If you're not watching ABC's sophomore comedy, you're missing the sharpest, funniest, giddiest show about six friends since that other show about six friends. Here's the ''amahzing'' story of how a midseason afterthought became a word-of-mouth favorite

By Dan Snierson
Updated December 02, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST
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  • ABC

Eliza Coupe is trying to insert a salt-shaker into Damon Wayans Jr.’s shirt. Adam Pally is making an odd noise with a cell phone. (Is it sonar?) Casey Wilson is making an odd noise with her mouth. (Wounded cat?) And Zachary Knighton is reading a newspaper while Elisha Cuthbert spits waffle chunks into a bucket. Just think: Soon the cast of Happy Endings will start filming, and things will really get weird.

Here on the Paramount lot in L.A., the stars of ABC’s cult comedy are at a diner table for a chatty-chummy breakfast scene. An unlikely gang, this: Alex (Cuthbert), the breezy blonde who left thoughtful V-neckspert Dave (Knighton) at the altar; Alex’s type-AAA sister, Jane (Coupe), and her metrosexual husband, Brad (Wayans); pathologically single Penny (Wilson) and her slob of a former-beau-but-now-gay-BFF Max (Pally). When Penny pulls a sweater out of her bag and asks whose it is, Jane claims it’s hers. Max claims it’s his. He snatches it and hustles out of the diner with Jane chasing after him, and Penny and Dave chasing after them.

”Your skinny body doesn’t fill it out!” cries Max.

”Your non-skinny body fills it out too much!” retorts Jane before tripping him, hopping on top of him, and strangling him with the sweater. And…CUT.

Sooo, what just happened here?

”I was channeling the classic physical comedians, the greats of our time,” offers Pally. ”Michael Keaton. Buster Keaton. Diane Keaton…Alex P. Keaton. Any Keaton.”

Yes, somewhere between Family Ties, The General, Annie Hall, and, sure, Beetlejuice lies a magical place called Happy Endings, where the jokes fly in all directions and the friendships are tighter than a Kardashian tube top. Its frisky rhythms, down-the-wormhole humor, and non-stereotypical characters (Max’s queer eye is focused more on videogames and couch food, while the interracial couple Jane and Brad are the rare TV spouses who are still googly-eyed over each other) have made these late-twentysomething Chicagoans feel like — dare we utter the F-word? — TV’s newest Friends. After an under-the-radar launch in April, Happy has emerged as the comedy underdog story of the fall. ABC senior VP of comedy development Samie Kim Falvey calls it ”the Cinderella story.” Cuthbert admits, ”We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles to be here.” Wilson, meanwhile, calls it ”the show that could.”

Walk into Happy creator David Caspe’s office and the first thing you’ll notice is just how little there is to notice. ”They told me last year when we started that it’s superstitious to hang anything on the walls of your office in the first season,” says Caspe, 32. ”Then we got the second season, but I’m kind of superstitious, so I figure: Why not keep it empty?”

No need to jinx anything. In summer 2009, Caspe, who’d sold a few screenplays (Donny’s Boy, starring Adam Sandler, hits theaters in June), met with a slew of TV producers to pitch an awesome idea involving four divorced dads. Alas, says Caspe, ”within the first sentence I found out that not only had it been tried a lot of times, it was in fact not an awesome idea.” In one of these meetings with Jamie Tarses (the ex-ABC Entertainment president who developed Friends while at NBC), he tossed off a pitch for a romantic comedy he hadn’t been able to crack, about a guy breaking up the wedding of a girl he loved. The twist? The story is actually about the couple that broke up and their group of friends.

Lightbulbs and greenlights followed. Tarses came aboard as an executive producer and brought it to Sony, which sold it to ABC. Caspe wrote the pilot, former Late Night With Conan O’Brien head writer Jonathan Groff was tapped to run the show with him, and a diverse cast was assembled, headed by…Jack Bauer’s daughter? While best known for her turn as the oft-in-peril Kim on 24, Cuthbert decided it was time to go for laughs instead. ”I felt like I had to reinvent myself because Kim Bauer was such a distinct character,” she says. ”I needed to show that I wasn’t a one-trick pony.” Joining her was writer-performer Wilson (who’d been let go by SNL after two seasons); Adam Pally (Californication), a close friend of Wilson’s from the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe; Wayans (The Other Guys); Coupe (Scrubs); and Knighton, whom ABC allowed to leave the all-but-canceled FlashForward.

They shot the pilot in March 2010 and found out in December that Happy would finally premiere…the following April. At 10 p.m. (Worse yet, by the time Happy Endings debuted, America had already rejected NBC’s latest sextet comedy, Perfect Couples, and the Fox ensemble Traffic Light.) As ABC started airing back-to-back episodes of Happy Endings out of sequence, Hollywood nodded knowingly: The network was burning it off. While Caspe remained ”naively” optimistic, the Happy cast was bumming. ”We all were like, ‘Why don’t they just slide us in between a few cartoons on Saturday morning?’ ” remembers Coupe. ”It was like a trail of tears,” recalls Wilson. ”I was like, ‘I guess I’m back out hitting the pavement, peddling my wares around this hateful town.’ ” (A few actors even signed on to star in pilots as a backup plan: Pally shot NBC sitcom BFF, while Wayans joined the cast of Fox’s now-breakout hit New Girl.)

ABC’s Falvey acknowledges that the show — which averaged about 5.1 million viewers (including DVR playback) in its first mini-season — could have been better promoted but insists the network wasn’t trying to cut bait. ”With our limited resources by midseason, we wanted to make sure we were [putting] it in a protected time period,” she says. Encouraged by the show’s crafty creative direction, promising 18-to-34 numbers, rampant social-media activity, and strong appeal with affluent viewers (it currently ranks 10th among 18- to 49-year-olds in homes earning $100,000-plus), ABC chose to give Happy Endings the plum post-Modern Family slot on Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. for its second season. There, it’s been averaging 8.1 million viewers; while that’s quite a drop from Modern Family‘s 16.8 million viewers, Happy now ranks as ABC’s second-youngest-skewing show (behind Modern Family), and execs stand by their decision. Says Falvey, ”The plans are to provide it as much stability as we can. We feel like we’re onto something and we don’t want to let that go right now.”

The show of confidence from the network was warranted: Happy Endings continues to tighten its comedy and has been winning over some critics who initially dismissed it as a Friends clone. It’s also now earning even more fans through word of mouth. ”What’s cool is that people felt like they discovered this,” notes Knighton. ”It didn’t get shoved down people’s throats.” The sitcom impresses in myriad ways, from its layers of amahzing inside jokes to that unconventional, slovenly Max. ”I played him like a dude,” shrugs Pally. ”I gave him no affectation at all. It can be arch, like ‘The Gay That’s Not Gay.’ So you’ve got to find another dimension to it.”

The heart of Happy‘s success, though, comes from the sixsome’s combustible chemistry. It’s not just for the cameras. They bonded early and often at bars during the pilot shoot, continue to hang out at watering holes and on set after work, and make a point of getting together during vacation weeks. ”I’m the only one in the cast who does not drink, so what they forget in the morning, I have locked into my memory forever and I journal about that s—,” quips Coupe, ”and someday I’m going to expose the f— out of them.” Chuckles Wilson: ”It’s six weirdos playing six different types of weirdos. Everyone’s very different than their character, but insane. When guest stars come on, they’re a little like, ‘We get it. You guys are friends. You think you’re funny.’ ” Perhaps it’s of little surprise that the actors sometimes ad-lib their own jokes, part of a best-line-wins spirit that’s embraced down to the sound mixer, who suggested a punchline that capped a scene in an episode earlier this season.

Some upcoming plots to ponder: In the Dec. 7 Christmas episode, ”we’ll see two main characters kiss, and it won’t be a joke,” hints Caspe. In the second half of the season, which starts up Jan. 4, brace for the reveal of an unexpected crush and a boyfriend (Lone Star‘s James Wolk) for Max. ”This group is hard to crack, but somebody quickly and surprisingly is dropped into the middle of the group and does well,” teases Groff. Megan Mullally will return as Penny’s mom — and strike up a flirtation with Dave’s dad, while the gang will have to grapple with Dave’s serious V-neck addiction.

Question is: Will more of America become addicted to Happy? All in due time. ”We’re like the booty-call show,” says Wayans. ”It’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna hit that, but I’m gonna go see who else is down here. You’re not getting the title — I’m not calling you my girlfriend yet.’ But as long as they keep coming over, we get to cook ’em dinner.” He smiles coyly. ”We’re definitely working our way to the title. We’ll be patient.”

Happy Beginnings
New to the show? Here are the five episodes (available on iTunes and Amazon) to watch.

1. Dave of the Dead
The premise would be funny enough — aggro Jane and schlumpy Max compete over who would survive a zombie attack, while Dave quits his job and buys a food truck. But it’s Penny’s hipster-in-training that kills — and demonstrates the show’s generational smarts.

2. The Shershow Redemption
Gathered for a friend’s wedding, Penny delivers a hilarious drunken toast, and Alex and Dave address their ditched-at-the-altar issues head-on. A perfect blend of quotables (”gafety”) and Happy‘s softer (but never saccharine) side.

3. Blax, Snake, Home
From the pure zaniness of the opening scene to Penny’s flapper-theme housewarming (which she spends in sweats eating ”couch ice cream”), the season 2 premiere was a gratifying welcome back for the show.

4. Spooky Endings
Penny wears Max in a baby carrier, Alex gets mistaken for a drag queen, Brad and Jane spend the 31st getting egged in the suburbs, and Happy instantly launches into the Halloween Hall of Fame alongside Roseanne and The Simpsons.

5. The Code War
With the simple concept of Max and Dave at odds, breaking bro codes from dressing to dating, ”War” shows how Happy can be laugh-out-loud funny, even without the frills. —Tanner Stransky

Episode Recaps

Happy Endings

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