Tonight on NBC, Bill Pullman stars as President Dale Gilchrist, alongside First Lady Emily Nash Gilchrist (Jenna Elfman), and son Skip (writer/executive producer/star Josh Gad) in the series premiere of 1600 Penn, a half-hour comedy that premieres at 9:30 PM. The three stars participated in a conference call to discuss the new comedy series ahead of tonight’s big premiere.
On the politics of gay marriage within the show:
Bill Pullman: “Well in the pilot one of the characters expresses an interest in the same sex. But, you know, it’s – 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.”
On comparisons to the Obamas:
Josh Gad: “Well, you know, 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. If you think back to Bush twins and all the questions that they had to deal with about their, you know, 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, you know, 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.”
On the Gilchrist family’s resemblance to the Romneys:
Jenna Elfmann: “You know, … we were cast back in April of this year. So it wasn’t really – we were in the middle of filming our season when [the rise of Mitt Romney] … happened to really come to the forefront. So … when we took the role and we were cast in the roles, that really wasn’t part of our mindset.”
On how they approached their roles as members of the First Family:
Jenna Elfman: “Unfortunately, you know, 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, you know, their life prior to that and what obstacles they faced and, you know, what goals they had as first ladies just to get myself oriented.”
Bill 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.”
On the origin of the idea for the series:
Josh Gad: “You know, essentially … it was an opportunity for [director] Jason Winer to exploit me. He saw my character [as missionary Arnold Cunningham] in 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 didn’t – 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, you know, 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. And so … 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.”
On the need for audiences to be able to identify with the First Family:
Josh Gad: “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, you know, what are you watching it for? You know, 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.”
On the political aspect of the show vs. the family dynamic:
Josh Gad: “You know, I think that it’s absolutely – 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. There really are – from 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, you know, 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 [writers] 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.”
1600 Penn premieres tonight at 9:30 PM EST on NBC