Happy Endings’ Adam Pally, on playing TV’s least stereotypical gay guy
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If ABC’s “six friends hanging out in Chicago” sitcom Happy Endings has a breakout character, it’s probably Max, the lazy, slovenly gay man who does his best to avoid responsibilities. As played by Adam Pally, Max is an occasionally abrasive oddball who makes for a significant break from the stereotypical gay characters on most other sitcoms. In the series’ second season, he found an unusual career, lived with his friend Dave, and even launched a short-lived relationship with a character played by James Wolk, but throughout, he remained one of TV’s most unexpectedly funny presences. Pally is a veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade, and he’s popped up in films, on TV, and in a web series called Riding Shotgun With Adam Pally. Pally sat down with The A.V. Club at the Television Critics Association summer press tour to discuss season three of Happy Endings, why so many people in Hollywood are pursuing web comedy shorts, and whether he’d like to pursue a rivalry with Jerry Seinfeld.
The A.V. Club: This show found its voice very quickly. Was there a moment or an episode where it felt like it was really gelling for you?
Adam Pally: This is going to sound bad, but I felt it on the pilot. The show, the six of us in the cast especially, we just all got along and all had a similar sense of humor, and there was a certain electricity to it. I think luckily enough for us, we all like each other and like the job, so we’re able to replicate that on a daily basis.
AVC: The show has really improvisational rhythms, but it’s tightly scripted. How do you keep that feeling of improv while doing the scripts?
AP: Well, you can’t improvise story, which is a fact. If you could, the budget would be insane. [Laughs.] So I think the real skill is in the writers letting us take a scene and change it based on our rhythms and our jokes, and then they cultivate it and fit it into the story they’re doing. I look at it like a salad. [Aside.] This is a weird analogy. They bring you the greens, and the six of us throw our dressing and meat on it, or whatever. I don’t know who puts meat on a salad. I do. [Laughs.] Then the writers and directors are able to put it in serving bowls and give it out.
AVC: Have there been times where they’ve walked you back from something you’ve wanted to improvise?
AP: [Laughing.] Every day. Every day, I do something and they’re like, “Don’t do that.” “Fair enough.”
AVC: It feels like in the second season, there were strong story arcs for every character. Were there some that you didn’t expect to come up that surprised you?
AP: Nothing surprises me on Happy Endings, because the show—I think one of the awesome things about the show is that it’s so open to doing anything. We could do a genre episode. We have the green light to do whatever we want. Mostly because no one’s watching. I think that’s a gift and a curse, because there’s no pressure, so we can really get away with it, but we don’t want to fall too far into a hole where we’ve alienated anybody. I never am shocked by what they bring us, or what we get to do. I look forward to it.
AVC: Was there a particular script where you thought, “This looks like it’s going to be fun to play”?
AP: Mandonna [Max’s Madonna cover band], when I got that script, I was like, “Awesome. I get to be the lead singer of a rock band? Yeah. Yeah. I would like to do that.” So that was really fun. And I loved the storyline about Dave’s addiction to V-necks. I thought that was really cool and funny and pretty poignant, because you see a lot of people wearing V-necks, and you’re like, “Buddy, get a regular T-shirt.”
AVC: Max’s homosexuality is presented very matter-of-factly, which doesn’t happen a lot on TV, but is how it happens in real life. Did you have a conversation about that with the writers at all?
AP: No. I think that’s another testament to David Caspe and the writers. Max was always just represented matter-of-factly, and once I came in, they were able to tailor him to my strengths. But as far as the sexuality goes, we never really talk about it. The only time it does come up is when we’re doing a scene and think, “Why are we explaining so much why this person likes this other person? People know Max is a gay character, so why do we have to talk about it?” That kind of motto has taken us a long way, and I hope will take us further.
AVC: You’re probably the least stereotypical gay character on TV right now. Do you ever feel a pressure to represent a particular type or subculture?
AP: I think the least stereotypical gay character on television is probably Matt LeBlanc on Episodes. He just plays it so straight-faced. They never talk about the fact that he’s such a huge gay person. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. I try not to think about any of that stuff. I feel like once you do, then you’re thinking too much about the macro of the character, and not just about the moment. I just want to take Max moment by moment and try not to think too much outside that.
AVC: You had a relationship with the James Wolk character this season, but it didn’t last long. Do you think if Max was ever in a longer-term relationship that would hurt the character?
AP: No, I don’t. I think it would be fun to see, actually, and interesting. And they’ve talked about it. I think that, just where Max is in his life right now, he’s probably not ready for a long-term relationship, but I think at the end of that relationship with James Wolk’s character, you got to see that somewhere down the line, he could be. And I think that really did a lot to warm him and make him a full character.
AVC: This show does a lot of odd humor. How far do you think it can be pushed in that direction?
AP: I think we can go as far as we want. I was joking before that no one’s watching our show, but I think we’ve never had a lot of promotion. We’ve never had a lot of pressure. We’ve never had a lot of hype, so because of that, we can get away with doing whatever makes us laugh and just let the audience fall in line behind it. So I think we can really do anything. We can do flashback episodes. We can do genre episodes, like I said. I think the sky’s the limit.
AVC: You’ve mentioned a few times that the show’s ratings are low, but people seem to have found it and really glommed onto it. When people come up to talk to you about the show, what are they responding to?
AP: Well, first of all, people, when they come up to me, are like, “Did we go to high school together? Or did I make out with you at sleepaway camp?” And oftentimes, yes, that is the answer, because I went to a giant high school and made out with everybody.
No, it still feels weird to think that people watch the show. We do it for ourselves, and it’s such a dream job where you’re working with five of your friends, and the writers are amazing, so we don’t even think about that. And as far as the ratings being low, I don’t think ratings matter as much anymore. People watch it on Hulu, on Netflix. They watch clips on ABC.com. I don’t think you’re so in the box where you’ve got to get this rating number. I don’t think that matters as much anymore. People are DVR’ing it. They’re watching it at their leisure. People are buying the DVD and watching it all the way through. So I think as long as people are getting it and liking it, it’s fine.
AVC: You guys are in this new timeslot up against New Girl, among other stuff. Is that something you just don’t care about?
AP: We’ve had discussions and joked about it with each other. But it’s not something we care about. I think as far as competition goes, we’re friendly with a lot of the staff on New Girl. I’m friendly with a lot of the cast. I love the show. I think it’s great. I don’t root for it to fail at all. I root for it to succeed. I don’t think our shows are tied together. I think that though we share an audience, people will watch us, and people will watch them. I think that’s all you can do with that. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
AVC: It took a long time for the show to debut back when it was first picked up. You even did another pilot in the interim. What was that experience like?
AP: It was interesting. I think it helped us, actually, because we got to refine our show and find our voices without the pressure of ratings, so by the time that first episode hit the air, we knew who we were. It kind of gave ABC an easier time of figuring it out, and I think that’s a lot of the reason why we’re back and why we’ve been coming back. And I hope to keep coming back.
AVC: You do a web series called Riding Shotgun. Where did that arise from?
AP: Basically, Riding Shotgun came from the fact that we were not getting any promotion, and David and Jonathan [Groff] were like, “We need something for promotion, or no one’s going to watch the show.” So Fred Savage, who directed a couple episodes, agreed to shoot it with me, and we did one take and improvised it, and it went really well, and then we did another one with Colin Hanks. I might have to cut it out now, due to Seinfeld’s new show, which is very similar. And Jerry Seinfeld is like my Michael Jordan. Jerry Seinfeld is the Michael Jordan of being Adam Pally’s Michael Jordan, so I would defer and not want to screw whatever’s up with him. Not that anyone watches my web series. [Laughs.]
AVC: So you’re not going to start a rivalry with Jerry Seinfeld?
AP: Oh God, no, are you kidding? I would do whatever he asked. If he asked me to find out what the deal with something was, I would literally go and find out what the deal was with that thing.
AVC: So many people in the entertainment industry are doing more web videos. What itch do you think that scratches?
AP: Well, I think it’s twofold. I think for a lot of the dramatic actors, it’s a way to show the town that they can do comedy. And then for comedians like myself, it’s a way to be creative and create something, because oftentimes, even on Happy Endings, you’re bound by other people’s choices, and I think it’s kind of nice to be in control and do your own thing.
AVC: Do you ever want to get back into that format?
AP: To sketch?
AVC: Yeah, to do more sketch comedy or web videos.
AP: I mean, I love sketch. It takes a lot of time to write and put up a sketch show, but that’s part of who I am. I don’t think that ever goes away, that sensibility. Especially coming from the Upright Citizens Brigade. That’s just who I am.
AVC: So many people on the show have affiliations with UCB, or have worked with UCB. Did you work together, or know each other beforehand?
AP: Yeah, most of the people on the show were friends of ours, me or Casey [Wilson] or Eliza [Coupe], and I think that speaks to what the UCB is, this great incubator for talent. And I think that when you come out of there, and you’ve put in your time and paid your dues, there’s a great support system that helps you keep going into a higher track. So that’s kind of what Happy Endings is, a little bit.
AVC: And so many UCB people are on TV now. What sensibility do you think that’s bringing to television?
AP: Hopefully, it would be that people are playing to the top of their intelligence and making smart, honest comedy. I would hope that’s what the UCB brand would be.
AVC: What’s coming up for you in season there?
AP: I’m looking forward to season three. I’m going to be getting to do a lot of stuff with Damon [Wayans Jr.] because [Wayans Jr.’s character] Brad is out of a job, so Max is showing Brad how to live as a street survivor, and I think there’s a lot of fun stuff in store there. I’m also looking forward to playing a little more emotional stuff because [Casey Wilson’s character] Penny’s going to start dating someone long-term, and that’s going to affect Max in ways I don’t think he realized.