donald interrupted.

"I knew it was real when the two of them bought brand new microphones," he said to much laughter. "When Danl's microphone slid into frame…I was like, ‘Oh s—t, this is something completely different than what I thought we were going to do.'"

But as much as Donald teases, he's happy they're there. 

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"I'm very grateful to have them both with us because they're just as a part of the show as Zach and I are," he said. "When I sit back and go on my Star Wars tangents, it's great to have another person in the room who is willing to go there with me."

While Donald and Joelle are the dreamers, Donald explained, Zach and Dan are the "grounding force" of the show.

"Everybody sort of finds a way to serve their purpose and contribute," Zach added. "There's episodes where Danl and Joelle don't talk that much, where Donald and I just kind of get in the groove, and then there's episodes where they're talking a bunch. It is a bizarre COVID thing where we've all become friends without ever having hung out in real life."

Zach Braff/Instagram

It helps that Joelle and Dan just also know a lot of things about a lot of things.

"Both Danl and Joelle can pontificate on subjects that Donald and I know nothing about," Zach said, explaining that when he doesn't have the words, Joelle and Dan always do. "Donald and I are buddies and we have funny jokes to just shoot the s--t around, but Joelle and Danl's knowledge and their world experience sort of opened up what the show could be."

For Joelle, the job of producing the podcast was both a social gift and a step up for her career. It's her first "solo pod" for iHeartRadio, and she said she's blessed that not only was Dan able to help her, but she ended up with two extremely easygoing hosts.   

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"I had to take somebody who could help me if I get lost, and you know, celebrity clients—you never know what you're going to get when you reach a certain level," she said. "We got two very chill dudes who were just so excited to talk to each other, and that really resonated," she said. "Not everything at work is a joy. Sometimes it's work and you're just trying to get through, but I come here and breathe a big sigh of relief and I get to listen to two buddies have a good time and spend time with Danl, whose face I just adore. It's been a gift."

Donuts, "Deservant," and Docking With Leo

In one episode, Donald used the word "deservant" instead of, perhaps, "deserving." Zach and Joelle made fun of him, but he was sure it was a real word. Whether it was or not, it definitely is now. When the show announced its break, there was really only one correct response.

"You are both deservant of a week off. Enjoy!" one fan wrote.

"Enjoy your 5…6..7..8 days off!" wrote another, referencing the oft-abused cue for the show's catchy theme song. "You are all definitely deservant!" 

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Between those and the recurring bit about Donald's crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and what Zach thinks is a desire to "dock" with him, FDRF is essentially building up its own vocabulary and its own canon. Other podcasts have done the same, but that was also a big part of Scrubs itself.

"Scrubs created all of these sayings—whether it be ‘Eagle' or ‘Chocolate Bear,' and now through this podcast, the show lives on," Donald said. "‘Deservant,' which is a word that I made up, is now in the Scrubs vernacular but was never in Scrubs. This show is like, alright, so you were a fan of Turk and JD and you really enjoyed hanging out with them? You can hang out with them for another hour and a half every Tuesday and Thursday!"

Fake Doctors, Real Friends isn't Scrubs but it is still a show, Donald explained. It's like an extension of Scrubs where Zach and Donald are also characters—even if they night disagree about just how much.

"I want to be my honest self in in a lot of ways that the characters on the show are really honest with each other. I think the people that like Scrubs, one thing they might like about the podcast is that Donald I are just very real and open and honest and share from our lives," Zach said. "For the most part, we leave almost everything in."

Donald countered, "Yeah but even with all of that, even with everything that we share, it's not like people know who we are at the end of the day." 

"Well they do way more than actors that aren't [on a podcast]!" said Zach. "I disagree with you."

"Well I could see where they'd be like, ‘I know that Donald likes donuts," Donald said. "But my point is that I still have things that are still mine, you know what I mean?"

"I think you share a lot about who you are," Zach told him. "You share a lot about your heart and you share a lot about what you're passionate about. I mean, this is twice a week, every week. You're sharing a lot of stuff."

They always want the show to be kind, Zach said, and they will occasionally cut something out if it sounds "douchey."

"There's so much f--kin' hate and negativity on the internet," he said. "For the most part, we don't include anything that's really dissing or making fun of anyone.

Added Donald, "We never want to punch down."

But making fun of themselves? That's a given.

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The Quarantine of It All

The show is an escape for its hosts as well as its fans. Zach and Donald were both close with Nick Cordero, who died in early July of COVID-19. Nick and his wife Amanda Kloots were even staying in Zach's guest house while their new house was being renovated, and that's where Amanda was living while Nick was in the hospital. Zach and Donald grieved the loss and celebrated Nick on the podcast, and they obviously couldn't fully avoid the reality of what was happening in the world. But according to Zach, they also used the show as "something to look forward to."

"We try, for the most part, to stay away from politics. We try to stay away from all the s--tty things going on. We talk about COVID because our friend died and it's affecting us all, but what I'm trying to say is that for me, I know that for an hour and a half, we're all gonna have a good laugh and we're gonna all take each other's minds off of it."

For Donald, the show was especially helpful back at the beginning of the pandemic, when so many things were so much more uncertain.

"When quarantine first happened, everybody was so afraid to do anything—go outside, go to the supermarket," he said. "So it was an escape to be able to sit for an hour and a half twice a week and talk to these people because I was going through so much anxiety, so much fear. I have young children and I want to protect them, but to have a couple hours where I wasn't thinking about that was so important and so necessary."

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All of these reasons and more are why so many people have connected so strongly with the show, beyond its connection to Scrubs.

"I think that's one of the reasons that [the show is] having the amount of listeners it's having," Zach said. "I think people are just tapping into being like, I don't want to think about anything, I want to just laugh with these friends of mine for an hour and a half."

"It's like the Cheers song!" Donald added, and a brief singalong began. "Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name…"

"Alright, that's enough," said Zach, cutting Donald off before the next line. "We're not gonna give her the whole song."

The season two finale of Fake Doctors, Real Friends With Zach and Donald is now available wherever you get your podcasts.