Happy Endings’ Zachary Knighton talks comedy and T-shirts
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Actor Zachary Knighton tackled the realms of fast-food service (Life On A Stick) and mysterious, world-altering blackouts (FlashForward) before being cast as the male half of the doomed romance that served as the initial driving force behind the ABC sitcom Happy Endings. As the show moved away from its original premise and developed into one of network TV’s swiftest, funniest ensemble comedies, Knighton’s Dave grew from a bitter almost-groom to an affable straight man—albeit one with a fixation on V-neck T-shirts and the ability to play Freddy Krueger in his friends’ sex dreams. (The latter is far less gruesome than it sounds.) Before the show’s season finale—airing tonight, April 4—Knighton spoke to The A.V. Club about Happy Endings’ prospects for a third season, the cast’s ability to turn its own inside jokes into catchphrases, and the intriguing idea that the characters on the show might only exist in Dave’s mind.
The A.V. Club: Your character was largely defined as the “jilted groom” in the first season of the show, but he’s changed a lot over the course of the last 20 episodes. How would you describe Dave’s journey this season?
Zachary Knighton: It’s been awesome, because the whole first season he had to deal with that storyline of being left at the altar, and I’m really happy this season we got to move past that. What’s funny about Dave is, when he sets his mind to something, he becomes completely obsessed with it and always goes overboard. That’s where the comedy lies within him. I think the writers have done a great job of making the character who’s supposedly the straight man of the show almost be the craziest character. I look at him as like a mashup of all the characters. That’s my theory on this season: He’s a version of Penny, of Brad, of Jane, of everybody. It’s been a lot of fun to play all his weird little idiosyncrasies.
AVC: The character’s “addiction” to V-neck T-shirts was a take on your personal wardrobe, right?
ZK: Yeah, I’m sure I have some crewneck T-shirts, but I’ve never seen them. [Laughs.] They’re at the bottom of the drawer. V-necks are great because you can get a little fat and you still look kind of good—and I like to get fat sometimes, so it’s nice. I like to fluctuate between the world of skinny and fat, so V-necks suit me well.
AVC: In light of that storyline, do you think the writers would be willing to adapt your “mashup” theory into a plot where Dave is convinced all of the other characters on the show are just figments of his imagination?
ZK: [Laughs.] I wouldn’t put it past them to do that. I’ve never been involved in a more collaborative process with writers on a TV show or film. Everybody puts their egos to the side to make the best stuff. They’re not afraid to hear me—or anybody else on the show for that matter—pitch [ideas], and we’re not afraid for them to pitch. They write great scenes and if we want to punch something up, they let us. We always give them what they wrote and then improv and change it. It’s nice that everybody can do that. It’s not usual for television.
AVC: Does that stem from the improv background that a lot of the writers and actors share? Many of them are alumni of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
ZK: I think so. Everybody wants to make the best show possible, and I think that’s what has happened. We have such young guys on the show, so many guys who were writers’ assistants and then this year they’re actually writers. I feel like [creator] David Caspe has spearheaded a great opportunity for everybody to come up, and it’s awesome because there isn’t a 90-year-old guy who’s not really in touch with things writing dialogue for us. It’s refreshing to see these kids who are so excited to be writing, and now all of a sudden they’re getting poached and all these people want to take our writers. So we’re doing something right.
AVC: Have you worked on shows where older, out-of-touch writers were writing for younger characters?
ZK: I don’t want to name any names, but I’ve worked on television shows where there’s a guy writing for my generation who’s like 60—and it doesn’t work. The great thing about these guys is they’ll write a line and the cast will have some weird idiosyncrasy that we add to it. We’ve had this running gag recently, I don’t know how it worked itself in, where we say “homey” like [in nasally voice] “how-me”—and the writers are fine with it, which is really unusual. I think that’s also what makes this show special. We have all these dumb inside jokes and we let the audience in on that. And I don’t know how, but they get it. For some reason saying [in nasally voice] “What’s up, how-me?” is really funny to people.
AVC: It’s become a signature of the show—like Penny’s pronunciation of “amazing”: “Ah-mah-zing”
ZK: Yeah, it’s like any group of friends. I know I have my own language with my friends, and we all say the dumbest shit ever. The stupidest shit becomes the funniest stuff. I think that’s what real friends do and that’s why people relate to the characters in the show.
AVC: And it gives the viewers a feeling of being in on the joke. When they catch the third “how-me” they’re like, “Oh, this is a bit.”
ZK: Then they start saying it, and then it’s a national epidemic. [Laughs.] Well, not really national, but a very-small-portion-of-the-country epidemic.
AVC: But enough of the country to keep the show on the air.
ZK: Yeah, hopefully. We’ll see. We’re not official for season three, but I think it’s looking pretty good.
AVC: Have you received any signals from the network?
ZK: No, ABC keeps it pretty close to the vest, but I think we’re like the No. 2 comedy on the network or something, under Modern Family, of course. But we get a lot of support internally, so we’ll see.
AVC: And the network has already shown a confidence in Happy Endings and its ability to find an audience, right?
ZK: They have. We started in the spring, and it was like a burner. It was because of social networking and grassroots support that the show survived. It’s a real wonder that we’re still here, but we’re doing great now.
ZK: I did a movie last summer in Austin called Satellite Of Love. The opportunity was there to do pilots, but I realized what happens when you do pilots from Damon’s experience. [Jokingly] Luckily he got to pay the price of doing that, so I could learn a lesson. Also, at that point, I thought we were going to come back. I knew that people liked us at the network and even though there was change there, I felt that [President of ABC Entertainment Group] Paul Lee was behind us, and clearly he was. He gave us the best timeslot on the network this year.
AVC: Are there any measures in place to make sure that people don’t sneak off between seasons this year?
ZK: Well, nobody’s approaching us about doing a pilot, so that’s another good sign. Last year everybody had offers and things of that nature. This year no one, I don’t think, would go near us with a pilot, because obviously you saw what happened with New Girl and what they had to do. [Wayans’ New Girl character was written out of the show in the second episode—ed.] Hopefully we do come back for a third season. Otherwise we’re all going to be out of work for a year.
AVC: You came to Happy Endings after FlashForward ended, and Elisha Cuthbert had just finished her stint on 24—but the rest of the principal cast comes from a comedy background. What was it like coming into that mix?
ZK: I’ve done comedy, and I’ve done drama. I’ve sort of been a journeyman in my career so far. For me, I looked to it as an exciting new experience, and I knew exactly what my role was in that pilot, which was to get it going and to be the guy who got left at the altar. So I thought, “Well this is good, we’ll let them be funny, and I’ll learn about some comedy.” I’ve learned so much about improvising and it’s just so much fun. It’s so loose on set, and it’s been a really great experience in general working with all those guys.
AVC: Any specific comedy lessons that come to mind?
ZK: I think the best thing is to keep it really loose. That’s what we all do. I know Eliza Coupe gets the main, big, runner monologues where she really has to learn her lines—where she’s saying what her character Jane would do, or she goes through a big list. She’s the only one on the show that gets these big monologues. The rest of us keep it loose and learn our lines right before we shoot and flow with it. If you work on it and work on it and you’re getting it in your head, you lose something in the comedy. It keeps it fresh if you just sort of go at it, be loose, and fire it out.
AVC: Would the “jock head nod” from the Valentine’s Day episode be an example of something that arose from that looseness?
ZK: Yeah, that was a total improv “button” to the scene, and that’s usually what we do. In the beginning we were improvising a ton, and the writers came to our voice. Most of the improv we do now is on the button, like on the end of that scene. None of that stuff was in the script, but they let us play. I actually haven’t seen that episode because I’m a little backlogged right now. [Jokingly.] I’m so sick of seeing everybody that I have to wait. I might catch up over the summer. But that’s what’s fun about it, just going with it. Sometimes they use it, sometimes they don’t, and it just ends up on the gag reel.
AVC: The show had a great guest-star roster this season. When a new actor comes on set, how do you adjust to their presence? How do you maintain the chemistry of the main cast while making room for a new person?
ZK: I feel like people have to fit into our world, in a weird way. It depends. When it’s someone like Damon’s dad, we’re all just like, [Adopts fawning voice] “Hey, tell us stories about In Living Color.” But a lot of times the guest stars develop into recurring roles and become like another member of the gang—like Seth Morris as Scotty, the weird older dude that hangs out with us sometimes, or Stephen Guarino as Derrick. They’ve all kind of become part of the family. Derrick’s coming back a bunch—people loved him. The season finale is his “big gay wedding.” You can’t go wrong with Roman gladiators carrying around gays shooting off batons of confetti. It’s comedy gold.
AVC: And a nice bookend from the beginning of season one.
ZK: I think the plan for the show is to have every season finale at a wedding. Perfect. With Shershow’s wedding last year and Derrick and Eric’s this year…
ZK: I bet you you’re not too far off the mark on that one.
AVC: How did you react when you heard that Michael McKean was cast as Dave’s father?
ZK: I was so pumped. I knew they were tossing around a lot of different names, and asking us what we thought. Finally it came down to Michael, and I couldn’t believe that I was going to work with somebody who was in This Is Spinal Tap. And Ed Begley Jr. was in the same episode, which was hilarious. He’s a really funny dude too, equally interesting. I think he’s going to come back to the show as himself, in the future. I think Ed was kind of a fan of the show, so it was awesome. Michael, I’m sure he’d never seen the show before. The pairing worked really well. I thought we worked great as a father-and-son duo.
AVC: And the writers showed us a sinister side of Ed Begley Jr. you don’t see that often.
ZK: [Laughs.] I love him riding that bicycle… I think it was Prentice Penny who wrote that episode. I can’t say enough about the writers. They’ve found this unique world for the show, and I’m happy that they’re working on my show.
AVC: You directed one of the Happy Endings webisodes that debuted this season. Is that a role you’re interested in pursuing further?
ZK: I want to move into that world. I’ve always been interested in directing, so it was a great way to throw my name in the hat and work with the crew. Adam directed one too, and I’m pretty sure Casey Wilson directed one as well.
AVC: Would you want to direct a full episode of the show?
ZK: I’d like to. There are episodes where our characters are really light, and there are episodes where we’re really heavy, and I would love to do an episode where my character is really light where I can work with everyone. Although, the cast as a group, we’re a lot to handle. All six of us in a room is insane. It’s a lot to handle, for anybody: somebody doing an interview or a director trying to wrangle everybody. It’s a very busy group.
AVC: But that obviously fosters the loose, fun atmosphere on the set.
ZK: It definitely lends to the creativity of everyone on the show, but it can also get really annoying. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. But they let us play. It’s literally like, “talk talk, laughing laughing,” while they’re setting up a shot. Everyone’s talking, talking, and they just call “action” and we go right into the scene. But it does lend to the atmosphere of the show.
AVC: In the episode “Cocktails & Dreams,” all of the other characters have sex dreams about Dave—of all those potential couplings, which was your favorite?
ZK: The Damon one was really funny, but we didn’t kiss. I enjoyed making out with all the ladies of Happy Endings, I’ll be perfectly honest. I am a little bummed about the flashback with Penny: After Dave bursts into the cabin and proposes, he was followed by a giant bigfoot—it’s the funniest part of the scene, but it was cut.
AVC: Well, at least the Kris Jenner book stayed in the shot.
ZK: That’s so funny. Kris Jenner tweeted about the episode and got all her followers to watch. Casey is genuinely obsessed with the Kardashians. It’s a real thing. It’s hilarious, and it’s real. It’s not a joke—she doesn’t watch it ironically.
AVC: Do you have any shows like that? “Bad” TV that you watch sincerely?
ZK: I watch The Walking Dead. It’s not the best show in my opinion, but I just love it. I love zombies and shit like that. But I don’t watch any reality shows. I do like cooking shows—I love Anthony Bourdain, but all that stuff is pretty good viewing. I don’t feel so guilty about that. I’ve got a little kid, a daughter, she’s 1-and-a-half years old, and that pretty much takes up all my free time. But my wife and I like to cuddle up and watch some brain-eating zombies every now and again.
AVC: Having been on FlashForward, would be interested in doing another serialized genre show?
ZK: Yeah, for sure. To have that and then go right into Happy Endings has been so awesome for my career and for me personally. It’s just so cool to be in a show like that, just to live in that world for a minute. I like the idea of my next project being totally the opposite of whatever it is I’m doing currently. So whenever this thing ends, I’m going to be looking for a drama. But FlashForward was a really fun show to make. Not to mention, I only worked like, one day a week, and it paid the same as Happy Endings. I got to make out with beautiful women on that show as well.
AVC: Is that a requirement in your contract?
ZK: I’m sure my wife would like it not to be.