Have you ever re-watched the first season of your favorite sitcom, after having watched it for years, and said to yourself, "I didn’t realize how bad this show was when it started"?
It’s a phenomenon that happens to most comedies on television. Sitcoms tend to find their comedic footing somewhere around the middle of their second seasons, when the writers have had enough time to figure out what clicks and what doesn’t, and make the appropriate adjustments.
Happy Endings, which returns to ABC for its third season on October 23, managed to get away from its limiting founding premise—a long-term couple breaks up but stays friendly to keep their tight-knit group of friends together—well before its abbreviated first season even ended.
According to Josh Bycel, who runs the show along with creator David Caspe and veteran writer Jonathan Groff, getting past that premise was the intention all along; the only mystery was how long it was going to take for them to do it.
Caspe’s original pitch for the show, says Bycel, was "like the end of a romantic comedy. A guy is racing to break up a wedding, and then he breaks up the wedding. And then instead of following them we stay with all the people that just got the wedding broken up on." That’s more or less what the pilot, shown to critics in the summer of 2010, was about. But then ABC didn’t start airing the series until spring of 2011, which Bycel claims helped the creative team out.
"It takes five or six episodes to figure out what the actors can do and what they can’t do," he says. "So being able to sort of just do 13 episodes without the pressure of being on the air and getting ratings right away was actually a huge blessing in disguise for us."
The first few episodes written and shot after the pilot dealt with the fallout of the breakup of the easygoing Dave (Zach Knighton) and goofy Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) and the impact on friends Penny (Casey Wilson), Jane (Eliza Coupe), Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), and Max (Adam Pally), and they were tough to write.
For instance, the second episode was about the friends trying to figure out how to get both Alex and Dave to go to a concert with them without the other knowing about it."That was an episode that took us a while. I remember that was a big rewrite after the table (read), because it took us a while to figure out, how can we make this fun? You know, it’s not fun. It’s so heavy."
But by the fourth episode, entitled "The Quicksand Girlfriend," written by Bycel, the breakup premise had already fallen away and the show settled into the ensemble vibe that would help it pick up fans and a surprise second season.
What allowed the writers to dispose of the premise so quickly—though the Alex/Dave relationship would come up again in both the first and second season finales—was the ensemble itself, especially the surprising comedic abilities of Cuthbert and Knighton.
"Episode four is when Alex looks for a new roommate, and she’s sort of like…we get the jokes about how she watches a lot of TV, and she likes The Real Housewives. Her and Jane have a differing opinion on what kind of roommate she should get. We were able to just sort of start to tell good normal stories that didn’t have to service the pilot any more," he says. "Because I think that [the breakup premise was] such a big hook, and it’s such a big emotional thing, that we just didn’t want every story to be weighted by that."
It helped that the rest of the cast clicked with each other right away. "It’s lightning in a bottle to find six funny, good-looking people, or likable people. It just doesn’t happen that often," says Bycel.
"Once you get on the stage and you get them shooting the shows, that’s when you really start to go, oh, wait a minute, I never even realized we could put these two in a story and they would be great together. And so I think the pivot really happened once we started filming that first season."
ABC liked the ensemble vibe so much that it aired the episodes out of order, showing the fourth and eighth installments directly after the pilot, leaving the more premise-driven episodes until the end of the season. Bycel thinks that might have confused viewers. "I also think it also hurt a little bit when people who maybe liked the pilot tuned in for the second one, and all of a sudden they were just friends. But in the end of the day it didn’t really hurt that much."
Why does it seem like comedies develop so much more in the early going than dramas? Bycel, who studied the much-derided first seasons of The Office and Parks and Recreation because he’s writing his own mockumentary pilot, feels that there’s not as much plot to worry about in comedy. "I think in drama you do have to service a lot of plot. So I think that you’re allowed to have a little bit more freedom to play with the jokes and play with the characters."
That’s not to say that if you go back and watch the Happy Endings pilot, you don’t see evidence of what the show is now." Penny’s birthday scene in the pilot is about like eight pages long," says Bycel. "It’s the whole third act. You would never do that on a single-camera show, really. But I think the bones of what we do now are in that scene in the pilot. Everybody’s got something funny. It’s rapid-fire. You’re going around the table. I remember looking at it and going, that’s the show right there, that thing. So I think the bones of what they did in that scene live on in every single episode we do."
But without a cast that can pull off that banter in an easygoing manner, the writing won’t have that kind of flow. "My first job was on Veronica’s Closet, and I remember being on that show with great joke writers. We would write these wonderfully crafted jokes. But because the show just didn’t work they fell flat. And then I would go to the Friends tapings and I would literally see Matt LeBlanc say, 'How you doin’?' and it would get a huge laugh," he says. "It’s so much easier to write when you don’t have to have a crafted joke every time. You’re getting a joke off character."
The perpetually put-upon, but perpetually sunny Penny Hartz, played by Casey Wilson, has a language all her own. Starting with what has become a catchphrase for her—saying "Amahzing" instead of "Amazing"—Penny has become known for shortening and combining words and throwing in "amahzings" whenever she can. According to Bycel, the SNL alum was the one who started the trend.
"Well, 'amahzing’ I think is all Casey. I think it was 'amazing’ [in the script] and she just said, 'amahzing,' and we all thought it was funny." The other Pennysims come from a combination of Wilson’s ad-libbing and the efforts of the writers. "That’s sort of [creator] David [Caspe]’s style. He always likes to do that. Then she would do more, and then we would just sort of write to it more, actually. So that was a combination of both of us, I would say."
"Amahzing" has become popular enough that he and his writers have heard it in everyday conversation outside the confines of the studio. Bycel feels that the Pennysims have caught on because they capture what Wilson’s character is all about.
"I think Penny is a dreamer. I think Penny is someone who believes in true love. But I also think Penny feels like every once in a while she needs to just 'zetz’ up her life a little bit, you know, as my grandmother would say. And I think 'amahzing is an example of that. It’s so much easier just to say 'amazing,' but 'amahzing’ sounds so much better."