LOS ANGELES (AP) — A veteran ad man at an existential crossroads has a “Mad Men” ring to it. Stir victimized Keebler cartoon elves into Showtime’s dark comedy “Happyish” and it’s obvious that something very different is afoot.
Just as the waning “Mad Men” is Matthew Weiner’s unique creation, the new “Happyish” represents Shalom Auslander’s singular assertion of the futile quest for unqualified happiness — despite Thomas Jefferson’s official declaration that we deserve to chase it.
The founding father “wrote America’s first tagline: ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,'” said Auslander, who gives the catchy phrase roughly the same respect as, “Buy one, get one free.”
“It’s (expletive). He knew it was (expletive) when he wrote it,” said Auslander, whose profanity-laden speech, and series, could make a sheltered elf blush. “He just needed a handle.”
That perspective, and the fact that the hero of “Happyish” is a pained ad agency executive, Thom Payne, as played by English master of cynicism Steve Coogan, make it easy to imagine bleakness eclipsing comedy.
But Auslander said he doesn’t work that way. The novelist, magazine writer and “This American Life” contributor is making his first foray into TV with the series debuting 9:30 p.m. EDT Sunday.
“In everything I write, my goal is ‘Ha, ha, ha, ouch,'” he said, drawing a contrast between a hollow joke — he cites a woman mistaking sperm for hairgel in the 1998 movie “Something About Mary” — and humor found in “the deeper things, the harder things. To me that’s the best laugh.”
Laughter is in short supply for middle-aged Tom after the agency is taken over by two young, social-media entranced Swedes who promise (read: threaten) change. One kneejerk suggestion for a client, Keebler snacks, is to dump the brand’s merry, beloved elves for documentary-style TV spots.
The dire possibility prompts the elves to appear in Tom’s life (at one point, extreme intimacy is involved) and interact with others (violence, no intimacy).
The show’s cast includes Kathryn Hahn (“Revolutionary Road,” ”We’re the Millers”) as Lee Payne, Tom’s appealingly strong wife, and Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) as his jaded colleague. Sawyer Shipman plays the Paynes’ emotionally vulnerable son.
Actor-writer Coogan (“Philomena,” ”Alan Partridge”), who said he wasn’t driven to get an American TV show, had the task of replacing the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Oscar-winning actor, who had taped a “Happyish” pilot, died a drug overdose in 2014 at age 46.
“I talked to Shalom a lot before I pulled the trigger to move forward,” Coogan said. “The reason I’m doing it, with the greatest respect to Philip Seymour Hoffman, is because of the quality of the writing. I read those lines and thought I would like to say them.”
Coogan, who at 49 falls into the generational bracket with his character, said he understands Tom’s fear of becoming irrelevant in a fast-changing world. But “Happyish” is about more than that, and offers more than a sour view of life.
“If it was just cynical, I wouldn’t be interested in it. What elevates it is that Shalom understands that Tom’s character has a humanity: He wants the world to be a better place,” Coogan said.
Auslander faced a personal challenge in continuing with “Happyish” after Hoffman’s death: The two had become friends when Hoffman optioned his novel, “Hope: A Tragedy,” that imagines Holocaust victim Anne Frank found alive, older and hiding in a New York attic.
“I just really didn’t feel like thinking about it for a while,” he said. “You go through stages of anger and grief. Then I (realized) I kind of love these characters, and they existed for a very long time before Philip came on board.”
The 44-year-old Auslander is the same age as Payne, once worked in an ad agency and is the show’s sole writer (he shares executive producing duties with Ken Kwapis). An observer might conclude that he is putting his own midlife crisis on screen, but Auslander says the show is about the state of the world, not its generation gap.
“I’ll sit with a 25- or 30-year-old and they’ll go, ‘Yeah, it’s (expletive) crazy.’ I think it’s a point of view: Anyone who has any kind of self-awareness and isn’t swallowing what the world is selling, whole.”
And what is that? “It doesn’t bode well for the country if every industry aims for 18-year-olds,” he said, or if older Americans try to emulate them.
“I walk through town and they’ve got on Oakleys (sunglasses) and bright orange Nikes and track suits. And I’m, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing?’ You’re the tribal elders. You have a job to do. Tell me what really matters.”
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.