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HitFix Interview: Damon Wayans Jr. and Zachary Knighton talk 'Happy Endings'
ABC comedy stars talk about improv, improvement and Season 3 hopes
It feels early, but "Happy Endings' is chugging along towards its second season finale on April 4.
I recently sat down with Zachary Knighton & Damon Wayans Jr. and then with Eliza Coupe & Casey Wilson to talk about the ABC comedy's transition from an up-and-down first season that included a late premiere and out-of-sequence airings into what is often the fastest paced, quickest witted comedy in a network block that also includes a little show called "Modern Family."
The two interviews have some common themes, including the increased consistency of the second season, that prodigious punchline pace and, of course, hopes for the third "Happy Endings" season.
I'll be posting Wayans/Knighton today and Coupe/Wilson before the finale next week.
Click through for the first conversation...
HitFix: So last year at this time, you guys had basically shot the entire season run, but you hadn't aired an episode. What was it like doing all of those episodes in a vacuum and not having a clue if the show was funny or not?
Damon Wayans Jr.: Torture.
Zachary Knighton: It was pretty torturous. I've done a ton of pilots and I've been down the road of shows coming and going and so I just constantly set myself up for the worst, you know? But you know, it was awesome, because what happened was we went on at the end, our first season, in the spring when no one's watching TV, pretty much got no promo and it seemed like it was gonna be a burn-off. A strange thing happened, where social media kind of oddly saved us, Twitter and all these things started blowing us up. People were talking about the show, the word was spreading and people really felt like they discovered the show.
[I looked to Damon for his answer.]
Damon Wayans Jr.: He literally just answered, like all those thoughts were in my head and he just said them.
HitFix: Did that make starting production on this season feel different, knowing that people were responding and what they were responding to?
Damon Wayans Jr.: Yes. It was great. No matter what, though, there's always a feeling of panic, a little bit. We got to shoot and we knew we were shooting and we knew it was gonna air, but we also didn't have the back-nine yet and we wanted the back-nine, so that took a little bit. We're always kinda the underdogs. We're always kinda fighting against whatever elements are out there. I think it makes us stronger. It makes our cast and our crew, we're more of a family, because we're always kinda going against...
Zachary Knighton: It was nice to come back. You feel like, oh, there's a little more confidence. They've got our back. They brought us back and they didn't have to. So that was a good feeling, for sure.
HitFix: I have a perception that the show is funnier and more confident in what it is this season. Does it feel like that from your end?
Zachary Knighton: For sure.
Damon Wayans Jr.: Definitely. I feel like everything's stepped up: The writing, the character development, the delivery, everything. We just know our roles a little better now.
Zachary Knighton: Yeah and we found, really, the pace. I look at the first season as a lot of different episodes of what could be a different show and kinda figuring out our voice and what is the pace of this thing and then we knew it. So we came right into the second season having the tone of the show and knowing what we wanted to do and I think we really did it. I'm really, really proud of this season and the way it ends, it's going to end on a great, high note and I'm just really proud of it.
HitFix: What was the show it wanted to be, do you think? If it was a number of different shows each week in the first season, how would you describe the answer?
Zachary Knighton: I think it wanted to be quick, super-quick-witted, a colorful, bubbly world. It's like a warm-fuzzy place that you want to come to. All of these people are very likable and I think that's what it is.
Damon Wayans Jr.: Very likable. I think you're just following a group of friends kinda in their everyday life. Nobody's really doing anything that's too "big." We always kinda keep it like we're either in Rosalitas or we're always together and I think that's a really good show.
HitFix: Do you think some of what was needed was to get away from the ditched-at-the-altar premise? It's gotten to the point now where nobody really mentions that anymore...
Zachary Knighton: It's just like anything, it's a device to get to know these characters. The show has always been, from their conception, an ensemble show about all six of these people. It's hard when you start working with people to find what's funny and what's not and what's funny for them and what isn't and I think, for sure, we want to go for what's the funniest thing that we can do and that's what we've done. It's great for me, personally, for Dave this year and for Elisha, we didn't have to play that relationship stuff every week. We had to do that every episode [last season] and we got to be funny this year, which was a big difference, I think, from the first season and we definitely found our voices. I think it was a good season for those two characters.
Damon Wayans Jr.: I agree. I think the farther away from that whole situation that you guys got, the funnier you guys were allowed to be. And that situation isn't a funny situation. There's not too many ways to put a funny spin on a break-up, so I think that you guys stand on your own better.
HitFix: You mentioned the show's pacing, which is incredibly fast. Does it ever get daunting for you guys on set trying to fit in the punchlines?
Zachary Knighton: I don't think so. I think we kinda set the tone. We wanted to make it the best and the funniest we could and we have all constantly been pitching to the writers and them pitching to us and the actors pitching to each other. None of that usually happens. People's egos usually get in the way of really making for a creative, collaborative process and this show is different in that sense. We leave the egos at the door. Everyone wants each of us to be as funny as we can be and that's pretty unique about it.
Damon Wayans Jr.: I agree. If I see something funny for Zach to do, I'll pitch it to him in the scene, where I could have just held that joke for me, but I'm like, "Dude. It'd be funny for you to do that right here, right now." It's good.
Zachary Knighton: And it really does happen all the time. That's just how we work and it's nice to be like that.
Damon Wayans Jr.: It's always good to know that everybody has your back in the scene, so even if you kinda don't really know what to improv, I'll lean over to Zach like, "What should I say right here?" And he'll be like, "Say this..." And it's so good.
HitFix: As you've gained that comfort, has the show become more improv-driven as you've gone along?
Damon Wayans Jr.: I think it's about the same, but the editors definitely choose wisely as far as picking improvised lines or improvised actions.
HitFix: Do you guys have any favorite improvised moment that has made it onto the air?
Zachary Knighton: "Weekend at Bernie Mac's" was improv. That was pretty funny.
Damon Wayans Jr.: That was very dark and funny.
Zachary Knighton: Also Damon's "She's got them thangs."
Damon Wayans Jr.: Yeah, "She got them thangs" was improv-ed, talking about Megan Mullally's thangs. She got them thangs.
HitFix: Speaking of Megan, you guys have had a lot of guest stars, a wide variety, is it always easy to come in and work with you guys? I mean, you're six people who are always working together, are you...
Damnon Wayans Jr.: Clique-y?
Zachary Knighton: I think if you're Megan Mullally or Michael McKean, it's easy.
Damon Wayans Jr.: You can do whatever you want.
Zachary Knighton: I think if you're playing, like, the waiter who comes up to the table and says one thing, it might be a little difficult.
Damon Wayans Jr.: Unless you're just flat-out funny.
Zachary Knighton: We're just riffing. And yeah, you've gotta be funny.
Damon Wayans Jr.: Adam has a lot of people that he knows come onto the show and they're usually bringing the funny. We did this one scene with this actor, I forgot his name, and he was playing a movie clerk and he was just making us laugh a lot. So with people like that...
Zachary Knighton: We expect people to come bring it.
Damon Wayans Jr.: Bring it. If you're like a regular actor and you're just doing your lines, we're like [dismissive noise].
HitFix: Zach, you've had the thing closest to serialized arcing this season -- Damon, your character is married, so there's no will they/won't they -- But Zach, where are we going this season? Are we supposed to be rooting for Alex or for Penny with Dave?
Zachary Knighton: I don't know. I think it's cool that we're flirting with the Dave/Alex thing or the Dave/Penny thing or the Dave/Random Girl thing. I think that's where the comedy is and I'm sure we'll just keep going with that. I think people, if they want to root for anything, they should just root for this guy to get laid I guess.
HitFix: And how confident are you guys feeling about a third season?
Zachary Knighton: I feel pretty great.
Damon Wayans Jr.: I give it a strong "10." Nah, but I feel good.
Zachary Knighton: We have a great demographic, which is awesome. We have really nice numbers and we have something that a lot of shows don't, which is a really passionate and loyal following. So I'm feeling pretty good.
"Happy Endings" airs on Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.