The White House has been a popular setting for many American TV shows, but most of them are dramas. One of the exceptions is “1600 Penn” (whose title is a play on words of the White House’s famous 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address in Washington, D.C.), a sitcom about the president of the United States, his family and what goes on in the famous house where the current U.S. president lives. In “1600 Penn,” President Dale Gilchrist (played by Bill Pullman) and his wife, Emily (played by Jenna Elfman), are trying to balancing work life with family life, which includes Dale’s four kids from a previous marriage: Skip (played by Josh Gad); Becca (played by Martha MacIsaac); Xander (played by Benjamin Stockham); and Marigold (Amara Miller), who aren’t readily accepting of Emily.
It’s not the first time that Pullman has portrayed the president of the United States. He famously played a fictional U.S. president in the 1996 sci-fi/action blockbuster “Independence Day.” “1600 Penn” is Pullman’s fist starring role in a TV series. Meanwhile, Elfman is famous for being in sitcoms, most notably “Dharma and Greg.” Gad made a name for himself on Broadway in the Tony-winning musicals “The Book of Mormon” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Pullman, Elfman and Gad talked about “1600 Penn” in a telephone conference call with journalists.
Bill, for the movie “Independence Day,” you had a chance to take the role that Will Smith ended up taking and instead you chose the role of U.S. president. Did you regret that later? And do you enjoy now just kind of the notion we think of a president when we think of you?
Pullman: I guess I heard that once before but that isn’t actually my memory of it so it’s somebody else. There was a period when Jeff Goldblum hadn’t been cast. And they said well either part. But my Jewish credentials weren’t high at the time. Since then I’ve increased them but that was the part that was open.
And so even though I realized once I got in the room, they really were hoping that I was intrigued by the president part. But it was never Will. If it had been Will I would’ve asked for at least 10 percent of everything he’s made since then. But I missed my chance.
With gay marriage being such a big topic in politics, is that addressed on the show or are there any gay characters on the show?
Pullman: In the pilot, one of the characters expresses an interest in the same sex. But like all of the issues that we address on the show, the show itself is not very politically motivated. And that’s not our intention. 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 backdrop and not at the forefront of any of the story lines.
Do you like to believe that these kinds of shenanigans really are happening behind the scenes in the Obama White House, or were happening in the Bush or Clinton years?
Gad: To a certain extent, Jon Lovett, who was one of the President’s speech writers, has said that in kind of writing for the show that it was never his intention to portray the Obamas. Because the Obama family is almost supernaturally perfect. And perfection doesn’t really lead to comedy.
But I think that you can look as far back as Mary Todd Lincoln and you can look at some of the current presidential predecessors and you can see dysfunction in the halls of the White House for at least a hundred years. And I think what’s so interesting now is under the scrutiny of the 24 media news cycle, what happens if a family like were to be front and center in this center? How do you avoid the blitzkrieg of questions?
Think back to [George W.] Bush twins and all the questions that they had to deal with about their alcohol consumption even though they were just in college. Or you look at some of the questions that Chelsea Clinton got about her life and her lifestyle. I think that there’s a lot of questions that will be addressed the more and more we kind of live in that bubble and the more that 24-hour cycle is there and present.
Bill and Jenna, given that pre-production for “1600 Penn” obviously took place during the 2012 presidential campaign. Was it ever a consideration that together, you two kind of look like the Romneys?
Elfman: I don’t know, we were just so focused on when we made the pilot that was like a non - we weren’t in that territory. So we were cast back in April of . We were in the middle of filming our season when that kind of happened to really come to the forefront and all of the news and the debates and everything going on obviously. When we took the role and we were cast in the roles that really wasn’t part of our mindset.
Gad: Technically, Romney was copying Bill.
Pullman: True. He’s styling after me. I noticed that in his suits. Plus, you’re around a lot of comedians here, so they were saying, “Has anybody told you how much you look like Obama?”
You are playing a presidential family. Did you all model anything over any real-life presidential families or did you meet with anyone? Or you just went with your own acting abilities?
Elfman: [She says jokingly] Well, thank God I have so many first ladies on my speed dial. So it was just like I closed my eyes and I scrolled and just picked anywhere my finger landed. [She says seriously] 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.
And really just tried to get a sense of what their reality is landing into such a heightened existence from their life prior to that and what obstacles they faced and what goals they had as first ladies just to get myself oriented.
Pullman: 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 kind of zero in like 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 kind of tweaked in a comic way. So it was every day that we were shooting it was in the news.
Josh, did you write “1600 Penn” while you were doing “The Book of Mormon,” or was it before that time?
Gad: What happened was Jason Winer, the director of “Modern Family,” and I had met around the time that “Modern Family” was casting for one of the roles. And I had passed on it, which is probably stupid considering my bank account is a lot smaller now than it could’ve been. But Jason 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 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. But the process began around my final five months in “The Book of Mormon” and then went from there. When I finished, I went to shoot the show.
Is there anything that wasn’t originally written for your characters that you felt you wanted to add to the role?
Elfman: What was wonderful from my experience, we shot the pilot and then when we got picked up and we were getting ready to go into production to film all the episodes the writers had asked me to come in and meet with them and hear stories of my life and things that are specific to me that they may be able to incorporate whether it’s actual technical things like the fact that I’m a classically trained dancer, which they did bring into an episode, or just some more tonally my sensibility in terms of my own humor, my voice, my rhythm, my timing so they could really write specifically towards me in their incorporation of the character. It was noticeable the adjustment and enhancement going into filming the series from the pilot having done that. And I’m so glad they did. And it’s really made a difference. That was my experience.
Pullman: I was out of town so I didn’t meet with the writers but they all seemed intrigued by the fact that I’ve had a ranch in Montana for a long time. And it ended up being the state was Nevada for a while there was some talk it could’ve been Montana which would’ve been really an exact parallel. But we actually used that in an episode too which was a whole lot of fun to make that.
Elfman: Yeah, you got to chop down some serious trees.
Pullman: Yeah. Josh and I had to split some wood. We had to chainsaw ...
Gad: No. Bill had to split wood. I had to act like I was splitting wood.
Can you talk about for each other how you think that they’re most alike and different from their characters?
Gad: 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 Elfman.
Elfman: 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...
Gad: And moving on.
Elfman: 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.
But what I love about his character is that in all of the craziness and all of the mis-estimation that is Skip he brings — there’s always a little — even if it’s one billionth of a fraction of truth and a magic and honesty and realness and humanity to our family on this show. And so while being very annoying at times or just confounding, he inevitably has a piece of humanity and heart and magic that ends up bringing the family together. And this is the strangest analogy, but he kind of reminds me of Curious George.
Gad: I don’t know where this has gone. This has gone off a fiscal cliff for me.
Elfman: No, Curious George always gets into trouble but his mistakes always end of leading to something good.
Gad: Well, good. You remind me of Babar the Elephant.
Pullman: And for me, this is my first time doing a [TV] series. And I imagine you’ve probably as journalists have all heard oh we love each other on the show and everything. But actually I’m a newbie and I get to say that for real as an honest thing. You know, this is a great group of people that are incredibly respectful of each other and the whole process has been a great gift.
All of the other actors are family too. And I think that’s reflected in the episodes. There isn’t that kind of modern snarkiness in the characters that seems, and I think it comes from the fact that all these people aren’t that way in life.
Gad: 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. But that is what Bill said is that’s an absolute truth to this show. This is not a cynical world. 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.
Josh, how and why you came up with the idea for “1600 Penn”?
Gad: Essentially what it was it was an opportunity for Jason Winer to exploit me. He saw my character in “The Book of Mormon” and loved it and wanted to take that kind of thing and bring it to television. And interestingly enough, when we were first discussing this project what intrigued me so much about it the idea of this family like my own family or like a lot of dysfunctional families who has their warts and under the constant scrutiny of being under this microscope, I originally didn’t want to play Skip, because I was afraid there was a broadness on the page for the character that I was genuinely afraid of that this is a character who as Jenna said can come across as annoying. And it’s a dangerous thing to play.
And it was only after I realized that if anyone else played the role I would be very upset with myself because I would be jealous every week that I decided that I really wanted to dig into it. And when I could find that humanity and bring it to the character it felt like it came to life. That’s how it all started and the intention was we really wanted to dissect what it meant to be a family in the most extraordinary of circumstances. And what’s more extraordinary than your father being the president of the free world and then you being the first family of the United States of America? And that’s what kind of intrigued us into the whole project.
Jenna, your experience in sitcoms has traditionally been with three-camera set ups or four-camera setups. What has it been like for you doing a single-camera sitcom? How has that changed your performance or what is the vibe like for you?
Elfman: Thanks for asking that. That is a great question. I love it. And one of the reasons I love it is the cast. Everywhere I turn in any scene at any given time there’s totally strong cast members right there. And that’s so important in comedy.
And also we have the most amazing director of photography named David Jones. And he makes this single camera show look so beautiful and like a movie. And one of my hesitations for a few years. I wanted to do single camera, but I had felt so hesitant because so many of the single cameras that I saw on TV I hated the way they looked.
They just all looked the same. They looked bright and they had music running through every single moment of every scene. And I just didn’t want to fall into some generic trap of bad single-camera comedy. And I just feel so lucky that this is my first one as a series regular and it looks so beautiful. And I’m surrounded by such strong talent in every department, but I think that really makes the difference.
It’s like doing a movie. I’ve done comedic films where there’s no audience, so it’s not like a foreign territory for me. It’s just different. And I’m really enjoying it. I’ve done of plenty of multi-camera and I’ve really got a good dose of that and I’ll always love it. But there’s something a little bit more sophisticated in a way about this and the timing is different. I don’t feel like I’m in a foreign place with it. I really feel at home and I love it.
Bill, what is like for you to transition from movies to the weekly schedule of a television series? How are you adjusting to all of that?
Pullman: I think it proceeds at a pace, but it’s still a lot like an independent film in that you’ve got to get your day’s work done. But I think also in this multi-camera/single-camera thing it’s been great that this is the story that involved both kind of heartfelt things. And it’s nice not to have that live audience going “Aww” every time. So you can have many more colors about. I just find that in that multi-camera thing when that audience gets to a sensitive moment and they all throw it into one place it’s just dangerous for the life of a fully nuanced show.
And then also for cutting [editing] purposes, you can get the farce better with single camera because you can cut and jump and make things happen and also make small things happen. You can throw away a line a lot easier I think. So I’m liking all of this. And it feels familiar to me. It’s a lot more like film.
How important do you feel it is for Americans to be able to identify with the first family? You mentioned how the Obamas almost seem supernaturally perfect. So could you maybe talk about just how easy or difficult it is to identify with the first family in a show like this?
Gad: Yes. You know, it was interesting because when we set out to do this one of the first decisions that we had to make was kind of figuring out who our president and first lady were going to be. And 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 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. And I think especially as the episodes go on you’ll find most of the characters relatable if not all of the characters relatable to you or somebody that you know I think it’s safe to say. What about you guys?
Elfman: It’s certainly entertaining.
Gad: Yes it’s certainly entertaining.
Elfman: What I love, what I get to play with my character specifically is just that she does have these moments where she’s a fully capable lawyer and political consultant and she does have a sharp wit. But when it comes to the family as the stepmother that’s her Achilles heel. And that’s where she falls off balance and is grasping for straws and gets a little bit nutty.
And then when the two worlds collide, when her necessity to please or win as a stepmother collides in the political realm it gets a little crazy for her. And I’m having fun, having those moments where I get to play like I know how this is supposed to go but not when there’s a family involved. And that’s when there’s like an inner conflict within my character and I get to fall off balance and find a comedy.
Since we see a lot of shows especially in recent years set in Washington, D.C., is there sort of a certain tone that you’re trying to capture about the city itself, or if the show is just really about the family dynamics or a combination?
Gad: I think that it’s absolutely not a political show. And I can’t emphasize that enough because we never set out to make a political show. There are so many great political shows out there, from “The West Wing” to “Veep.” These are wonderful political shows.
We wanted to make a show about a family that happens to live in a world where they are surrounded by politics. And while we do engage in those story lines it’s not really a commentary on that necessarily if that makes sense. It happens to be set in a house like any other house except that it’s an address that everybody knows.
And I think that that’s the thrill of what we’re doing. And that’s what’s exciting to us. And that’s the unexplored territory that we’re looking at. And so when this idea of trying to comment on the politics of the time that’s not really something that comes into the equation, but it’s always an underlying element in the comedy.
And I think that’s the genius of Jon Lovett and Mike Royce, who comes from the world of “Men of a Certain Age.” And it’s that it’s our characters responding to some of those things but not those things wherein our characters have to kind of live their daily lives.
Elfman: And there’ll be like a drop of a political thing which is only there to then spark the family story.
Pullman: Having spent a bunch of time in Washington, a city I love, a lot of specificity about different locations and streets and avenues, but we don’t cover that. You know, we’re so much in the White House. It’s a domestic story, so we don’t get to show a lot about Washington D.C.
If you had been on “Modern Family,” were you’re going to be Cam or Mitchell? Do you feel that you do have a sense of joy in real life, and isn’t that something that Skip has a lot of too?
Gad: Great questions. To answer your first one, no comment but I think you can look at the archetype of both of those characters and figure out which one I was up for. I’ll answer the last one because that’s the one that I remember. I have an unbelievable sense of joy in my life. I look at every day with a glass is half full approach to life. I’m blessed with an incredible family. I have a daughter that I cherish.
And it’s that joy that I bring to the character on a day to day basis it’s that joy of coming into a workplace the likes of which I have only experienced once before with “The Book of Mormon,” in that sense where everybody has this incredible pride in the work that they’re doing. Everybody is looking toward the same goal.
This show is very special. It really is. The episodes as they progress will become more and more extraordinary. And having been able to see a few more episodes than my cast mates I can tell you that this is definitely one to be very proud of. So yes, that joy is something that I feel. Am I as joyful as Skip? I don’t know that that’s possible. I think he’s running the gambit of being a little too joyful for his own good.
What does it feel like to be sitting at the presidential desk, even if it’s a fake presidential desk?
Gad: It’s an absolute boost to the ego. And it’s not a fake presidential desk. Those scenes we actually shoot in the White House, but don’t tell anybody.
For more info: “1600 Penn” website