Eliza Coupe first came to the attention of most TV fans for her role as the driven, hard-charging Denise on Scrubs, a character so well-done that her role grew from a four-episode guest spot to a series regular for the show’s final season, which was very nearly a spinoff centered on Denise. But she had been working in film and TV for years before that, and her one-woman show, The Patriots, had been hugely acclaimed at the Aspen Comedy Festival. Coupe’s latest role is as Jane, a type-A personality who’s the surrogate mother of the group of friends at the center of the show Happy Endings. The show, which debuted in April and was expected to be burned off and canceled, unexpectedly found a cult audience and was not only renewed but given ABC’s best time slot—Wednesdays at 9:30 Eastern, right after Modern Family. Its first season is recently out on DVD, and the second season began airing last week. Coupe recently talked with The A.V. Club about the unusual airing and renewal experience for Happy Endings, her HBO show that never saw the light of day despite filming six episodes, and what working on a one-woman show taught her about working with an ensemble.
The A.V. Club: Last year at this time, you guys were filming, but Happy Endings didn’t air for months and months, and then some of the other cast members found new work. Was there ever a point where you said, “Maybe I should go and find something else?”
Eliza Coupe: Yeah, big time. I was like, “They are really just sending this one out to pasture.” I even chopped off all my hair. I was like, “Well, this isn’t going anywhere.” We were really talking about it, my manager and I, just like, “Okay, well, you know…” I actually read a couple scripts. I’d read New Girl. I’d read all sorts of scripts, just seeing what was out there. And I ended up getting a movie, so I took off and went to China [to film] about a day after I found out that the show had been picked up. It kind of worked out, but it was one of those things where it was like, “This isn’t going anywhere; let’s just move on.”
AVC: And you had filmed all 13 episodes before it even aired, right?
EC: Yup. I feel like we’ve been doing this show for about five years now.
AVC: TV’s so dependent on audience reaction. What was that like, having it in a vacuum?
EC: It was weird. I think it was actually really great for us, because we didn’t know what people liked and disliked, so we just kind of went with what we liked or disliked. We went with what we thought was funny. It’s a really funny, talented, smart group of people all around, from the writers to the showrunner to the creator to the actors. I think collectively we all just felt it out, and it was like, “Okay, this works; this doesn’t,” and we were kind of our own audience. It was actually kind of great. I’m interested to see what happens this year. We’re filming and on the air. It will change the dynamic.
AVC: So many shows about young people and their relationships debuted last season, and this is the last one standing. Were you surprised by the renewal?
EC: Well, I think what was crazy is that it was so unexpected. Because we were put on at an insane time, a brand-new time slot [10 p.m. Eastern] that was like uncharted territory. Not even midseason, it was past midseason. It was like its own little category of, kind of like, “We’re gonna just watch this show die,” is what we all felt. So when we were renewed, it was a huge surprise, but at the same time, in the back of all of our minds, we were like, “We know this product is good. We know the show is good. We know that we are good. We know that it’s different.” For me, I was split down the middle, as far as I was like, “It’s a good show, it should be renewed,” but all the odds were against us. So it was a very wonderful thing to hear that we’d been renewed. It was pretty amazing, actually.
AVC: It seemed like a cult audience found the show right away. When people come up to you and they’re really excited about the show, what are the things they seem to like about it?
EC: I think what people liked about it was that it was a similar feel to Friends, but a little bit edgier. It’s not a multi-cam; it’s a single cam. So it had that feel, which is what people seem to be really latching onto these days. I think because it’s very relatable for people of a lot of different age groups. Obviously, it’s more 18-year-olds, all the way up to—even my parents love it, and they’re in their late 50s. I think that it’s because we also do a lot of improv on the show, which we obviously lock in and turn it into something that’s scripted, so it’s not completely off-the-cuff. But sometimes it is, and I think because of that more conversational, authentic feel, it’s a lot more relatable than perhaps some of the more perfectly scripted shows.
AVC: Two-thirds of the cast comes out of the world of sketch and improv comedy, but Elisha Cuthbert and Zachary Knighton are better known for dramatic roles. What’s that improvising and riffing process like on set?
EC: It’s pretty incredible. The writing is so good, I have to say. Even when we have table reads, it’s like, “Wow.” They write it as though it’s improv. It flows so seamlessly and so beautifully, and it seems so authentic. So that alone takes out a whole step in the improv process, because there’s so much to go off of. All we have to do is push it a little bit further, and maybe put something into our own words where it sounds like we’re having a real conversation.
But when we’re on set, it’s pretty great. We do the rehearsal, and then some of us will pitch ideas, and David Caspe, the creator, and Jonathan Groff, the showrunner, come in. And the writer is there, and also the director—especially Fred Savage, who’s directing this week, is so hands-on and pitches some incredible ideas. And we all just kind of collectively say, “You know what? This would sound better this way.” Even the actors are pitching jokes for other actors, and ideas of things we could do physically. Sometimes we don’t even change the words, but it’s a physical thing that we do that then kind of informs the words. We kind of work it until we find it. And sometimes, it ends up being the thing that’s scripted, and other times, it’s completely different. Yesterday, we basically rewrote an entire scene on set, with all of us pitching our ideas.
AVC: Did Elisha and Zachary catch on to improvising quickly? Had they done it before?
EC: I don’t know that they’d ever done that before, but they caught on so quick. It’s great. You wouldn’t be able to tell that they don’t come from a sketch-comedy background. They can roll with the punches, and they have great ideas. We all throw stuff out. We all fail, too. We try stuff out, and it’s not all gold. I’ll pitch a joke and say, “Yeah, this is what I wanna do.” Then, I’ll go to do it and say, “Yup, the writing was better than my idea,” and I’ll go back to it. I think we’re all very comfortable with, “You know what? We’re gonna try this. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but at least we’re giving it a try.” We’re all working together toward the same goal, which is to just get whatever’s gonna be the best thing possible out there.
AVC: There are a lot of shows where the writers get very upset if you change the script. Have you been on a show like that before?
EC: I don’t know that they get very upset if you mess with their words; I think that they just have a very specific vision for what they’ve written. I’ve been on a couple shows where you just don’t change things. I actually got used to that a little bit. When I did Scrubs, we were able to always do one as scripted, and then we got to play a little bit and do some stuff. I thought that was pretty loose, but then coming on Happy Endings, it’s even looser.
But we do have writers that always want to get one as scripted. That’s theirs, and we have ours. Everybody deserves that, I think. I actually respect that. They wrote something very specific, they want to see their words out there. They know exactly how they want it to be. I personally always like to give back to them, but I also think it’s important that if we can say the same thing, and I can say it in my words, which is gonna sound more natural to me, and feel more natural, then let me try that, too. That’s acceptable on our set, but I’ve definitely been on the ones where that is not okay.
AVC: You, Adam Pally, and Casey Wilson all came out of Upright Citizens Brigade. Had you worked together before this show?
EC: No. I did know them in New York, sort of. I knew them through other people. I’d seen some of their shows at UCB. I was there more than I was in my crappy little apartment. I definitely knew who they were. I never worked with them, though. I didn’t go through the ranks at UCB; I didn’t go through the classes. I had a one-person show that ended up being directed by the artistic director of the UCB, Anthony King. And he actually directed Adam Pally’s show, too, so that’s kind of interesting.
AVC: What was your experience doing that one-person show, The Patriots?
EC: It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I did five characters, and each of them were about five minutes long. It was very simple. I did it at UCB in New York, and from there, it went on to the Aspen Comedy Festival and I won the Breakout Performer Award. It was the door that opened everything for me. I was a breath away from being fired from my job waiting tables in Times Square. I was also a bathroom attendant for private parties, ’cause I had no money. After that show, I got an agent, I got a job, and then I got an HBO show right after that, which nobody ever saw, called 12 Miles Of Bad Road with Lily Tomlin. Doing [The Patriots] was an incredible experience for me because it just opened all doors. I actually love performing live, and I’ve been really considering remounting my show and perhaps even turning it into more of an hour-long [thing], with more characters.
AVC: What do you think doing a one-woman show taught you about working in an ensemble comedy, if anything?
EC: Well, it is a one-person show, so it’s just working with me. [Laughs.] I don’t really know what it taught me about doing an ensemble [show]. I definitely know how I work, and I think that once you know how you work, it’s easier to work with others. Because if you have no idea how you work, then you kind of are like, “Wait, should I work like that person? What are they doing?” If you have a strong sense of who you are and what you’re doing, then it’s actually easier to work with other people, because you don’t have to worry about them or yourself. You’re just worrying about getting the best product, and all that other stuff is out of the way. I just know that, for myself, I know what my comedy is, and I know how I need to get to a point of, I guess, being comfortable. I just know my process, and by knowing my process, I can work better with other people.
AVC: You came in late on the last two seasons of Scrubs. That show had a very intense audience. What was it like to come into a show that late and have it be one that people just adored?
EC: It was such a weird experience because I was living in New York. I’d just found out the HBO show that was supposed be, like, the biggest thing in the world—it was supposed to be some huge hit, Newsweek had said it was gonna be some great thing, people were really excited, and I was one of the leads—got completely canned. And I took a meeting with [Scrubs creator] Bill Lawrence, and he was like, “I’ll have you come on and do this guest spot for four episodes, and we’ll see what happens.” So then I came out from New York and got on that. I was just like, “Okay, so it’ll be four episodes.”
It was a brand-new character. Bill and I talked about it, and I had a lot of say in the character, and we kind of developed it together. I mean, he did, but… Anyway, I thought I was going on for four episodes, so I didn’t really know what I was in for. And going onto a show where they were like family; they’d been doing it for eight years. I felt like, “Okay, I’m just the new kid, but they have guest stars all the time. So I’m only for four episodes, big deal. It’ll then be over.” And then four episodes turned into 11 episodes, and then turned into another whole season. So, it was nice because I didn’t know what I was in for, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t make it a big deal, ’cause I was just like, “Oh, I’m coming on to do a thing, and then I’ll leave.” And I ended up never leaving until it was over.
AVC: When they went on to do the final, pseudo-spinoff season, were you contracted before they picked that up?
EC: No. I had gone out for pilots. I didn’t know. I had no idea that the show was coming back. I had no clue. And then Bill called me and said, “So, we’re doing this again.” And I was like, “Well, okay, great. I need a job. Awesome.”
AVC: You’re known for playing very intense characters. Is that who you are in real life, or is that very different from yourself?
EC: No, I’d say I’m a pretty intense person. I’m definitely not my Denise character on Scrubs, nor my Jane character on Happy Endings, but I’m a mix of the two. I really feel that I’m kind of every character that I’ve ever played; it’s just a part of me. And I am a bit of a control freak like Jane. I’m very, perhaps, obsessive like that. And I’m also sardonic like my character, Denise. I can tap into all of that very easily, but it’s definitely not who I am. I’m a kid from New Hampshire who’s pretty normal.
AVC: Did 12 Miles Of Bad Road just get caught in the HBO leadership changes?
EC: I think that’s pretty much what it was. I think it was a combination of that, and then the writers’ strike happened, and we were just a casualty of that. It’s a shame. It was a really incredible experience for me, and a really incredible part, actually. I feel like ever since then, my manager and I are still searching for that part. We’re searching for that gem, because it was an incredible part.
AVC: Six episodes were shot, right?
EC: Yeah, and they were all done.
AVC: Is there any way those will ever see the light of day?
EC: I’ve thought about leaking them, but then I found out that I can’t. It’ll be linked back to me. HBO rules the world, or something, so they’ll find out that it was me that leaked them, and you can’t do that. But I wish that people could see it because it is quite good. Lily Tomlin and Mary Kay Place and Gary Cole and Leslie Jordan and Kim Dickens. I mean, what an incredible cast. It was amazing, and it’s a shame. I would love for people to see it, but I really believe that everything is as it’s supposed to be, so it wasn’t supposed to see the light of day, and that’s okay. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t have gotten Scrubs, and I feel like doing Scrubs was like going to comedy school, but just sped up, and real fast and hard. I had to learn on my feet, and I think I’m better for it.
AVC: You did a guest spot on Community last year. Is that something that could potentially exist again, or will Happy Endings take up too much time this year?
EC: I don’t know. They’ve never talked to me about it. I know that a lot of people seem to like the idea of that. [Community executive producers] The Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, are producers on [Happy Endings] as well. I haven’t heard anything from those guys. It was a really random thing. I got a call from Joe Russo saying, “Hey, why don’t you come do this thing on Community?” And I was like, “Okay.” So I went and did it, and I didn’t really think much of it. So, we’ll see. I have no idea if it will come back.
AVC: What’s coming up in season two of Happy Endings for you?
EC: Jane’s a bit of a wackjob. [Laughs.] She’s getting even wackier than last season, which is very fun for me because I loosely base this character off of myself—a small side of me that I’m putting under a magnifying glass—but also, my mother and my aunts in New England, and the wackiness of them. So it’s kind of fun to be able to tap into that a little bit more.
In the second episode, Jane sort of has a baby out there in the world somewhere, a daughter, and there’s a possible kidnapping of that daughter. What else does my character do? Oh, Brad [Damon Wayons, Jr., who plays her husband] and Jane take an improv class, and we find out how well that does. Brad and Jane, we see a lot more of their relationship this year. Just kind of how wacky it is, and how much they’re just so perfect for each other. Damon and I have so much fun playing with these characters. Yesterday, we did some insane stuff. And that’s the thing, too, is Damon and I find stuff on the day of shooting. In the moment, we find stuff. He pitches jokes to me, and I pitch jokes to him, and we, together, have become a pretty great team, as to how to really get the best work out of each other. It’s really fun.