The family in '1600 Penn,' from left, Amara Miller, Jenna Elfman, Bill Pullman, Martha MacIsaac, Josh Gad and Benjamin Stockham -- gets a rare night out as just an ordinary family.(Photo: Trae Patton, NBC)
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
A president faces many crises. On 1600 Penn, most of them seem to emanate from his family.
new NBC comedy, which has a sneak preview Monday (9:30 p.m. ET/PT)
before returning Jan. 10, follows the Gilchrist clan: Commander in chief
Dale (Bill Pullman) and his second wife, Emily (Jenna Elfman), who is
stepmother to Dale's children Skip (Josh Gad), Becca (Martha MacIsaac)
and twins Xander (Benjamin Stockham) and Marigold (Amara Miller).
may know what's best for the country, but he has his hands full with
the big-mouthed, big-hearted Skip; Becca, the seemingly perfect daughter
who has one major slip-up; and the bickering twins. Emily tries to
help, but her sharp tongue and parental insecurities create their own
problems. A put-upon press secretary (Andre Holland) appears to be in a
permanent state of damage control.
"We want to tell this wonderful
story of a family like any other family but under the scrutiny of the
24-hour media news cycle, under the scrutiny of their father having to
answer to millions, if not billions, of people," says Gad, the Broadway Book of Mormon star who also serves as an executive producer.
He sees that as very much a modern phenomenon.
you imagine if Mary Todd Lincoln had to answer to CNN or Fox News? Can
you imagine if Thomas Jefferson were asked about Sally Hemings by a
reporter of the time? These are the kinds of things you just never had
to deal with until now. I thought that was a fascinating thing to
Skip, who has a propensity for causing trouble and starting fires, brings some Animal House
to the White House. The seventh-year college student with the Secret
Service code name Meatball creates many messes, personal and political,
but usually finds a way to clean them up.
"Bull in a china shop
and lovable golden retriever, that hybrid is really what I think the
character has become. I launch into one or both of those elements at any
given time to bring Skip to life in a certain situation," Gad says.
He says he was initially terrified about taking on Skip, thinking he might be too close to his Mormon
character, Elder Cunningham, and that what can work well on a theater
stage might seem jarring on the TV screen. Eventually, however, he
realized he would be "furious" if someone else took the part.
He praises Pullman, famed for his turn as a different kind of president in Independence Day, and Elfman for helping to keep the comedy grounded.
never wanted to do a goofball comedy about the White House. We wanted
to make a comedy that happened to take place in the White House. In
order to achieve those goals, you really need a believable president and
a believable first lady. I don't think we could have found better
options," Gad says. "American already embraced Bill in that
(presidential) role, but that's not the reason we cast him. We cast him
because of his comedic chops. And Jenna truly is one of the master
comedians of her generation. She is so superb at what she does."
Elfman, who starred in Dharma & Greg, says the characters are well-drawn, a key to successful comedy, and that she's particularly intrigued by first lady Emily.
love that she's smart and witty and attentive. She helped run (Dale's)
campaign. She got him into the presidency. She's very good at what she
does. With regard to being a stepmother, she's not as savvy. It's her
Achilles' heel," she says. "When the two worlds mix, when family and
being a first lady find themselves in the same (space), things don't go
so smoothly for her. That's what I find the most fun, being able to have
that conflict of wittiness and nuttiness at the same time."
is centered in the world of politics, it steers clear of anything
partisan, Elfman says. "It's irrelevant what the politics are because
the stories are all family-related."
Elfman read a few books about
first ladies but couldn't get the hands-on experience that's available
for other roles. "It's not like I could step into those shoes or talk to
somebody who has done it. ... I don't happen to have Michelle Obama's
She admires Obama but isn't trying to copy her. "She's living a real life and we're in a comedy."
real first family doesn't provide much comedic fodder for the
Gilchrists. "The Obama family is almost superhuman in that they really
are a perfect family," Gad says. "They don't have many flaws and that
doesn't lend itself to comedy."