ABC comedy ’Happy Endings’ gets laughter started

NEW YORK — It’s never been my favorite month. But January was worse than ever this year.

I had seen my latest relationship, a sizzling romance surely meant for the ages, go bust between Christmas and New Year’s (which made it all the more painful, since it fell within the so-called “breakup window” — see below). This gave me license to spend January pining for my ex and feeling miserable without her. And I did.

I mention this not to beg for sympathy, but to make a point about the ABC comedy “Happy Endings”: It’s the funniest show on TV.

Why do I say this? Not just because I have always found it supremely smart and amusing, week in and week out. But also because it has emerged as my go-to show when I need a pick-me-up. Case in point: On one particularly bleak night in January, plagued by self-pity and sleeplessness, I gave up my tossing and turning and retreated to the living room. In those lovelorn wee hours in front of the TV, “Happy Endings” had me laughing out loud.

“Happy Endings” (airing Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. EST) might be described as “Friends” meets “Scrubs” with a dash of “Seinfeld.” It merges physical comedy, sight gags and cutaways with Mach-speed zingy dialogue. Watching the show, I keep a hold on my remote and make frequent use of that button that backs up the action a few seconds, so I can catch a throwaway line I missed the first time. Or savor it again. Or figure it out. (”This is a pretty nasty part of town: The guy I sell my gray water to lives around here” packs a laugh once you’ve Googled the meaning of “gray water.”)

The stepping-off point for the series’ premiere last spring was the wedding of seemingly perfect couple Dave and Alex, where Alex, seized by doubts about matrimony, left her groom at the altar. Afterward, this made things awkward for them as well as for their mutual friends as everyone tried to keep the gang of six longtime pals intact.

If its premise seemed a little gimmicky (especially the will-they-or-won’t-they-reconcile issue surrounding Dave and Alex), “Happy Endings” quickly laid to rest such concerns by reveling in the group dynamics of these distinct and lovable twenty-somethings.

Dave (Zachary Knighton) operates a none-too-successful food truck on the streets of the show’s Chicago setting. Alex (Elisha Cuthbert, “24”) is sexy but a flake, the owner of a boutique that gets no customers. Alex’s sister, Jane (Eliza Coupe, “Scrubs”) is whippet-slim, high-strung and in velvet-gripped control of her husband, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr., “The Underground”), a prissy business exec.

Rounding out the pack are sarcastic slacker Max (Adam Pally), who, openly gay and even more openly unemployed, has been friends with Dave and Brad since college, and, before pinning down his sexual preference, briefly dated Penny (Casey Wilson, “Saturday Night Live”), who, still stubbornly looking for Mr. Right, remains best buds with him.

This week’s show is pegged to Valentine’s Day, with everyone focused on romance, and, of course, mostly not finding it.

In fact, Penny wants to ditch her current beau, who really bugs her. As she explains to her friends, he’s a winker.

Cutaway to the couple: “You have the SOFTEST skin,” her boyfriend tells her, then winks.

“Wait,” says Penny, looking puzzled. “I DO have the softest skin or I DON’T have the softest skin? The wink is making it unclear.” He just winks again.

But V-Day is holding up Penny’s getting rid of him. Propriety demands that she must wait a week until they’re safely past the breakup window, a term she defines as “the period of time around major events and holidays when you can’t dump someone.” (Oh, really?!)

“Yet you’re still going to bleed him for the fancy dinner and the present,” Dave fires back.

“Yeah,” says Penny — “for HIS sake.”

Meanwhile, Brad is taking precautions not to spring any Valentine’s surprises on Jane, whose hair-trigger response to the unexpected is to reach for her pocket-size Mace.

“I made a list of surprises I’m going to be surprising you with for Valentine’s Day,” Brad warns her, proudly showing her the list.

“This is the best surprise ever!” she beams at the sneak preview. “Although I could have used a heads-up on THIS.”

One of Brad’s announced surprises is a visit to his dentist for a polishing session, to give his V-Day smile an extra luster for his lady.

“You DO love the dentist!” Jane observes.

“Hey, I’m the perfect patient. Never had a cavity. Never even had plaque — except for THAT plaque,” and he points to an award on the mantel, “for never having plaque.”

Jane casts an admiring eye across the room at his prize: “That’s a pretty sweet plaque plaque.”

And with that, at lightning speed, this zany exchange has come and gone to make room for the next one.

The “Happy Endings” regulars share chemistry and rhythm that makes it seem they’ve known one another (as some of their characters have) for a lifetime, and they nail the inventive material the writers treat them to — both verbal and physical — while enhancing it with their own improv touches.

But this week’s episode belongs to Wayans, who seals the deal with his scene at the dentist’s office. With Dean Martin crooning on the soundtrack, it’s a meticulously staged sequence where Wayans matches the inspired physicality of Steve Martin or Jim Carrey in his prime.

Like the rest of the half-hour, this scene caught me by surprise and really made me laugh. Just like it would have made me laugh even last month, alone in the middle of a sleepless night. Happy endings indeed.

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ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.

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Online:

http://www.abc.com

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org

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