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How Showtime's 'Happyish' moved on after Philip Seymour Hoffman's death

(L-R) "Happyish" cast member Ellen Barkin, creator and executive producer Shalom Auslander and series star Steve Coogan.
Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME
Shalom Auslander, creator and executive producer of the Showtime original series, "Happyish."
Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME
Bradley Whitford (left) and Steve Coogan attend the "Happyish" series premiere at Sunshine Cinema in New York City.
Steven Henry/Getty Images
(L-R) "Happyish" creator Shalom Auslander, actors Kathryn Hahn and Bradley Whitford attend the premiere of the Showtime original comedy series in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Showtime
(L-R) Ken Kwapis, David Nevins, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Coogan, Shalom Auslander, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Preston and Matthew C. Blank attend the premiere of the Showtime original comedy series "Happyish" in New York City.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Showtime
"Happyish"” creator Shalom Auslander speaks at the premiere of Showtime'’s original comedy series on in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Showtime

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Shalom Auslander's "Happyish" is a dark dramedy about the idea that happiness isn't something we'll ever achieve. Auslander once worked in advertising, and "Happyish" has given him the opportunity to express what he really thinks about that industry.

"One of the first sentences in the pitch is 'f--- Mad Men,'" Auslander said. "And a lot of it had to do with my own disgust with that business, and this very popular show that made it kind of sexy and cool — and it's anything but. It's at best just another crap job — at worst, it's manipulative and a tool of Satan." 

Despite the dark subject matter, Auslander believes there's humor to be found here.

"Unhappiness is funny. And our sort of endless pursuit of it, and constantly flopping as we try to get it," Auslander said. "To some degree, the name is about the thing that we should be striving for. 'Happyish' is probably a much more realistic goal than 'happiness.' And that shooting for happiness is probably just going to get us very, very unhappy."

Watch the full first episode of "Happyish" here, which Showtime has made available free:

Full first episode of Happyish

The show's original pilot starred Philip Seymour Hoffman. Auslander had to deal with Hoffman's death from an overdose and, ultimately, moving ahead with the show.

"I don't know if it'd be different if I'd been a career TV person, but [the show] very quickly became irrelevant [after Hoffman's death]," Auslander said. "It was just dealing with all of the emotions that come with something like that. And it took a while to deal with — for everybody."

Auslander said the characters pre-dated Hoffman's involvement, and that he began to feel like he knew them.

"It's one of those sort of douchey-sounding writer things, where it's like, Oh, but I really like these characters, and I want to see what happens to them," Auslander said. "But that is really what it felt like. And there was no need to go lose any more people around me." 

Auslander said he didn't know if he'd even be able to do the show, but the process proved cathartic and eventually led him back to writing:

"I never had the sunniest outlook on life to begin with. I was raised very orthodox, with a real prick for a god, who tended to just set you up to knock you down. Very belligerent and punishing. And even though that was longer than half my life ago now, it's a hard view to get rid of. So in some ways, everything that happened just confirmed my worldview in a rough way.

"And, honestly, this is the most I've spoken about any of this with an interviewer, because it isn't something I like to talk about, and Phil [Hoffman] still looms large in my mind, and it's not something he would want to talk about. But the reality was that it wasn't as if I was expecting everything to go smoothly."

Hoffman came onboard after the show was already written, Auslander says:

"We obviously discussed stuff a lot, but he was very respectful of me and the writing and the words on the page. So it didn't change very much. It changed more when Steve [Coogan] came onboard."

Happyish trailer

While several actors were interviewed about replacing Hoffman, Coogan ended up having qualities Auslander thought were a good fit for the show:

"What I think Steve gave us was, aside from some tremendous comedic gifts, he's been through a lot. He has a fair degree of tragedy within him, and that was interesting to me. Whereas with Phil, the idea was let's take someone whose wheelhouse is tragedy and see if we can find some lightness in it. Steve came around and I realized it was the complete opposite of that, in a very good way, and could probably get at the same things, but different."

Auslander noted that Coogan has a broad range of talents — an ability to do anything written for him. Auslander said it let him do more with the character, particularly when it came to fantasy sequences — including having sex with animated Keibler cookie elves.

"There's nobody who has sex with animated elves better than Steve Coogan," Auslander joked.

Despite the potential of cookie-based lawsuits, Showtime approved the scene.

"I write it and I let Showtime tell me when they're uncomfortable and when they're not," Auslander said. "They've been incredible. And this is one of those things where, not knowing much about TV, the things I did know is the network are all evil and they're stupid and they give you terrible notes — and then they stab you in the back. And it hasn't been any of that. Their notes have been very specific and helpful, and they've been incredibly supportive of just the ideas that come up and letting it just live, which is why it will probably tank after two episodes."

Still, Auslander's OK with that.

"It will be an honest two episodes, G-- damn it!"

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