It’s called HAPPYish, but the quirky Showtime dramedy has had anything but a smooth path to its debut. Originally set to be Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first regular TV role, the series’ future was up in the air when Hoffman died in February 2014, less than a month after HAPPYish was greenlit. Several months later, Showtime pushed ahead with show with Oscar nominee Steve Coogan taking over Hoffman’s role, and viewers can get a sneak peek at the pilot on April 5, before HAPPYish’s April 26 premiere.
HAPPYish executive producer and director Ken Kwapis, an alum of The Office, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Larry Sanders Show, talks to Yahoo TV about the series’ history and some of the truly over the top happenings ahead in the first season of HAPPYish.
Tell me a little bit about the backstory of HAPPYish. It was originally set up with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Did you actually shoot a pilot with him?
Yes. Let me actually go back further. The series was developed by my company, In Cahoots. I did not know Shalom Auslander before this project. Shalom met with me and my producing partner, Alex Beattie. Shalom pitched us the idea of doing a story set in the world of contemporary advertising. Shalom has worked in advertising, and he told stories about his experiences in that world that were jaw dropping. They were so appalling that within 20 minutes, I said to Shalom, “I’m in. Let’s develop this.” We took it to a few networks. We pitched it at Showtime. David Nevins was really enthusiastic. And by the way, he has remained so supportive. I’ve rarely had such a positive experience with any network executive.
So, we developed the script. Shalom’s intention was always to write every episode. He’s the author of all 10 scripts. There is no writers’ room. The writers’ room is in Shalom’s head.
And that’s when Hoffman signed on?
Yes, he signed on to do the series. We shot a pilot with him, and we were given the greenlight, and then he passed away. For many months, we weren’t sure whether the series would proceed. We weren’t really sure what to do. Again, Showtime really wanted us to keep this project alive, and HAPPYish came roaring back to life when Steve Coogan read the pilot script and signed on immediately… [around] mid-autumn last year.
How would you describe the series? As we see with the second episode, it’s not just Thom’s story or point of view…
On one hand, it’s a very realistic look at the search for happiness in modern life, and at the same time, it’s a series that can accommodate going off on wild tangents. Surrealistic outbursts. Outrageous fantasies. As you’ve seen from the first two episodes, it’s not just Steve Coogan’s character who enjoys the fantasies. Both Kathryn Hahn and Steve Coogan have scenes where their fantasies come to life. Or rather, I should say their anxieties take a fantasy form.
No one has ever had more fun with an Amazon box than Kathryn Hahn does in the second episode.
And what I love about that storyline is that after awhile, you forget she’s conversing with a box. You really do feel like she’s having a really passionate, argumentative conversation with her mother.
The Keebler elves storyline, the fantasy scene in the pilot, is both highly disturbing and hilarious. Without spoiling the specifics or where it goes, will it be a recurring project for Thom and the agency?
It’s one of Thom’s important accounts. And that storyline is definitely developed, but there are other accounts that also will occupy real estate in the series. But, yeah, the Keebler story continues, and it actually grows more hilarious and disturbing as it unfolds.
Do some of those “jaw-dropping” stories Shalom shared about working in advertising show up in the pilot or throughout the rest of the season?
There are definitely things that Shalom talked to me about at our initial meeting that have made their way into the series. In the pilot there’s a sequence in which Bradley Whitford’s character, Jonathan, compliments Osama Bin Laden on his skills at branding. And that’s something that Shalom told me he heard in a creative meeting at an advertising agency once, someone complimenting Osama Bin Laden on his exceptional branding skills.
A lot of the issues Thom faces in the office are probably going to resonate with people in every industry, not just creative ones.
We’re taking a look at that world as it exists right now. My hope is that it will resonate with anyone who’s starting to feel irrelevant in their own life. Whether it’s in their work life or their home life. It’s not a story about a midlife crisis; that’s too narrow. You can start to feel irrelevant at any age. I think that there are certain fields, like advertising, where you are constantly under pressure to be ahead of the curve, every minute. You are under pressure to be hip. You’re under pressure to be trendy. I think that the same thing applies to many different endeavors, many different careers, but somehow these problems are exacerbated in a field like advertising. Everyone, I think, at a certain point, looks at their wardrobe and says, “Does this make me look out of date?” What is the solution? To buy a pair of skinny jeans and try to look like a teenager? So in a way, advertising is a great backdrop, but our subject is really the struggle to find happiness and the struggle to either remain relevant or realize that remaining relevant is not important to happiness.
Ellen Barkin, Dani the headhunter, makes a great speech about the pursuit of happiness, complete with a Richard Simmons reference, in the pilot. How much will Dani and other supporting cast, like Andre Royo and Carrie Preston, pop up throughout the first season?
Dani definitely is an important character in the series. Carrie Preston’s character, Debbie, who is an account executive is also a critical player in the story. Bradley Whitford, Hannah Hodson’s Lorna, the Swedes, definitely … all major characters.
The Swedes, the new execs in charge of Thom’s agency, may be breakout characters.
Oh, absolutely. Nils [Lawton] plays Gottfrid in such a winning fashion. He’s enthusiastic about being creative. He has an excitement that’s contagious, but of course what he says is often pure nonsense… but, he says it with such conviction and enthusiasm that he really gets you excited about it.
And you have some interesting guest stars coming up throughout the season. Do Rob Reiner and porn star James Deen play themselves?
I don’t want to say anymore, but Rob Reiner and James Dean do appear in the show, with each playing themselves.
A sneak preview of the HAPPYish pilot airs Sunday, April 5 at 10 p.m. on Showtime; HAPPYish premieres in its regular timeslot Sunday, April 26 at 9:30 p.m.