The Oral History of 'Happy Endings'

It was weird, it was quick-witted, and it was short-lived. When the dust settles, it'll also be seen as one of the best sitcoms of the decade.

Image via Craig Sjodin/ABC/Getty Images

Striking the right balance for a network ensemble comedy is like finding the perfect storm. Friends, Seinfeld and Cheers made it look easy, banking on comic actors to deliver punchlines with expert ease and carry storylines across the finish line, all in the name of microwave popcorn entertainment. But each 22-minute episode is an exhausting process, from hatching the idea in the writer’s room and fine-tuning the script to blocking it on set and piecing it together in post-production. It’s a machine controlled by an even larger machine—the networks and studios—that easily crumbles when a single screw falls loose.

Happy Endings is one of the rare ensemble comedies that got it right, but it was choppy waters from the start of its three-season run. The show, created by David Caspe, followed six 20-somethings living in Chicago, transforming the experience of post-collegiate adulthood into a factory line of jokes, carried by a handful of distinct stars at a ceaseless pace. The writing was sharp, the editing left no room for lags, and the chemistry was palpable.

In spite of its quality, the show faced an uphill battle. Picked up in 2010 from a pilot directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Happy Endings shot its first season in the dark, filming every episode prior to its network debut. The midseason airdate, April 13, 2011, preceded what would become a stronger second season, when Modern Family was its lead-in.

The show never got the support it deserved. Happy Endings was canceled in 2013, after three seasons. Since then, its cult status has given it consistent, renewed life. Sony shopped the show to USA, which almost picked it up shortly after its cancelation, but the deal fell through at the last minute. Rumors bubbled earlier this year that a Happy Endings movie could be in the cards. A new fan base has also come into the fold, thanks to the show finally becoming available for streaming in January 2016. It speaks volumes to the nerve Happy Endings struck that it continues to live on, even in death.

With the five-year anniversary of the show’s debut coming around on April 13, Complex spoke with the actors and executives that made Happy Endings the cult classic it remains today.

The Beginning

David Caspe: I was writing movies and my agents were like, “Would you ever want to pitch a TV show?” I came up with what I thought was a phenomenal idea about divorced guys living in one of those divorced guys apartment buildings. They have one in L.A. called the Oakwood. I was like, that would be really funny and sad. I pitched it to producers and literally half a sentence in, every single person was like, “People have pitched that idea a ton.” Literally every single person didn't like it. So I had this weekend where I was just like fuck, I've got to come up with something different, because everyone is telling me this is unanimously terrible.

I had this idea for the start of a movie, but I could never figure out where the movie was going, which basically ended up being the cold open [for Happy Endings]: to start on a guy racing to break up a wedding, and you think you're watching his story. He bursts in and breaks up the wedding and they go run off together, but the camera turns around and you stay on the guy who got left at the altar.

Jamie Tarses: To me, Happy Endings wasn't the first time that anybody had done a show with six people who are in their thirties who are trying to make their way in the big city, and explore relationships and everything to take into consideration in terms of adult life. But it was two things: one, it really went right at the rom-com and sent it up—the opening was a parody of the form, basically. It was a really funny, can't-stop-laughing pitch out of the gate. And David's voice was so specific and so unique, it felt so modern. He was using language and attitude and points of view that from my point, I hadn't heard anything quite like it.

David Caspe: I built out the other characters and basically based them on my friends. Most of the people that I know, their group of friends isn't homogenous—it's more diverse.

Jamie Tarses: We spent some time revising the pitch, and we brought it into Sony, and they were interested in acquiring it. Then we took it out to the four networks—ABC, we pitched last. We were driving out of the ABC parking lot and got a call saying, “We want to do it.”​

Anthony Russo: We were available while we were waiting around to hear the fate of Community, whether or not it was going to get a second season. We had a deal at Sony and we read the script and really loved it. We loved the energy in Caspe's writing, how smart and quick it was. We came up with a shooting style that would run right at that—the sexy fun of the show, and figure out a way to heat it up as much as we could stylistically on that level.

Jonathan Groff: Scrubs was over and the pilot I was writing didn't get picked up. Right when ABC passed on my pilot, they said, "We have this show Happy Endings that needs a showrunner." Early on, one of the things that appealed to me was the specificity of the language and the way they interacted with each other.

David Caspe: Casting for a comedy is not that difficult because laughing is an involuntary thing. They make you laugh? That's the person you should cast. We got incredibly lucky they came through that door.

Joe Russo: I think we cast Damon [Wayans, Jr.] and Casey [Wilson] first.

Anthony Russo: Damon Wayans shot two pilots that year, and we were in first position. [The other one] was New Girl. So we got very lucky that we were in first position and got him.

David Caspe: Casey was really funny and being a little bit picky about what she was going to audition for. She was great as Penny right away, but we also had her read Jane to see if she could do a more perfect, all-together character.

“I remember Adam Pally doing some bit where he piled up tons of sandwiches in front of him, and I just thought to myself, oh my god, I hate this guy already.”
—Zachary Knighton

Jonathan Groff: One of the next pieces of people to show up and come in and read for us was Adam Pally. He read for Dave at first. We liked his energy and the way he responded to the script. He was passionate about it from the get go.

Eliza Coupe originally wanted to read for Alex, but we saw her more as Jane. It took a little bit of convincing. I think the network and the studio had to get used to her as Jane too, because on the eighth and ninth seasons of Scrubs, she played Denise, who was tough and tomboyish. Eliza Coupe has that side to her, but they were nervous about it.

And then the last piece of the puzzle was Zach Knighton, who was really hard to find. Finding that guy who had the strength to root for, but the vulnerability to play the guy who gets dumped at the altar—but he can't be a sad sack or a loser. This is a guy who's funny and super likeable, and he's real and he's handsome, but not stupid handsome that you don't believe he's a real person.

Zachary Knighton: I remember the table read for the pilot. They had a big spread out, sandwiches and food and stuff like that. I remember Adam Pally doing some bit where he piled up tons of sandwiches in front of him, and I just thought to myself, oh my god, I hate this guy already. There's no way I can work with this guy. But I ended up falling in love with him after a week.

Adam Pally: Everybody got each other. Everyone was kind of young, no one really had kids. We would go out quite a bit. On set, for me, especially with Casey, we just clicked into those characters and mimicked that off-set as well. And still, to this day, we talk multiple times a day. It's kind of disgusting.

Casey Wilson: I never felt anything more immediate in terms of "every crayon in the box has its place." Elisha Cuthbert had us all go to the Chateau Marmont, which I was like, well, this is very Hollywood.

Elisha Cuthbert: We started drinking early, let's put it that way. [Laughs.

Casey Wilson: I was dripping in sweat, I was so nervous. We went back to her house after and we had some drinks and I was like, these are some of the funniest people I've been around.

Elisha Cuthbert: Casey and Adam used to tease me all the time, like, "You're such a newbie—we feel tell your enthusiasm, you would do anything for a joke." And they were right. I was so willing to take on anything to prove I was funny, and I think a lot of our success had to do with that—all of us came onto the show with different agendas.
Eliza Coupe:
Damon Wayans, Jr. and I would work on our characters together, because we felt like they needed more. We didn't want them to be the typical husband-wife... We wanted this modern, over-sexualized insane couple. So we did. The minute we met, Damon and I were making dick jokes, fart jokes, whatever. I grew up with brothers and I get along better with guys than I do with women. My best friends are both my brothers, and I don't really have any girlfriends. It's not that I don't get along with women, it's that they bore me. It sounds terrible, but Damon and I really hit it off because he's one of the dirtiest in the best way. It's smart humor that you don't realize is that dirty because you're trying to figure out the joke and you're like, that's the dirtiest thing.

Damon Wayans, Jr.: We had to have sex a couple of times. [Laughs.] Once her body shaped to my body... Nah, she's just a really funny person. We have a very similar sensibility, especially when it comes to comedy. She can be the most disgusting person on earth, which is funny to me too. But her timing is perfect, and I think out of everybody on the show, she messed up the least.

Jonathan Groff: They all bonded pretty quickly. They pushed each other, and I think Adam and Damon and Casey, especially, were really good at improving and making it feel real. Adam sometimes would even improv at the table read for the network, which made us crazy. Just say the fucking words! But that spirit of, this is something special and we're going to make it better, was infectious.

'Happy Endings' Hits the Air

Gail Lerner: I think the first season is always more challenging because you don't know everybody's comedy sweet spot. For example, at first, we didn't know what to do with Elisha because she's the betrayer character. It's hard to want to laugh and enjoy that person, especially when they're so beautiful. It's hard to be like, "I'm on her team! She's gorgeous and she hurt him!" As we all got to know Elisha—she's funny and she's tough, and once we started writing her that way, it became really easy to find her voice.

Josh Bycel: Our show was kind of just left alone to do what we wanted. The network gave notes, but they kind of got that there was something cool going on, especially once we got into telling stories, like the episode where Max comes out, and where Penny dates a guy named Doug Hitler, and the episode where there’s guy living in the ceiling. We really just found our groove in terms of, oh, this can be a cool, weird show.

Joe Russo: As we developed it, we just kept pushing the pace and trying to make the jokes faster and faster. We used to call it the Russo edit—we’d go into the edit room and suck all the air out of the episode and just get the pace as quick as possible and make the jokes overlap. It's something we learned from Mitchell Hurwitz when we worked on Arrested Development. He used to say, "Let's have so many jokes that we can throw half of them away," and that was always our motto.

Adam Pally: We used to go to this bar inside a diner called the Silver Spoon that Caspe introduced me to. It was fucking gross. Every episode we would go there with the writers and party. We would just cheer on every last line. I guess looking back on it now, it was very special.

Casey Wilson: When we wrapped the first season, Adam and Damon had the idea that we all needed to go to Vegas together. So we wrapped on a Friday around Christmas, and then the next day, we met at Paramount in the parking lot and they had rented a party bus with a stripper pole in the middle. You're like, this is amazing! But one hour into it, people were nauseous and sick—they were drinking on a bus that was stuck in traffic. It was a six-and-a-half hour drive. It was the worst idea anyone has ever had. We all paid to not take the bus back.

Adam Pally: David and Casey cemented their relationship over the fact that I put them on a urine-soaked bus. I also made the bus stop at In-N-Out, and that was a fatal mistake because it stunk in there. But true to form, we started to do it. We did it a second year, then Damon and I did it a third year. That's just what we did when we finished a season. Again, because it felt like we may never do that again.

“we’d go into the edit room and suck all the air out of the episode, and just get the pace as quick as possible.”
—Joe Russo

David Caspe: When it got picked up, it was unbelievable. I don't remember anything totally specific, but I do remember when we found out, I [just] got an email, because I wasn't at the upfronts the second year.

Jonathan Groff: Not only did they pick it up, but we found out they were going to put it on after Modern Family. They really were betting on quality and that they had something special.

Gail Lerner: I [loved writing] Brad and Jane as couple—just becoming a fun, great couple who actually loved each other and were hot for each other. And they could fight and disagree and it would feel funny, because you just felt that love and their facility together.

Eliza Coupe: Season two in the Christmas episode, there's a moment where I run real weird, with my legs really far apart. I was doing that just as a joke and we decided that's how Jane runs when she feels she's in trouble. The director of that episode did not want me to do that, but Damon and I forced it. We would do that all the time. We'd be like, "cool, yeah, we'll totally do it the way you want us to do it," but we would continually go against it. We would throw in a whole bunch of shit where they would say, "Give us a take that's totally normal," and we would nod our heads and do it kind of normal, but with a weird twist on it.

Adam Pally: I thought it was such a funny take on a gay character. A lot of my performance, honestly, was based on Brian Posehn and Steve Agee in The Sarah Silverman Program. I don't think you'd seen a horned up, hetero-style gay character in a while. I really liked it and I really clicked into playing it. It just was an easy fit.

Eliza Coupe: We didn't throw it in everyone's faces that Max was gay. We didn't throw it in everybody's face that we were in an interracial relationship. We just made it normal. We're two people that love each other. Who cares what our skin color is? We love our friend Max and he's hilarious and wonderful and who cares what his sexual preference is? I think that speaks volumes above trying to make a huge major point and shoving it down people's throats.

Damon Wayans, Jr.: It never beat you over the head. It was never a message. This was just how life really is. You’re friends with who your friends with and you just accept people for who they are. You'll make a couple of jokes about it but that's just natural friendship. I felt like they tackled that amazingly.

Jonathan Groff: We did OK after Modern Family, and it felt like the show was making a mark. The decision to move us off of Wednesday night—I think Paul Lee, if you were to say what he was thinking, basically felt like we were strong enough to open on Tuesday nights in season three, which was a troublesome spot for ABC, going up against The Voice and New Girl and Go On. They felt like the show had enough of a thing: let's do it and Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 on Tuesdays at 9. That was a disastrous decision—that was a big fuck-up by ABC.

Zachary Knighton: Season three felt a little looser. I think at that point, we realized that nobody really gave a shit anyways. I think the writers felt the same way. It was like, let's just make some funny stuff. At that point too, we knew we had some fans. It wasn't like we were floating off in the ether and the network was trying to kill us. At that point, we knew we had started amassing some fans. We were feeling good and everybody had confidence of feeling like people liked us.

Josh Bycel: By then, we realized we were not going to be a massive hit. We were sort of an early Twitter show and I think we just felt like, let's go for it, we have nothing to lose.

Jonathan Groff: We did not do well on Tuesday night, and then they moved it to Friday for the back-half of season three. At that point, it was like, this is not a good sign. I think there's a way that ABC could have definitely handled the show better. If we had been on NBC, or if we had been a FOX show, it would have been a different story.

Eliza Coupe: Season three felt like we were going to be done. I was going through a divorce at the time, so I was a fucking nutbag. My whole life was falling apart, I was chainsmoking a pack a day. I don't smoke anymore. It's so not me, but I felt fucking nuts. Jane had gone off the rails too. That character started going to real crazy places because I was going through so much. So season three for me was very difficult, and looking back on it, I regret how I handled that season. I was going through such a tumultuous time in my life, and I didn't really savor what we were doing.

The Ending of 'Happy Endings'

Elisha Cuthbert: I think that last day, we shot until three in the morning. We managed to enjoy it, but in the back of our minds, we felt great that this was special and these relationships weren't ever going to disappear. Our careers went on, but our friendships are still very much intact. We just celebrated Adam Pally's wife's birthday the other night; they were all at my wedding.

David Caspe: I don't think Paul Lee liked it. That'd be my guess. He didn't develop it. Steve McPherson was there when I made it and he's the one who picked it up. It's not a knock on Paul Lee at all, it's an incredibly difficult job that those people do. I have zero animosity for it being canceled.

Eliza Coupe: Nobody promoted us, we never had any publicity. Even the posters and billboards around town were stock photos of not even us—just some random wedding cake. It was like, cool, they don't give a fuck about us. They put us out to pasture. We were the little engine that could, because people fucking loved it and we still rose above. It sucks that we got canceled. I think the show still could be on the air today and be a mega-hit if ABC got behind it. But they didn't, and that's their fault. It's really shitty.

Damon Wayans, Jr.: I feel like Happy Endings was three years ahead of its time, which is a weird, specific number. But if ABC would have just held on, they would have seen some fruits of their labor. Of our labor, really. But I don't know. I think it's a funny show. It's original. I don't really know any shows like it on TV. It's so specific, and I think more people are seeing it now—so many more people are talking about it. I appreciate the love. The fact that we're even having this interview right now is really cool.

Eliza Coupe: I feel like now people are ready for it almost, which is crazy. Now people are ready, and we're not on the air.

“Nobody promoted us, we never had publicity...they put us out to pasture.”
—Eliza Coupe

Jamie Tarses: David wrote a great script and we got the right cast. However it happened to all come together, it was that specific chemistry. If one thing had been different, who knows? But really, I think there was something modern about the way people talked—it had a certain rhythm and wasn't like anything else. People connected to it because it sounded closer to what they sounded like, or it was aspirational—it was what they wanted to sound like. It was genuinely balls-out funny, at a time when people weren't finding that in single-camera comedies yet.

Casey Wilson: It's just really weird and unique, and I do credit all of the writers, not just David. It just was on. I feel like we got away with something on network television that you don't normally see. All the characters are terrible humans and there's something fun about watching terrible people be terrible and never change. But I think you could feel the amount of love that had gone into the show. Now, Adam and I always joke that whatever job we're at right now, we're like, just give me my check. [Laughs.] I think everybody felt like, I'm getting to do what I love and I'm getting paid? It's insane. Getting paid to slap Damon over and over again is a dream come true.

Elisha Cuthbert: I think the fans that are into our show are the cool kids. You had to be somewhat with it to understand what we were trying to put out there. It makes me feel like I have a lot of street cred. [Laughs.] I literally had breakfast this morning at this really cool, trendy place called Art-Is-In in Ottawa. One of the waitresses was like, "I'm obsessed with Happy Endings!" It doesn't go away, and I don't mind.

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Zachary Knighton: I read about Happy Endings on my Twitter feed weekly. It's insane. I heard something about [a reunion] this year. I would have been game. Playing with those guys is so much fun. I'm constantly chasing that now. I'm chasing that with everything I do. I know I shouldn't compare, but it was special.

Casey Wilson: The show's legacy? My son. [Laughs.] I hope my husband and my son. [Ed. note: David Caspe and Casey Wilson married in 2014.] And the concussion that Adam gave me, where he thought it would be hilarious to take the mic from the boom guy and very slowly dip it on everybody's head until they noticed that something was on their hair. It's a heavy piece of equipment. So Elisha drops her phone and Adam's not paying attention and reached down and slammed my head so hard into the mic that I got a concussion. So I also hope my brain damage is a lasting legacy. Worth it.

Adam Pally: I would work with any of those people for no money at the drop of a hat. I would pay to do it. I would hope that there would be some kind of life to it...but I'm not going to start a Kickstarter or anything.

Elisha Cuthbert: With my job at Netflix right now, where I’m having a blast, I obviously would have to sort that out. But if it works, yeah, I would definitely do [a reunion]. Any chance to work with all those people again would be a dream.

Casey Wilson: I would love to do it again, but that part of me is like, isn't it always a bit of a letdown when they bring your shows back and we're weirdly 25 years older and are we still hanging out at Emma's diner? Sometimes I think it ended at just the right place, where it can live as a great little gem of the show.

Eliza Coupe: I wish it would come back as a limited series on Netflix or some sort of movie. I'd do it in a fucking heartbeat.

David Caspe: I am desperately trying to recreate it. I don't know how to do it. It was lightning in a bottle, really. A bunch of people who are very funny who worked well together and have all gone on to have their own shows and be on a bunch of other shows and run shows. The cast has gone on to do a bunch of awesome stuff and the crew is as in demand as anyone, and the producers and directors. The Russo brothers are now huge fuckin' Marvel directors, it's crazy. And I'm still here talking about Happy Endings

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