In the Edit Bay: The Happy Ending of 'Happy Endings'
On Wednesday, May 25, the freshman ABC comedy "Happy Endings" -- about a group of longtime friends navigating the turbulent waters of marriage, romance, lack of romance, being left at the altar and leaving someone at the altar -- airs its season finale.
It now can prepare to come back next fall -- an ending that was very much in doubt when it premiered in April.
Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) are the not-quite-wed former couple; Brad (Damon Wayans) and Jane (Eliza Coupe) are married; Penny (Casey Wilson) and Max (Adam Pally) are single.
(Photo, left to right: Pally, Wilson, Knighton, Cuthberg, Wayans, Coupe)
Slipped onto the air in the spring, run two episodes at a time at 10 p.m. ET, "Happy Endings" had all the look of a comedy the network lacked faith in and was just burning off.
Well, that wasn't the case.
But, back on Feb. 1, when producers Jonathan Groff, creator/producer David Caspe (who used his own pals as inspiration) and editor Sandra Montiel are gathered in a windowless room to cut together the last episode, "The Shershow Redemption" -- click here for a preview -- the show hasn't even premiered yet.
"So," says Groff, "to give you the backstory on this episode. They had this busted wedding in the pilot between this couple. So Elisha Cuthbert is the sister of Eliza Coupe's character, and they've all been friends forever. So the whole premise is, 'How can this group of friends survive this busted wedding, especially when, at some point, they're all going to have to be friends again, because the roots are so deep.'
"This is our final episode, where it's put to the test when an old friend of theirs, an old boyfriend of Penny's, is getting married. They're all going to the wedding, so how can Dave and Alex survive an actual wedding?
"We're playing with the lingering feelings of it all. They split up; they hate each other; they figure out a way to get together; they don't really hate each other. We play it quickly."
Asked if the friends get a happy ending, Groff says, "We wanted it to be a happy ending, but a real happy ending?"
Not two people running across a beach toward each other, arms flung wide?
"God willing," says Groff, "the end of season five."
"Yeah," says Caspe.
"Happy Endings" is a single-camera comedy, meaning the way it's shot is not much different than a drama. And it takes about as long to knit together.
"Well," says Caspe, "the editor does her pass, which usually takes, including watching dailies and stuff, usually takes under five days, seven days."
"With no interruptions," says Montiel, "usually five days."
Caspe continues, "Five days to watch all the dailies and do an editor's cut, then the director does a pass, probably two days."
"Two days by DGA rules," says Montiel.
"And then," says Caspe, "we come in and, depending on the episode, spend probably about three full, full days to do a pass. So three 10-12-hour days."
Asked if it takes as long to edit each half-hour as to shoot it, Caspe says, "Longer."
"It's very intensive," says Groff. "The more you shoot, the more you have to look at."
"We do a lot of improv," says Caspe, "so it takes a long time to sift through everything. We have a ton of stuff that's not in the script."
"We have four actors," says Groff, "all of them really, but four, especially Casey and Damon Wayans, who are really good at improv. They throw in extra little things."
An ordinary viewer might think that it is possible that all the footage used in a final scene could have been shot during one take, but Groff says, "You mean like one whole take through a whole scene? Never."
Back in the olden days, before the arrival of computerized Avid editing systems for television in the '90s, editors assembled an episode by physically splicing together pieces of film.
Modern editing systems allow producers and editors to more easily move around reaction shots, slip in bits from different angles, rearrange lines and scenes and even occasionally slip in a bit from an earlier take or even another scene altogether.
Since timing is everything in comedy, they can tweak and tinker to get the rhythm of a scene just right, make sure the reactions match perfectly and that there is no dead air in between lines.
Of course, if you're doing a comedy on stage, all of that has to happen at once. But on stage, the actors have weeks to rehearse, polishing the performance over and over. TV doesn't have that kind of luxury.
So time saved in rehearsal and shooting is made up for in the editing bay.
"If you don't hit your 12-hour days," says Caspe, "it's insanely expensive."
"Whereas editing," says Groff, "you can go all night long. One editor's overtime as opposed to an entire cast."
In one scene being worked on, Penny makes up a story about a fictional fiance who was on his way to the wedding when giant storms hit and changed his plans. The scene, which can't be more than a few minutes in length, is painstakingly assembled so that each gesture and line has maximum comedy potential.
Of course, sooner or later, Penny has to produce an actual, physical fiance, and ... well, you'll just have to watch.