The Pursuit of ‘Happyish’: Creator Shalom Auslander Tackles Big Questions

Shalom Auslander has none of the standard qualifications for being a showrunner. He doesn’t like to be around a lot of people. He doesn’t like working in a big city. He has no intention of collaborating with other scribes in a writer’s room. And before he was handed the reins by Showtime to the dark comedy “Happyish,” he’d never worked in series television before.

What he does have is a razor-sharp perspective on the excesses of contemporary culture. It’s a POV shaped by two distinct experiences: his upbringing in a strict Orthodox Jewish community outside New York City, and his work in creative advertising at McCann-Erickson and other firms.

“Scream when you burn is pretty much my whole writing philosophy,” Auslander told Variety earlier this month over a lunchtime martini. “You burn, you scream. It feels a little better, and you move on.”

On a break from a location shoot in Manhattan, Auslander was counting down the days until he could return home to Woodstock, his wife and two boys. After weeks of intense work, he’d had enough of New York City. Even the clanking sound of a waiter hastily clearing away cups and cutlery seemed “purposely angry” to him.

“I can’t hear myself when I’m here,” he said of the city, sounding much like the frustrated advertising exec, Thom Payne, that Steve Coogan plays on “Happyish,” which premieres Sunday.

In discussing his background, Auslander volunteers that he and his wife are both estranged from their families. Turning to writing as a form of therapy, he has penned three well-received books: short story collection “Beware of God,” the memoir “Foreskin’s Lament” and novel “Hope: A Tragedy.” He became a contributor to public radio’s “This American Life.” From there, creating a series for premium cable was a natural next step — even though he does not have Showtime (or much else in the way of TV) in Woodstock.

When he’s at the home he describes as being “out in the woods,” Auslander lives by a strict rule to keep most of the modern world at bay. He’s happy living in a “bubble” with his family and his work. His wife is an artist who concocts out-there creations much like the Lee Payne character played by Kathryn Hahn in “Happyish.”

“Don’t f—- with my bubble,” he says, noting that this snappy mantra is reinforced as the signature line of his emails. “I don’t watch the news. Don’t send me links. Don’t send me funny YouTube videos. I don’t want to know — it doesn’t help me. Don’t f—- with my bubble.”

That sentiment is expressed in “Happyish” as the part of the central conflict for both Thom and Lee.

“Thom’s bubble is under attack from a 20-year-old creative director and a culture that only values things 25 and under,” Auslander says. “Lee’s bubble is under attack from her mother, who she’s estranged from.”

The larger question the show aims to address is one that Auslander notes is ingrained in the notion of what it means to be American, per Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictum about life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

“What does happiness mean? Where do we get it? The truth is on a planet like this, happy-ish is probably the high bar that we can achieve,” Auslander says. “Jefferson should have copped to that. The guy was a student of 200 years of Enlightenment philosophy. So what does he do as one of the proud first Americans? He turns it into a f——-g tagline. ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ ”

It was the specificity of Auslander’s world view and the biting nature of the dark comedy presented in “Happyish” that hooked Showtime president David Nevins.

“Shalom is a really important new comedic voice,” Nevins says. “He’s going to have impact with the incredible originality of this show.”

Auslander is grateful to Showtime for its hands-off approach to letting him produce “Happyish” as he sees fit — which means writing every episode himself. Nevins’ confidence in Auslander was cemented by the quality of the scripts that followed the pilot.

“I didn’t have to bet that he could write more great scripts — I was sitting there with five of them,” Nevins says.

Auslander has forged his own process for developing story lines and season arcs. “I don’t feel like Showtime is a client that I have to sell on a layout,” he says. “David has been key to the whole thing. The only pushback I get from them is when they feel like I’m holding back.”

Nevins credits Auslander with being collaborative even as he exercises total control. “He listens to feedback,” Nevins says. “He’s able to write really fast and really funny.”

And he has proven a quick study in the art of showrunning. Auslander was undaunted by the multitasking required of the job.

“I’ve had real jobs,” Auslander says with a shrug. “Working at an ad agency around Christmas time or getting ready for Super Bowl commercials — it’s just as busy. The difference is that there I would spend eight hours watching a motion-control camera go around a beer bottle. Here I get to f— with God and television and the culture and stupid viral videos and all the other stuff that drives me crazy.”

Auslander faced a test of his will on “Happyish” when star Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February 2014, days after the pilot was ordered to series. The shock was immense. “Still heartbreaking,” he says.

The two had bonded well before “Happyish,” when Hoffman’s production company optioned Auslander’s novel “Hope: A Tragedy” for development as a feature. “Happyish,” however, was not written for Hoffman. Auslander approached the actor after the pilot was sold to Showtime and he was frustrated by his options for a leading man.

It took time for Auslander to get over the jolt of Hoffman’s death, but eventually he began to miss writing for the world of “Happyish.” He had become close with Hahn and wanted to see her breathe life into Lee. Nevins also felt the material was too good not to be made.

“I wanted to have a go at some of the things this show is having a go at,” Auslander said. “I wanted to know what happens to these people.”

The search for a star was equally difficult the second time around, until Coogan came into the picture. The British actor’s versatility has had a big influence on the show, Auslander says.

“He is remarkably funny and can convincingly play a number of characters,” he says. “He has expanded my idea of what the character could do.”

With the first season complete, Auslander is preparing to turn his attention back to finishing a novel that is overdue to his publisher. And he may be adapting “Hope: A Tragedy” for the stage. “Once you get in the habit of bleeding for a living it’s hard to stop,” he says.

One thing he won’t be doing is reading reviews of “Happyish.” He made that mistake after the publication of his first book, calling it “the short road to suicide.” But he does hope to continue the journey with the Payne family for a second season.

“I want to open up a conversation with viewers: what does it mean to be happy?” Auslander says. “I don’t have any interest in just writing a good yarn. For me, it’s much more about setting off this bomb and seeing what happens.”

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