One of my favorite sitcoms is Happy Endings, ABC’s show about a group of friends who live in Chicago. Much like Modern Family found a way to revitalize the family sitcom (though it’s fallen off notably in quality), Happy Endings found new juice in the group-of-close-friends comedy. In part, it did so by changing what that group of friends looked like, adding Max (Adam Pally), who became one of the most innovative gay characters on television simply by being a person rather than a stereotype, and Jane Kerkovich-Williams (Eliza Coupe) and Brad Williams (Damon Wayans, Jr.), a loony-for-each-other new married couple who also happen to be one of the rare interracial couples on television. But it’s also a mile-a-minute joke factory deeply rooted in the characters’ quirks and the specifics of their relationships with each other, whether Max is dosing Penny (Casey Wilson), who he’s been taking care of after she has an accident, with sleepy tea so he can get at her physical therapist, or food truck operator Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Jane’s younger sister Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), whose broken engagement kicked off the series, are trying to date again while denying that they’re in a serious relationship.
Coupe and I spoke in advance of the third season of Happy Endings, which returns to ABC tonight at 9 PM, about Jane, whose combination of obsessive-compulsion and gleefully whacked-out sexual chemistry with Brad have made her one of my favorite characters in television. She told me where her style of physical comedy comes from, how she draws on her own marriage for inspiration, and why New England WASPs are so hilarious. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’ve noticed that you have a very specific approach to physical comedy: Jane gets a lot of mileage out of being very stiff or very boneless. Is that something you developed for her character, or does it come out of personal experience?
It’s really funny, because I used to play ice hockey as a kid. I grew up in New Hampshire. I’m from Plymouth, New Hampshire. It was a thing. My dad was a semi-pro hockey player, both of my brothers played, I mean, I was raised by a boy. I was taught to box, I was taught to play hockey, I played baseball and softball for a while. And it was always an ongoing joke, like when I played hockey, I was so stiff on the ice. My dad would be like, “You gotta crouch down, Liz.” And I’m like, “I know,” and he’s like “No, you gotta get down towards the ice.” And I’d be like this, and I thought it was really funny. I was like, I’m such a stiff person. But then I started realizing that can be really funny. It’s either zero or a hundred with me. I’m either that, or I’m like [in a funny voice] “What’s up?” completely loose, because I think I got so much criticism for being that way, so it was like, let’s do both. The physical comedy of it all, saying all of that, I mean, there was one episode in the first season where I’m drunk and I’m all over the place. But it’s fun to go to extremes. I was obsessed with Jim Carrey, like obsessed, and I was obsessed with, I think Sandra Bullock also does some great physical comedy, and I think subconsciously, I may locked that and my head and said “Oh, that’s how you do it.”
I also think with women, either women are supposed to be totally relaxed and loose or they’re thought to be uptight. You seem to mine a lot of comedy from perfectionism, from people holding themselves together when they really want to just let go.
I think that’s what I love about my character. Coming form New England, which you know, the WASPY “Everything’s fine!” but on the inside they’re just completely crumbling. That’s how I feel like my aunts and my mothers are: “Everything’s great! Everything’s fine! We’re fine! Good, good, good, everything’s fine!” But turn a corner and they’re alone and they’re like “Oh my God! Everything’s falling apart!” And I think watching someone who’s unhinged try to hold it together is one of the funniest things. And I think that it’s far more interesting, unless, of course, we let them be completely unhinged. Whenever I see, on a movie or in a play, watching someone completely full-on cry is not as interesting as watching them trying not to cry. In real life, I’ll cry by myself, alone, in a private place, at home or with my husband. But around a lot of people, if I’m emotional, I’m going to try to hold it together, which is actually, if you’re going to put a camera on that and give it a time slot of 9 o’clock on Tuesday nights, is funny.
One thing you also seem to do is play a lot of characters between how they see themselves and how they come across to other people. Do you find that juxtaposition interesting?
Yeah, I think probably because I am that a lot in my own life. My friend once told me that “You are the most confident insecure person I’ve ever met in my entire life.” And I was like, “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right.” It is really interesting to see someone who thinks “I am totally cool and going with the flow” when it’s “Oh my God, if you honestly believe that about yourself, it’s hilarious.” I guess I’ve noticed that in my characters, especially in Jane, especially the second season, we saw a lot more of that, what she thinks she is and what she really is. It’s an inner struggle she’s having, so conflicted, but if you put it on a TV show it’s really funny, but I think a lot of people can relate to that.