The star of "Happy Endings" tells Salon he doesn't care if old people -- or teenagers -- get his show's jokes
On ABC’s “Happy Endings,” a sitcom about the lives of six unusually close friends, Adam Pally plays Max, a boorish, bro-ish, hilarious dude who just happens to be gay. On a recent episode, Max tricked his best friend Penny (Casey Wilson) into keep her full-upper-body cast on for an extra week so he could continue sleeping with her very attractive masseuse. Casey forgave Max at the end of the episode after she remembered she had once done the exact same thing.
This story line encapsulates the “Happy Endings” vibe: six ludicrous, oddball, often amoral pals behave badly while loving each other unconditionally.
Pally spoke with me about the series, his love of Mandy Patinkin, his lack of interest in likability, and why he doesn’t care if your parents think “Happy Endings” is funny.
Do you feel like Max, and the other characters, have gotten a little meaner than they were before?
That’s one of the things that I like about the show: Even though it’s on network television and ABC and it’s marketed as what it is, it really reminds me of “Sunny in Philadelphia” or “Seinfeld.” These are six horrible people who are self-centered and only think about themselves and will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. They’re funny and extremely likable, but to me one of the most lovable characters in television of all time is George Costanza, who was a horrible person, whose fiancée at the end, remember, dies. And he didn’t bat an eyelash. So I don’t know if we’re getting more ridiculous. I just think that more people are seeing the show and we’re not changing, and I think that people are going to have to get on board. It’s like, would you like Elaine if you weren’t part of those friends? Maybe. Probably not. I mean, if she declared you not sponge-worthy you probably wouldn’t be stoked to go on a date with Elaine. But still she is one of the funniest characters of all time. I could give a fuck if people like us or people think that the six characters are mean. Who gives a shit? Do you think Ron Burgundy was a super-nice guy?
This reminds me of how so much of the conversation about “Girls” and “New Girl” or “The Mindy Project” has orbited around whether or not the characters are “likable.” It seems like some people believe, in theory, anyway, that they want to watch shows just about people they like.
Yeah, but those shows [about likable people] are not as funny. That’s the bottom line. Those people, whenever I hear that, I immediately go, well, I don’t trust your taste. If you and I were to make a list of our favorite TV shows of all time, I guarantee you, in comedy, likability would bring a show down. Even on “Friends,” the things those characters do are self-centered. “Friends” started because Rachel left her husband at the altar. This likability factor is just so stupid to me. It’s the same thing as wish-fulfillment, which is a big word you hear in a lot of Hollywood rooms. It basically means that people want to see other people living a life they can’t lead, and I don’t buy that. I think that’s not true. And I think that that’s the same thing as likable characters. I think you can be likable and still real and tart, and most of the funniest characters are.
What’s an example of a wish-fulfillment show?
“Entourage.” One of my favorite shows of all time because of how shitty it was. “Entourage” was a show that existed around wish-fulfillment. People watched it because they wanted to believe they could go on private jets and be hanging out in Hollywood, but as a show, comedically, it was not funny. Not a funny show. It’s funny, ironically, because of how terrible it is. But “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is also about a rich guy in Hollywood, is one of the funniest and smartest and best shows of all time, because it’s about a real person who has real problems, who is not universally loved. One comedy that actually works and is about wish-fulfillment is “Sex and the City.” And “Sex and the City,” just to re-remind ourselves, those four women were horrible. Horrible people. So, just going back to the main point, I could give a shit if Max is a likable character or not.
Have you been able to tell that people are watching “Happy Endings” more, or rather that the people watching are more into it?
I don’t know if people are watching more. I know that people like the show, but I’m not exactly being mobbed in the street. We do have a hardcore following. Like, I’ll get a Google alert to a tumblr of just GIFs of me eating, which is awesome and so cool. Its definitely a group of hardcore fans and that’s awesome and that’s amazing. I think that’s more of the way that TV is consumed now. I wish that the network, and TV as an industry, would figure out a way to value that instead of it all being like who watched it the night it premiered at the time that it aired. Because no one does that anymore.
It feels like the networks are valuing that a little more.
I mean, yes and no. ABC just canceled a drama, “666 Park,” that jumped like 77 percent in its L7 DVR [how many people watch a show within a week of its original airing], which is like a whole point. And they just canceled it because no one’s watching it when it airs. I think that at the core they don’t value DVR because the advertisers know that if you’re watching on DVR or iTunes you’re not getting the commercials. So you’re making $1.99 off the purchase, or you’re going to ABC.com to see other shows on there, but you’re not getting them the ad revenue, and thus making the show not as valuable. I feel like there should be another way to quantify it.
It is a really hard problem to figure out a solution to.
I agree. I think it sucks. I think where it’s going is toward what the music industry is like, where channels will be considered more like labels that carry the type of TV show that you like, and then you’ll consume them however you can. For example, I don’t really watch Showtime but I bought “Homeland” and I’ve been watching every episode on my iPad.
Wait, so are you freaking out about “Homeland”?
I’m only on Episode 7 of Season 1, so no spoilers! I haven’t felt like this since “Breaking Bad.” I know I’m in a good place with “Homeland” because every five seconds I’ll make a “Homeland” joke, even if it doesn’t make sense. And you know, Mandy Patinkin, I truly believe is my genetic father. I’m going to go on Lisa Kudrow’s show and track down the fact that Pally was short for Patinkin at Ellis Island. I really believe it. I need to get to that Long Island medium and figure it out, because I believe that Mandy Patinkin is my father.
I’m around the same age as the “Happy Endings” cast and writing staff and I’m surprised at how generationally specific the jokes are. Like, if you’re five years on either side of us you’d get them, but my parents would miss most of them. Do you guys ever think about that?
No. I mean why would we make comedy for your parents?
A 15-year-old wouldn’t get it either?
Why would we make comedy for a 15-year-old? That, to me, is the issue with “Happy Endings” in general. People are so concerned with it reaching this giant audience, and if you’re concerned about that then you’re not going to be funny. So I could give a shit if we’re making parents laugh. Are we making people my age laugh? And we are, and that’s all that matters. I wish we were a huge hit, but I would be totally fine if we chugged along and got to keep doing the show and I knew that people my age really liked it.
Max has been rightly heralded as a new kind of gay character, this very matter-of-fact bro who is also gay.
The gay community has been so awesome about Max. And I love that they take pride in my character, because he is a true reflection, I think, of the times. My gay friends are more like Max than like Jack on “Will and Grace.” But the cast, and David Caspe [the creator] and the Russo brothers [producers], we never spend time on it, it’s just who he is now. And I think that’s awesome. And I would hope it becomes more matter of fact and we don’t have to keep explaining it and stuff.
What do you think of the Elisha Cuthbert-Zach Knighton story line, where their Alex and Dave characters got back together, though their breaking up was what kicked the series off?
I think that they’re awesome together. I think Zach is one of the most underrated comedic actors on television. He’s an unbelievable straight man to play off of and I think that Elisha is also just this hilarious comedic talent. I taught a lot of improv before I was on TV and you would get these students who would start to see that they could be wacky and let go a little bit and then they would get the fever and they would do anything for a joke. And Elisha has that same enthusiasm, all day long, where it’s like she’s this little cutie whose eyes have been opened. They’ll throw down a plate of ribs and she’s like, “Put it all over me!”
That was the real turning point for that character, that scene in Season 1 with the ribs, when it was clear she was willing to do anything.
She is the most game in the whole cast. I think the whole cast is pretty good about that. Vanity is not really an issue with the six of us.
So how much do you improvise?
A lot of it is improvised. I always say this, but you can’t improvise story, because you could never build a set. So the story is very finely crafted and the scripts are — especially toward the end of last season and this season as they’ve really found our voice — the scripts are written word perfect. But once we get in there and the writers are on set and we start playing — and a lot of the writers have improv backgrounds — it really becomes a cultivation of whatever the funniest thing is. So sometimes that’s the script and sometimes it’s a riff that we came up with. The episode about “The Real World” that just aired is largely improvised because the script was really loose because we were mocking a reality TV show. You don’t see that much improv on network television anywhere besides maybe “Parks and Recreation.” It’s awesome.
And it must be fun for you.
It’s my only set of skills. I can’t remember lines. So it comes out of necessity for me. I improv a lot because I’m not a great actor, so you have to come up with other ways to survive.
Was it fun to riff on “The Real World”?
For me it was awesome because we grew up on “The Real World” and I know a lot of “Real World” specifics, unfortunately, so it was fun to pretend that at one time I was on it. I was definitely singing on set that whole week “Come on, be my baby tonight,” which, if you don’t remember, is the song that cast member David from “Real World: New Orleans” sang on the ice when he was supposed to sing the national anthem. That’s a deep cut. I’m not embarrassed.
Did it not make it into the episode?
Oh no, that did not make it into the episode. That’s what Caspe would call a 1 percenter.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer. More Willa Paskin.
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