I recently participated in a conference call with the stars of the new NBC sitcom, 1600 Penn, about a fictional president and his wacky family. Josh Gad, one of the original cast members of the hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, created 1600 Penn with Jason Winer, a television director who has helmed such shows as Modern Family and New Girl.
Along with stars Bill Pullman and Jenna Elfman, who play the president and first lady, Gad (who plays their grown son, Skip) filled us in on what we can expect from this comedy, premiering on Thursday, January 10, 2013.
On the origins of the show:
Josh Gad: Jason [Winer] and I met up again around the time of Book of Mormon, and we hatched this idea. And we knew that we wanted to work together. We knew that this was kind of the perfect vehicle to do that. And that missing ingredient was getting the person who could ground it into the reality that we wanted to set it against, which was the White House.
And we came across Jon Lovett, who is not to be confused with the former Saturday Night Live comedian, but a young kid who was working for the President’s administration as a speech writer. And then, once that happened, it started firing on all cylinders.
On whether the show is politically oriented:
Bill Pullman: Our intention is to do a story about a dysfunctional family that happens to be in the most famous address in the United States of America. And while it touches on politics, it’s sort of a backdrop and not at the forefront of any of the story lines.
Josh: We never set out to make a political show…. We wanted to make a show about a family that happens to live in a world where they are surrounded by politics.
On whether or not they were able to research their roles by meeting former or current first family members:
Jenna Elfmann: Well, thank God I have so many first ladies on my speed dial. So, it was just like I closed my eyes and scrolled and just picked anywhere my finger landed. I wish! Unfortunately, I couldn’t ring up any current or former first ladies, so I used the old fashioned way of a bookstore and books about first ladies.
On filming the show during the recent presidential election:
Bill: Yeah, it was a surreal time to be making this because of the campaign going on. So, every time I read in the newspaper any account of either candidate going through something, I could really zero in empathetically about what it must be like to be in private moments with the family about different issues and then ways in which that could be tweaked in a comic way.
On the casting of the show:
Josh: I think that Bill has this absolute control of a room when he walks in. I think that there’s a reason that he’s played the president on more than one occasion. It’s because you would trust him to be the leader of the free world. You look into his eyes, and you see somebody who has command of a room, who has the wherewithal to lead people through either an alien invasion or his son’s invasion of his home.
And I think with Jenna there’s this absolute sense of inner calmness and inner strength but an outer flurry that is excitable and that is all of these wonderful things. And I think that that character absolutely resembles the inner and outer version of what you get from the brilliance that is Jenna Elfmann.
Jenna: Well, I’m your biggest fan, Josh. So, I’m happy to discuss everything about you. And you’ll have to cut me off because I could go on forever. But Josh…
Josh: And moving on.
Jenna: Josh has one of the best senses of humor and timing of anybody I’ve met in a very long time combined with a true sense of joy. And it’s rare in my experience that I find actors who are men who are truly joyful, who are really freaking funny. And you either kind of get one or the other or none or neither…. And this is the strangest analogy, but he [Skip] kind of reminds me of Curious George.
Josh: I don’t know where this has gone. This has gone off a fiscal cliff for me.
Jenna: No, Curious George always gets into trouble, but his mistakes always end up leading to something good.
Josh: Well, good. You remind me of Babar the Elephant.
On the tone of 1600 Penn:
Josh: When Bill and Jenna fell into our laps, it set the rest of the show afloat because we knew that this president and first lady couldn’t be goofy. If they were in any way goofy, nobody would buy them in the office, and therefore, we wouldn’t have a show.
Because the axis is so wobbly when it comes to the children, the centrifuge which is the president and first lady needs to be as strong as possible. And I think that’s what gives us the freedom to sometimes go a little crazy with some of the other characters. And there’s an absolute necessity for people to relate to this family because if they don’t relate to the family, then what are you watching it for? What are you really tuning in for?
I think that there is a cynical approach to a lot of comedy today. And some people will love the fact that we’re taking the opposite route, and some people won’t…. This is a very optimistic family. And they love each other. And we as the cast have truly kind of fallen in love with each other.