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How Harry Styles' break from party scene inspired "Happy Together" premise

September 28, 2018 - 9:46 AM

TORONTO - Here's a novel approach: a sitcom featuring a happily married couple.

That's what Canadian-born showrunner Tim McAuliffe sees as the main selling point behind the aptly named "Happy Together." The series premieres Monday on CBS and Global.

The Montreal native boasts TV credits from both sides of the border, having been a writer/producer on shows including "This Hour Has 22 Minutes," "Corner Gas," "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," "The Office" and "The Last Man on Earth."

Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, he describes "Happy Together" as about "two thirty-somethings from the suburbs who welcome a pop idol under their roof." It stars Damon Wayans Jr. ("New Girl") and Amber Stevens West ("The Carmichael Show") as the couple, and Australian Felix Mallard as the musician.

They teach him about Costco and Pop Tarts; he puts some party back in their lives. It if sounds too much like a cutesy, Disney Channel premise, well, that's how it sounded to McAuliffe, too — even though it is based on fellow executive producer Ben Winston's own real-life experiences.

About eight years ago, Winston (the executive producer of "The Late Late Show with James Corden") and his wife, Meredith, were living in what he describes as "a very modest, quiet house in London." At the time, he was producing music videos for pop sensations One Direction.

One of the band members, Harry Styles, was looking to escape the party scene. The teen idol asked if he could hide out in Winston's attic for a couple of weeks.

"Eighteen months later, Harry moved out of our attic," Winston told TV critics gathered in Los Angeles this summer. "And nobody ever knew that he was living there." Flash forward several years and Winston takes the "pop star chillin' with normal couple" premise to CBS. He teams up with McAuliffe and fellow executive producer Austen Earl and asks them to write a pilot script. Styles is also one of the executive producers on the show.

McAuliffe's gut tells him that, if this show is to have any legs, he has to steer towards "the couple who love each other, not the kid playing an electric guitar." The happily married couple is a rarity on network TV says McAuliffe. It helps, too, that both he and Earl can draw on happy relationships with their own wives.

That approach, as it turned out, worked for Wayans who — thanks to "New Girl" — had a lot of heat on him this pilot season. "We knew he had at least 12 solid offers on TV shows," says McAuliffe.

Wayans says he was initially hooked when he learned that the premise was based on a true story. Reading the pilot script, seeing how this couple really were happy together, sealed the deal. "You don't see that too much," he says. "It's usually couples on the brink of divorce."

Wayans, in turn, had a role to play in casting his sitcom wife. He had worked — and instantly clicked — with Stevens West a few years earlier when she guested on "New Girl."

"We got along great during that shoot and we always stayed in contact," Wayans confirmed on the phone. "When I saw her as a possibility as my TV wife I jumped at it."

McAuliffe says it was "immediately obvious" that the two had great chemistry together. Wayans was not surprised. "If I like you as a person and you know how to do your job well, that's just going to make the chemistry happen automatically."

"Happy Together" had more good luck in casting. Stephnie Weir ("Madtv," "Crazy Ex-girlfriend"), was originally hired as a writer on the series. At a table read, she stepped in to do the part of Claire's mother and, says McAuliffe, "was cast off that." Victor Williams ("The King of Queens") plays Claire's father.

McAuliffe says he has "14 writers and four of them are Canadians." They are Darrin Rose ("Mr. D"), Rebecca Kohler ("Kim's Convenience") and McAuliffe's MuchMusic colleague Matt Unsworth.

Says the showrunner, "it's a real hoser convention in the writer's room."

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2018
The Canadian Press

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