TV director Jason Winer and actor Josh Gad were looking to work together. A friend suggested they meet with Jon Lovett, who had just finished serving as a White House speechwriter for Barack Obama and had come to L.A. hoping to write comedy. When Lovett sat down with Winer and Gad, the first thing he said was that he didn’t want to write anything about the White House. Funny story there…the three went on, in short order, to create the sitcom 1600 Penn, which debuted last week, which focuses on the life of a fictional First Family in the White House. On the show, the First Family is headed by President Gilchrist (Bill Pullman), First Lady Emily Gilchrist (Jenna Elfman), and their children, Skip (Gad) and Becca (Martha McIsaac).
“I spent three years working at the White House and wanted to do something that wasn’t about passing bills and resolutions,” says Lovett. “When Jason was talking to me about the show, it became clear to me that the show was not really about the White House. It was about a family that happens to live in the White House. And that seemed like it could be really funny.”
Meanwhile, Gad, who previously starred in the Broadway smash The Book of Mormon, threw himself into the world of television and presidential history. To prepare for the show, he studied presidential children, including John Jr., Chelsea Clinton, the Bush twins, and even Reagan’s stepchildren. “And Billy Carter, I read a lot about him because he was of significant interest to me, even though he wasn’t a presidential kid,” Gad says, referring to Jimmy Carter’s often-in-trouble, often-in-the-news younger brother. Billy Carter was a lobbyist for the Libyan government and the chief spokesman for his own brew, Billy Beer.
While everything about the show screams politics from the title that features America’s best-known political address to the fact that one of its writers once worked in the White House, Winer, Gad, and Lovett have tried to turn 1600 Penn into the story of a modern family–just one where all of the stakes are higher, given the bubble they live in and the constant scrutiny they are under. Winer points out that, unlike many sitcoms, this is one show where everyone actually has a good reason to be in the house all the time. “They work in the house and live there,” he says. “So we can tell stories that spill over from their personal life into their work life.” In last week’s episode the news that first daughter Becca is pregnant as a result of a one-night stand becomes a national story. At first, and for much of the episode, her father and stepmother are in various forms of denial of the problem, but by the end of the show, they have accepted their daughter and her pregnancy and are ready for a good family hug.
The TV graveyard is full of shows about politics–a genre that hasn’t always gone over well with audiences. The West Wing and Spin City were huge hits with critics and audiences. Last year’s Veep got off to a strong start and will return this year. Scandal is getting another season. But others, like Commander in Chief, last season’s Political Animals, and Boss, were short-lived. The shows that have done politics best have been grounded in strong storylines outside of politics. 1600 hopes to straddle that line, marrying over-the-top characters with over-the-top comedic touches, all overlaid on the life of one of the nation’s most extraordinary families. In the midst of all the silliness, the show’s creators have tried to pay close attention to the details in an effort to make the setting seem textured and realistic: Winer boasts that 1600 Penn’s set is actually more accurate than The West Wing’s. “Those walls of glass in The West Wing do not exist,” he says, “That’s perceived as somehow more detailed but it’s actually completely made up. The blandness of our hallways is much more like the real place.”
Gad, Lovett, and Winer have made a conscious effort to avoid showing policy-making unless it relates to the family. At the same time the creators aim to give the show enough wonky tidbits to keep political junkies happy. “There are moments when we go into policy and I get to flex my speechwriting muscles a little bit,” says Lovett, whose real-life experiences of the White House as a workplace informed the show. “But this is a show about what happens when the camera is off and there are no speeches left to give.” For instance, in the first episode, as trade negotiations between South Americans and the White House have taken a turn for the worse, Skip comes in to hang out with the South Americans, and ends up saving the deal with his goofy charm.
1600 Penn had a special showing at the White House last week hosted by Lovett’s old boss, President Obama. For Winer, as he was directing and writing the show, actual presidents were never far from his consciousness. “It’s a lot of power. It kind of makes your hair stand up,” says Winer, of directing and writing the words of the president. “You get to put those words in a president’s mouth with the presidential seal behind it. As a writer and a director you get a little drunk on that, it’s exciting.”
[Crew Image: Josh Gad]