Happy Endings creator David Caspe on Chicago, The Beachwood Inn and loft living

Last week, TOC weighed in on prime time televisions treatment of Chicago details in Chicago-set television shows. ABC comedy Happy Endings was one of the bunch. It isn't filmed here, but creator David Caspe hasn't forgotten his hometown and is continually inspired by his stint as an aspiring painter in Wicker Parke, no less. I got him on the phone to talk Chicago.

TOC/John Dugan: I wanted to talk about the Chicago angle—Happy Endings is set in Chicago and definitely draws on the city with its plotlines. Was that your choice all along? When you pitched the show was that in there?

David Caspe: Yeah, I’m from Chicago so the first draft of anything I write, movies or TV or anything, is always set in Chicago. Because I’m from there I always weirdly have the hope that it’ll get me to go work there for a little while, although it had never happened. But yeah, that’s kinda where I’m from and then it affords me the ability to talk about the Bulls as much as I can, and the Bears and Cubs and White Sox and everything. I’m a big Bulls fan and a big Bears fan and so, you know, I kind of just put it there. And also I think Chicago, as far as, like, what’s going on in a 30-year-old’s life or something, is maybe more relatable to a 30-year-old than New York or L.A., you know? I think maybe New York and L.A. are a little different than the rest of the country as far as where people are at at different ages and stuff, so it feels like Chicago is a big city while still being sort of relatable to the rest of the country. 

John: Yeah, in terms of when people get married and decide to settle down, whereas in New York and L.A. people kind of extend their youth indefinitely—that’s not quite as prominent here. Do you still have lots of friends in Chicago that you draw inspiration from? 

David: I’ve stayed really close with all the friends I made from, like, third grade. And a couple of them are still back in Chicago. And then weirdly a few of them are out here and are writers, and one of them actually works at HBO now. But then I have two guys from Chicago on the writing staff, one who’s one of my best friends since third grade and then his younger brother is his writing partner. And I’ve obviously known his younger brother almost since he was born. So they’re on the writing staff, and then my other friend from third grade is actually a feature writer out here.

John: And where was this, where were you in third grade?

David: We grew up in Glencoe, which is north of the city, a small town. And then I lived in Wicker Park for a long time. After college I moved to Wicker Park, lived on Milwaukee and Honore, basically. I actually sort of styled the bar in the show after—there’s a little bar that’s probably still there called the Beachwood Inn.

John: Sure, yeah. Know it well.

David: Oh really? Yeah, Beach and Wood. And for a little bit there was a bar on the corner called Holiday that we used to go to all the time, right on my corner. But that has since become multiple different bars. But the Beachwood Inn—I love that place. 

John: Do you think there’s anything else about the brand of humor you’re dealing with that lent itself to the Chicago setting? Not just the age group that you’re working with, but is there a Chicago attitude or anything that comes through? Is there a regional sense of humor?

David: It does come through, I think there is definitely, like, when I meet people from Chicago or from the Midwest in general, they feel a certain—I think we sort of recognize each other and have a similar sense of humor and a similar sensibility a lot of times. So I’m sure that creeps through, especially considering that I created the show and also that we have a couple of writers from Chicago on staff. But that being said, we have 12 other super talented, awesome writers who aren’t from Chicago, and Jonathan Groff who runs the show with me is not from Chicago, and Jamie Tarses, who is EP on it, also not from Chicago. So I don’t know how much that, you know, permeates through. I mean, do you feel it at all?

John: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I sometimes feel like the characters’ attitudes definitely remind me of—like when they go out to the suburbs to housesit on Halloween and it’s that kind of, you know, repulsion for the suburbs. Just little things like that where I’m like, I’ve definitely shared that with people here.

David: Yeah, I think Chicago is one of those cities—I don’t know about all cities—but Chicago is very specifically like there’s the city and there’s all the surrounding suburbs and it’s in a world away, kind of. Always as a kid growing up in the suburbs, you know, going downtown, that’s where you want to be, always. And that episode you mentioned, the Halloween one, actually was written by Matthew and Daniel Libman, who are my friends from Chicago. Something like that, when I think about issues of growing up and leaving the city and moving to the suburbs, which are pretty universal issues, I definitely draw from my experience living in Chicago. I know as kids the suburbs were an awesome, amazing place to live, but for me and my buddies the goal was always to get the fuck out, to a city somewhere.

John: I grew up in the D.C. suburbs and I think definitely it’s a similar thing where you’re dying to get out of there and then later in life you appreciate it a little bit more. 

David: It’s funny, because growing a little older I look back and it’s pretty amazing that we got to just ride our bikes all day and, you know, that it was a pretty idyllic childhood. But definitely as you get into high school and stuff, your goal is to get downtown.

John: One thing that I thought was interesting—and I must admit I’ve seen the second season but not much of the first season—is that the premise, the Alex and Dave situation, seems to be receding into the background a little bit as the other characters have their own stories. How important is that going to remain in the plotline?

David: It was always meant to be a six-person ensemble. Every week we tell probably three stories per episode and it just varies who the stories are about. Some stories are bigger than others but it tends to shift around and probably if you were to at the end of this season—if there was a way to measure how much screen time everybody had, I think it would probably come out pretty equal amongst all six of them. So it’s just kind of a matter of in some episodes some people are bigger than others and vice versa, but in the end we have six super funny, talented people in our cast and they’re all great in different ways, so different stories lend themselves to different characters. But in the end we love writing for all of them and I think it ends up pretty even. But yeah, as far as their relationship has sort of receded—you know, it bubbles up here and there.

John: It’s always there to mine.

David: Yeah, I mean I don’t know if you’ve been in a situation like that. I know I have, where you’re kind of off and on for years with someone, and everyone’s still friends so it’s weird and messy. I think if you know people for a really long time, that kind of relationship is pretty common. Like I said, I’m friends with a lot of my friends now for almost 25 years, and I’m 32. So I’ve known them all for so long, it’s this long epic history of everyone dating each other, and some people have gone back to dating people they dated in eighth grade. It’s been kind of a long, crazy relationship for everyone. And that was kind of the idea for the group, that it’s a group that has known each other for so long. Some only since college, but some since third grade, and that it just creates this huge common back story amongst all of them, and that’s kind of interesting as far as storytelling goes.

John: I also feel like people who have known each other for a long time are a little bit freer, they can razz their friends more, and they have more episodes they can bring up to needle them with. If you’ve just started hanging out with somebody, a month later you’re not going to be mocking them for what they did at their prom. You have to have that ammunition there. So, I assume that in the second season the ratings have really picked up, right? 

David: Yeah, we’re doing a lot better and we can grow more. We’re behind such a juggernaut in Modern Family that even though our ratings are really good and probably would be considered amazing if we were in a lot of other time slots, since we’re behind Modern Family and we’re dropping a lot of our lead-in still, we want to be able to—we hope that more people find the show so we can pick up the slack a little. And hopefully we will. People seemed to be starting to find the show a little more. 

John: One of the things that really struck me is this is a much smarter show than I expected, and there are a lot of non-stock characters playing against expected stereotypes, and for me that was kind of a draw. Not just that it’s set in Chicago, and I live in Chicago and that it’s about people roughly my age, but that there’s kind of a new sensibility about how realistic you can be with characters. Do you feel like there’s a freedom there these days, that you don’t have to write things as stereotypically? 

David: I don’t know. I honestly think that people, that writers are not as conscious of having to do anything. I mean, you’re always trying to create an interesting character or tell an interesting story and sometimes you just don’t. But there’s no, like –

John: There’s no one forcing you to.

David: There’s no network telling you…I assume you’re talking about maybe the Max character, and I was talking to another writer today about it, and they were asking if the network ever—was there any pushback on the interracial relationship, or having a non-stereotypical gay character, and the truth is there was zero at all. There was never, never an issue. The characters were pitched, the relationships were pitched, and they said “write ‘em.” So I think that from outside of Hollywood there’s this idea that maybe the networks are more this big bad corporation than they may actually be in experience. I’ve only worked with the executives I’ve worked with at ABC and Sony on this but they’ve been nothing but great creative partners. I can’t speak for anywhere else but I can’t say that there was ever a question of like, “well, are you sure you want to have an interracial relationship?” I think it’s just not as much of an issue as it was 10 years ago. It was literally never even brought up. And honestly it wasn’t pitched as an interracial relationship or anything, it was more—I don’t know, I wanted the friends to be more indicative of my group of friends or how I think most groups of friends are now, not all white and all straight. So I thought, I want to do a show that’s not all white and not all straight, and it ended up that the African-American character that I wrote ended up being married to a white girl but that was more because I needed a sister for the girl who got left at the altar that happened to be white, so the sister had to be white, and I knew that they were going to be married. So it sort of ended up an interracial relationship, it wasn’t something that worked into my pitch, that we were going to do an interracial relationship, it’s just sort of how it fell out. Same thing with the gay character. I wanted to base a character on a friend of mine and he happens to maybe be a little different than the television stereotype of a gay guy, but it wasn’t me trying to make some big statement or anything. It was just like, okay, this will be based on my buddy and this is what he’s like.

John: Right, and I think that organic deal really comes across. It’s not too much attention being brought to something that throws it out of balance, like “a very special episode.” 

David: Yeah. That being said, our cast—yes, we have a gay guy, and yes, we have an African-American guy, but we’re still not as diverse as most people’s friends, I would think. But again, that’s just sort of how things shook out. I did know that I wanted to have it more representative of people’s groups of friends these days but that wasn’t for some big political statement. More it just felt like it would be more relatable and I can only write about—it’s stupid to say “write about what you know” but I don’t know, I wanted to do a show about a group of friends like mine and this happened to be how it shook out. 

John: And you could say this is inspired by your years living in Wicker Park.

David: Yeah, some of it is and some is friends from college, some is friends from out here in L.A. and some is friends from Chicago, some is friends from third grade. And I couldn’t really ever point—each character is a combination of a lot of friends of mine, no single character is like, that’s about that guy, totally. But yeah, listen, I know we get a lot of shit for the fact that we’re not fully representative of Chicago, like the fact that we have a guy that owns a food truck. I think at the time we started they weren’t legal in Chicago yet but they might be legal now, I’m not sure.

John: It’s still kind of a gray area. You can’t really cook or have a kitchen on wheels. You can serve food, so there are food trucks, but they pretty much have to carry things they prepared that morning. So the pro-food truck people want to loosen that up.

David: So that’s a case of—I’m inspired by Chicago but I’m not making a documentary about Chicago. We do our best, and then at the end of the day we think it’s a funny, great job for Dave to have his own food truck. Good for story, interesting concept, so it’s funny to create funny shit. So we do it even though it’s not totally allowed in Chicago. We do out best to look like Chicago, but we do shoot in Los Angeles, so it’s never going to be a full love letter to Chicago in the way that Manhattan is a love letter to Manhattan. But that being said, I do love Chicago and we make a lot of reference to Scottie Pippen and a lot of things in Chicago. But I do see a lot of tweets and stuff that are like, “There’s no Autriana Hotel in Chicago!” 

John: It’s called artistic license. None of this stuff actually happens in Chicago.

David: And also, with a lot of companies we’re not allowed to use the names. So that creates some stuff. But I get it. I saw a tweet that was like, “there’s not a lot of metal fire escapes in Chicago.” They’re mostly wood decks and stuff like that. We’re doing our best. But yeah, I absolutely love Chicago. It’s my home, even though I don’t live there.

John: How are you taking the NBA lockout then? Must be killing you.

David: It’s killing me. I grew up during the heyday of Michael Jordan and all those championship teams and I was a huge fan. To be an eight-year-old kid, a nine-year-old kid during—to get to see such great teams and then the best basketball player of all time. I would go down there to Chicago Stadium with my dad and get to watch Michael Jordan, and Pippen and Grant and Paxon and everyone, and it was amazing. So I was instantly such a fan. We had tough years for about 10 years or so, with little exceptions here and there, and I stayed a huge fan all those 10 years, and then now, finally, we’re back and we’re awesome again. And the team is so good and so exciting to watch. Rose and Deng and Noah and everyone. I love the team, I love how the team’s constructed right now. It just sucks that they’re not playing. You only get so many years of when a team is good and when a player is in their prime. I don’t know, it sucks. How’s Chicago taking it? Does the town feel depressed from it? The Bears are good though. The Bears are playing well.

John: Yeah, they’re getting a little bit of respect. But I think the Bulls thing is depressing for people.

David: It’s just a bummer. We’re kind of back to being really good, and Derrick Rose is awesome.

John: He’s coming off his league MVP year and you just want to watch him play. I wrote about his new shoe coming out and said, basically, you won’t get to see him play in this shoe, for a while. And for me, I was always kind of a casual Bulls fan because I love Michael Jordan, but in the last two seasons I really caught—how could you not fall for them? So that’s good that you haven’t converted to Laker fandom.

David: God, no. It’s Chicago all the time. I think the teams you were fans of when you were a kid are the teams your stick with, or at least the teams you should stick with. 

John: Were there any other Wicker Park things that you miss or you think about?

David: Max’s apartment, that sort of warehouse/loft thing, is a little similar to the place I lived in but it’s also kind of more drawn from—before I was writing I was a painter, and had a studio space in a warehouse building kind of off Armitage right on the river. There’s those old warehousey buildings, I wish I could remember the exact name of the street it was on. Or I guess it was off North Avenue, right on the river there’s a warehouse building that I think has become even more of an artist building. But at the time it was rundown and there were only a couple artists that had studio space there, just these big, huge, great lofts, completely empty and right on the river. They were great. I had a band back then and we would practice there and I would paint in there, and it looked a lot like the inside of Max’s apartment.

John: What was your band called?

David: Oh, we never—we were called the Light Years, but I don’t think we ever played out. Basically we all started fighting and hating each other before we ever played out. 

John: That’s very Wicker Park though, to have a band that exists but has never played out.

David: It was where I painted and then I ended up moving to New York after that for a few years. But it was great. I’m trying to think of where else—when I think of what these apartments looked like I’m imagining where they are. To me, Brad and Jane’s apartment is one of those down on State Street, downtown. Or all those more high rise-y type of apartments that are near Dearborn and stuff like that, in more the heart of the city. And then I picture Penny moved into sort of a brownstone-ish graystone-ish looking place which, to me, is probably in Lincoln Park. And then Max and Dave live in that warehouse place that to me is Wicker Park but my understanding is—I mean, I lived in Wicker Park probably seven years ago, or eight years ago almost, so it’s changed quite a bit since then, right? I remember Bucktown was just starting to become really nice at that point. Wicker Park was still shady in spots. And I’ve heard since then that Wicker Park and Bucktown are both super nice now, right?

John: They’ve definitely changed a lot. 

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