'Happyish' Stars Steve Coogan, Kathryn Hahn Tease Crazy Keebler Elves, Hitler Coke and More Brand Parodies
"There's something intrinsically sinister about convincing people to buy things they don't need. ... The moral dilemma of whether we do things because we want to or just to get a paycheck at the end of the day."
"It's funny to be out promoting a show that is attacking the process of promoting," Bradley Whitford told The Hollywood Reporter just after Showtime's social media team had him hold a giant Styrofoam Twitter hashtag and take photos on the dandelion-covered green carpet. It's the exact kind of campaign that Happyish — following Thom Payne, a mid-forties ad man who's depressed and worried he's aged out of his agency — would jab.
"This is the antidote to Mad Men, which is a fantastic series, but this is a reality check, the very unromanticized view of the world, and that's why I like it," said star Steve Coogan at Monday's New York premiere, held at the Sunshine Cinema. "There's something intrinsically sinister about convincing people to buy things they don't need. That's at the heart of the series — the moral dilemma of whether we do things because we want to or just to get a paycheck at the end of the day."
Kathryn Hahn — who plays his wife, Lee — added of the series, "It's also about, where is your happiness? … The thing that moves me the most about this show is, the marriage is not the source of the drama; that's the thing we can hold onto."
Each episode features absurd animations of brands — including a Jewish Dora the Explorer scene and a lecturing Amazon logo — as Thom and Lee project their fears and insecurities onto the mascots and logos around them.
"Just coming here, I probably ran into 75 brands — we never talk about them, but they're allowed to talk about us and to us, and we don't show interaction. To me, a guy working in advertising is gonna be thinking about these things," said showrunner Shalom Auslander of the scenes, which Showtime president David Nevins added are "all fair game, because of parody."
"Brands are one of the great taboos in television, since most shows are based on selling brands, so they don't want to give it away for free. But since we're premium, we can do it!" Nevins continued. "We've been careful, but brands are so much apart of the fabric of our lives, that it makes the show feel more daring, and relevant in a way that it might not otherwise."
Of the series' marketing parodies, Auslander and Hahn favor the Geico moment in episode three; Kevin Kilner and Carrie Preston love the Keebler Elf storyline. Nevins teased, "They do a parody of 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)' the Coke commercial from the '70s, that is wickedly funny," and Coogan echoed of the Hitler-related spoof, "That one makes me laugh because it's got balls."
Coogan came to star in Happyish after the death of the original lead Philip Seymour Hoffman. "They have wildly different strengths and they're equally brilliant, but what's great about both of them is they tapped into what's human about the character," said executive producer Ken Kwapis, who also directed the first two episodes. Though the series was largely recast — aside from Hahn, and "even her performance was very different in the two shows," said Nevins — Kwapis also noted, "We didn't change the script, apart from the fact that our character is a transplanted Brit."
"The material is so strong, it transcended any concerns I may have had," said Coogan. "It was still a blank sheet of paper, so I felt like I could make the role my own. Of course, it's a tragic providence, but it's a strange world and strange things happen. I'd feel bad if Shalom's material didn't reach audience. I felt a responsibility — I didn't take it lightly, but I was up for the job."
After the screening, guests — including Julia Stiles, Sandra Bernhard, Nick Kroll, Cristin Milioti and Paul Haggis, among others — celebrated the series at the Bowery Hotel.
Happyish premieres April 26 at 9:30 p.m. on Showtime. The pilot is now available online.