Interview: 'Happy Endings' producers David Caspe and Jonathan Groff talk Halloween, friendship and more
You may recall that when "Happy Endings" debuted last spring, I dismissed it as the last and least of that season's comedies about interconnected friends in their late 20s or early 30s. But I stuck with it for a while, and it grew on me quite a bit, and now it's part of my regular viewing/blogging schedule, and part of what's turned out to be a very strong comedy night for ABC.(*)
(*) I've seen a few stories suggesting that ABC Wednesday has supplanted NBC Thursday as the best comedy bloc, and while I'd certainly call the four ABC shows much better as a whole, I have a hard time going against any group that starts off with "Community" and "Parks and Recreation," even if it ends with "Whitney." I go peak over total value, I guess.
Last week's episode was very funny, and tonight's Halloween episode (which Yahoo has been streaming for the last couple of days) is terrific, not only featuring one of the best sitcom Halloween costumes I've seen in a long time (Penny and Max go as a new mom and a baby in a Bjorn), but doing a good job of showcasing all six members of the ensemble and the ways they interact with one another. I've gone from not liking them at the start, to not necessarily liking but getting used to them by the time I wrote that second review, to genuinely liking most of them by this point (and appreciating how the show has made Dave and Alex's lack of awesomeness into something of a joke), and as a result "Happy Endings" has become both one of TV's funniest comedies as well as one where I'm happy to hang out with these people for a half hour each week.
Earlier today, the show's creator David Caspe and his fellow executive producer Jonathan Groff got on the phone with me to talk about those bumpy early days when every TV critic was comparing them to "Perfect Couples" and "Traffic Light," about things they've learned about the characters and the show, about the more recent (and positive) comparisons to "Friends," and more.
(Note: Before the interview proper started, Caspe thanked me for giving the show a second look after not liking the early episodes, which led to this...)
Dave Caspe: It's the usual growing pains of shows. It's no secret that we were in with a group of shows that were coming out last year that, especially from a critic's standpoint, were not especially the thing you wanted to check out: "Oh, another show about five or six 30- year-olds." We're glad we got to stick around and get our legs a little bit.
Well, let's start there. You were the last of those shows to debut last season. What was it like as you were sitting and waiting to get on the air, and all of these shows - that, if not identical, had some common DNA with you - were coming on and not doing well and for the most part being panned by people like me?
DC: Obviously, when I pitched the show, all those others were being sold simultaneously. None of us were aware of each other. I know that from the outside, some of the reception was, "Oh, that's the thing to do this year," but that's not how it works. I was completely in a vacuum, and unaware of what's being pitched, and the people on those other shows were the same way. So not until things start to air did I realize, "Uh-oh, there's like 5 or 6 of them coming out." Then there is the concern, especially because we aired last, I believe. If you count 'Mad Love,' 'Perfect Couples,' 'Traffic Light,' only 'Friends with Benefits' came on after us. I felt the writing on the wall and felt we were going to have a tough road. I didn't quite realize how tough it would be, and some of that's my inexperience in television. And then there were some things that I kind of wasn't aware of. I thought a guy getting left at the altar to start a show was an interesting way to start a pilot, and I think people felt it was too similar to Jennifer Aniston's character running away from the altar. To be honest, I haven't seen the pilot of "Friends" in a long time and didn't realize that similarity. Once one thing went against us, everything looked even worse. I look like I ripped a show off even more. But it is what it is, and we just keep plugging away and trying to make funny shows.
Jonathan Groff: we also felt like each of those shows was a little different from each other. some of them were pitched more as romantic comedies. I know the guys who did Traffic Light, and it was based on the romantic intrigue of three guys, and different stages of their lives. Our show had a bigger romantic comedy trope, which was the left at the altar thing, and then our struggle was to pay that debt off honestly in terms of what we sent out with, but then to move past it being three couples. Because it wasn't really three couples. except for one married couple, it was only one couple. In that sense it's different, but that's kind of slicing it fine for some people. People see what they want to see, and I get why they saw what they saw.
Well, as you know, I was not especially a fan of the show when it started, and I've come to like it quite a bit. How much do you feel you've genuinely improved over time, and how much do you feel is me and some other people needing time to get used to you?
JG: I think it's a combination of both. Truthfully, we hadn't really figured out what the Alex character was at the end of the pilot. The fact of her leaving Dave at the altar was such a huge plot point that it consumed all of the oxygen in terms of story and left no room to establish her as a person. It took a while to figure out why Damon Wayans is so funny, and finding his particular rhythm, and I do think the show took a while to figure out its rhythm. I do think shows hit their stride earlier than they're credited for. The biggest improvements are figuring out what's funny about Dave and what's funny about Alex, beyond the fact of their break-up. The first few episodes, we only had so much time to do what we had to do. We also aired the episodes out of order, which might have helped, in terms of character development. But I understand why ABC did what they did. They aired the fourth episode as the second, it was probably a funnier episode, but it leapfrogged past some character development in terms of how Dave and Alex managed to stay friends. In the first two episodes (produced) after the pilot, that aired later in the season, we did explore that, but at the time, I think that threw some people: "She left him at the altar, and now he's just okay with it?" And I do understand, but I understand ABC's decision of "What's the funniest? Let's show the group going forward where they're just funny together." I think it's a real combination of both. I think it's generally finding your rhythms, but I think if people go back and watch the pilot, especially the dinner scene, which was in David's draft even before I came on the show, I think a lot of the tone and flavor of the show, in the Max, Penny and Jane characters, is there already. I don't know about you, but my first reaction to most new comedies is, "What? Who are these people?" It's rare that I fall in love at first sight.
So what have you figured out about Dave and Alex and also about what Zachary (Knighton) and Elisha (Cuthbert) bring?
JG: Zachary and Elisha are the most experienced actors of the group. They've been in series before and on television before, and that shows. They're not strictly comedians. Damon's a stand-up, Adam (Pally) and Casey (Wilson) are coming from sketch comedy, Casey also from "SNL," and Eliza (Coupe) was a comedy theater performer in New York and then did "Scrubs," so I guess she has series experience too. I think that they bring just good acting chops, and to some extent, they're a little bit the emotional center of the show. Dave, especially, he's the guy we're trying to give stronger, funnier attitudes to play. He's a guy who has funny bad ideas of stuff he should try, like exploring his Navajo heritage. But there are also episodes - and he's happy to do it - where he's the regular guy, and our eyes and ears. And Alex, some of the early time was spent buying back what she did in the pilot, which was hard for a lot of people to process. We've made her that confidently oblivious character. There's a line in episode 111 last year, I forget the exact set-up, where hanging out with Penny and the Italians is too hard and she doesn't want to do it anymore, and Dave says, "You said the same thing about 8th grade." Intellectual stuff, she doesn't have time for. We've made her a little spacey and out of step with the rest of the group. There's a joke in the premiere where she says she doesn't understand half of what her friends say. I think she's Jane's little sister, somebody everybody loves who has a lot of emotional wisdom and intuitive strength, which Elisha has as a person, and we can make her clueless in some ways.
How much do you think these six people actually like each other, and how much is it that no one else will have them?
JG: That's the age-old question, the "Seinfeld" question. They were their own eco-system, and nobody could tolerate them. You didn't get the sense with that great "Friends" cast. I think we're somewhere in between those two. We have four characters who have known each other since fourth grade, Jane and Alex are sisters, Dave and Penny were in fourth grade together. It was one of the things Dave pitched, and that we've stuck to, about why would they stay together. I think, like any group of friends, they have their own language and own eco-system, and we don't want to make them jerks. We had a joke in the last episode where Dave is introducing a new girl to them, and we cut away to her listing all these great things she does, and Brad and Penny and Max boo and instantly reject her. I think that's an interesting thing to explore. But I don't see them as any more insular than the group on "How I Met Your Mother" (where Groff used to work).
There's a running joke at the start of tonight's episode where different characters get confused that they're not piling on one of their friends, which is something they usually do. If you don't want them to be jerks, where do you draw the line between them busting on each other and being mean?
JG: Brad says a thing to Max in the Megan Mullally episode, Max has been rocked by Megan's character going dark on him, he asks if he's really going to be alone at 50, and Brad says, "Aw, Max, you're not going to make it to 50," which is a really harsh thing to say. But what I like about that is my group of friends, and we're comedy writers, say the meanest stuff to each other. I think it's a way of showing affection and intimacy. Partly for Max, he's a defensive guy, and a kind of snarky guy, I think it's a way of reminding people of the level of intimacy you have. If you look at it, evolutionarily speaking, this group, maybe more harsh than the "Friends" cast 10 years ago, but I think that's reflective of the way people interact with each other. You immediately find your friends' vulnerable place and needle them about it, knowing that it's about who has your back at the end. And we always make sure to put that in. There was an episode last year, didn't air until the summer, Brad and Max are enjoying the reality show of Penny dealing with her new assistant, Penny has left her phone on and they're listening to the assistant take complete advantage of her. And then all of a sudden it goes too far, and they have to intercede. Your words are mean, but your actions are ultimately positive and supportive.
DC: They don't actually do stuff to undermine each other so much as say stuff.
An interesting distinction.
JG: Maybe this is my warped group of friends, I don't know. I read a review of our show where someone said if this is reflective of David Caspe's group of friends, "I feel sorry for David Caspe." I think it's a generational thing. I'm not as young as the characters on our show, but I have a lot of younger friends, and I feel like it's a little bit of a competition to be as blunt as you can be, knowing you have each other's back in a remarkable way.
In most of your episodes, you tend to split the group into three pairs and tell stories about each. Obviously, Max and Brad is a combination everyone has responded to, but what have you learned about other pairings?
JG: We're always looking at that. We're shooting an episode where we realized Alex and Brad never spend any time together, even though they're brother and sister-in-law, and maybe they need to. We've never really done much Jane and Dave. The first episode this season, we had Jane refereeing Dave and Alex's web of lies, but that was more about her being Alex's sister. It's interesting to always look at those combinations. The easy ones are Jane and Brad, obvious with the marriage, and they're great together and Eliza and Damon love working together. Also, anybody with Max: Brad and Max, yes, but we have a lot of Dave and Max, and they're funny together. Casey and Adam together should be a no-brainer, they're really funny in the Halloween episode, but they're such funny characters that what really works together is the emotional moments, whereas there's so much fireworks when they're together that one of them is forced to be the straight person. Dave and Alex end up together a lot, but that's one of those things where we use them as an emotional baseline as they figure out how they relate to one another. I really like Jane and Penny together, because they're such strong characters. Jane's tendency to want to try to fix Penny always yields something interesting. We're enjoying mixing it up. But you're onto something, because sometimes we'll go, 'Boy, we've only done Brad and Penny once last year. We really liked that, and we should do it again."
Though it does feel like Casey, out of anyone in the cast, you're most comfortable putting her off on her own, or with a guest star, and just letting her spin out like a top.
JG: I think that's that's true. Part of that is Casey Wilson is fantastic, but also because she's in some way the least connected person. Though Max is the same, she's the one we're actively seeing dating. Max is interested but he won't let on that he's looking. Right out, you're getting lots of stories about Casey dating a guy whose name turns out to be Hitler, or getting with these Italian guys and only being able to speak Italian when she's drunk. In the first episode of this season, she really was alone a lot. She's spinning out about her singlehood becoming a concrete fact for her. That was a discussion. It's the Tom Hanks in 'Cast Away' thing, you'd better be really good. And she is.
Watching her, my reaction is often, "Wait, she can do all these different things. How did 'Saturday Night Live' not know what to do with her?"
JG: I couldn't agree more. She's great to work with, and she can kind of do anything. We're very very lucky with this cast. I had a comedy writer who did not know her from 'SNL,' didn't know she'd been on it, and he ran into me and said, "It's like she was built in a lab to be funny. She's amazing: so attractive and goofy and vulnerable but powerful. She's really strong." And I agree. She can do any character. You ask her to do a line as Samantha from "Sex and the City," and she comes into the table read and has Kim Cattrall down, so she can still do some sketch-y stuff here. This is maybe better suited to her. All of that vulnerability that maybe you don't need in a sketch character, she brings all of that to here.
A lot of people have also responded to Max, and to the ways that he's so unlike the way television stereotypically depicts gay men. Where did the idea for him come from?
DC: I was aware that it would be a different character than maybe had been on TV, but he was just based on a buddy of mine, and he was a funny character. Although they did kind of a similar thing with the neighbors on "The Sarah Silverman Show." But it really wasn't some master plan to go against the stereotypes. It was more just a character who was funny in my life.
JG: Adam read it, and brought all that extra guy guy aspect to it, and that could be something interesting to do.
DC: Adam played it exactly how I pictured it.
Getting back to "Friends" for a moment, I was talking about your show with another critic, who suggested you guys were the closest thing we have to a 2011 "Friends," and wondered if you might be able to do this show in the multi-camera studio audience format the way they did.
DC: Well, we do a ton of different stuff on set. We rewrite scenes, the cast ad libs. It probably would never work in a multi-cam. We like to try a lot of stuff on set. The writers go down with a lot of alternate lines for jokes, and we let the actors try to find a few things on stage too. And then it's fit together in editing. In that respect, those multi-cams are very locked in. They have to get exactly what they get. Beyond that, we do so many pops, and try to move around so much.
JG: I think the issue is the pace of it and the realism. I know we go to some weird places as a story, but there's a kind of gritty realism to it in places, and some heart that I think would maybe be lost in multi-cam. But I don't know. Multi-cam acting is really hard, to be funny in front of an audience. I think a lot of our cast have done it before. Zach did a multi-cam sitcom ("Life on a Stick").
DC: A lot of them come from a live show background.
JG: We like the idea that it feels a little realer at its baseline. Whereas sitcoms feel a little artificial, so when you go broad, it begins to feel really broad.
Yeah, I think Dave exploring his Navajo roots would have been really schticky in a multi-cam show.
JG: It was borderline schticky on our show.
DC: The comparisons to "Friends," I totally get it. Six characters, and that show is so iconic. And we've weirdly gotten more comparisons than other shows took. For instance, I know "New Girl" is very centered around Zooey Deschanel, but it's not that dissimilar to our show. It seems not so different than the set-up of our show. Also "How I Met Your Mother," or "Mad Love" last year.
JG: I worked at "How I Met Your Mother" for two years. Their premise was so different feeling that it hid the fact that it's basically a "Friends" show. Which is fine. And it had the storytelling narrative style that I love. It was almost paced like a single-camera show. But that device with the dad shielded that you're telling stories about five friends in New York.
(Please note that most of the next exchange is said tongue-in-cheek, which is not always easy to convey in text.)
Speaking of "New Girl," do you feel any guilt about the fact that you were renewed, and that therefore that show had to replace Damon? I mean, you're all still employed and all, but you've robbed another show of a very funny character.
JG: It's a crushing, crushing guilt, Alan
DC: They seem like they're doing all right. They've got great ratings. Damon was on our show, they took a chance to cast him in second position. I don't think we by any means stole him from them.
In terms of tonight's episode, I was very impressed with Max and Penny's costume. So many sitcoms have done Halloween episodes, and put their characters into wacky costumes, that I imagine it's hard to come up with something so strange and unexpected like that.
DC: What's crazy is, that's true with Halloween, but it's kind of true about anything sitcom-related. It's hard for us to come up with stories about these six people that are different, period. There's been so many episodes of so many shows. Even if we were a family show, it's the same thing. A workplace comedy, a family comedy or a friends comedy, there's been so many, it's hard to come up with anything that's different.
JG: I think we got a little lucky that the bacon costume (that Jane wears) isn't original, but she happens to look adorable in it. Her character is so tough, and I liked seeing her head peeking out of it. The Max/Penny one, we really put our heads together on. It was a very uncomfortable shoot, I'm told, by Adam and Casey. Their backs hurt afterwards.
DC: We have such a great staff of writers here. I don't think any of those costumes were Jonathan or I's idea. They all came from different writers in the room. We just work with a great cast, a great group of writers and a great crew, great directors. We just kind of get lucky when things work out.
(I bring up a later joke from the episode that's very similar to a joke "Arrested Development" did as an example of Caspe's point about every show having beaten them to the punch.)
DC: We did an episode last week, which was written by Hilary Winston, who actually does those vision boards, and we thought it would be funny to put into an episode. Turns out "Always Sunny" did it a year and a half ago, and "2 Broke Girls" did it a few nights after we did. I went on Twitter and people were like, "Oh, '2 Broke Girls' must have ripped off 'Happy Endings'!" But it's just in the zeitgeist, it's been on "Oprah." I think you're always going to find that these stories overlap, you tell similar stories but hope they feel different. Your stories are universal and hopefully your characters are weird and specific.
What can you tell me about what's coming up?
JG: We're going to try to complicate the romantic intrigue within the group a little bit. We felt like at the end of the season last year, Alex may still be wondering if she did the right thing in dumping this guy and blowing up her wedding. We wanted, with baby steps, explore that a bit more. And then maybe complicate it elsewhere. We'd like Penny to hopefully get a boyfriend. We're planning to bring back Megan Mullally as Penny's mom, and maybe bring back Damon's dad.
Will we see more of Larry Wilmore as Brad's boss?
JG: I liked him. I like him personally and he's a strong presence. But we are first going to finally see Jane's work. We've been sending out the message that she's a rich housewife, and we don't think that's consistent with her character. We'll see that Brad makes the money, and she's a hard-charging person working at a nonprofit foundation. I'd like to be more in Brad's workplace. He's a funny character, and exploring him, how does his mellow vibe with his friends translate into work.
Finally, you beat out the other ABC bubble comedies to come back this fall, and you get the timeslot after "Modern Family," where your retention has been okay but maybe not as great as ABC might like. They have some mid-season comedies in the wings. What are you hearing about their thinking with your ratings and whether you'll get to stay there?
JG: Most importantly, and the thing we can focus on the most, is they seem really happy with the product, and people are responding to the show.
DC: They've been really great creative partners.
JG: They get the show, they don't give notes that make you scratch your head. They've been really great. Creatively, they love the show, and there's a tremendous amount. They pitch ideas, we've had promo guys pitching ideas, which I've never seen before. Creatively, they're very on board. Obviously, they want the numbers to be better. The retention numbers are okay. I don't know that they have the show that would be able to hold more of that juggernaut. I don't know if there's that much more of a compatible show. But on the other hand, it's a great launching pad to put eyes on another show. We don't know. We just want to keep making them, but we know that they like the show.
DC: We just try to do the best show we can, and hope people can find it. We do get a pretty good number. We're right in the 3, 3.1 range, which is good. We're unfortunately coming off of like a 5.7 in front of us. But we've really only been on a while, all of our episodes aired at 10 and 10:30 in the spring. We've only had 4 or 5 episodes in this timeslot this fall.
JG: We think there's definitely areas in which we're a good "Modern Family" follow-up. There's a sense of friends are family in a way, and there's warmth and optimism. Having said that, we're definitely a younger-skewing show, so it's a question of how much overlap we can build.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org