Last week, the internet was thrown for a loop when the Twitter account for cancelled ABC comedy series, Happy Endings, tweeted a cryptic link taking fans to a mysterious clock counting down to "a new day". WHAT! I saw the link while I was minding my own business, eating a family size bowl of fruit snacks and watching the end of You've Got Mail (this happens a lot). I had immediate heart attacks and hurriedly logged into Twitter to scroll through the endless speculation about whether the show will be coming back. And I knew, in that moment, that I needed to get to the bottom of it. For the people! But mainly for myself.
So I reached out to Prentice Penny, writer and producer for the show. He agreed to do the interview with very short notice, so it goes without saying I'm forever a fan. Now, let me make one thing very clear, friends: Prentice Penny is cooler than all of us. For three inarguable reasons. I will list them now.
1. He's written AND produced for some of the most popular shows on television over the past ten years, including Scrubs, Happy Endings and Girlfriends.
2. He currently writes for Golden Globe-winning, Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Sundays at 8:30 on FOX), and gets to witness Andre Braugher's deadpan, in person, whenever he wants.
3. He knows the Happy Endings secret and will. not. break.
To really drive home the point, he sent me the below selfie, and when I asked if he wanted to add a caption, he said, "No. I'm ok."
First thing's first, Prentice. The countdown clock.
No response. (laughs)
I'm going to ask you once. Is Happy Endings coming back?
I’m going to again say, no response. (laughs)
We're really making a breakthrough here, I think. The cult following behind the show is chock full of famously loyal fans. What is it like writing for an audience who is so rabidly devoted? It’s a lot of fun. When we wrote the first season, we had no idea what people were going to like, but we knew we had something special. At least something we all thought was funny in the writer’s room. But at the time we had no time slot at all - so we were like “that was fun, but oh well". Then when the show started to build an audience, and people got so into the show, it was nice. However, we always wanted to make sure we didn’t just start getting high on our own supply.
The show ran for three seasons despite its fans' efforts to keep it alive. We're talking Facebook groups, Twitter pages, fan sites, viral videos, picket lines, you name it; All dedicated to saving the show. What was it like experiencing that from your perspective?
It was tough knowing that on the inside it’s like a losing battle, no matter what the fans said. I do believe Happy Endings was a victim of shows that started to get ratings in the “1’s”, but if Happy Endings was on now, I think it would be on the air. Especially in the wake of shows like Mindy Project where the overall rating may be low, but they are number one in the demo and speak right to their audience. That’s the definition of success. It was also tough being on ABC where most of the shows were family shows, and we were the lone young-people show. It was a hard fit.
Much like the show Friends, there's no getting rid of one specific character because they all bring something unique to the table. Who's your favorite?
They all were fun to write for, honestly. Those six actors were all great in their own way. I legit had no favorite. Although, certain pairings would be fun. Like Damon [Wayans Jr.]/[Adam] Pally or Zack [Knighton]/Elisha [Cuthbert] or Eliza [Coupe/Casey [Wilson]. But you could put anyone together, and it’d be gold.
I will forever harbor feelings for Brad Williams, played by Damon Wayans, Jr. Please let him know.
I in no way condone stalking, but ok.
You're currently working on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, another massively successful show currently airing Sundays at 8:30 on FOX. Why wouldn't it be on at 9:00? Brooklyn Nine-Nine at nine. Seems like low-hanging fruit.
What makes writing for Brooklyn Nine-Nine different than other shows you’ve worked on?
That there are so many diverse cast members. There's three women, two of whom who are Latina. Two African American men. Two actors over 55. On Happy Endings or Scrubs or Girlfriends, all of the characters were usually the same age or same background, which is great too because it makes the jokes all relatable. But it's also nice writing for so many characters who are so different.
It's a common practice that comedy shows incorporate a certain level of ad-lib for authentic effect. How much do the actors stick to the script on Brooklyn Nine-Nine?
We always get the scripted version. Always. But once that's done we do takes where Andy [Samberg] and other cast members will improv. I think people think that because it's quick and flowing, it has to be improv. The writers work very hard to make it seem that way. And usually, improv works better once a structure is in place to start with. You can't improv story. You can improv jokes. And the structure allows there to be a different telling of the joke or a new joke idea. But to say it all comes out of thin air would be 100% not true.
What’s it like being in the writers’ room with Andy Samberg?
Andy isn't in the writer's room, but he always pitches funny stuff on set, and he loves to riff on jokes back and forth. Mostly, you pitch stuff back and forth, and he'll take it and make it a million times better.
Do you have a favorite episode or show moment?
Honestly, it's like saying which one of your kids you like more. And if my kids are reading this - it's Benjamin. But I don't. I love seeing Chelsea [Peretti] dance. I like the two Halloween episodes a lot because it's Jake [Peralta] and [Captain Ray] Holt squaring off. I also like the emotional episodes, so "The Bet" where we learn Jake likes Amy when he takes her out on a date was nice. That's when the show felt it had hit a sweet spot.
It would be delinquent of me not to bring up Scrubs. You wrote several episodes for season nine. What was your favorite part about working on the show?
The other writers. I met so many talented people - a lot I ended up working with on Happy Endings. Plus, a Scrubs spec is what got me my first job on Girlfriends, so I was pumped to write on a show I was a fan of. Plus, I got to work with Donald Faison and Dave Franco. What's better!
Not only do you write, but you also produce and direct. Which role brings you the most fulfillment?
I haven’t directed in a long time, but I love to write. I hate being on set. I’d say producing is fun because you get to have input but other people more brilliant than you make those things happen.
How did you get your start as a screenwriter?
I got in as a writer’s trainee on a a great show called Girlfriends that was written by Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane, The Game) As an African-American writer, she was big on making sure she opened more doors for people, and she did. I learned so much from her. Not just in terms of being a professional writer, but how to be a professional. How to treat a writing staff, etc.. How to run a show. She’s brilliant.
What shows currently inspire you?
Louie, House of Cards, Broad City
What do you do on days you wake up and don't feel motivated to write?
I write anyway. It’s a muscle you gotta exercise. Even if the writing doesn’t really flow that day - it’s okay. Most of what you write the first go around is bad anyway. I usually find I did at least “one" thing good if I just get up and do it.
Blink twice if Happy Endings is coming back.
*Writer is unable to blink.
You're like a very tightly sealed Tupperware that won't open even when hurling it to the ground. I respect that. Let's end with a game. Write the first word that comes to mind when you see the following names:
Adam Pally - Hilarious
Casey Wilson - Free
Damon Wayans Jr. - Star
Elisha Cuthbert - Surprising
Zachary Knighton - Prepared
Eliza Coupe - Focused
Andy Samberg - Creative
Terry Crews - Generous
Joe Lo Truglio - Flat-out funny
Chelsea Peretti - Quick
Melissa Fumero - Open
Andre Braugher - Genius
Stephanie Beatriz - Layered