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Chicago pops up on broadcast TV’s funniest sitcom, ‘Happy Endings’



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Updated: December 14, 2012 6:19AM

Nielsen ratings and Emmy voters may beg to differ, but the best comedy on broadcast TV is ABC’s underappreciated “Happy Endings.”

Packed with clever pop-culture references, jokes fired off at warp speed and plenty of pratfalls (no show does physical comedy better), “Happy Endings” chronicles the shenanigans of a delightfully dysfunctional group of six friends in their 30s living in Chicago.

Adam Pally plays Max, the rare gay male TV character who isn’t a persnickety neat freak or gym rat. Pally grew up in Skokie before moving out of state at the age of 14. (His family still ships him his beloved Lou Malnati’s pizza.) He said the show reminds him of home, and not just because it’s set there.

“There’s an underdog status Chicago has,” he said. “You kind of get looked over a lot. The show feels that way. It just keeps sticking around, standing its ground, and a lot of that is the heart of Chicago.”

When the sitcom debuted in the spring of 2011 as a midseason replacement, it looked like its ending might not be so happy. ABC burned off episodes at a rate that left many questioning the show’s fate. But the series survived for a second season and picked up steam in its post-“Modern Family” slot.

This fall, ABC took its sweet time launching a third season of “Happy Endings’” at the end of October and moved it from Wednesdays to the highly competitive 8 p.m. spot on Tuesdays. It goes head-to-head with NBC’s new Matthew Perry comedy “Go On” and Fox’s “New Girl,” one of last year’s breakout hits that initially co-starred “Happy Endings” cast member Damon Wayans Jr.

Wayans had to back out of Fox’s adorkable sitcom after the pilot when ABC decided to re-up “Happy Endings.”

“Duty calls,” said Wayans, whose character is one half of an interracial couple on “Happy Endings,” Brad and Jane, a married pair of competitive, Type A overachievers.

While “Happy Endings” is set in Chicago, it’s filmed in sunny California — and that’s fine by Wayans.

“Chicago’s always cold or it’s super humid and hot,” Wayans said. “But I love it. Love the people there. Love the violence there. Gets the heart racing.”

“Happy Endings’” executive producer and creator David Caspe loves Chicago, too, which is why it’s the backdrop for just about everything he writes.

Caspe grew up in north suburban Glencoe and lived in Wicker Park before moving to L.A.

“We’ve done some stuff on the show that’s not allowed in Chicago but we do it because it’s funny or it’s a good story,” Caspe said, pointing to food trucks as an example. The character Dave (Zachary Knighton) was grilling meat on his Steak Me Home Tonight food truck before it was legal. “And we had a gay marriage in our show, and there’s no gay marriage in Illinois.”

Caspe and the writers, several of whom hail from the Chicago area, still manage to work in occasional references to their old stomping ground — a bucket of Garrett popcorn here, a copy of Time Out Chicago there. Season three opened with the city’s skyline looming in the distance as Penny (Casey Wilson) base jumped off a building on a disastrous date that left her in body cast. Her physical therapist donned a Jim McMahon jersey at the behest of Max, who has a crush on the punky QB.

“We wear Cubs hats and Bears gear and Blackhawks stuff occasionally — that’s pretty much the only ‘Chicago’ we can fit in,” said Knighton, a Cubs fan in real life. “If they tried to make me a Sox fan I’d refuse. I’d quit the show. End it all.”

“I’ve been pitching a Wrigley episode,” he added, noting that while he’d like to shoot some scenes in the city, it might be too late. “We’ve already established this sort of universe that’s not really Chicago. It would be weird now to shoot in Chicago because it wouldn’t look like the show.”

Not that Eliza Coupe (Jane) would know; the New Hampshire native hasn’t set foot outside O’Hare.

“Can I just tell you: I forget the show is set in Chicago all the time,” she whispered conspiratorially.

Coupe’s intense, tightly wound character manages to stand out even among an ensemble cast as strong as “Happy Endings.’” The former “Scrubs” actress was flawless as a hardball negotiator helping Penny buy a car in the most recent episode.

“I’ve become more like my character, wrapped in a very different package,” Coupe said. “I have tattoos all over my arms that they have to cover every day. You’ll notice toward the end of last season I was always in long sleeves. They’d be like, ‘You need to come in at 5 a.m. [for makeup].’ I’d say, ‘Make it 5:30 and let’s long-sleeve it up.’”

On the show, Coupe plays the older, wiser sister of Alex (Elisha Cuthbert).

“This season we get to meet Jane and Alex’s parents,” Coupe said over the summer, shortly before filming began for the third season.

She said Sharon Stone and Kiefer Sutherland, who portrayed Cuthbert’s dad on “24,” were on the “dream casting” list to play the ladies’ parents.

“I think it should be Jim Carrey and … Jim Carrey,” she said.

It turned out to be Christopher McDonald (“Boardwalk Empire”) and “Airplane’s” Julie Hagerty.

Having seen a rough cut of that Dec. 11 episode, I can safely say that they — just like the show itself — will not disappoint.

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