HAPPYish, Showtime’s equal parts provocative and polarizing comedy about our culture’s unhealthy and ill-advised obsession with tarnish-free bliss, began its season with quite the opening salvo: “Fuck you, Thomas Jefferson.”
The Founding Father’s great transgression? Steering us all on a fruitless and bullshit mission: the pursuit of happiness.
“Like all taglines, it’s a lie,” Shalom Auslander, HAPPYish’s creator and writer, tells me. “It’s a great handle and it’s short and sweet. But it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s driving people crazy.”
HAPPYish aired its season finale Sunday night, charting its cantankerous protagonist Thom Payne’s (Steve Coogan) own maddening pursuit to chase unattainable happiness while balancing a family, depression, and an advertising job he quickly discovers makes him complacent in the demise of culture as we know it—not to mention complicit in the capitalist-driven farce of happiness.
The season ends with, as Auslander poetically writes into the last line of dialogue, a “yay” and a “fuck.” Finally fed up with making a deal with the devil every day at his job, Thom quits, a cathartic “yay” that was a culmination of a season’s worth of turmoil. As he skips home to give his wife (played by Kathryn Hahn) his good news—a rare moment of unsullied happiness—she informs him that she’s pregnant. He’ll have to return to work. “Fuck.”
What does it mean to be merely happyish? For every “yay” there’s a “fuck.”
“That’s life,” Auslander says. “The ‘yay,’ but then the ‘fuck.’ I wouldn’t mind that on my tombstone.”
The series has been the focus of a lot of press in its first season. For one thing, its pilot was originally shot with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the lead, and was recast with Coogan and reshot after Hoffman’s death.
And, as one might expect with a series that so delicately—and at times aggressively and brashly—toes the line between enlightened and cynical, HAPPYish and its angsty, overly introspective characters made for one of the most divisive series to air this year. And that’s just the way Auslander likes it.
I have to say: It was so depressing to see Thom go down that slide and be back at the office.
I know. It is! But then also, he’s doing what he’s gotta do. That’s life. It’s heroic capitulation, and that’s kind of the best you can hope for. He’s not going down there because he wants an Aston Martin. He’s got a kid coming, so you put everything aside and do what you have to do.
Right before that, there was a fleeting minute or two of Thom seeming to be genuinely happy. He quit his job and comes enthusiastic about his decision. Then he finds out his wife is pregnant, which sort of pops the balloon. What are we supposed to take away from the fact that the bliss was so short-lived?
I never look at it in that binary way. It’s not like he was happy and then he wasn’t. First of all, it’s the irony of life: When you think something is going one way, it goes the other way. He’s happy to have a second kid as well. It’s just not what he’s expecting. That’s what happyish is. It’s not pure happiness. We just don’t get that. We’re promised that. We think we should get it. It sure looks like that in the commercials. But in reality, you find somewhere in the middle and that’s the best you can hope for
There’s a scene between Thom and Bradley Whitford’s character, Jonathan, where Thom tells Jonathan his plan to quit and become a writer and Jonathan essentially calls him irresponsible and selfish, that it would be bad for his family to pursue happiness in such a way.
I’ve always had that voice in the back of my head and there’s an argument to made for that. The first thing you do is you survive. You take care of your family. Jonathan is obviously doing it to keep him in there and make it seem like he could never do that, writing full-time. He wants to keep Thom around to help him in his battles with the Swedes, but the way he positions it is “you need to think about your family first.” That’s something Jonathan’s very good at. He’s a consummate advertising guy. It’s a skill to be able to turn something around on people, either the good or bad.
Jonathan’s general attitude is a good juxtaposition to Thom, too. We find out in the finale that the “radical capitalism” ad that JP Morgan loved was actually Jonathan’s pitch, but one of the Swedes took credit for it. Thom would be irate, but Jonathan is complacent about it.
He was always to me Thom with less of a moral fiber, or Thom but having made all the concessions that people have to make to be in a position that a person like Jonathan is in. Thom is always looking at him and thinking, “Is that what I want to become? Is that really who I want to be? Is that the man I want to be? Is that the father I want to be? And what are the options?” You get into those kinds of positions and it feels like there’s no way out.
The last words are really interesting. Thom alternates saying “yay” and “fuck” over and over again.
That’s life. And it comes up when Lee is talking to Bella about being pregnant. That’s the “yay,” but then “fuck.” (Laughs) I wouldn’t mind that on the tombstone. That’s pretty much what 200 years of the Enlightenment was trying to express: Yay, fuck, yay, fuck. The problem is when we want three yays out of four. How do you deal with it when you’re in the fuck phase, and how do you deal with it when you’re in the yay phase? That’s life. That’s everything, from the sort of giant macro of life to getting breakfast. It’s the cycle of every moment in my life.
The alternation of “yay” and “fuck” in life. The idea in the pilot of the “joy ceiling.” Sometimes I wonder if these are the most enlightened attitudes, or if they’re really cynical.
I think it changes day to day. I think there’s some relief certainly in thinking there’s a joy ceiling or that life is fuck/yay. Then you don’t get too down about it when it happens. I feel like the hardest thing is that we’re in the culture of happy. That’s why I think it’s interesting that the show is in the world of advertising. It’s in this world, as Jonathan says, where he made this temple. He taught everyone how to pray. He told everyone that everything is happy and possible, and it’s a lie. It’s not true, and it causes tremendous amounts of depression and sadness because we’re not getting it. The pursuit of happiness is the ruination of most happiness.
So should we be on any sort of pursuit?
To me I think it’s a question about trying to find a realistic middle. Would it be awful to think that everyone has their own joy ceiling? Maybe. I don’t know. I think I’d blow my head off if I was as happyish outside as Richard Simmons is. I couldn’t live that way. I also wouldn’t want to be miserable all the time. To me, the writers I’ve always admired and comedians are looking at the bleakness and laughing about it. Trying to find some lightness to it. “Yay/fuck yay/fuck” makes you laugh. And the next time I have a shitty day I can just say to myself, “Yeah, fuck it. Everyone is like that.”
In one of the early interviews you did promoting the season before it premiered, you said you wanted to start a conversation with viewers about what it means to be happy. “To set off that bomb and see what happens.” Now that the bomb has been exploded, what has happened?
I don’t know. I try not to take too much stock of things. I hear from the network how things are going. I occasionally read Twitter when I’m not near anything sharp or on the edge of a cliff. For the most part, I think it’s what I expected. There’s a lot of, “Hey what is this?” And “This isn’t what I sit down in front of my TV of the future to watch.” And that’s fine. But I think there’s also a lot of, “Wow, someone is actually talking. Someone’s actually thinking and having a point of view and raising questions on a cultural level.” And there seems to be a lot of appreciation for that. I think it’s a specific type of person. I’m actually kind of pleased with that.
Also in the press you did before the season started airing, a lot of writers called you a curmudgeon. Even Wikipedia says you’re noted for your “determinedly negative outlook.”
I think it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, to find that box to put somebody in. If you do lurk in the dark and the shadows, then you are perhaps a curmudgeon. I shine light on those things because I don’t want there to be monsters there anymore. I’m looking to laugh at all the negativity. If all you want is to be entertained, that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that the person who wants to engage with you is curmudgeonly. And by the way, all the people that I admire, living or dead, whether it was Beckett or Hicks or Lenny Bruce, everybody had negative things to say about them. “This one was the potty mouth.” “That one was a downer.” “This one was a buzzkill.”
A lot of people don’t want to engage in these topics.
I think it’s a really great place to bring up this discussion, in America. Let’s just talk about stuff. Let’s see what’s going on with the promises that were made. I was thrilled to start off the series with “Fuck you, Thomas Jefferson” for writing a tagline for America that, like all taglines, is a lie. It’s a great handle and it’s short and sweet. But it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s driving people crazy. It drives me crazy. It’s actually a really negative influence on things. For me, I’m fine with that. The right people I’ve got to just hope will see that.
Certainly, the show sparks interesting conversations about happiness and capitalism and our culture. When you were doing press was it frustrating that, given the many things to discuss in that realm, the conversation so often turned to Phillip Seymour Hoffman?
No, because it was so predictable. It wasn’t surprising to me or anybody else. I think what got lost in it was the subject matter. And Phillip was clearly struggling with it as well. The reality for me is that this was what was interesting to me, and interesting to Phil. And this is what was interesting to Steve, and Kathryn, and David Nevins, and everyone else involved. Because they’re human they also struggle with these questions. It’s not something that ever comes up. And maybe in this supposed golden age of television we can do a show that doesn’t need 8 million Game of Thrones viewers to watch it. It just needs the right people to watch it.
So what would a Season 2 of HAPPYish look like?
Just to continue that journey. For Thom and Lee there’s the double-edged sword of a child. The yay/fuck thing. Pressures mount and a second kid means twice the cost and twice the need for income and his job is looking more and more precarious. For me, first season was Thom boldly trying to move on and leave his job. Second season is him trying to hold on desperately to it, all the while things are getting progressively worse because of the stupidity of the culture.
Can anyone be happy? Or happyish?
I remember talking to Rob Reiner on set, and he said just hearing the show’s name, “Yes, that’s me.” He was really interested in that concept. He says one of the questions he asks people is, “On a scale of 1 to 100 where are you, happiness-wise?” And he was like, “I fucking hate people when they’re like, ’90.’ On my best day I’m barely 50. When my kids were born I was maybe scratching 60, 65, but at the end of the day I was back to 40.” I just think it will be more of trying to find them scratching their way out the best they can. And I think trying to find some peace being happyish. That’s always the thing. That’s my thing with all of it. If there’s a second season.
Do you have any sense of the likelihood of a second season?
Well…(laughs)…well…no, I don’t. But you know what? Fuck it. I’m going with optimism. I’m not going to be a curmudgeon. I’m not a downer. It’s a go! You can bank on it! There’s no way it’s not happening! That’s how positive I am! (Laughs) I even hate sounding that way.