When Happyish, Showtime’s dark comedy about a family’s struggle against our corporatized world, debuts on April 26, it will have completed one of the unlikeliest journeys in television. It’s one that includes a first-time TV writer; the death of its first star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, which nearly killed the series itself; a revival of the show with Steve Coogan as the lead; and some saucy sex scenes involving Keebler Elves.
Happyish is partly set at an advertising agency, where protagonist Thom Payne (Coogan) is a beleaguered, deeply cynical creative—much like series creator Shalom Auslander used to be.
“Unfortunately, I worked in advertising for 15 years,” says Auslander, who’s also an author. “For the first five years, I was kind of into it, and then it was kind of like, ‘If I don’t get out of this I’m going to kill myself.’ I felt like I had a front-row seat to the downfall of Western civilization. So I thought, I should take notes! This might be funny someday! And so I conceived the show about a month before I sensed that I was getting fired, which was about 5 years ago.”
Auslander’s pilot script channeled that sense of ennui by taking shots at corporate America, complete with iconic characters and logos coming to life in less-than-innocent fantasy sequences (hence the Keebler elves). “I feel like you can do anything or say anything. ‘God is Dead’ was 40 years ago. You can talk about sex, you can talk about f—ing, anything you want—but the one thing thou shalt not say is that corporations are f—ed up.”
Happyish also explores Thom’s life at home in Woodstock, New York, where his wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and son, Julius (Sawyer Shipman), deal with their own deep-seated issues. In one episode, Hahn smack-talks Dora the Explorer and comes close to an emotional breakdown while talking to an Amazon package. “I knew it was a long shot to get it made, because of its everything,” Auslander says with a laugh. “I messed around with it and figured I’d just do it as a novel because I thought, ‘There are, like, two networks who would actually take it.’ Thankfully, one of them did.”
The pilot was shot in the fall of 2013 with Hoffman and Hahn as the leads. “I always felt that Phil was hilarious, and later in his career, some of the roles he was taking were more dramatic,” Auslander recalls. “But I fell in love with Phil from Big Lebowski and just watched that again and again. A lot of the things he was doing just clearly can’t be scripted. So what we were working on together was going back to that part of him.”
Hoffman’s death in February 2014 brought the project to a halt. “It was a real roller-coaster ride,” says Ken Kwapis, who executive-produced and directed much of the show, including the Coogan pilot (the original Hoffman version was helmed by John Cameron Mitchell). “After Philip’s death, we felt emotionally adrift.” Hahn echoes that sentiment: “The show was the last thing on anyone’s mind when it happened. It was the worst—brutal.”
Happyish was shelved, but Auslander and Hahn had become attached to the show and decided to keep in touch. “There was something we still wanted to say and wanted to do. It look a long, long time to get to the place of, ‘Yeah—let’s reexamine this.’” Showtime had also held out hope, sending out the scripts to various candidates to replace Hoffman. Coogan read the script and was hooked. “I had no desire to do an American TV comedy,” Coogan says. “But this show was a punch in the face to corporate America. It felt different, challenging, intelligent—it doesn’t play to the lowest common denominator.” Adds Kwapis, “Coogan responded immediately. He signed on in the fall, and [Showtime president] David Nevins called me and said, ‘I need a pilot by the end of the year!’ So we all scrambled to put the show together.”
With Coogan on board, the tone of the character shifted from its earlier incarnation. Most notably, Thom became a British transplant, which created an additional layer of alienation. “The challenging part was that we suddenly had this guy who had this incredible skill set, and some of what we were doing with him was counter to that,” Auslander says of the reconfiguration. “It really opened it up a lot in terms of the narrative and how we can play things because he can play multiple characters. There’s a Peter Sellers-type of ability that he has that’s really exciting to be able to play with.” For Coogan—who never watched the Hoffman pilot himself—it was a fresh opportunity. “I think Shalom sees what I’m doing and starts to tweak and adapt,” he says. “It’s reciprocal, where he responds as much to the things I’m doing as much as to his own voice. My job is to bring it to life and bring some of myself to the role and try to make it fit. It’s like a jacket, it has to be tailored to the individual actor.”
The process meant that Hahn would have to approach her role differently as well. “You are who you are acting with, so of course by the very nature, we just let go of all of it and came fresh,” she says. “So it just felt totally new. It was a completely different bird. I think Lee has softened with Steve [as Thom]—I think their relationship is soft, which I love.” She adds that it’s difficult to even compare the new pilot to the Hoffman version: “That experience was so singular when I did it with Phil that it was its own beautiful bird. This is a completely different thing. It’s two different worlds.”
“As with anything, if you get a second crack at it, there are things that you change, finesse, improve,” says Kwapis. “In a way, it was a chance to take stock of what we had and fine-tune it. I think the wonderful discovery is that Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn have great chemistry. Coogan and Hahn were really in sync, which was one of the striking things about it.”
Auslander is pleased with the result himself. “This is my first experience in the TV industry, and pretty much everything I was told has not come to be,” he says with a laugh. “It’s been horribly tragic in some unexpected ways, but everyone, including the network, has been incredibly helpful.” He goes on to put it in more Auslanderian terms: “I think I probably have a low joy ceiling, and this is as close to that joy ceiling as I can possibly get.”