The first thing the creators of “1600 Penn” want you to know is that — title and setting notwithstanding — their new NBC sitcom isn’t about politics. It’s about a family.
“There are shows that are doing [political comedy] brilliantly, like ‘Veep,’ and past shows that have done that dramatically, like ‘West Wing.’ This is neither of those shows,” executive producer Josh Gad tells Zap2it, who also stars as chaos-inducing first son Skip Gilchrist in the series, which gets a sneak preview on Monday, Dec. 17, before settling into its regular Thursday berth in January.
“This is about a family, like any other family, that has the most remarkable set of circumstances, living at the most famous address in the United States, perhaps the world. They sit down to the same dinners that we all do, except that at some point during that dinner conversation the father may have to make a call that will alter the course of history. Our show isn’t a White House show that happens to be about a family, it’s a show about a family that happens to live at the White House.”
“In the entire series, in fact, we are unlikely ever to use the words ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ in any context,” adds executive producer and show runner Jason Winter, who co-created the series with Gad and former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett, “because the focus of the show is on the family, and the political life serves to heighten and add pressure and make more fun for the family stories that we are doing. But that really plays in the background.”
The family at the heart of “1600 Penn” is the Gilchrists. President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman) was a widower with four children when he met and fell in love with Emily Nash (Jenna Elfman), a political consultant hired to run his campaign for governor of Nevada. Now married to Dale, Emily is struggling to assert herself in her new roles as both first lady and stepmom.
As the story opens, Dale is still in the early months of his administration, so he’s a little disengaged from family matters — until a revenge-of-the-nerds prank on Skip’s part forces him to leave college (he’s now in his seventh year) and return home to the nest, which has become a media fishbowl.
“He has the heart of a teddy bear and some of the social skills of an oaf, but when you mix them together, you get this sweet and lovable teddy oaf,” Gad says. “You won’t find a guy who is more loyal and loving, or lovable, but he also comes with a carefree recklessness that, when you’re under the scrutiny of a 24-hour media news cycle, is a very dangerous component to have around. It’s like having TNT in the White House.”
In a very real sense, “family” has been an important word with this show from the get-go, since Winer first met Gad when the actor was auditioning to play Cameron on “Modern Family.” He ultimately removed himself from contention to accept a role in “The Book of Mormon,” for which Gad received a Tony Award nomination, but he and Winer stayed in touch and kept talking about finding a mutual project.
As Gad was preparing to leave the hit Broadway musical and looking around for a new project, he had a eureka moment one night while watching “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” on TLC. It occurred to him that this largely average family had come within several votes and a heartbeat of occupying the White House themselves, and that started him seeing comic possibilities.
“Here was a family as dysfunctional as my own, with all the foibles and flaws of any American family, and it made me wonder what a day in their life would really be like,” Gad recalls.
“Josh was just reflecting on how that family under the glare of that spotlight would have been hypothetical fodder for a comedy in the future,” Winer adds. “That got us to talking about what would it be like for a normal family to be thrust into this position of being in the biggest media bubble of the world. That’s what led to the idea of the show and the germination of the character of Skip, because it came out of Josh. We thought about this somewhat childlike, ne’er-do-well first son who’s literally a bull in the biggest china shop in the world.”
He’s also the make-it-or-break-it character in “1600 Penn,” and Gad freely acknowledges that at first he was “terrified” at the notion of playing Skip himself.
“When we first started developing this show, I was going to be a creator and executive producer and that was it,” Gad explains. “But then I saw how really grounded these characters were becoming, and finally Jason and Jon convinced me that there was going to be a lot of regret on my part if I ever had to watch the show with another actor in the role.
“Some of Skip’s actions are absolutely cringe-worthy, and the character may be off-putting to some people. But if you really look at Skip, there probably is someone in your own life who is very much this guy. I hope I am paying homage and respect to an archetype that isn’t portrayed very often on TV. Skip is bold, but I think he also is beautiful in some ways. He has an enormous amount of heart.”