Tuesday, August 30, 2011

'Happy Endings' Hits the Paley Center: A Panel Write-Up...

When Happy Endings first premiered I was all about comparing it to Friends. Let's face it: any half-hour comedy about twenty-somethings in a big city, going through personal and professional ups and downs with each other, treating each other as family, is going to be compared to Friends. And though I meant it as a compliment, after seeing the full first season, I have to admit that the comparison was an under sell. In many ways I feel Happy Endings is stronger-- and funnier-- than Friends. The snarkiness of certain situations, the pop culture references, the nuances and details revealed about characters as episodes unfold, it all feels much more grounded in reality and much more modern. And furthermore, I could always (maybe too) easily pick out my favorite Friends character-- the one I related to the most, but with Happy Endings in any given episode I may select someone new. I see a piece of myself in each of them-- I think the majority of the audience of this certain age range would agree-- and that connects you even more. Needless to say when I heard the Paley Center for Media was hosting a night with the cast and creative team, I knew I had to be in attendance. The truth is, though I've been on the set of this show and seen the cast speak at TCA, those moments are always about finding the scoop, and it's a much different mindset than just being able to sit and listen to funny behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes from early in the casting or shooting of the first season. But it is those moments-- those slices of Hollywood life-- that always made me want to be a part of the industry, and I imagine many of you love getting that "behind the magic curtain" peek, as well.

And the cast of Happy Endings at Paley certainly did not disappoint with such tidbits and tales. Many fans in attendance did not realize why ABC (or even that the network) decided to air the episodes of the first short season out of order, but as the panel, moderated by director Fred Savage, discussed it, Adam Pally wanted everyone to consider that since the episode that should have aired after the pilot, "Bo Fight," actually didn't come until mid-way through their season, it looked like everyone "had a psychotic break." Seriously, go back and watch it originally aired order again. At first they seem like the most well-adjusted group of people, still all hanging out and friendly after Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) ran-- or rollerbladed-- out on Dave (Zachary Knighton) at the alter, but then about six months later, in their time, they start having double brunches and trying to get their revenge. Pally pointed out that was like all of a sudden they snapped and wanted to still be mad about something that happened months ago. But thankfully, the DVD has the episodes in production order so they can seem a lot more mentally stable.

(For those wondering, the episodes were aired out of order because ABC wanted to put what they thought were the funniest ones at the beginning of the season to hook the audience faster.)

Part of why Happy Endings has hit so hard is because the way the characters relate feels like it has been plucked from your own life. Much of that is thanks in great part to the cast itself, who are allowed to riff and adlib on set. Sometimes they come up with new lines (and catchphrases) for themselves, but sometimes they end up offering something to a co-star. Damon Wayans Jr., a stand-up comedian in his own right, can not only take credit for "sex nose," and along with his on-screen wife Eliza Coupe boast that the "boxing mice" tangent was all additional to what was originally on the page, but also a line from Dave that he whispered to the director after he had already walked out of the scene, asking if they could try something. The line was "She's going to freak out when she sees Brad in the hotel" after a character says her grandmother thinks it's the 1950s. The line stuck because it's that kind of smart comedy that hits you a second after you hear it, when the full implication sets in.

For Casey Wilson, a comedy writer and former Saturday Night Live player, that kind of collaborative environment is what breeds the best working situation, but also the most creative end result. She shared that a lot of performers don't feel comfortable changing it up at last minute in that way, let alone being able to make suggestions for another person. It takes something selfless in a performer to hand over such a killer line.

It's also somewhat selfless for an actor to be able to take a few chucks on the chin in front of a room full of people, but with a group like this, messing with each other just comes with the territory. When Cuthbert was asked about tapping into her inner funny for a show like this, she was in the middle of giving a very thoughtful answer about how she eased in at first but then came to realize what she loves most is to get physical with it (like in the taser scene of early first season). Then she even got a little sentimental, saying that the moment where you do riff and "it works out right, there is nothing like it." But Pally, as if channeling Max, stole her thunder maybe just a little bit, ribbing her with a dead-pan: "What, you didn't improvise on 24?"

Pally played roast master of sorts to Wilson, as well, pulling out the "Our own Meryl Streep" sarcastic jab as Wilson was talking about learning to speak Italian for "Like Father, Like Gun." She didn't speak any before the episode; the show got her a dialect coach who worked with her phonetically and at the end of it...she still didn't understand a word she ended up saying. "Just funny enough to be Max. That's what's on my business card," Pally said.

Watching the Happy Endings cast hang out together on stage is just a little taste of what it must be like to be on set with them daily. Obviously Pally is the class clown, and perhaps most like his character in that he is quick thinker and can always pull out a one-line zinger than cuts the crowd up. "I am the voice of gay America. You're welcome," he shrugged to the crowd when it was pointed out that Max is not stereotypical in any way; he's simply a guy who happens to be gay, not a guy who has nothing going on but his sexuality.

But Coupe could barely give a straight answer either, always dropping a dry joke in there in her own right. When discussing how she came to the show, she shared she originally auditioned for Alex and was super excited to get a call back, only to find Cuthbert in the room when she returned. It turned out Cuthbert had already been given the role, and they wanted Coupe to read for Jane, opposite her potential on-screen sister. "I didn't like Jane," Coupe seemed so serious the night could have taken a dark turn. But thankfully she was just being playful. And she came to make Jane her own anyway.

Wayans Jr., in his soft-spoken way, also dropped a couple of gems that may have been hard to hear because they often came after Pally's much louder punchline. My favorite was when the cast was talking about getting to party at the Playboy Mansion and joking about signing a lot of autographs. Wayans Jr. found the set up perfect and brought it home with "No pens." Ruminate on that one for a second... Coupe and Wayans Jr. seem to have such similar sensibilities, it is no wonder Brad and Jane are such an intriguing couple. Wayans Jr. called them "very method" when it came to finding the chemistry...even after Savage suggested they were such a seemingly normal couple on the outside but had a secretly "really freaky" sex life. If you go back and watch the first thirteen episodes, you certainly do see a lot of that subtext, even though Jane turns down the threesome. I can't help but wonder how much of that was intentionally on the page and how much of it was just Coupe and Wayans Jr. messing around on-set, not expecting as much to make it into the final cuts as actually did...

And speaking of final cuts versus original versions, the gang shared that the original version of the pilot started in a much different way: on Bo, the rollerblader who stole Alex at the alter. In a sardonic homage to formulaic rom-coms, the episode originally started on him at work, giving another boring speech in another boring meeting but having a revelation that he had to go for what he really wanted: the woman he thought was the love of his life. He bolted out of the office, into his car, where he promptly got stuck in traffic worthy of the 405, and ends up ditching his car in the middle of the road, strapping on his skates-- or blades, as they were-- and hightailing it to the church. But the test audiences really disliked it. They thought it was too mean, especially as an intentional misdirect, that he didn't end up being the protagonist after all. So they scrapped it, leaving it on the cutting room floor of the episode. At least until the DVD release!

In truth it certainly seems the comparisons to Friends really may have been unfair. On paper the shows seem similar, and in some of the broadest, most archetypal senses, there are certainly parallels. But series creator David Caspe admitted that he didn't even remember the Friends pilot had a runaway bride in it when he was writing Alex' situation in the Happy Endings opener. And honestly? We can't hold that against him. Friends was such an institution it has ingrained itself deep in our psyches so that in the moments we think we're being really clever with a particular line or event, we will inevitably remember we actually heard it there first. It happens to me personally all of the time, and what I think Caspe has going for him and his show most is that the next series I fully expect to do that to me is Happy Endings.

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