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This story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Shalom Auslander sold Happyish to Showtime in the fall of 2011, he braced himself for disappointment. “I expected the worst — I always do,” recalls the 44-year-old former advertising executive and occasional author as he fidgets on the sofa of his sparsely furnished office at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios. “But this was my first TV show, and I thought, ‘Oh god, the television industry? This is going to suck. How am I going to talk to these f—ing suits?’ None of that came to pass. The people were fantastic. The network was great. Nothing bad happened.”
And then it did. On Feb. 2, 2014, just weeks after wrapping Happyish‘s pilot episode, Philip Seymour Hoffman — who in his much-anticipated foray into series television played the show’s central character, Thom Payne, a 40-something married dad who detests his ad agency gig as much as he does his new 25-year-old Swedish bosses — was found dead on the bathroom floor of his West Village apartment with a syringe in his arm. “That’s how life really f—s you,” says Auslander on this brisk day in early April. “You’re looking up the avenue for traffic, and the truck comes from behind.”
Following Hoffman’s death, everyone involved with Happyish — most of all Auslander — assumed that was it. The crewmembers moved on to other gigs, and so did the actors. But then, after months of mourning, the unexpected happened: Happyish came back to life. On April 26, Showtime will roll out the first episode of a revamped version of the series with Steve Coogan in Hoffman’s role, Kathryn Hahn returning to play his wife, Bradley Whitford joining the cast as Payne’s morally craven colleague and Ellen Barkin as an expletive-spouting headhunter. Comedy — albeit one of the darkest on TV — was born from tragedy.
“If it had just been a pilot, I probably would have thrown in the towel,” says Showtime president David Nevins, who boldly compares Auslander’s hyper-cynical voice to that of Philip Roth and Paddy Chayefsky. But Nevins was sitting on five additional episodes (of 10) that Auslander already had written, and he found himself hooked. “I loved the idea of a show about that moment in midlife, midcareer when you say, ‘Is it all worth it?’ These kind of comedies don’t grow on trees.”
“I didn’t like the names I was hearing, and I said ‘F— it, maybe Phil would wanna do it,’ ” says Auslander of first casting Hoffman.
When he first pitched the comedy — then titled Pigs in Shit — to Showtime, Auslander envisioned the half-hour as an existential autobiography, a primal scream against the clamor and noise of 21st century consumerism. He had spent much of his adult life toiling at an ad agency not unlike Payne’s, where his outlandish ideas rarely were executed. To keep sane, Auslander dabbled as an author (Beware of God, Foreskin’s Lament), essayist and contributor on This American Life. But when he got fired from his firm four years ago, he set his sights on TV, where he found he could best express his own exuberant outrage. His story became Happyish.
‘Happyish’ Stars Steve Coogan, Kathryn Hahn Tease Crazy Keebler Elves, Hitler Coke and More Brand Parodies
Getting Hoffman on board had been a yearlong process, though the actor was intrigued from the start. “I think what Phil liked about it was that it was laughing at some darkness,” says Auslander, attributing the casting holdup to “endless lawyering.” Hoffman had been familiar with Auslander’s earlier writing, having quietly optioned one of his novels (Hope: A Tragedy, which never was made). During the courtship, the pair often would chat about the themes the show would explore. “What happens when all the medication and all the palliatives don’t work? What do you do?” remembers Auslander.
“For a guy like me who was raised an Orthodox Jew in Rockland County and a guy [like Hoffman] who was raised Irish Catholic out in the boonies in New York, we had some strange overlaps in our lives,” he continues. “I have been luckier in terms of getting help, and I wasn’t cursed with fame like he was. … But we connected on a lot of levels, and I think we both just found ourselves at a certain point trying to get our heads around happy-ish being enough.”
Even now, more than a year after Hoffman’s death, few are willing to speak in detail about the Oscar winner’s time on the series, except to say that it was a darker show with him at the core. “He was so uncomfortable in his own skin,” is how several describe him on the set, with others recalling how Hoffman’s assistant often would trail him with a supply of sugar (a common craving among heroin users). Showtime has worked hard to keep the Hoffman chapter in the past, making the original pilot all but disappear (you won’t find it on any torrent sites), and if any photos were taken on the New York set, they have been scrubbed from the Internet.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2014 that Nevins broached the idea of moving forward with another star. “I said to Shalom, ‘This show is yours, it wasn’t his,’ ” he says. ” ‘It began with you, and if we can put it together in the right way, it’s worth pursuing.’ ” Once Auslander got comfortable with the idea, casting began again. Names including John C. Reilly, Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, Ed Norton, Woody Harrelson and Kevin Kline were floated for the lead. Then, in October, Coogan, the 50-year-old British comedy icon, signed on. “I knew I could make it my own,” says the actor, who was assured by Auslander that the part would be tailored to him.
“It was exciting and unnerving to hear the same words with a new leading man … but the good news about Steve is that he’s so commanding that it didn’t take long before he owned it,” says Kwapis of Coogan (with Barkin).
The most notable change: Thom Payne is now an English transplant, though he’s employed by the same ad agency. To fit Coogan’s style and comedic dexterity, the tone of the series was lightened. Auslander has leaned into the series’ absurdist animated fantasy sequences, for instance, with Coogan’s character interacting with Keebler Elves in ways that probably wouldn’t sell many cookies. In another fantasy, he runs over the Geico Gecko with his car.
“We definitely didn’t want to cast somebody who was in the same exact lineage as the first guy,” notes Nevins of a deliberate process, with executive producer Ken Kwapis echoing that sentiment: “Steve couldn’t be more different: his energy, his sensibility, his skills are different, so suddenly the show had a new voice.”
By early December, Happyish was back in production with an almost entirely new crew. For the handful who had been there for the initial go-round, the first table read was especially challenging. “Hearing it all again was really tough,” recalls Hahn. But she praises her new co-star’s ability to make the show his own. “That was a beautiful memory I have of an experience [with Hoffman], but that felt like a different play. It’s completely Steve’s now.”
As for Coogan, he’s not letting Hoffman’s ghost haunt his performance. In fact, he hasn’t watched the original pilot and has vowed not to until the series has wrapped. “There was that question of would you want to step into Philip Seymour Hoffman’s shoes,” he says between takes. “But I don’t feel like I’m trying to put on a jacket that doesn’t fit properly. I feel like it’s been nipped and tucked to fit me like a glove.”
Says Hahn (right): “I was in it with Shalom — we had invested too much, we’d been through too much together, I wasn’t going anywhere.”
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