Why Showtime’s Happyish Defiled the Keebler Elves

And which brands it's targeting next

For close to five decades, the Keebler Elves have been a genial, wholesome presence in Keebler advertising as they sang the praises of the brand's cookies and crackers. But Sunday's premiere of the new Showtime comedy Happyish quickly changed the Elves' slogan from "Uncommonly Good" to "uncommonly disturbing."

In a hallucination by the show's disillusioned ad exec Thom Payne (Steve Coogan), the animated Ernie Keebler, stunned to be fired as Keebler's pitchman after 46 years, drops f-bombs and starts shooting his fellow elves, including Fast Eddie, before turning the gun on himself. Then a stunned Ma Keebler proceeds to disrobe and have sex with Payne.The now-defiled Keebler Elves are just the first of several beloved advertising icons that Happyish skewers during its 10-episode debut season. Created by author Shalom Auslander, who begrudgingly worked in advertising for more than two decades to supplement his writing career, the show routinely takes aim at the business that Auslander loves to hate.

"I ended up having this fantastic deal that I got fired from," Auslander said. "I was working for McCann Erickson, living in Woodstock [, N.Y.] and coming in once a month, and sending in ideas and not really caring what happened to them. I hated myself, but I didn't have that many ethical issues because not very many things got made."

Auslander, who started at Mad Dogs & Englishmen shortly after dropping out of college, and later worked for TBWA\Chait\Day (he also "freelanced just about everywhere,") decided to write a series about his former profession. But Showtime Networks president David Nevins, who bought the show in 2011, responded more to the lead character's personal life and less about what he did for a living. "After the first pitch, I said, 'I don't really want to do a show about advertising, but I am interested in the life of this guy who you've put in the middle,'" said Nevins. "And he ended up it making a much less of an advertising satire, although that was an important element of the show."

Indeed, even as Happyish evolved into a series about Payne's relationship with his wife (played by Kathryn Hahn) and family, the advertising world provided a perfect backdrop for Auslander's story. "The culture at large is brands and products: maybe if I get the [iPhone] 6 Plus, my life will be a little bit better. It'll be my life, plus! And that's got to be better than just the regular 6 life. It exacerbates everything he's going through, but I don't think it's a show about advertising," Auslander told me. "I think it's a show about happiness."

Well, probably not to the companies who find themselves targeted by Auslander and the show. How did Showtime convince Keebler to approve the R-rated use of the Keebler elves in Sunday's premiere episode? "We didn't," Nevins said. "It's First Amendment protected. It's not a Keebler endorsement. The show is all about satirizing the ad world, so it makes ample use of brands throughout. That's one of the things you can do in premium."

When asked about its depiction in Happyish, Keebler provided the following statement to Adweek: "Our iconic Keebler elves have recently been included in a Showtime series. We have no involvement with the program and we're happy to report Ernie Keebler is alive and well making cookies in the Hollow Tree."

Keebler remains a presence in Happyish's next two episodes (though the Elves' animated adventures seem to have ended for now), and the show's second episode, airing this Sunday, also includes satires of Dora the Explorer and Amazon (where the famous swoosh in its logo turns into a mouth and channels Hahn's estranged mother). Episode 3 features multiple scenes where the Geico gecko speaks to—and frequently, curses at—Payne, who retaliates violently.

"You'll see two, three or four important brands each episode," said Nevins, who notes that Adweek is also mentioned later in the season. "It's harder in ad-supported television, where you're worried about giving away brand visibility and ad space for free. That's not an issue for us."

Happyish has been a labor of love for Showtime, which stuck with the project even after its original star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of a drug overdose in February 2014, shortly after Nevins had picked the show's pilot up to series. "I've stayed with it for a long time because good comedies don't grow on trees," said Nevins.

That said, Happyish has been met with a mediocre response from critics. Wrote HitFix's Alan Sepinwall, "It plays like the work of someone who hasn't watched cable TV in the last 15 years and therefore doesn't realize what he thinks is bold and edgy is both tired and smug in an entirely unearned way."

While Happyish's marketing has focused on its relationships, Nevins notes that the early social media buzz (Showtime offered a sneak preview of the pilot April 5 and posted the debut episode online a week ahead of its premiere) has been centered on the Keebler Elves and the other brands the show lampoons.

"I think as we go forward, you'll see more of that going on," said Nevins. "I just saw an episode with a brilliant parody of Coke's 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing' campaign. It's really funny, and I think those will be the things that will generate a lot of conversation."