As hapless romantic Penny Hartz on ABC’s Happy Endings, Casey Wilson has survived a gauntlet of comic humiliations that put her character in a full-body cast, a “prescription helmet,” and a close-quarters Halloween costume with co-star Adam Pally. The eternally game Wilson has tackled such scenarios with an aplomb and commitment befitting an alumna of the Upright Citizens Brigade and Saturday Night Live. She’s the heart of Happy Ending’s six-person ensemble (which makes Eliza Coupe’s Jane the brains and Pally’s Max the stomach), but she isn’t afraid to sacrifice a limb for comedy purposes. As the series returns from its winter hiatus, it appears that its mythical, frequently postponed “Year Of Penny” has finally dawned: Wilson’s character is recently engaged, poised to reconnect with her estranged father (played by guest star Andy Richter), and in one future episode, set to make her musical-theater dreams come true. So in other words, there are more chances for Wilson to soar while Penny plummets. In anticipation of Happy Endings’ move to Friday nights at 9 p.m.—where it will finish out its third season with back-to-back episodes airing through the spring—Wilson spoke with The A.V. Club about the show’s chances for renewal, what she learned about physical comedy through clowning, and the highs and lows of the Real Housewives franchise.
The A.V. Club: At this point, what’s the best way to help secure a fourth season for Happy Endings?
Casey Wilson: Watch on Friday. I think Friday is amazing: You can pre-game with Happy Endings, or you can simply turn in after Happy Endings. Whichever you prefer. I’m hoping people watch on Friday, but I think we have a good chance of coming back. I really do. The last episodes we’ve shot are so funny and crazy and great, and I feel confident and hopeful.
AVC: At what point should viewers worry that it isn’t going to happen?
CW: I think viewers should worry next October if they’ve turned on the TV and simply haven’t seen us at all. But I’m not even thinking like that. I’m not even going there at all. I’m using positive thinking.
AVC: And that’s why those questions were phrased that way.
CW: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know. It’s okay. Our show has always been the little engine that could, and we’ve always sort of turned up. We’ve never exactly been in the greatest position throughout: We started midseason, then they moved us around, and we’ve always hung on, because if people are watching the show, they’re really loving it, and they’re very vocal about it. We have a great core audience of people I like to call “visionaries.” [Feigns flattery.] They really have great taste and I think they’re visionaries and tastemakers. They consistently watch the show, which is amazing, and you’re just kind of trying to get more people, more eyeballs.
AVC: Do you feel that underdog position gives the cast and writers a unique drive?
CW: Yeah, I do. I think everyone’s reaction if there is any type of setback with any scheduling is, “Let’s make an even funnier show.” That’s everyone’s goal, no matter what: to make the funniest, best show possible. That trickles down from the creator, David Caspe, on down. No matter what’s going on with the scheduling, we’re making the best show possible. So no matter what happens, we feel really good about what we’re doing.
AVC: So with Nick Zano’s Pete entering the picture this year, is season three actually the Year Of Penny?
CW: It would seem that season three is the true Year Of Penny, since she’s gotten what she’s always wanted, which is to be engaged. We’ll have to see how it all plays out. Now it’s up to her to see if she can handle getting what she wants.
AVC: Did you go into the season knowing that this was the year Penny would get a long-term-relationship story?
CW: I did, yeah. The writers kind of mapped little story arcs for everyone, and I did notice that Penny was going to get engaged. I think the first two seasons were so much about Penny dating and being a complete loser. [Laughs.] And she’s still all of those things, thankfully. But it’s funny to me to see those girls where—and I’ve been this way myself—all they want is a boyfriend, or all you want is that thing. And they unravel once they have it. They still have all their other issues, now they just have this other thing. So there can be a lot of comedy in that.
AVC: Were you eager to see how that change in relationship status affected other characters on the show?
CW: Yeah. Penny and Jane have had a lot more storylines this year—doing the wedding planning and that insane scene where Jane and she are, basically, it seems like an infomercial they’re doing for Pete to sell the wedding. [Laughs.] That was just so strange. Separate from the Pete thing, over the summer, I said I wanted to do more scenes with Damon Wayans Jr., and we did the episode where we kill Alex’s bird. And we have another episode coming up where we both perform in a musical Penny has written. And it’s one of the most rinky-dink, sad musicals of all time. So I got to work with Damon a lot more this year, which is just a dream.
AVC: That “infomercial” scene feels reminiscent of the old Sweeney Sisters sketches from Saturday Night Live. Is that the vibe you were going for?
CW: It does! That’s exactly right! We didn’t know what to do with it at first, but it came together really quickly, and the writers were on set, and it turned into this strange, kind of informative, QVC/Lawrence Welk show. It’s a weird thing. I was thinking of when Maya Rudolph hosted SNL, and she did this weird sketch with Kristen Wiig that I loved so much, where they were game-show hosts. And I’m sure that was even better than what we were doing, but we were loving those types of things, and ended up putting them together. Drawing inspiration.
AVC: There’s a particular chemistry among the Happy Endings cast, which was evident from an early point in the show’s run. How would you rate Nick Zano’s ability to incorporate himself into a dynamic that’s existed for nearly three years?
CW: He was great. He doesn’t identify as a comedian, which allows him to be very funny and likeable and not threatening to the rest of us. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t necessarily want to walk onto our set, you know, and contrary to what has been said a few times, I think we’re so welcoming. We do this show every year called Happy Endings Live at Upright Citizens Brigade—that Adam Pally and I put together—and Nick jumped into it with his girlfriend, Kat Dennings. They both were in the show with us, and he just fit in great.
AVC: When did you discover your knack for physical comedy?
CW: After college. I did this sketch at Upright Citizens Brigade called “Paralyzed Stripper”—which I ended up doing at SNL. I thought it was kind of a funny idea, and after, I thought, “Oh, you can make people laugh without saying anything.” Just physically. Then I realized I had a good combination of not caring what happens to my physical body, which I think is all it takes to do physical comedy. Just a lack of awareness of your body in space. This almost sounds cliché to say—a female who is a comedian looks up to and respects Lucille Ball—but I do. And I’m also loving Melissa McCarthy. She’s such a physical comedian, and so funny. It’s this nice throwback. You don’t see it as much—a lot of times in comedy, you just see people sitting and talking, and the comedy is coming from the dialogue, but I just love watching anyone doing anything physical.
AVC: So in terms of that lack of awareness, you never have thoughts in the back of your mind like, “I might get hurt doing this.”
CW: I do think that, and I actually have gotten hurt more this year than I ever had. So maybe once the thought enters your head, that’s what you’re hurtling toward: getting hurt. [Laughs.] We’re shooting the finale right now at the Biltmore [Hotel], and I’m supposed to knock over a tray of drinks and, of course, I basically turned it into a full fall, and they were like, “Can we bring it down? It doesn’t need to be a 10-minute bit.” [Laughs.] “Just fall and leave. Or don’t even fall, just walk by.” And I was like, “Why am on the ground, on all fours, sliding around on the floor?” I think, yes, in my older age, I’m scared of getting hurt. I think, “Oh gosh, I’m getting old,” where before, I wouldn’t even have cared or thought about it.
AVC: Did any of this come from the clown class you took during college?
CW: It did, to be honest. I took a clown class at NYU—that’s where I met June Diane Raphael, my writing partner and best friend. We met in that clown class, and then I took another one at this kind of straight-acting school called The Actors Center—and I really have learned so much from that, because it’s literally no words, it’s just moving your body through space and trying to make people laugh. We had this exercise called The Ring Of Fire where you stood up in a semicircle of your classmates and you couldn’t leave until you had made every single person belly-laugh. And you can’t speak. And if one person wasn’t laughing, you had to stay up there. We had people up there for four hours—it was agonizing, like being at a comedy club where someone is bombing, and you can’t leave. And I would laugh the loudest every single time, and my teacher had to say, “We know you’re faking it. Stop trying to be nice.” In that class, I kind of learned that being very angry can be funny, anything physical is funny. So basically, any cheap laugh, I will go for it.
AVC: How long did you have to stay in The Ring Of Fire?
CW: I don’t remember how long I was in there, but it felt like an eternity. It was sort of the final project, and I remember sweating in bed, lying awake—and it does raise the question of, “What are you doing with your life if you’re standing up in a red nose? What happened in my childhood that led me down the path of wearing homeless-lady clothes and a red nose and having to make people laugh?” It was fun, but when you really look at it, it’s kind of sad.
AVC: One of Penny’s most physical scenes in the third season involves a Segway—had you ever ridden one before filming that scene?
CW: I had not ridden a Segway. I just got on it that day, and surprisingly didn’t find it that hard. Although I don’t know if I could do it again. It was just one of those things: I got on there, and it was really fun. I don’t know how that happened, but it did work out well, where I was just learning, so being off my balance was good. That’s an example where you just hope you don’t get hurt. [Laughs.] Something that’s good in the mini-culture of Happy Endings is that the goal is to try and make each other laugh. There is a pretty high bar, and you want to make the writers laugh, and you want to elevate what’s already great material—and also, we’re like, “Who is even watching this? Let’s just go for it.” So there’s a freedom to try and do as much as you can to make each other laugh. I care enough about other people’s opinion to really just go for it, and kind of have no shame in anything, and just try to make people laugh.
David Caspe says of our cast that there are no passers. Which sucks for the writers, because they try to get us to read straight lines, but we have these six people who always want to—I’m going to use a basketball term, and I don’t know if it’s right—but “drive to the hoop”? It’s interesting that there are no passers, but I think everyone is passing all the time as well.
AVC: They’re passing and shooting at the same time. They’re multitasking.
CW: They’re passing, then immediately asking, “Pass it back.”
AVC: Andy Richter plays Penny’s dad in an upcoming episode. How was that experience?
CW: It was amazing. The first time I ever came to L.A., I wanted to see a studio taping, and I saw this show he did called Quintuplets. It was just a sitcom, but you’re kind of lulled into the audience, they’re giving you candy, and you’re so hyped-up. I saw the same scene probably 20 times, and I was cackling louder and louder every time, and I was like, “This is Hollywood!” And then Andy ended up playing my dad, and it was special for me, because I remember so vividly seeing that taping and wondering how I could do that. [Jokingly.] “How could I have Quintuplets?” And I’ve done Conan two times, and Andy’s always been so sweet, and he kind of comes from a similar circle of comedians from UCB and Chicago. Everyone’s seen the cut and said that he is funny, but it’s also very moving. Penny’s father has been out of the picture her whole life.
AVC: Did your relatively small real-life age difference come up at all?
CW: [Laughs.] It’s a larger age difference than you might think, sir. No, we laughed about it. We thought about it, and he’d had to have been 16 when Penny was born. So in one of the lines from the show, it’s said that he and Megan Mullally, who plays Penny’s mom, were 16 and doing Shakespeare In The Park—and each other in the parking lot.
AVC: What parts of Penny are reflected in Andy’s performance?
CW: We’ve seen that Penny, even though she works in PR, is kind of a song-and-dance gal at heart, like her mom. Megan’s character is a singer, and now, once we see Andy, she has even more of a tie with musical theater, and that’s why she goes back to her own roots and writes a musical herself. Andy’s character is very sweet, and there’s a reveal about his character that will put a lot of the pieces of Penny’s life into great relief. Everything will make sense with the reveal of Andy’s character. He’s kind of a missing link. She’ll see, “Oh, this is why my life is this way.” He may or may not be a homosexual.
AVC: You’re a fan of Bravo’s Real Housewives shows. If you could recommend one of the series within the franchise to a newcomer, which would it be, and why?
CW: Well if someone’s never seen them, I’d say don’t start, because you won’t stop. If you’ve never seen them, then just don’t go down that road. I’m always partial to Orange County. I am OC OG, because that was the first one that came on, and I was so fascinated by these animals. [Laughs.] These animals in dresses.
People make fun of it—and there’s so much to make fun of—but for actresses, it’s such a character study. My girlfriends and I did a show at UCB called The Realest Real Housewives where we took transcripts from different cities and different seasons and reenacted the best scenes. Perfectly transcribed, we didn’t add anything to it. They say it’s hard to find good parts for women, but by opening up the canon—the glorious canon of the Housewives franchise—these are the Madea-esque roles for women, and some of the best roles I’ve ever played in my life. Each one is their own Bette Davis-like creation. But I would say start off with Orange County. Then if you want to just take it easy, try New York. Atlanta, I’ve come to love. It’s insanity. Miami can be skipped, except for Mama Elsa.
AVC: Miami is supposed to be the most lacking in the franchise.
CW: You don’t need to get into Miami. New Jersey is a little coarse for even me. I have my standards, okay?