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‘Happyish’ Creator Shalom Auslander on the Season 1 Finale, Season 2 Plans and Being ‘Shot in the Head by Critics’

'Happyish' Creator Shalom Auslander on the Season 1 Finale, Season 2 Plans and Being 'Shot in the Head by Critics'

Before Shalom Auslander created the Showtime series “Happyish” — a “comedy” about a marketing executive struggling to overcome his moral qualms with the profession and find meaning in his day-to-day existence — he was a marketing executive dwelling on similar issues. This year, he’s found a way to focus those thoughts into his first television series, an extension(-ish) of his past work as a writer of three novels, many articles and contributions to the popular NPR program “This American Life.” 

Now Auslander is waiting to hear if he’ll get to continue his latest story. Showtime has yet to pick up a second season of “Happyish,” which should come as no surprise to critics and fans alike. Season 1 was an ambitious, genre-defying effort meant to get its message across more than cater to the predefined whims of a pay cable audience. In a way, Thom Payne — the show’s central figure and embracer of a divisive worldview — wouldn’t have it any other way. Below, Auslander discusses his plans for a would-be Season 2, why he wanted to make a “prison escape movie” about a man trying to quit his job, what the many takeaways are from “Happyish,” and why he wishes it didn’t have to labeled a “comedy.”

So, about the finale: I was curious if the pregnancy forcing Thom to keep his job was always the set ending for Season 1. 

That was something I was aiming towards; other than setting up how badly he wanted to get out of there and how badly she, Lee, wanted to find herself a little bit. It wasn’t too much groundwork. You have to wait for it. That’s kind of the thing that I think life is. Just when you’re ready to do something, it pulls the rug out from under you. Things that come along that are entirely joyful never are. There’s always an upside and a downside to it. To me, pushing to the point where he finally feels like he’s going to walk, and then having him come back, was there all along. I like the idea of doing the right thing even when it makes you less than happy with yourself. We always talk about that’s going to satisfy you and that’s going to give you meaning — and then you do it and you get shit for it. 

READ MORE: ‘Happyish’ Director Ken Kwapis on the ‘Bold’ Choice to Question God in a Half-Hour Comedy 

I liked the way that that was approached in the scene where Lee had to tell Tom she was pregnant. She recognized the entirety of the situation and how it was going to affect both of them. He also recognized the love that was there and the basic excitement of having a kid. That kind of scene could be seen as a big downer or as a well-taken upper, and I feel like that was a tough balance to strike. Were you going for one over the other, or just that in between?

In general, with everything, I was going for that in between. First, in Episode 1, it goes through that in between. The things that I write that aren’t for television…to me, that’s what life is: never clearly one or the other. It would be great if it was. I forget who said this, said that the tragedy or drama isn’t a battle between good and evil or between a right and a wrong, it’s between two rights. That’s always the struggle. Maybe that’s difficult for viewers or readers or whoever, but nothing’s ever been clear-cut in my life and nothing’s ever been clear-cut in anybody’s life. 

[…] I remember when my wife came to tell me that she was pregnant with our first child. It was moving and at first there was joy, and then it was like, “Oh god. I guess that I better get a full-time job.” I wondered what that means. And by the way, the house is filled with mice and rodents and we got to get it fixed up, and that’s going to be a chunk of money. “What if this means my family’s going to want to get back in my life?” And then, “Oh my god, we’re having a kid!”

“Yay, fuck, yay, fuck” is kind of life. I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s been lots of novels and films and philosophical treks getting at just that. For me, that is the whole thing. It’s “yay, fuck.”

How does humor effect that balance? Do you want to incorporate a certain level of humor that goes along with what’s expected for a 30-minute comedy program or let the story unfold and people will find humor within it?

It’s a lot of just letting it unfold. I’ve had this issue from the beginning because it’s television and an industry and you’ve got to label it something. It was always Showtime’s half-hour comedy. Unfortunately, that brings with it a certain set of expectations and makes people — literally, actors or marketing people — react or expect things, whether it’s critics or viewers, I never intended to be there. To me, it was always a half-hour show. Call it what you want. Why does it have to fit in a box? To me, it’s about people who are occasionally funny, occasionally not, occasionally dark, occasionally light. To me, the fucked-upness of the world is funny. It is funny that he sells happiness while he struggles with it. All of those ironies are funny. I don’t know if they’re “pie in the face” funny. They’re not “The [Three] Stooges” funny. They’re the funny that I always gravitated to in my life, whether it was Michael O’Donoghue or Bill Hicks or [Richard] Pryor […] It’s always funny, but maybe it’s not so funny yet.

To me, the ideal thing to get at is “ha ha ha ouch.” [laughs] You’re laughing, but then you go, “Wait a minute, that’s true. That sucks.” But, at least we can laugh at it. Ever since I was a kid, my only defense against the shittiness of life — whether it was family, religion or family and religion, community, whatever — was to go through it and at least try to take a larger perspective and laugh at it a little bit. I tried to maintain that. To me, it’s trying to maintain it as life itself. There are times where I can look at Lee getting in her car having a freakout because she doesn’t know what to do with herself and laugh, and then there are times where I can look at it a second later and go, “God, that poor woman.”

Especially in the second half of the season, I felt like Thom and Lee expressed concerns that they were seen as buzzkills. Was that a commentary on the show in general? Were you ever worried about about being perceived that way, as more of a buzzkill than honest commentary?
I think that some people who don’t want to have honest commentary will say it’s a buzzkill. I can’t really worry about how it’s perceived or how it’s not perceived. First of all, there are 8 million other things online that are not buzzkill. So go for it. You’ve got 80,000 channels of kittens doing funny things on YouTube. It’s not like it’s the Middle Ages and everyone’s dropping dead from the plague and boy oh boy, let’s just have a good comedy. It’s not like that. To me, there’s an opportunity for honesty and for representing what my struggle is with existence, which is that sometimes it’s joyful and sometimes it isn’t. I know that people will sit there sometimes and say, “Well, that’s a bummer.” But that’s life. Sometimes it’s not a bummer because it’s funny just laughing at the bummer-ness of it all. I think it’s their struggle.

I do think that there are lines in there that do, to a point, speak to the larger point of the show. When Molly says, “How much is it going to take for you to feel joy?” Or Lee says while she’s in the desert with the Israelites, “I feel like I’m broken. I feel like I can’t be happy. It’s really difficult.” If that’s a buzzkill to you, then fuck off. To me, that’s just life. That’s discussing an issue that everybody I know in every circle of life goes through and struggles with and wonders about. Why not talk about it? A critic or commenter is somewhere saying, “Well, she’s not very likable.” Well, how fucking likable are you? [laughs] To me, it’s really that that is the issue. That’s the question of the whole series. Happyish: What does it even look like? Is it possible? They’re good people, they’re not fucking around on each other, they’re not divorced. They’re good parents, but they’re in a backwards-ass world. Whether that’s backwards because the culture seems so screwed up or because God made it this way for Thom, who’s a Roman Catholic just trying to make sense of existence while having some self-awareness about it all. If you want wacky neighbors and funny mother-in-laws, I think there’s plenty of that out there. I was never interested in doing it. 

Is there a scene or moment that represents that? If you had to point to just one and say, “This is what I want people to take away from the show. This is what I want them to remember.”
I think there are a lot of them. I think Episode 10. It’s difficult because there’s a moment in [Episode] 9 where he’s talking about suicide and saying how we get it, how we understand wanting to end it, but we don’t [do it]. I’m very proud of it. I haven’t seen people discuss things like that before. In Episode 10, where he’s at that moment and he’s at the top of the slide. He thought it was going to be glorious for him and now he’s got to do this other thing, which in its way is glorious but not what he wanted. That’s also very, very moving for me. When Lee and Molly are talking in the bedroom and the writing room and talking about “Yay, fuck, yay, that’s life.” I don’t wear shirts with words on them, but I might wear a shirt that says “Yay, fuck, yay, fuck.”

I really love Lee’s struggle. I love the whole Episode 6 where they’re lost in a mall. Everyone seems happy and everyone’s buying stuff and they’re not. They’re drunk just to try to get some happiness. Lee says, “I’ve been kind of pissed off. Everyone that I know has been kind of pissed off.” Those are the things that I think, for me, I never found anywhere else. I didn’t find that in other TV shows. There are other great shows about lots of things, but I never found that, that somebody else is also tearing their hair out, maybe laughing at it and maybe succumbing to it and finding some way to overcome it.

[…] I don’t know if it’s just one thing. I really feel like the whole thing is sort of a progression. When Thom talks in the episode about when Julius is sick and all he can worry about is him dying over what’s probably nothing more than a cold. At the end, when they laugh at her own sickness and cleaning up puke and him saying, “That’s the thing with God, is that when you get up there, you just wanna say, ‘Fuck you. I laughed at all the misery you through at me. With all the AIDS, the cancer, childhood leukemia and war, I laughed.'” If I had to pick one thing, I guess, one summation of the whole thing, it’s that.

One of the other aspects of the series, going away from the specific moments to an overall arc, is how Thom seemed to be on a quest throughout the whole first season to quit his job. In storytelling in general, we’re more often presented with people trying to get a job, so him trying to leave it was fascinating to me. I was curious about how much of that was influenced by your own experience and if that was what you saw as Thom’s priority for the season overall.

For me, it’s a prison escape movie. [laughs] The prison is the job, but not just any job. It’s a particularly heinous job for a guy who would really rather stay with his family and not have to tweet, not have to Facebook. There’s a lot of parallels with that, unfortunately, with me getting into television. The minute I got into advertising I wanted to get out. That’s true, I think, with lots of people. Friends of mine who are lawyers, the minute they got a job, they go, “Shit, what have I done? Is this going to be my tombstone? Is this how it is?” Some people are very happy with their jobs. I don’t get it. I wish I could be that way. Whatever it is that they’re smoking, I want some.

I thought that there’s a funny version [of that]. Instead of trying to get a job, he’s trying to get rid of a job. If we get renewed, that may flip. That always happens. You have a goal, and then you get it and find out it’s not what you wanted. Then it’s like, “Okay, so now how do I start over? Maybe it’s the other thing.” We have no idea, and we’re just trying to figure it out. A lot of things that I was trying to do was along those lines. We’re used to seeing people trying to keep a job. What does it look like when you’re trying to get rid of a job? That’s difficult, because lots of people would be happy just to have a job. There’s that whole, how do you make it an understandable quest without him being spoiled? If that’s what some people take away, that’s fine. […] My story involves the opposite of TV land, where everything in the home is shitty and the outside world is the goal. You know, clubs, beer and bikinis. For me, it’s always been the opposite. I get home and I want to quadruple lock the doors, let the dogs out and load the guns. Just stay away from me. I’m happy in here. It’s the world outside that’s fucking crazy.

When the series began, there’s that great line where Thom says, “Fuck ‘Mad Men.'” What do you really think of the show? What your relationship is like with that program is interesting to me, considering your background.

There’s two things: Thom’s relationship with the show and my relationship with the show. I feel like for Thom, it’s a constant, nagging thorn in his side because he wants the truth told about that world. He sees something very different. As far as that show, I, myself, haven’t seen very much of it. I watched the pilot and a couple of other episodes. I was in advertising when it was going on, and it drove me fucking crazy. [laughs] It drove me so crazy. I don’t even know, I’m not following the storylines, but if ad people like it so much, it’s got to be a fucking lie. They wouldn’t be tuning in for the truth [laughs].

I worked at McCann Erickson, which showed up in the story. One day, I came in and obviously I didn’t know what was going on. I tried not to. I tried very, very hard not to know. […] I walk into the office, and there are signs in the office saying, “McCann Erickson welcomes Sterling whatever. We’re happy to have bought you,” or something and I was like, “What the fuck is going on? Who’s that? Did they just buy an agency?” I had no idea what’s going on. They ended up running an ad in the [New York] Times, I think. It couldn’t have been happier, and it couldn’t have felt cooler and hipper. “Hey, we smoke and drink also, and isn’t that great.” I was just like, “That’s fine. I’m sure that’s great escapism for some people, but boy if he knew what was going on here…”

What I always thought was I’m only in advertising until I can get into stripping and porn. Just try to move up the moral and ethical ladder of professionalism. I took a right turn into television. Ask me in a year if that was an up or down step.

That’s what I always felt. Not just in a shit-slinging way. I’ve been involved in seeing things that were remarkable, that I wish people knew about. I feel like I should take notes because people ought to know, and not in a whistleblower way. But like, “Do you know how they think of you? That your government goes to ad agencies?” I was asked after 9/11 to rebrand America for Muslims. It’s insane. Or the army, talking about, “How do we get kids?” Finding that the CIA’s creative strategy isn’t that different from Doritos’. It’s was so incredible to see some of this stuff and to hear some of it. For me, that was a big piece of it. Make that the world he lives in in this “Strangelove” way. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.” My version of that is “You’ve got to hand it to Bin Laden. He got great branding for $200 grand.” I felt like that was the interesting stuff, not stripteases and martinis and secretaries with big tits. 

If you get the go ahead for Season 2 — and I hope that you do — do you have stories in mind that you want to get into?
Yeah, there’s a lot of it. From his advertising world, the army takes on a much bigger role and the effect of all of that. There are things that I’ve been advised not to mention, so lawyers from these specific companies can’t get lined up and ready to go. There is a bunch of that. I’d love to go again. It’s been a crazy, ridiculous experience. And if it all goes bust, well, it’ll just make a big “This American Life” episode.

What was that like, getting approval or finding a way to talk about specific companies and use specific advertising in the way that you did? It was very eye-opening and very appealing for the viewer. I felt it really helped the show resonate — that you were able to use real brands. 

I decided right away that I didn’t want to do the, you know, “Noca-Cola” and “Neeblers” [cookies] skirting around the issues, particularly when [we] wanted to use animation and corporate logos that tell part of the story. That’s what his head is filled with, and I think that’s what a lot of our heads are filled with. Even when we were putting together a list of people that we could go to, there weren’t more than a few that even in the best of days and the brave moments could possibly do it. Showtime was really brave in that regard. I felt like they didn’t stop me at all in the writing process. I think it’s because they felt the same way, the people sitting in the room. Why do they get to talk to us? These brands get to come into our living rooms and onto our web pages and talk to us, but we can’t talk back. We can’t say anything about them.

In a way, brands are the last taboo. You can have shows about fucking, but you can’t have a show that talks about Coca Cola or HP or Apple. It was kind of amazing that they went for it. There was always a question throughout production of what will the lawyers say. We have a lawyer’s room [laughs]. We have no writers’ room, but there’s a lawyer’s room. That was always a good sign to me that we were doing the right thing. Unless you’re that close, I think you’re just playing the same game as everybody else, not really pushing anywhere. There was that one moment, that one phone call, that one day where everyone was like, “They’re deciding. [Then] You’re well within your rights. Go for it.”

[…] For me, one of the main things, is I’m not really into business or even interested in saying Coca Cola has a lot of sugar and is bad for you. I’m much more interested in the role it plays culturally. I’m much more interested in the machinery around brands and how it affects people, that they decide that they’re not about soda, they’re about happiness. Why do they decide that? How do they focus group that?

To go back to your earlier question, I have to say one of the proudest things for me is that I was so happy when it was approved, legally and through the network; the suggestion that Hitler films that Coca Cola commercial and that what he was angriest about was that they’re not being happy enough. In that world, you have to be happy. If you’re not happy, you’re getting shot in the head. I actually think that if there’s one 20 or 30 second thing that encapsulates the entire show, it’s that. In fact, I have been shot in the head by a lot of critics or whoever who are saying that this is not happy. You must be happy all the time! It wasn’t very happy and then bang.

Those are the things that I’m more interested in, saying, “Hey, here’s a psychotic commercial. What is it really saying?” Forget Coca Cola, forget rust remover and all of the things that everyone bitches about. Where does it stand? What is it saying to us? That’s the thing that’s interesting to me more than anything. Part of the way through all of this was that it was never my intention to say “Apple doesn’t make good computers,” or “the iPhone really drives me crazy.” It’s more about, “What are we doing when we go into that store? Into that white space?” It’s so church-like and so religious and Steve Jobs is a god, a prophet. That’s the thing that’s fascinating to me. That’s the thing that I want to talk about. I could really care less about who makes a better cell phone. 

READ MORE: Review: ‘Happyish’ is the Comedic, Antagonistic Take on ‘Mad Men’ You Didn’t Know You Needed

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