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May 05, 2015

The Pursuit of Happyish

With his new Showtime series, a novelist turns his wicked wit to TV.

Jason Lynch

Some people spend their whole lives trying to break into television.

Then there's Shalom Auslander, creator, executive producer and showrunner of the new Showtime comedy Happyish,

"Honestly, I had no great desire to work in television," says the author and contributor to public radio's This American Life.

"I very much liked my book-writer life. The characters don't ask me questions or want more lines!" That biting wit is one of the hallmarks of Happyish, which debuted in April and stars Steve Coogan (stepping in for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as Thorn Payne, a middle-aged ad executive searching for happiness after his job is upended by the arrival of two much younger Swedish bosses.

Auslander came up with the idea after leaving his job at McCann Erickson, where he worked to supplement his writing income.

"I hated what I did for a living," he says of advertising. "I called my agent, because I'm not a big culture watcher, and said, 'Should I write a screenplay or something?' And he said, 'Actually, TV is much more interesting.' So I said, 'All right, maybe I'll write about the job I just got fired from.'"

While the show is set in advertising, Thorn Payne isn't a modern-day version of Mad Men's Don Draper.

"It's about a guy with my own obsessions, with advertising as a background," Auslander says. "But for a show that wants to discuss happiness and its possibly illusory nature, advertising is a perfect background, because that's what they sell."

Even though Auslander had no TV experience, he quickly won over Showtime Networks president David Nevins, who was a fan of his 2012 novel Hope: A Tragedy, about a Jewish family from Brooklyn who moves upstate and finds a foulmouthed Anne Frank hiding in their farmhouse.

"He's wickedly funny and also deep and soulful at the same time, and that's a rare combination," says Nevins, who didn't blink when Auslander insisted on writing all the series' scripts himself.

"If you are going to have one guy doing it all, you need to be really responsive. Shalom is definitely that. He's a very confident writer who has a very clear voice."

But even the most seasoned showrunner would have been left reeling by the sudden death of his star — in this case, Hoffman, who died of an accidental drug overdose in February 2014, just two weeks after Showtime had picked up Happyish to series.

"Talking about him even now is painful," Auslander says. While the actor's death left the project in limbo — a pilot had been shot with Hoffman  - Auslander contined to write.

"I used the writing to get over some of the grief and shock," he explains. "The more it grew, the more it felt like, 'Okay, all the characters are a part of me.' And there was no reason for me not to pursue the project, because I wanted to give those characters life."

With a partially new cast in place — Kathryn Hahn remained as Thorn's wife Lee, while Bradley Whitford and Ellen Barkin were added — a new pilot was shot last fall.

The debut caps a wild ride for Auslander, who is making the most of his new challenge as showrunner (Ken Kwapis is also an executive producer and his producing partner, Alexandra Beattie, is coexecutive producer).

"It's hard — don't get me wrong," he says. "But now I stand outside in the cold for eight hours getting a great performance from Ellen Barkin and Steve Coogan. Ten years ago, I was spending eight hours with a motion-control camera as it circled a beer bottle to get the perfect hero shot. So I'll take this any day!"

The TV newcomer has proved himself well suited for the medium. "He's got very good people instincts," Nevins says, "and he knows how to work with actors."

But Auslander, who carves out an hour each morning to work on his next novel, isn't sure he'll stay in the medium. "Giving voice to the things in my head has become my religion," he says. "Whatever form that takes, I'm open to anything. I have no allegiance, or reluctance, to media — it's wherever the words seem to fit. I'll go do haiku. I don't really care."

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