Today marks the five year anniversary of the first time Happy Endings graced our televisions. Five years ago we met Dave and Alex and Penny and Max and Jane and Brad. They feel a little bit like family at this point. I had the opportunity to speak with creator David Caspe about his process, how it all came together, and many of the personalities behind Happy Endings.
Here he is, lookin’ ready for bidness.
When you suggest to David Caspe that Happy Endings is his exclusive baby, he laughs and immediately deflects all the praise onto his writing staff and the crew of more than two hundred people and especially his cast, whom he describes as ‘amazing and hilarious.’
“TV, he says, “more than anything, is a team operation. So while I’d love to take the credit, I just can’t. It was a total team effort.”
There isn’t a shred of artifice about David Caspe. He sort of half-reminisced, half-chuckled through all of my questions about Happy Endings, the way you do when you recall a fond weekend or a great party in college. And he’s just funny. Naturally funny. He grew up a fan of comedy and loving to laugh and his answers all reflect that. He’s someone who’s so easygoing and honestly self-effacing and so comfortable in his own skin that it disarms you and gets you past a certain level of natural awkwardness and to a place where you can just laugh along with him. It’s no surprise that Happy Endings snuck up on us in largely the same way.
Add to that, as a de facto character reference, that Caspe is married to Casey Wilson, who played ‘Penny’ on the show and is one of the most universally adored people on Pajiba. With good reason. If you’re not a fan of Casey Wilson and everything she does and how she does it, you need to have your fucking head checked. She’s a goddamn ray of sunshine. And Caspe is who she chose to spend her life with.
I sent Caspe my boilerplate “Who are your five favorite characters?” (Memorial Day weekend is almost here, folks…get your picks ready) and he struggled to pick just five. It was torture for him. There are so many characters he loves. So many that he references and admires. At first he protested that he couldn’t choose Bruce Springsteen because, presumably, the scope of the legend has overtaken the actual man. He loves Bruce Springsteen, which is probably validation enough. But I pushed him to dig deep.
This is his actual email to me about it, where you can see how he’s trying to process it (the way many of you did):
“Dude, I really tried I swear and literally could not narrow it down to five. Even after splitting it off into just comedy, I couldn’t even pick specific characters because I love a lot of these performers in everything they do and a lot of them for their sketches of which there’s too many to choose. Like, I love Key and Peele. Am I supposed to just pick one character from one sketch? No! I love them all. Same with Chris Farley. And Tina Fey. And Phil Hartman. And Will Ferrell. And Amy Poehler. And Maya Rudolph. And Tracy Morgan (Rocket Dog! Tracy Jordan!) And everything Chevy Chase did in the 80’s. And everything Eddie Murphy did in the 80’s too! And everything Bill Murray’s done ever. And Melissa McCarthy, and Dave Chappelle, and Danny McBride, and John Candy, and Richard Pryor, and Julia Louis Dreyfus, and Seth Rogen, and Chris Rock’s stand up, every person who steps on screen in Spinal Tap… I literally can’t pick. And Steve Martin! Steve Martin! All Three Amigos if I’m being honest. And this is after I’ve eliminated everyone I’ve worked with (or married), because I had to pare down the list somehow.”
ONE OF US! ONE OF US!
Notice that they’re all comedy people, which is kind of interesting because he mostly watches dramas to unwind. He waxes eloquent about Breaking Bad and The Wire. But for his list he picked funny. Some of us snuck in a character from a drama or horror or you favorite video game. David Caspe stuck exclusively to hysterical people on film and television. Is there any doubt that that’s where he belongs? After much prodding here’s his final list:
Percy T. Douglas
Kenny Powers - Eastbound and Down
Liz Lemon - 30 Rock
Mom Baskets - FX’s Baskets
Star Magic Jackson Jr. - The Jordan Peele character from this sketch:
Tell me that isn’t a great list. And what does it say about him? That he loves to laugh, is maybe a little quirky and irreverent, and that he’s able to change. Because it must have killed him to not include classic comedy characters from the past, but I asked him to focus on the now, and he did. Mama Baskets. That’s a kiss-your-fingers good pick. I honestly didn’t know a whole lot about David Caspe before this interview, but by the end, you’ll probably feel the way I did. That he’s a real person, who grew up loving many of the same things we did, and he’s someone who you’ll naturally want to root for. We want him on that wall. We need him on that wall.
Caspe’s (pronounced Casp, not Casp-ey btw) route to Hollywood was a bit circuitous, coming by way of a visual arts background, but he made ground quickly. His first script he calls ‘your basic first script’, sort of working out the kinks. The second spec script he ever wrote was snapped up and sold but never made. His third script (based on a pitch) was made into a movie, originally entitled I Hate You, Dad it eventually became That’s My Boy, starring Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. Whether you’re a fan of the Happy Madison comedy sensibility or not, selling two of your first three scripts is a SpaceX level of atmospheric breakout. When I pointed this out to Caspe, that he experienced a lot of success right out of the gate, he deftly reminded me that his first film won a Razzie. No false bravado, no puffed up ego. Just a really good person who has two feet firmly on the ground.
But that early success came on the features side. How did he migrate to television?
The TV agent at his agency, who had liked Caspe’s work, said “you ever think about pitching a TV show?”
He hadn’t ever tried that before but he was like “yeah, let’s do it.”
And here’s how Happy Endings was born.
“I went out with what I thought was a terrific television idea and they set up basically two weeks of pitches to producers and in the first week I pitched this thing which was basically like all these divorced guys living at The Oakwoods essentially and I pitched that and every producer I pitched it to — like a half a sentence in — was like ‘oh actually that’s been pitched a lot so we can’t do it’ and I literally had nothing else. So I was just sort of walking into a buzzsaw that whole week.
So I then had the weekend and I was like — I gotta come up with something else before this next round of meetings on Monday. The weird thing about TV is that there’s the shows that get on the air that everybody’s aware of but then every year 400 are sold or whatever so there’s this whole other group of ideas that have been done a ton but haven’t ever actually made it on the air. So if you’re a regular television viewer like I was, you have no idea how this works, and so I was unwittingly pitching an idea that had been tried hundreds of times before and never made it. People didn’t even want to hear it anymore.
So that weekend I was like: what am I gonna do? I had this cold open for a movie for a while, and I couldn’t figure out where the movie would go and it was basically that classic romantic comedy thing where it starts on a guy and his buddies and he’s saying to them “dude, I’m gonna lose her, she’s getting married…” And his friends say “dude, go get her” and he jumps into his car and drives, but then he’s in traffic, so he straps on his rollerblades and is racing through the streets on rollerblades and breaks into the church, breaks up the wedding, professes his love to the girl and she runs off with him. So, you think it’s his movie essentially, but the camera turns around at the guy left at the altar and you actually tell that guy’s story. So I pitched that on Monday morning to Jamie Tarses (at ABC) and she loved it.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy when you look back and think about how it happened. I mean, if I don’t go back that Sunday and change that pitch, that show doesn’t sell and I’m not married right now and a human being [Caspe’s son] doesn’t exist.”
Caspe says they actually ended up shooting the whole opening just the way he pitched, with a clichéd version, shot as a parody and intentionally poking fun at that cheesy standard-rom-com template….and the test audience hated it.
“When they test these pilots, people sit there with these dials and literally turn them up or down. It’s kind of a crazy process. If they like something as small as a certain word they turn the dial up. If they hate a word, they turn it down. So for the first minute of what we shot, the dials were all down. Like straight down because it was the pilot, so they didn’t know that we were actually making fun of it. They thought they were watching a bad romantic comedy. We ended having to cut that whole piece completely, because the dials went down and they never came back up. It’s interesting because that moment was what sold the show in the first place and we had to cut it. So we did end up with the altar stuff in the pilot, but now it’s: a guy rollerblades in —inexplicably— like what? I mean it’s one thing for a guy to rollerblade in and break up a wedding, but he’s rollerblading with suit pants on and like a dress shirt that’s open? Why? Or it’s around his waist or something? It just seems insane to me! I was always like people are going to be like ‘why the fuck is that guy rollerblading in a suit? It’s always bothered me. It bothers me to this day! [laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody that, but it still bugs me.”
I asked him about the cast. Was there ever anyone else he had in mind for the characters? How did he find this group that seemed to gel together so well?
“We got really lucky, honestly. I don’t even know how people cast a drama, but with comedy it’s pretty straightforward. Like a hundred people come in and do the same line and you don’t laugh once and then the hundred and first person comes in and you’re laughing your ass off for whatever reason.”
So who was that hundred and first person? Who was the first person to make them laugh in the room?
“It was [Adam] Pally. He came in to read for Dave, believe it or not. Thank god because this was actually the first time I had heard my writing read aloud — my first experience in TV — and I was just sitting there thinking ‘oh god I’m fucked. This script is just terrible. These are just not funny jokes.’ And honestly? Many of them weren’t good. You write these scripts to sell, but then you figure out that actually shooting them is a whole different thing and what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on screen or at a table read. And what I really learned in that moment was: get funny people. I was just sitting there thinking how horrible the script was and Pally comes in — and I still remember the day — and even with that awful material, we were all just dying laughing. And I thought ‘this is what we need. We need six people this funny.”
But even as the table read for the network approached, they hadn’t really solidified the cast. There was one part they hadn’t filled - one which most people would think was pretty important.
“So everyone read for their parts except for Elisha [Cuthbert] and Zach [Knighton]. Damon [Wayans Jr.] came in and destroyed it. Just destroyed it. And it was the same for Casey [Wilson] and Eliza [Coupe]. So we had a Max, we thought, because Adam was perfect for it. But we didn’t have a Dave. We thought maybe we could move Adam to Dave, but he was just so great — like the perfect Max and weirdly reminded me of the friend of mine I had based the character on — so that was the best fit for him. So here we are, we didn’t have someone for Dave — and the table read was the next morning- and we’d seen Zach’s tape and we sort of begged ABC to let us put him in the show even though I guess they hadn’t made the decision on Fast Forward yet and they finally acquiesced and he came to the table read and killed it. It was a real thank god moment, because I don’t think that pilot gets picked up without Zach’s performance in it. He probably had 80% of the pilot.”
So how did he get such great chemistry in his cast?
“It was just luck. You just pick the person you laugh at most. Honestly, sometimes you cast someone you think will be good but then they come in and it isn’t right. For [Happy Endings] we got lucky on every level. We got lucky that so many funny people came in to read and then we got lucky that we got them all, and on top of that that they all got along and worked well together and were funny together. Like, they were all really unselfish and would pitch jokes for each other. That’s really rare. A lot of times you’ll find stuff for yourself, but they would pitch lines for each other that were funnier than even the script.”
Is there a Happy Endings bible?
“Well, you sort of make it up as you go along. Look, I mean I’d love to say a lot of this stuff is more planned out than it actually is…but…you sort of create the bible as you go. On our show Sierra Ornalas, who was on our show and has written on a ton of other shows since then, was the keeper of the bible, she was very good at always keeping the bible. Like who went to college together, how long have they known each other and all that. But there’s this thing with network TV — you don’t think the pilot’s going to get shot, much less get to series, and even if you get to series, you assume you’re going to be cancelled in four episodes. So there’s not a ton (at least back then before binge watching) of like ‘who’s the brother-in-law we’re going to meet in season four?’ You don’t think you’re gonna make it to episode four. In some ways that’s why we came up to do the joke about the third Kerkovich sister. And we realized it was a little weird that we’d never mentioned it before, which is why we did that joke in the cold open where someone says “well we’ve never seen her in any of the flashbacks…” and the reveal is that the flashbacks is what they call their scrapbook or whatever.”
So are there only three Kerkovich sisters? Or is there another one out there?
[Laughs] “I mean, no, I guess we were thinking three. We didn’t have any plans for any other sisters … making a show like that it’s a little bit like running a marathon and doing the best you can while sprinting full speed. I just realized I used two different running metaphors in the same sentence. But that’s how it is. So like, where did the name Kerkovich come from? We had a writer on the show — Rob Kerkovich, I think he’s an actor on NCIS: New Orleans now, and were were in the middle of a crazy rewrite and we’re like ‘fuck are we going to even finish the script in time’ and the art department comes in and is like ‘we’re gonna see the mailbox in tomorrow’s episode and we need a last name to be on the mail for Alex and Jane …’ and we look around and Rob is there and we’re like just go with Kerkovich. And then that name eventually gave us the ability to do all that fun Serbian stuff.”
And Penny Hartz?
[Laughs] “Oh god I hope I’m not breaking people’s hearts! That was completely used to get us the joke in the Hitler episode. We just needed a last name for her that, when we hyphenated it to Hitler, made for a funny joke, and Penny-Hartz-Hitler was funny, so she became Penny Hartz.
Is that how we got to ‘Dave’ as the lead character?
[Laughs] Oh god, no no no. So originally, when I first wrote it, Dave and Alex were both named Alex. I thought it would be funny if they both had the same name. I thought it would be something that would be funny and really confusing, but of course it just became really confusing and I was like ‘this is impossible, I have to change it’ and I know this sounds insane, but I go by ‘David’ and I just don’t think of myself as a ‘Dave’? I know it sounds insane. So when people were like ‘so you’re really gonna be the guy that names the character in your show after you?’ And I was like ‘shit, I didn’t even think of that!’ Names are tough. Looking back I feel like we bricked it on a few of the names. Brad Williams? Dave Rose? They always seemed a little generic to me.”
And where did the name of the show come from? Happy Endings?
“Well, if I’m being completely honest I don’t know if the title is a great title. It was just sort of a temp title, and I was always like ‘I feel like we can beat it’ and my intention was to beat it, and we just could never beat it. People pitched us title after title, names like ‘Happy Adjacent’ and stuff like that and I just didn’t like anything better.”
I really like the theme and the title sequence. Where did that come from?
“Well the music came from Tom & Manish at Aperture [Music Library]. I just saw Tom Wolfe at Springsteen twice! They do a ton of stuff and they’re great. And I’m pretty sure Tom wrote the music? I think? And we had hired this company Sarofsky, coincidentally out of Chicago, and they shot a bunch of stuff that we paired with the music and I really like how it came out. This is the part of the interview where I’ll start to sound like a total douchebag, but at the risk of overstating a case, my favorite TV theme songs always had a hair of sentimentality or sadness about them. Not that I would ever even put our show in the same breath as like Cheers or Taxi or Mash but what I loved about those theme songs is they all kind of had this sort of…nostalgia about it. So I liked that ours was exciting and would drive you into the show but I liked that it has a little sentimentality to it. I can’t take credit for it, but yeah I like how it came out.”
The show has an amazing pace to the comedy. It’s just bang bang bang.
You know it’s funny. That kind of happened because I’m long winded as you can probably tell from these answers, and I hate cutting anything out! I hate cutting jokes I like, and the cast and writers were so good that there were so many jokes. I didn’t want to lose any of them. So what I would do was just cut all the ‘air’ out of the show and jam it all together and go as fast as possible. We had six really funny characters and usually three storylines so the episodes were really packed. And that kind of created the style of the show by accident a little. But also I prefer the rat-a-tat-tat jokes because it puts less pressure on each individual joke and allows you to do more jokes. So without pausing and waiting for the laugh you get maybe three jokes in the same space. And if the first joke was shitty? Well maybe you liked one of the other two after it. There are 24 frames in a second and you’d be amazed at how many times I’d be sitting there at 3 AM, desperately trying to get the last 11 frames cut out of the show and not be able to find them anywhere. So that probably played a big part in how the pace and feel of the show came about.
Did any of the arcs of your main characters surprise you?
Yeah, Alex. Alex for sure. In the pilot, Alex was just the straight man and she just had to apologize over and over and the big thing was to have someone in that role that the audience liked so much that they would be able to forgive her for leaving Dave at the altar. But beyond that, we weren’t exactly sure where her character would go, you know? So people love Elisha and it worked out for us because she’s so likable.
I mean, because of binge watching, TV has changed so much. So, I recently pitched a show where we outlined five seasons in the pitch with twenty different characters, but with Happy Endings, we just had the pilot, and we hadn’t thought that far ahead. Like, you can’t believe you get to shoot the pilot, forget getting picked up and having to figure out big character arcs.
So, with Alex we kept getting notes like ‘she has to apologize more’ because the networks are always concerned with likability of characters — rightfully so — but inside of that, it’s tough to get to know a character when you’re catching them in the middle of something extreme like leaving someone at the altar. Then as we got picked up and started breaking the show out, somebody pitched a different version of Alex. Like, she’s not ‘dumb.’ She’s not going to eat a candle or anything, but the idea was that we could make the Alex character a bit naive but optimistic. Then Elisha nailed it so hard that we leaned into it. So a character that didn’t have a ton of jokes when I originally came up with her, by the end of season one we’re throwing her cold open blows because we loved the character so much. I actually remember the moment: [Jonathan] Groff pitching this joke that we used in like episode three or four “I heard it in a book I heard” and I just thought it was so funny and Elisha nailed it and we were just like “That’s Alex.”
It’s a big testament to Elisha because in real life she couldn’t be less like Alex. Elisha is extremely bright and kind of tough. She’s from Canada and she’s like just street smart who doesn’t take shit from anyone and in a lot of ways she was the leader of the cast because she had been working since she was like seven years old. She kept people ready to do the work and not talking shit to people and staying on time. So seeing her be such a pro couldn’t be more different that the naive Alex character that you see on screen.
And…Jane is a witch, right?
[Laughs] I mean, we did some stuff in the show that a human being couldn’t pull off, right? So I mean, yeah. I’m trying to remember…didn’t she basically…as the show got crazier and crazier…wasn’t she in the back seat of the car and then magically she teleported to the front seat? So, could a human do that? I don’t think so. The show certainly left reality a bunch of times…
Was there a moment when you were like the show has gone from imminent cancellation to a place where you could actually take a breath?
God, the first really big deal was when we had Damon Wayans Sr. on the show. We hadn’t aired yet when we first had him and we had no one of his level on the show at that point. So when he was on the set, I mean…I had grown up loving him. I mean Last Boy Scout is one of me and my friends’ favorite movies and obviously I grew up watching In Living Color and getting him was a huge deal for us. And yeah, his son was on the show, but he was great and we got Last Boy Scout posters signed by him and he was so funny. It was a huge deal.
You guys had amazing guest stars. How was it to work with them?
There were so many great comedians that I’m such a big fan of. Like Ken Marino obviously, and I love Rob Corddry and Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer and June Diane Raphael and I can’t say all the names there were so so many. I mean, I’m always a guy who thinks everybody is better than me so having them on the show was so amazing. I’m probably more intimidated by them than anything! I mean, think about it, a year and a half before that I was in art school. It was crazy, and I hadn’t come up in the comedy world, like I never took course at UCB or Groundlings or Second City or whatever, and I just felt like everyone knew way more than me. I mean there was so much talent everywhere you looked. The cast itself was so, so smart and funny. They all knew more than I did, and the writers? I mean there were writers who had been in writing rooms for fifteen years! And Jonathan Groff, who was my partner in this whole thing along with Jamie Tarses, but Groff ran the room, and I mean, he ran Conan for a long time. I grew up watching Conan every night!
It sounds like a whirlwind.
It was crazy. It’s crazy how things work out sometimes. God, I have this image burned into my brain. Me and three friends driving around Chicago, hotboxing a fucking Volkswagen bug, listening to Adam Sandler’s comedy tapes. [Laughs] We were hotboxing it so much that we were drawing on the windows, and a couple of years later I got to work with him, and he is the absolute nicest guy in the world. It’s been so great and I still feel that way every day. I just feel so lucky to be in the position I’m in and I’m so happy every day. Sometimes people are like ‘are you mad that Happy Endings got cancelled?’ And I’m like I’m just happy to have been able to have made it. That I got that chance. It’s the best job in the world. And it was so much fun. Writing jokes all day and laughing and working with my friends and with great smart people is so much fun. I can’t complain about any of it.
The big question we always spend a ton of time obsessing over is will Happy Endings come back?
[Laughs] Oh man, it’s been so strange because it just keeps popping up, people will call, we’ve had a few offers, but it’s not “come back and do it your way.” It’s like, let’s just do a cold open. Or let’s do a few episodes using found footage or make it a TV movie and shoot it handheld, to save money … things like that. But no one has come to me and said let’s make real episodes: ten episodes that look like the show was and to actually be what the show was and get everyone back, with the right budget. If that happens? Then I would totally do it. It would be so fun. In general, no matter what we do, it’s tough for it to compare with how people remember it. Best case scenario, these things tend to disappoint because memory can outshine reality when you’re talking about a show that people have an emotional connection to. So, that’s tough, but I’d still do it because the cast is so great and I’m still close with most of the writers and it was just a great time.
Yeah, when you watch behind the scenes stuff and blooper reels, it seems like you guys were having a blast.
We were. That was the mood in the writers room. That was the mood on the set. It was just great people, laughing all the time. I can’t say enough good things about it.