Three guys and three gals have fans laughing all the way to season three. But the key success for ABC's Happy Endings may be just how un-Friends-y this bright, scrappy show really is.
Jul 10 2012
Story By John Griffiths • Photos: Brakha X2 As published in Emmy® magazine (June 2012)
Many sitcoms have blatantly and vainly aimed to assume the mantle of Friends. But Happy Endings isn't just another TV tennis-ball cannon of whimsical flashbacks, rapid-fire banter and zany pop culture references (though where else can Brent Musberger guest as himself and get a laugh?).
It's a quiet nonconformist whose characters include an interracial married duo and a gay dude - no fuss, no muss.
Gaffe-prone guy stalker Penny (Casey Wilson). Spacey boutique owner Alex (Elisha Cuthbert). Feisty condo president Jane (Eliza Coupe). Punchy exec Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.). Determined slug Max (Adam Pally). Earnest food-truck owner Dave (Zachary Knighton). For all their nuttiness, this Chicago six is a believably, lovably intertwined bunch who are hard to quit after just a couple of episodes.
The stars have also formed their own special brand of friendship and clowning around. After a long stretch of filming this past season, Wilson recalls with a chuckle, "Adam went around with a bullhorn and said, 'I love you all. But I want to murder you, I want to murder you, I want to murder you....'"
"I'll do anything for a laugh," Wilson says - and she's not just sayin'.
As Happy's beau-hopping Penny Hartz, she has ricocheted off walls and tripped over guys with the aplomb of Lucille Ball and Joanne Worley.
Wilson is a walking surprise party in real life, too. Back in 2008, during her two-season stint on Saturday Night Live, she stumped for Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign. On a stop in Indiana, she reports, "I got one of the Secret Service guys to drive me to Dairy Queen and got Blizzards for Bill and Hillary."
Her parents, both political consultants, nurtured that gumption. Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, Wilson was the James Cameron of her neighborhood, directing her friends in plays on a stage built in her backyard.
"I was a weird mix of bossy and shy and sensitive," she recalls - with a bit of Penny's tilt-of-head wistfulness. In high school, she was class president. Played basketball. Essayed Maria in The Sound of Music. And finagled a summer at Yale's school of drama ("That changed my whole life").
After studying theatre at NYU, life in the Big Apple was a montage of taking Stella Adler classes, honing her timing at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade and goofing up orders at a pancake house - until she hit it big cowriting the Anne Hathaway flick Bride Wars.
She's still dabbling in films (check out the upcoming comedy The Guilt Trip), but is thrilled to have a TV alter ego who is "optimistic like I am." Unlike Penny, though, "I have a boyfriend!"
Castmate Confidential: "Eliza has the best fashion sense - and tattoos."
Perusing Pally's IMDB page, two things stand out.
One: his unorthodox profile pic shows him beaming alongside Shaquille O'Neal ("It's a long story," he says). And, two: his credits include a lot of unnamed roles, like Irate Student and Young Hollywood Douchebag.
"That's how I got my start!" Pally says, with thanks-for-noticing glee. "It's easy playing these roles. I hate authority."
That bravado has helped make his Happy guy, proudly loutish limo driver Max Blum, one of the most well-rounded gay characters in screen history - an admirable feat, considering Pally is straight.
The New York City native was born to perform. His dad, Steven, acted and modeled; his mom Caryn was "bitingly funny" - and together they traveled the Borscht Belt with a lounge act when Pally was a kid ("Embarrassing").
In high school, his shtick as the "morning announcements nerd" was so funny, his classmates crowned him "Hollywood Hopeful" - even though the self-confessed "stoner" didn't appear in a single play.
After ﬂailing at the University of Arizona for a couple of years, he decided to take comedy seriously. He headed back to New York City, pushed his way into the Upright Citizens Brigade — and the rest is hysterical.
All funny aside, he hopes to pass on to Cole — his infant son with wife Daniella — “a sense of calm. I tend not to take life too seriously.” For fun, he plays basketball, hits Vegas and avoids pizza. “I am one knee injury away from 400 pounds.”
Castmate Confidential: “I could say Casey’s the most beautiful person in the world, and she would be like, ‘What the f—k, I’m not smart?!’”
As a tomboy in Mayberry-esque Plymouth, New Hampshire, Coupe liked to ski, play ice hockey and impersonate Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura “the whole time.”
Typically inordinate teen angst ensued (“I felt really diﬀerent than everyone else”), but her parents — pop’s a salesman, mom’s an educator — got her vibe. “When I was nine, my dad tried to call Lorne Michaels to get me on Saturday Night Live. He didn’t know Lorne Michaels,” recalls Coupe, who — like her Endings alter ego, Jane Kerkovich- Williams — is a ball of snappy chatter.
With her “definitely type-A” verve, she excelled in local plays, then studied theater at Cal Arts outside L.A. (where, in a production of Brecht’s Baal, she played “a woodcutter in a fat suit, lederhosen and a papier-maché baby head”). Back in New York, she waitressed until a one-woman show at the Upright Citizens Brigade wowed the sitcom cognoscenti. A big gig followed in HBO’s 12 Miles of Bad Road (cut short by the writers’ strike), as well as a recurring role in Scrubs, capped by a regular role in the series’ last season.
Now, as Jane, she gets to play hilariously cuddly-wuddly with her TV hubby Wayans and spar with faux-sis Cuthbert in Serbian (their characters’ ancestral language). Not, however, before she centers her mile-a-minute self via yoga, meditation and journaling (“I get up every day at 4 a.m. and light candles”).
Also keeping her sane: her husband, noted acting coach and sculptor Randall Whittinghill. “He’s helped me change my whole outlook.”
Castmate Confidential: “Zachary’s Michael Caine is pretty brilliant.”
Damon Wayans, Jr.
Wayans and Superman could swap a few chortles.
The actor, who soars on Happy as doting and endearingly daﬀy husband Brad Williams, came to this world under unusual circumstances (he was born in a teepee on his Cherokee grandmother’s farm in Vermont). He has a history of leaping buildings (as an adventurous kid in L.A., “I would jump oﬀ my parents’ two-story house. I cracked my head several times”). And he can slip into a tight uniform (catch him resplendent in a unitard, bopping to “Maniac,” in the 2009 spoof Dance Flick).
Despite all that, he is — yes — noticeably mild-mannered. “I’m kind of an easygoing guy,” says Wayans, who began performing as a tyke when his famous pop brought him on stage for a bit in a stand-up special. His dad also cast him, at eleven, in 1994’s superhero parody Blankman and later in his ABC sitcom, My Wife and Kids.
But nepotism has its limitations. “It’s been an uphill battle to get people to see that I’m my own individual.” Before settling on his family destiny, he considered a career as an animator and spent a year at L.A.’s Otis College of Art and Design. He still collects Japanese animé —when he’s not bungee jumping or hang gliding.
Incidentally, Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and his grandmother are his own superheroes. “She doesn’t care what people think,” he says of his grandma. “That’s helped me, especially when I’m going for a laugh.”
Castmate Confidential: “Adam will say things I want to say.”
After playing Kiefer Suther- land’s eternally imperiled kid, Kim Bauer, on 24 oﬀ and on for nine years, Cuthbert was determined to switch up her career with a sitcom.
“I’m a goof,” she says, “and I love physical comedy.”
The suits were resistant at first. But she wasn’t a star back in her native Canada for nothing. With almost Puritan-level patience, she persevered, and now even the onetime head-shakers giggle at her loopy comic stylings as wide-eyed Alex Kerkovich. And there’s a bonus: “If people are thinking of me, it’s kind of nice they aren’t thinking of someone running from terrorists or being chased by cougars.”
The Calgary-born Cuthbert — a humble, plain-talking type — pins her push on her engineer dad. “He still works hard to this day, and he’s an amazing family guy as well. He’s very disciplined. I came away with that.”
It was her mom, though, who introduced her, at twelve, to TV production on a lark. “I saw the cameras and the actors, and it was like Disneyland for me.” She landed roles on Canadian shows, and at just eighteen snared 24.
Happy’s playful demeanor suits her now. “I don’t like cutting, dark, twisted comedy.” Indeed, if Grimm ever needs a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, they might consider Cuthbert, who enjoys giving her coworkers wrap-party gifts “for their hard work” and uses phrases like, “That blew my socks oﬀ!” At home, the romantically attached star tends to her garden of bell peppers, carrots and tomatoes. “I’ve got a strawberry patch, too!”
Castmate Confidential: “Damon is like a brother from another mother. We were born the same year.”
With his leading-man mug, Knighton could be swooping up damsels on a multiplex screen.
Lucky for Happy fans, he’s deadpanning as neurotic, V-neck-insistent dreamer Dave Rose.
Knighton is what castmate Adam Pally calls a “manly man”: the Virginia native rides a motorcycle, collects vinyl LPs, catches crab oﬀ his sailboat and surfs near his Malibu home with his wife, Hang. Poking fun at all that mellow-hip imagery, one Happy lark had Dave hilariously insisting he was the “cool guy” in the group — cocky chin toss, sotto “Hey” and all.
Back when he was a surfing teen in Virginia Beach, “I definitely thought I was the cool guy,” Knighton says with self-eﬀacement. A latch-key kid (dad was a telephone lineman, mom an accountant), he soon realized he wanted more out of the world and saw acting as his ticket. At the local high school for the arts, he dazzled in productions of Gypsy and Little Shop of Horrors (he can sing!). And at Virginia Commonwealth University, an impressive starring turn in Equus sent him to New York in 2000 on a Kennedy Center fellowship.
He bounced around as a bartender while doing Oﬀ Broadway and the occasional Law & Order — until he landed a leading role in the short-lived Fox slacker-com Life on a Stick.
As his star ascends, he’d rather clear his yard of vines than “go out to the Roosevelt on a Friday night.” Or, even better, hang with his little girl, Tallulah. “She’s pretty cool.”
Castmate Confidential: “Elisha is so earnest. She’s like my little sister.”