‘Happy Endings’ Star Zachary Knighton On The Long Road To Success

With the third season of Happy Endings premiering tonight, Zachary Knighton has finally struck gold. After a decade of looking for the right roles in theater and drama, the actor discovered his natural comedic ability—as well as a supportive family—in the hilarious ensemble comedy. I chatted with Knighton about his life before Happy Endings, the collaborative nature of the sitcom, and how grateful he is for the show’s success. 

Did you start acting right after college?
I went to an acting high school in Virginia—the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. I kept thinking, “NYU, NYU, NYU,” but my family wasn’t really in a place where NYU was a reality. I decided to go to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It turned out to be a great decision because I was in a smaller market and got to really work a lot professionally. There were a couple of equity theaters in town and a lot of productions in Virginia, so I got the chance to do some film and television work and finished college with an agent in New York. I spent some time bartending in New York—I actually bartended a BlackBook issue release party! I remember Benicio Del Toro was on the cover, and I met him that night, and I thought maybe one day I would get interviewed by BlackBook. It’s kind of funny to come full-circle like this!

How did you get attached to Happy Endings?
I sort of had this relationship going with ABC for quite some time. After college I went to New York for about five years, and then I came to L.A. with a short-lived series on FOX called Life on a Stick. I had been bouncing around doing pilot after pilot and never having anything picked up and I auditioned and ended up doing that show Flash Forward that was on ABC. Happy Endings was all the way down the road. They had everybody in place except their Dave; I know they tested a lot of people and didn’t find the right guy, and I guess they just thought I was the right guy because I’d done a comedy and they knew internally that Flash Forward was going to get cancelled. And so I did the pilot and the rest is history.

Did you know immediately that it was something special and stood out compared to other sitcoms that were being produced around the same time?
I sort of had the luxury of not really having a choice! I had a few friends that had moved on from Flash Forward—I think I was the first—but there was a group of people that were off doing a lot of other comedies. I wasn’t really aware of a lot those shows and pilot season had already passed, and they came to me with this offer and I just thought it was so cool. I loved the cast, and I just decided to go with this because it was the job that was in front of me at the time. I just really lucked out in terms of the quality of the writing and what it evolved into.

What I love about the show is that it’s a very classic sitcom about a group of friends, which is of course shot in a single-camera setting. Had you done any multi-camera shows before?
Yeah, the first show that brought me to L.A., Life on a Stick, was multi-camera. It was one of those things that was a great experience because working in front of an audience was something I’d done in theater, and it was really a great educational transition into television work. But it did feel a bit dated, and it wasn’t the kind of stuff that I was watching at that time. It was a job for sure. I think that television has changed, especially comedy. Some of my best friends are the guys that created It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I think they’re hugely responsible for the way a lot of comedy television is done today. Them, Arrested Development, The Office… I feel like a lot of shows have really changed the face of comedy, and I think Happy Endings has sort of come in at the right time. I think we’ve played perfectly right in between the lines of an It’s Always Sunny and a How I Met Your Mother. I think we can ride that line pretty well. 

Something I love about the show is that the episodes work on their own as single episodes. But I watched the second season on DVD, so being able to watch it all in one sitting like that allows you to pick up on a lot of those recurring jokes that are very character-specific. It seems so natural the way that you and the cast play those characters and those jokes; have there ever been any contributions on your end of what you think is funny and the writers pick up on that?
Yeah, this job has been the most collaborative job I’ve ever had. Every actor—and this is no bullshit—really, really, genuinely wants everybody else to have a great performance, every writer wants everyone to have a great performance, and we want the writers to have great scripts. So it really is the sort of environment that, if I have a funnier joke in my mind than what’s on the page, these guys are so receptive to it as well as me being completely receptive to them saying, “You know, it’s not really coming across reading the line or the way you’re doing the line.” I’m always open to any performance notes from them, and I’ve just never been a part of a show like that. In terms of bringing our own thing in, it happens all the time. The V-neck thing with Dave is actually me: I don’t wear any shirts that aren’t V-necks—anything that’s cut in the front I will wear. The writers picked up on that and started writing it into the script. I thought it would be really funny if Dave was really bad on camera. I can’t write the jokes, but I can sort of think of something that might be funny and those guys come up with jokes. It’s just a great environment to work in and I think it really lends itself to the comedy of the show.

I saw that you have a new movie coming out next year? Teddy Bears?
Yeah, I just did this movie this summer. It’s just this tiny little indie but really great writers, directors, and the cast in incredible—it’s me, David Krumholtz, Jason Ritter, Gillian Jacobs, Melanie Lynskey, and Ahna O’ Reilly and it’s just a really wonderful little movie. It’s sort of  like a little indie Big Chill. The premise of the story is that David Krumholtz’s character’s mother dies of cancer, and the movie is about this group of friends taking him to this house in Joshua Tree as part of the healing process. It’s three couples, and we get there and David Krumholtz’s character kind of sits up at a toast in the beginning of the movie and says, “I love all of you, thank you for helping me through this, and I just wanted to say that the only way I really feel like I could heal is if I sleep with all the women in our group.” The whole movie is about his character wanting/needing this sort of level of comfort and asking this huge thing of his his best friends. It’s funny and dark, and I’m just really proud of it. I just saw it for the first time two weeks ago. I do these kinds of movies all the time, and I just can’t wait until one of them gets seen. I think this movie and the cast was so great, and I just hope people get to see it.

Did you always kind of have the feeling that you would do comedy more than drama, or film/TV more than theater?
I had that idealistic thing in the beginning of my career that I only wanted to do theater. And then I went to New York and got the reality of what it’s like to do that. It was a stressful and strange time and totally valuable in my evolution as an actor, but then I didn’t want to have to say yes to every job. I just thought that L.A. was a better place for me, and I sort of always rode the line. I would do a really heavy movie or something, and then the next job would be some goofball comedy. I never quite settled into one world or the other. I’d say now is the first time I’ve really settled into the comedy world. All my shows have been cancelled, or the pilots haven’t been picked up, or no one saw the movie. This is the first time that something I’ve been in has been so successful, and I can say that without being embarrassed because it’s the truth. I was getting to a point where I was like, “Man, people they don’t see the shit that I’m doing,” and it was really disheartening. It’s just really nice to be in something that people respond to and like, and it’s a great feeling from someone who has been doing it for ten years to finally have people watch your stuff. So I feel like I’ll be living in this comedy world for a little while.

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