Shalom Auslander lives in a bubble, and he likes it that way, thank you very much.
On a bitterly cold February afternoon, the creator of the new Showtime series "Happyish" explains his jaundiced and intentionally blinkered worldview. He isn't interested in that "hysterical" YouTube video you sent him ("It's never funny, and it always links to something that puts me in a bad mood").
Nor does he see the point in watching the news ("Oh, wow, a bomb went off in the Middle East? That's unusual"). And even though he is the sole writer of the series, which takes a caustic look at the advertising industry, he says he's never seen an episode of "Mad Men."
For Auslander, a fiction writer, essayist and frequent contributor to "This American Life" who lives with his wife and two children in self-imposed exile near Woodstock, N.Y., working on "Happyish" has been "a tremendous bubble violation." For instance, take his inadvertent discovery — thanks to a car driver who turned the radio on — that the Academy Awards had been handed out the night before.
"Just five seconds of listening to the coverage made me want to grab the wheel and turn right into the barrier," he says during a lunch break at Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, where "Happyish" is in production on its fourth episode.
Premiering Sunday, the semiautobiographical existential comedy follows advertising executive Thom Payne (Steve Coogan), who shares a blissfully isolated domestic life in the woods of upstate New York with his artist wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and 6-year-old son, Julius (Sawyer Shipman). He violates the bubble five times a week by commuting to his job in a youth-oriented, social-media-obsessed industry where he feels increasingly obsolete.
Its dyspeptic creator aside, "Happyish" has followed an unusually difficult and tragedy-laden path to the small screen. Just weeks after the series was given a green light by Showtime last year, original lead Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose.
"This whole project has been blessed with some great things and cursed with just awful things," Auslander says. "I guess it all evens out, and that's the best you can hope for: an even split."
On an office set crafted with such verisimilitude you can practically smell the toner in the air, an upcoming episode has a group of mostly twentysomething executives reviewing a script for a TV spot. The ad, for a new ice beer aimed at the so-called urban market, features a bunch of partygoers splashing around in a pool.
"Do black people swim?" someone asks Debbie, a character played by Carrie Preston, prompting a less-than-productive conversation about race and authenticity. As Thom, Coogan silently looks on with an expression that says it all: "Am I really hearing this?"
The show's withering take on the advertising biz is inspired by Auslander's own decade-plus of experience in the industry, which provided an easy paycheck he used to subsidize his writing career. "I always felt like I had this front-row seat to the downfall of Western civilization," he says. "And couldn't quite believe the things I was hearing and things people were saying."
Case in point: the executive who marveled at the visibility Osama bin Laden achieved on 9/11 using a limited budget, a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up detail that made its way into the "Happyish" pilot.
Auslander wrote up a treatment for the television series that would become "Happyish" but was known as "Pigs in ..." and "Trending Down" along the way, after he was let go from a cushy agency gig and found himself in need of a new source of income. He teamed up with the prolific director-producer Ken Kwapis ("The Office," "A Walk in the Woods") and his producing partner, Alexandra Beattie, and pitched the project around town. Auslander figured that, if nothing else, he could "monetize the failure" and turn the ordeal into an amusing "This American Life" segment.
To his surprise, Showtime decided to pursue the project, even though network President David Nevins was slightly apprehensive about the subject of advertising, a perennial favorite of pop culture from "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" to "thirtysomething" to, yes, "Mad Men."
"The last thing the world needs is another show about advertising," Nevins admits. "What sold me on it was Shalom's particular take on the indignities of midlife, that sense of feeling like you're growing obsolete at an absurdly young age."
Nevins, who calls the process of bringing "Happyish" to television "without a doubt the longest development process that I've ever been through," encouraged Auslander to incorporate more of Thom's family life into the narrative. While shows about advertising or, for that matter, middle-age malaise hardly represent uncharted territory (HBO has its own half-hour comedy about married, middle-aged white people with a suffixed title, "Togetherness"), "Happyish" represents a break from the TV norm in its depiction of a content, healthy marriage between equals.
Auslander, whose painter wife is the model for Lee, was adamant on this point: "How about a series where the husband and wife love each other, and one isn't fat and stupid and the other isn't a shrew who's always complaining about his drinking?"
As he was developing "Happyish," Auslander was simultaneously working with Hoffman on a film adaptation of his novel, "Hope: A Tragedy." On something of a whim, he asked the actor whether he'd be interested in playing the lead. For Oscar winner Hoffman, who had never had a regular series role on television before, it represented a major departure, but to Auslander's amazement, he said yes.
"He really threw himself into it, and that was it," Auslander recalls. John Cameron Mitchell directed a pilot starring Hoffman, Hahn and Rhys Ifans, and in mid-January 2014, Showtime announced a series order for "Happyish." Hoffman was found dead in early February. "We were sort of on our way, and then not."
Wounds still raw
As one might expect, questions about Hoffman elicit long, anguished pauses from everyone on the "Happyish" team; clearly, the wounds are still raw.
"The whole thing is painful. I'm sure you understand I don't love talking about it," says Auslander, who describes Hoffman as "a fantastic guy, despite all his demons."
After several months of mourning, Showtime decided to move ahead with the series because, says Nevins, "that kind of comedy is really hard to come by. The scripts are both really funny and really deep."
Everyone involved agreed that it was essential to go in a very different direction for Thom.
"It took a really long time, and a lot of deep breaths to see who would be able to see it anew, because that's the only way that I could have done it," says Hahn, one of the only cast holdovers from the original pilot. "I was not interested in trying to repeat anything, because you couldn't; there's no way."
Coogan quickly became a top pick because he "projects real intelligence," Nevins says, "but he has a sort of sweetness about him so that he can get away with anger, which I think is important when you're playing Shalom's material. He can be outraged and impulsive and still be really fun to watch and likable."
Coogan, who rose to fame on British TV playing tactless talk show host Alan Partridge, says he didn't have a burning desire to return to his roots but was seduced by Auslander's writing. And after years as a writer-performer-producer-comic, Coogan, nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for his "Philomena" screenplay, was also eager for an opportunity to simply "show up and act," as he puts it.
"Although of course it's a terrible thing, I didn't feel especially intimidated by the Phil element," says Coogan, who signed on to the project in October. The pilot, featuring Bradley Whitford, Preston and Ellen Barkin in supporting roles, was shot in New York City and Woodstock in December. Production on the 10-episode season began in earnest in January, marking a remarkably fast turnaround for a premium cable series.
Ordinarily, hiring someone with no industry experience to write all 10 episodes of a television series would be considered madness, but to Auslander's collaborators, his outsider status was, if anything, a selling point.
"One of the things I'm excited about is [Auslander] has a voice that's not been tempered by years of studio and film development," says executive producer Kwapis, who directed the show's first three episodes and recalls that Auslander's first draft "read like some long-lost Paddy Chayefsky script."
Those of us who were paying attention in ninth-grade history class will also note the similarity between the name of Coogan's character and the Revolutionary pamphleteer, Thomas Paine. Like "Common Sense," "Happyish" is a sort of call to arms.
Each episode begins with a blistering screed aimed at a different target (Thomas Jefferson, God, Carol Brady) and incorporates irreverent animated sequences of familiar logos and brand mascots re-imagined in unusual circumstances (think: suicidal Keebler elves).
"The series has an anger about it, an anger with the celebrity-obsessed, trivialized world that we live in," Coogan says.
A recurring theme in "Happyish" is Thom's sense of being an alien in a strange world, something very clearly drawn from Auslander's own biography. The writer grew up in a strict Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, N.Y., but no longer observes his childhood faith, a conversion documented in his memoir, "Foreskin's Lament."
Now, as someone who works in television but whose pop culture references date back to "Gilligan's Island" and "Dr. Strangelove," Auslander once again finds himself a misfit among his colleagues.
"They talk about TV," he says, "and I don't know who they're talking about. And I don't really care."
Still, he is hoping to reap the rewards of a new job in showbiz — or what passes for them in his mind.
"I feel like this has to do really well in Season 1 and win lots of Emmys, because then I can just become that …, you know, do that David Mamet thing: 'Say it the way I tell you to say it!' I'm looking forward to that very much."
When: 9:30 p.m. Sunday