Comedy Showrunners Week: David Caspe & Jonathan Groff on Happy Endings’ underdog appeal

Comedy Showrunners Week: David Caspe & Jonathan Groff on Happy Endings’ underdog appeal

Comedy is a more important part of the television landscape than ever before, thanks in part to a generation of highly visible creators, writers, and executive producers who balance the work of maintaining a show’s artistic vision while also overseeing its day-to-day operations. In anticipation of the new fall TV seasonThe A.V. Club spoke to a handful of the people who’ve made the industry term “showrunner” a household word. Today, we talk to Happy EndingsDavid Caspe and Jonathan Groff.

Happy Endings is the zippy little pop-culture sitcom that could: Following a surprise second-season renewal, the show branched off from and expanded upon its initial premise of a group of friends trying to stay together after one (Elisha Cuthbert) leaves another (Zachary Knighton) at the altar. In the process, it became one of the funniest single-camera shows on network television, coining catchphrases it could later mock, like Casey Wilson’s highly affected “Ah-mah-zing”; finding previously untapped reserves of comic gold in the comedy team of Damon Wayans Jr. and Adam Pally, the effervescent ditziness of Cuthbert’s Alex, and Eliza Coupe’s latent intimidation streak; and drawing on a stellar guest roster that’s included Megan Mullally, James Wolk, and, in a bizarre one-shot appearance, sports broadcaster Brent Musburger. Beginning its third season on October 23, the show moves from a cushy Wednesday-night spot behind Modern Family to face off against a competitive Tuesday-night field that includes the similarly themed New Girl and NBC’s Matthew Perry vehicle, Go On. The A.V. Club spoke with showrunners David Caspe (who created Happy Endings) and Jonathan Groff about their show’s underdog status, how they set up their characters for an uncertain future, and why it’s important for a sitcom to have at least one writer who comes from a long line of traditional storytellers.

The A.V. Club: There’s a whole lot of promise for new stories in the second-season finale, “Four Weddings And A Funeral (Minus Three Weddings And One Funeral)”: Brad loses his job, there’s a promising relationship for Penny, and Dave and Alex might be back together. How important was it to leave some threads hanging that could then be picked up in a third season?

David Caspe: We’ve never really known how many episodes we’re ever going to have. Going on first season, you’re trying to be unserialized because you want to get as many viewers popping in at any time, not needing to have seen the previous episodes to know where they are, so you don’t really go serialized first season. Second season, you get a 13-episode order, you don’t know that you’re going to get nine more, so you don’t really do arcs because you don’t know when to finish them. So this is the first time that we’ve had a 22-episode order from the beginning, so I think knowing that, we all got excited to try to start to do some arcs that will become more interesting for the fans and help with generating stories, and see the characters go in different directions. We knew we wanted to do that, so we knew that it was important to have stuff left over at the end of last year, to start with that stuff. For instance, Brad is out of work as we start the season, and Dave and Alex build on that hand-holding moment at the end of the finale. And Penny will begin the episode with Brian Austin Green. That is the most we can say.

Jonathan Groff: Honestly, it’s nice to have some threads to run to when you’re trying to figure out the stories, as opposed to just doing free-standing things all the time. We hadn’t really left much at the end of the first season except that maybe Alex was sort of thinking about whether she made the right decision in breaking up with Dave and screwing that all up and longing for him a little bit. So it felt good from a writer’s perspective to have a little bit more stuff to lean into.

AVC: But when you were writing and filming “Four Weddings,” you hadn’t received the order for a third season.

DC: We felt like what we wrote would work as a season finale, but also had it been, unfortunately, a series finale. Dave and Alex held hands, so they’re back together a little bit, Penny meets a guy that she likes, and although Brad lost his job, him and Jane seem stronger than ever. We felt like all that seemed somewhat like a conclusion, but we also thought, if we’re lucky enough to get another season, all of that stuff actually is the beginning of a lot of other stories. [Beat.] Because any great finale is really a beginning, isn’t it, Erik?

AVC: As Semisonic once sang, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

DC: Yes. I wish I would have just thought of that. 

JG: Also, in fairness to ABC, they’ve been so supportive. We did not turn into a giant hit last season, but I think they were generally happy with what we did and they were sending positive messages to us. We would never take anything for granted, and we’re so superstitious, but we also felt like, “There’s a chance. There’s a pretty good chance for us to come back. We’ve done a good job. We’ve settled into a decent groove. They like our cast a lot.” We had a feeling there was a good shot we would come back, so we wanted to leave some stuff on the table.

AVC: After leaving that big cliffhanger with Dave and Alex holding hands—which reboots the relationship whose end was the series’ inciting incident—have you paid any attention to fan reactions? Have you heard any crazy theories about what’s going to happen when the third season starts up? Because there was also an implication that Penny and Dave may end up together.

JG: Honestly, for every fan that I see that says, “Oh, I hate Dave and Penny,” I see one that says, “Oh, I love Dave and Penny”—and vice versa on Dave and Alex. It’s hard to really get a consensus on what the fans, in general, like. Some people love that we’re doing a relationship triangle. Some people hate it and just want the jokes. Obviously, we love jokes, so even while we’re handling any relationship stuff, our goal is to never have it be too soapy or heavy-handed, and try to play it as real as we can while still leaving room for jokes. 

DC: Here’s my perspective on that: The Dave and Penny thing is interesting to set up as a problem for Penny, and we could run there at some point. As much as people get invested in these relationships—and I think a lot of people do, and one of reasons people come back to shows is that reason—I feel like Dave and Alex need to have the rebound. That’s just a fact. If we rushed Dave and Penny it would never feel right. Plus, Penny and Alex are really good friends, and while it’s interesting and complicated to have that be a problem, it also could get weird in a way that’s not fun to watch, I think, if we rushed it. I think that things have to run their course before we can explore that. Not to say that it’s not something that Penny has to grapple with. This year it will be interesting when Alex catches wind of the fact that Penny has these little feelings. I think we get a little thing out of that, but we’re not blowing up these friendships.  

It felt like the honest thing to do was to have Alex and Dave play out all the fun stuff. By the way, there’s no secret: They’re together at the beginning of the season. And we’re having a lot of fun with it in exploring how they’re together and how in some ways they’re perfect for each other and in some ways it’s a mess, and the problems that they had before are still there. I think that we honestly needed to do that.

AVC: And the potential of Dave and Alex reuniting has existed since episode one. 

DC: Exactly. 

JG: So we’re going to explore that a little bit and see where that leads us.

DC: And actually, comedically, it’s been a huge benefit for us to be able to find the characters of Dave and Alex separately before we put them back together. Obviously, when you start, all you have is the pilot so you know the characters a little bit, but only in the extent of how much real estate one out of six characters in an ensemble can really, truly get out of a 21-minute show. Getting to go a full season and a half with them separated helped us to develop all six of the characters—and that includes Dave and Alex. Now it’s interesting to put those two characters together.

AVC: The second season was so much about fine-tuning these characters. What stories can you write for them now that you couldn’t last fall?

DC: In general, just finding all of the characters individually has helped us generate stories. Like I said, you know so little about the characters when you’ve only done a few episodes. It sounds really writerly and cheesy, but they sort of are what they do. When they haven’t done that much, you have ideas about them but they aren’t fully formed, so the more episodes we were able to make the more we were able to be like, “Oh yeah, that’s what Alex should always be like,” or, “That’s what Penny should always be like,” and then we run in those directions, and the more time we have to explore those characters, the more solidified those different tendencies become.

JG: It’s hard to say what different stories we can tell now that we couldn’t tell before. Honestly: not being afraid to have Dave and Alex back together. And actually not being afraid to have them have real issues that are grounded and not just dealt with as lingering over from this relationship that was unseen, that we only hear about in reference. And now we can actually explore their real couple stuff in a way where the stakes are lower almost, because they’re together and it’s not a nuclear thing that happened before that we’re referring to. 

Other than that, I don’t know if it’s that different, really. We learned early on that we can turn to each character to carry a story whether it’s emotionally or just a comedy runner, which is nice. Elisha Cuthbert has been such a fun revelation. I think she’s having a blast doing this stuff, just for example. Zach Knighton, we’ve made his character a little weirder: He’s a guy with really strong convictions about some dumb things.

One thing we do like to do is look for new combinations. We realized we hadn’t done a Penny and Brad story—Casey [Wilson] and Damon [Wayans Jr.] together—since the middle of season one. So we thought, “Let’s get those two together where they have to cover up something that they did and they get into trouble and that will be fun to watch.” We’re also going to learn how Brad and Max met. We had always thought in the back of our mind that maybe Brad and Dave had been college roommates, but we never said that on air, which I’m glad about, because we realized it might be cooler to have an origin story for Brad and Max. Not an origin story, but at least a glimpse into how they met. And that’s how Brad came into the group and met everyone else—through Max. Because in our show bible, Dave, Penny, Alex, and Jane have known each other since childhood and Max and Brad are the relative latecomers.

AVC: Now that Max is the one that’s ostensibly employed and Brad isn’t, how does that shift the dynamic between those characters?

JG: Max is going to teach Brad how to live on no dollars a day in Chicago in an episode early on. I think it gives us the freedom to get Brad out of the corporate world and into Max’s world a little bit. Literally “MaxWorld.” TM. Registered trademark.

AVC: The second season’s “The Kerkovich Way” displayed an ability to balance a complicated story with the show’s regular volume of jokes—it’s a twisty-turny plot with a lot of deceit between characters, yet it still manages to be hilarious. Is there any chance we’ll see more episodes like that in this season?

DC: Well, we definitely delve more into the Serbian past of Alex and Jane, and you meet their parents in the sixth episode of the season. So that will be more of their background and definitely through that see more of the weird Serbian shit. 

JG: That’s the type of episode that’s tricky to write for comedies, because in a way it’s a mystery. The expression in a TV writers’ room is “hiding the ball”—we were hiding the ball on what was happening in that episode in terms of Alex “Kerkovich way”-ing Dave off, with Jane schooling her on how to do that. It’s an interesting thing, because comedy relies often times on audiences knowing what’s going on and seeing how people react to what they see ahead of the characters or knowing how a character is going to react. So the mystery element of that makes for a really fun story, but weirdly, can make it hard to do jokes or comedy. We do have an episode that’s going to have elements of that which we’re looking forward to, which is a big episode where we get into a series of escalating pranks. All shows do a prank episode, but the relationships with our characters—who’s the mastermind of the most complicated prank?—will be interesting to watch. Same thing, where the audience will have to catch up a little bit.

AVC: So a lot of the third season is going to deal with deepening the show’s mythology?

JG: Yeah, I love that stuff. I worked for two years at How I Met Your Mother, and Carter [Bays] and Craig [Thomas] and that whole staff were really great at taking care of their show’s history and their relationships. And I’ve been really big on that. If we say something, we have to honor it, or if we go against it we have to have a reason for why. All shows do that, but I like the rich histories of those characters on that show, where Ted and Marshall and Lily went to college together, and that gives them a sort of depth. David in his original pilot had that built in with that idea of these two sisters, plus Penny and Dave, knowing each other forever, and I like being able access that, the strength of having a sister relationship in there, or old friends. So we flash back to kids stuff still. That’s why it’s cool when last year Dave’s dad showed up and had a point of view on Alex and Jane and it wasn’t just about the wedding, it was about something even longer-running than that: Alex had spilled chocolate milk in the back of his Delta 88 or whatever.

AVC: So when a new piece of backstory is unlocked in the writers’ room, how do you keep track of it? Is there a board that you’re writing these ideas down? Does it get added to the show bible?

DC: We have a show bible. [Beat.] That I’ve never read. But we compile all the things like this, all the facts like this, and keep track of it. We also have some writers that are a little smarter than the rest of us who are able to catalog all that shit in their minds and we always gravitate toward them when there’s a question and they’re able to keep us on track.

JG: Young, supple minds that remember stuff?

DC: Honestly, one of our best people at doing that is Sierra Ornelas. She wrote [“Full Court Dress”] last year—the one with the kids and Rob Riggle and the mailman—and she co-wrote [“The Butterfly Effect Effect”], where Max turns into a bear. She’s Native American and is a fantastic writer and a great person and also, literally, she’ll tell you, her mom’s surname is Teller, which comes from the Indian thing where her family were storytellers. She has this brain where she’s been hearing stories her whole life and thinking about stuff. She’s also a huge TV junkie and knows everything about everything in general and she’s just really great at being this archival person where we go, “What did we say about Brad’s job? What exactly does he do,” or, “Did we establish that Jane and Alex’s dad owns a mattress company? I know we saw a van in the second episode of the second season, but what was it?” And she’ll always be able to, without looking at a script, go, “We never said what the company was. We showed a beat-up old van that said ‘Kerkovich And Sons’ or ‘Kerkovich Brothers.’” She’s literally this in-house, Homeric record keeper.

Then other people, too, are really good at remembering: Todd Linden, who actually now is a writer on another ABC show, put together a really good bible last year just by going through everything and reminding us of where everybody met and how many stepparents Penny has and stuff like that.

JG: [Jokingly.] So all those who are up in arms about the genocide we enacted on the Native American people can take heart that one of the Native American people is helping us keep track of the bible for our ABC sitcom. 

AVC: The post-Modern Family timeslot treated the show very well last season. How does it feel to now anchor an hour of comedy on Tuesday nights?

DC:  Quite scary. It’s a tough timeslot. We are going up against some established shows.

JG: We’re really, really, really nervous. We feel we have the exact same audience as NCIS.

DC: [Laughs.]

JG: And we know fans are going to TiVo both shows and hopefully… no, listen. There are a lot of good options for people at 9 o’clock. We love our show and think we have a great, funny show. It’s going to be some competition. And I think everyone knows that.

DC: The show has always been an underdog from the beginning, so it just feels like us. Obviously we’re all really freaked out. Jon is joking, but we do have a very similar audience to New Girl—except the fact that theirs is twice as big. 

JG: [Laughs.]

DC: So we anticipate that it’s going to be a rough road for us starting out, but the show’s had a rough road from the beginning. It sort of feels like it wouldn’t be Happy Endings if it wasn’t walking into an ass-kicking.

JG: And the good news is, we don’t have to worry as much about disappointing or bumming out people who watch Modern Family. We come out with a joke about Penny splashing water on her hush in the bathroom of an Au Bon Pain for an opening monologue and people are like, “Ah! What happened to Ty Burrell?”

On the other hand, we loved that timeslot and we loved that opportunity to get eyeballs on the show, and we think our show has its own warmth and family connections in it, but I think ABC is doing a really cool thing staking a claim with two young-skewing, funny shows on Tuesday night. There are also other people doing the same thing, which is the problem. Obviously, I think New Girl is extremely important to [Fox] and it’s a real beachhead for them in live action, so they’re getting lots of promotion, which makes us nervous. But, we also know we have a good show. We’re going to get promotion too, because we’re coming on a little later.

DC: We have a lot of friends over there at New Girl. My hope is that both shows get to keep continuing making shows. Hopefully we both can tie.

AVC: Does that competition angle change your thinking about the show? Do the ideas for the stories in the third season have to better in order to compete?

DC: I constantly want the show to be better at every turn, regardless of anything.

JG: I do not.

DC: Jonathan does not. He actively wants it to be worse. We always want the show to be better, so, it doesn’t really matter. You play your own game and what happens, happens.

AVC: The second season of the show technically only has 21 episodes, because “KickBall 2: The Kickening” never aired in the U.S. Are you adding that episode the third season?

DC: Supposedly yeah, I think so. A few people have seen it, like in the U.K., I think it aired or something and it was screened at Outfest in L.A. It’s one of my favorite episodes we’ve done. ABC just ran out of real estate last year.

JG: We were thinking about it—we’re not actually going to be on that many times this fall. Because we’re starting late and because of election night and a vice-presidential debate, I think we only air seven originals before Christmas, and we had these arcs going from the season-two finale, so it felt a little hard to get “KickBall 2” in. We’d love it if they promoted it like a lost episode, because by the time it’s on, people’s haircuts are going to be different and it’s going to look a little different. And we’re going to be into other relationship stuff that won’t quite completely track. The good news about the episode is that it’s a romp. It’s a lot of kickball. It’s a really fun episode. Very ambitious. Gail Lerner, one of the co-EPs last year, directed it and it was her first time directing a television show. She did a really nice job.

AVC: Now that Seth Morris is a regular on Go On, is that episode the last we’ll ever hear from his character, Scotty?

DC: You know, most actors tend to have three outs to do guest stars on other shows. I don’t know if he’s in every episode of Go On or how it works, but obviously we loved him and would love to have him back whenever we can. But if we can’t because he’s doing so well, we’re happy for him.

JG: We also had Brett Gelman on in season one, and he’s also on that show.

AVC: These other shows are just picking off your recurring players.

DC: Go On is on against us, too.

JG: I just think the rise of people coming out of that world Seth and Brett are coming out of is really just happening. To put funny people in your shows is such a good plan, and I think they just instantly turn it on, they have chemistry with the casts. Not just our show, any show. Those guys were no secret…

[Co-executive producer] Josh Bycel, who made a pilot this year once we wrapped, he and [American Dad writer-producer] Jon Fener had Brett as a series regular on a pilot for ABC. I think they had him in first position, I think he was just a guest star on Go On. He’s just super-funny.

DC: Yeah, and obviously with all those people we’re just happy they got a job they love. It’s great for them, so we’re happy. 

JG: We had Rob Corddry the other day for an episode and he’s coming back next week. If we can get him to come play with us every once in a while, we’d be thrilled. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to do with Megan Mullally and Damon Wayans Sr. and Michael McKean already on the board as parents for our characters, that’s really good, too.

AVC: Can you say who’s going to be playing the Kerkovich parents?

DC: We don’t know yet, actually. We’re casting it today or as we speak.

JG: We’re working on it. [After this interview was conducted, Christopher McDonald and Julie Hagerty were cast as Alex and Jane’s parents. —ed.] The one big idea that we had—which was sort of a pipe dream all along—was to explore the idea of Kiefer Sutherland playing Elisha’s dad again, but he’s not available, so we didn’t even go down that road, really. He’s doing Touch so that was the only thought we had like that. It’s a tricky thing, if you go to the Kiefer Sutherland world, you can’t always book those people again.

DC: Or in our case, couldn’t book them the first time. 

JG: So we’re very lucky that Megan and Michael McKean and Damon Wayans Sr. have all had a good time and have a relationship to the show, and that helps us, I think. It’s tricky, because you can get George Clooney, but you’re not going to get him again. So it’s slightly complicated. But we have a lot of options. There’s so many funny people who I think would fit in with our cast and we’re excited to find exactly the right person.

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