Shalom Auslander is not the most upbeat guy in the world.
Ask if he’s happy, and his response tells you all you to need to know: “My wife and my kids. I’m afraid of them dying all the time. I can’t hear a siren go by without thinking my house is on fire and everyone is trapped inside. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Happy? Happy “is too high a bar to be shooting for and maybe a destructive one. We never reach it and it disappoints us. So it’s better if we just shop for a middle ground. I’m not happy. But I’m happyish.”
“HAPPYish” is, in fact, the name of Auslander’s new Showtime cable series, about a family struggling to find, well, happyishness.
Steve Coogan plays Thomas Payne, the creative director of an advertising agency. And, yes, the character’s name was selected in part as a reflection of Thomas Paine, the revolutionary war pamphleteer, and in part because Auslander liked the idea of Thomas in pain.
Thomas is Catholic and married to Lee (Kathryn Hahn), who is Jewish. They are raising a very timid son, Julius (Sawyer Shipman), and worry about him. Also, there is trouble at work.
The agency powers have placed a couple of young Swedes over Thomas. Their idea of cool is to replace the Keebler Elves with midgets, though Paine doesn’t quite get the concept of real little people living in trees. He also has difficulty grasping social media.
He had stomach problems once and took some Pepto-Bismol. The label urged him to follow the over-the-counter treatment for diarrhea on Twitter. Mid-meeting, Payne in a very salty way, wonders why anyone would need or want to follow the drug on Twitter.
It’s all part of an extremely funny pilot episode that sets up a potentially hilarious series. Second episode: not so much.
Lee has been estranged from her mother for some time. When Grandma sends Julius a gift from Amazon, Lee is uncertain whether to pass it along. She resents her mom just popping in with a presumably expensive gift after not being there for her all these years.
Lee and mom hold imaginary conversations and it seems relatively clear that Lee is a stand-in for Auslander. “Lee was raised in a way that I was raised, where everything was Holocaust all the time,” Auslander said. “If someone is really concerned about honoring the legacy of that event, they’d be upset by people who talk about it constantly. I personally find that offensive, and Lee’s mother is representative of that.”
But Thomas is also a stand-in for Auslander. Payne rails against God, who lets you glimpse Eden and then forces you out, helps you “escape Egypt and now you’re lost in the desert.” Like Auslander, Thomas walks around fearing his own death and that of his family.
While the show has many hilarious moments, this negativity casts a pall, though it shouldn’t be surprising.
Auslander’s life growing up was documented in his memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” in which he details physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father. He grew up in an Orthodox environment and found no comfort either at home or in the religious education offered by often angry rabbis.
And while the Holocaust likely impacted his father and his teachers, “we can’t blame that for the anger,” he said. “There may be reasons for the anger, but not excuses for them. Reasons are different than excuses.”
“God is the most abusive father,” he added. “He’s the father in heaven and he kills the first born.”
If there is any consolation from Auslander’s life, his experiences taught him “a lot of things not to do,” when it came to raising his own two children. “Fortunately, a rather low bar was set. There are a lot of things I swore I would never do. In general, I try to raise my kids as happy as I can. I don’t know that they’ve ever heard me yell. I grew up around a lot of yelling and fighting and dysfunction.”
As for a higher power? “Intellectually, God doesn’t really matter to me. Emotionally, I like to believe there’s somebody responsible for all this sh-t.”