October 19, 2018

Dysfunctional first family

When Barack Obama heard that his speechwriter Jon Lovett would be leaving the White House to follow his dream of becoming a Hollywood comedy writer, the president joked something in the vein of, “You’re not going to write about me, right?”

The commander in chief didn’t need to worry. True, Lovett, along with actor Josh Gad (a Tony nominee for “The Book of Mormon”) and “Modern Family’s” Jason Winer, has created the new NBC sitcom “1600 Penn,” about a first family. However, the fictional Gilchrists are decidedly not the Obamas: “This is a show about a family with dysfunctions and screw-ups, but it’s pretty clear that this current first family doesn’t fit that mold,” Lovett said by phone recently.

“The Obamas seem extraordinarily normal, which, frankly, is a little boring when it comes to comedy,” Winer said in a recent interview in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot.

It’s also not about Beltway intrigue, like HBO’s wickedly funny “Veep,” nor heady political fare, as on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” “1600 Penn,” rather, is a family sitcom set in a White House led by President Dale Gilchrist (played by Bill Pullman, in his first role as commander in chief since saving Earth from aliens in “Independence Day”), who is having more tsuris managing his family than the nation. 

There’s Gilchrist’s gaffe-prone son, Skip (Gad), who is called home after seven years in college in an attempt to keep his Billy Carter-like antics in check; his overachieving teenage daughter, Becca (“Superbad’s” Martha

MacIsaac), who is appalled to discover that she is pregnant after a rare one-night stand; his two arch younger children; and his second wife, Emily (Jenna Elfman), who is struggling not only in her role as stepmom but also with the scheming Washington press corps.

When, for example, Emily hosts a school event and a student asks her what it means when her father says the first lady is a “trophy wife,” Emily erupts in an outburst that has the beleaguered press secretary, played by Andre Holland, hauling her away from the cameras. When the media pounces on news of Becca’s pregnancy, even Al Jazeera picks up the story.

“The press corps on the show serves the same role as it does in real life,” Lovett, 30, said. “They’re just so annoying, but they’re really necessary in that they hold the White House to the fire — although we portray that in a heightened, comedic way.”

Otherwise, the show remains apolitical: “The goal on network TV is to reach the broadest-possible audience, and politics is, by its nature, divisive,” Winer, 40, explained. “We don’t even mention the words ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ in the entire series. It’s more about a family that just happens to be in the fishbowl of the most famous address in America. I’ve always loved the theme of public versus private — of those things that we try to keep to ourselves and, yet, can’t.”

Winer said he draws inspiration from his childhood in Baltimore, where he had his bar mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue, and “Jewish humor in my family started with laughing at others — not in a mean-spirited way, but looking out at the world around you and marveling at the craziness.”

All that came in handy for him as an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and director of ABC’s hit sitcom “Modern Family.” and now for “1600 Penn.” The show’s history also dates back to when he met Gad as the actor was auditioning for a role on “Modern Family” six years ago. “Josh dropped out of the process to go do this silly little musical about Mormons, which baffled us all at the time,” Winer recalled.

But he was impressed by Gad’s finesse in portraying what he calls “a lovable idiot,” and kept that persona in mind when he and Gad agreed to collaborate on what would become “1600 Penn” around 2011. “We wanted to take advantage of the bull-in-a-china-shop character that Josh plays so well, and we decided that the White House was the biggest china shop in the world,” Winer said. “But I didn’t know if we could give the show enough real-life texture and detail, which is where Jon Lovett came into the picture.”

Turns out Lovett — who grew up Reform on Long Island — got into politics almost by accident in the mid-2000s. After graduating with a math degree from Williams College and trying his hand at stand-up comedy for a year in New York, he went to work for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, where Hillary Rodham Clinton noticed his pithy wit and asked him to write jokes to help her roast Barbara Walters. Before long, Lovett had become Clinton’s full-time speechwriter, and he went on to work for the Obama administration the week of the president’s inauguration. In 2010, he was named Washington’s funniest celebrity, in part for his spoof of pundit Arianna Huffington. 

“I could have continued being a speechwriter for as long as I wanted,” Lovett said. “But I felt like I owed it to myself to take a chance on, for lack of a less cheesy word, my dream.”

And so, while he knew it would be hard to watch President Obama’s re-election campaign from the sidelines, Lovett packed up his belongings and moved out of the home he shared with White House co-workers to sleep on friends’ couches in Los Angeles. 

Just three days after he arrived, he found himself at a meeting with Winer and Gad at a coffee shop on Larchmont Boulevard, insisting that “literally the only thing I didn’t want to write about was the White House. 

“It was, in part, because comedy inherently makes fun of its subjects, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that to the president and the people I had worked with. So I was very reluctant about the whole idea, but the more we talked about it, the more I felt like the things I had experienced could lend itself to the show without being a satire of this administration.”

The “1600 Penn” creators have drawn on some of the shenanigans of past presidential relatives, like Bill Clinton’s half-brother Roger Clinton — whom the Secret Service dubbed with the code name “Headache,” due to his penchant for landing in hot water — as well as a visit to the White House, where Winer was stunned to discover that “the Situation Room was just this simple room in a hallway, not like something out of a Kubrick movie or some bunker in the basement.

“Just outside that room, there’s a brown plastic phone like you’d find in your mother’s kitchen from 1983, and our guide said that if you’ve never been there before, they tell you to pick up that phone and give all kinds of personal information — and then they tell you the phone doesn’t work. So there’s actually this prank phone in the White House, and that’s the spirit of our show in a nutshell.”

When the real commander in chief presided over a screening of “1600 Penn” at the White House last month, Winer said, “It was just art and life commingling in a way that just blew my mind. The president said that at the real 1600 Penn, we have to laugh at ourselves, because we have to deal with a lot of serious stuff every day. I was just so honored when he said it’s great that we’ve been able to create something for TV that brings some levity to this place.”

1600 Penn” airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.

on NBC.