Year of Penny

‘Happy Endings’ Star Casey Wilson on the Show, Her ‘SNL’ Stint & More

The amahzing star of ABC’s ‘Happy Endings’ previews the Thanksgiving episode, discusses her brief ‘Saturday Night Live’ stint, and explains what she has in common with Hillary Clinton.

Carol Kaelson / ABC via Getty Images

The cast of Happy Endings really like each other.

They like each other so much, in fact, that Star magazine reported that their clique has become so impenetrable that guest stars complained to producers and have blacklisted the show. “If you aren’t in their group, you’re completely ignored,” a “spy” told the tabloid. Megan Mullally, who has appeared twice as the mother of Casey Wilson’s character Penny Hartz, allegedly told producers “never to call her again.”

“We were all laughing so hard,” Wilson tells The Daily Beast, dismissing the gossip item. “We spend so much time together, and we really do get a kick out of each other,” she says. “I’m sure it’s like when you have a twin or something who always knows what you’re talking about.” But scaring people off set? Not true, Wilson maintains. Mullally is even coming back for another episode.

Still, it’s not hard to see how a rumor like this could take off. The premise of Happy Endings, which airs Tuesday nights on ABC, is simple: six close-knit friends hang out a lot. Sound familiar? The comparisons to Friends are apt—perhaps no sitcom since the NBC hit closed up Central Perk boasts a cast with as much zany chemistry as the six Happy Endings leads.

Wilson plays Penny Hartz, the perennially single girlie girl with a clumsy streak and penchant for delivering dramatic monologues and coining catchphrases. (Penny’s theatrical pronunciation of “Amahzing” and optimistic trumpeting of the “Year of Penny,” in particular, subconsciously make their way into viewers’ daily conversation.) Penny is so unlucky in love that, in one episode, she painstakingly transforms a cute, but unstylish, duckling into a well-manicured dateable swan. She does such a good job that when the guy’s ex-girlfriend bumps into him, she’s so impressed that they reunite and get engaged. An example of her hilarious histrionics: While crying over a cosmo, she complains, “My disgustingly fat manicurist is literally trying to kill me.”

A little bit Carrie Bradshaw with a sprinkle of Lucy Ricardo, Wilson’s endearingly daffy performance as Penny quickly earned her fan-favorite status. For the 32-year-old actress and writer, the critical accolades are a touch redemptive. Prior to booking Happy Endings, Wilson spent two seasons as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but was let go from the show in 2009. Rumors swirled that she was fired for being overweight. “The issue isn’t that I’m too fat, it’s that I’m too phat. Can I get a WHAT-WHAT!” she said at the time.

That winter, the romantic comedy Bride Wars, the screenplay of which Wilson co-wrote, was slammed by critics. Ever since its truncated first season was launched as a mid-season replacement in 2011, Happy Endings has been considered a “bubble show”—a series with ratings so low that it’s at a near-constant risk of cancellation. But despite less-than-stellar ratings, the show has built a passionate following and been cited as TV’s most underrated comedy by many critics. And Wilson couldn’t be having more fun acting on it.

“We have this core following of people—visionaries, I call them—that watch the show,” Wilson says, candidly admitting that the ratings are “not so hot” and the show could face cancellation again. “It’s scary, but at the same time I feel like we’re doing something that’s really funny … People who are watching it seem to love it. We just want to keep doing it because it’s so fun.”

Happy Endings’s signature is the dizzying pace at which the dialogue delivers punch lines, with hilariously bizarre pop-culture references and sarcastic one-liners fired off by cast members as if they were comedy assault rifles. “The only people who can get away with being mean are rock stars or brain surgeons or Mr. Phil,” Penny tells friend Jane. “I think you mean Dr. Phil,” Jane responds. Penny: “C’mon, it’s a Ph.D. Everybody calm down.”

In one episode, Penny delves deep into the hipster subculture in order to impress a guy. She’s worn pajoveralls and flowy pants from the “Angela Bassett collection, Bassett by Angela for Angela Bassett” collection. The first time Mullally stopped by to play Penny’s mom, Wilson and Mullally performed a bizarre, sexually tinged mother-daughter duet set to the Natalie Imbruglia one-hit wonder “Torn.” The actresses choreographed the routine themselves. Ever since Penny first uttered “Amahzing”—Wilson says the pronunciation was inspired by Broadway writer and radio host Seth Rudetsky—the character’s dialogue has become increasingly loopy and endearingly ditzy.

“Now I get a script with the word ‘cool’ spelled ‘kewl,’” Wilson says.

After a writer overheard Wilson mocking girls who obnoxiously overuse the phrase “so cute,” Penny began saying it on the show. Wilson’s own tendency to concoct elaborate lies about plans so she doesn’t get caught blowing people off was turned into a Penny plot line. Exactly how much of Wilson’s performance as Penny is art imitating life?

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“I’m not single, if that’s what you’re asking,” Wilson says with a laugh.

She also has a good sense of humor about her forced exit from SNL. “I don’t think it will ultimately define my career,” she said at the time—a prediction that, as Happy Endings continues its run, is proving increasingly astute. Her fondness for SNL remains, too. “I don’t watch every week, but I absolutely still watch it and love it and it still cracks me up,” she says, citing “The Californians” as a favorite sketch. “I loved it before I was on it, and nothing that could have happened could make me not love it.”

Aside from the occasional episode of SNL, Wilson says her biggest TV obsession is the HGTV series Love It or List It, which forces a couple to decide whether to stay in an undesirable house after it’s been remodeled by designer Hilary Farr or move to a new home discovered by real-estate agent David Visentin. “I read Hillary Clinton said it’s her favorite show, too, so I felt like I was in good company,” she says. “I feel there is so much sexual tension between Hilary and David.” She calls them “the biggest Will They or Won’t They couple on TV.”

To complete the highbrow-lowbrow spectrum, Wilson also touts her love of Homeland, especially as it proudly displays the Washington, D.C., suburbs where she grew up—though she admits that her way of life in Alexandria, Va., as a kid varied slightly from Claire Danes’s CIA agent, Carrie Matheson. “It’s soo different,” she says. Carrie hunts terrorists, and “I’m like slipping on a banana peel.”

Tuesday night’s episode of Happy Endings, titled “More Like Skanksgiving,” is the show’s Thanksgiving episode. It centers on the gang’s viewing of their never-aired episode of The Real World, filmed when they all first became friends but never actually played on MTV. Thanksgiving episodes are a rite of passage for sitcoms, and Happy Endings follows decades of memorable holiday TV offerings. Wilson fondly recalls, especially, Brad Pitt’s Thanksgiving cameo on Friends when he and Jennifer Aniston were still a couple. “I’m a voyeuristic American,” she says. “I remember being like, “Oh my God! They’re dating in real life and they’re on screen together. My mind is blown.”

While Brad Pitt doesn’t cameo on Tuesday’s Happy Endings, a bit of the Friends iconography does. “Of course, I’m doing a nod to the Rachel hairdo in the Thanksgiving episode.” And, naturally, looks amahzing.