How does a speechwriter become a screenwriter? Just ask Jon Lovett, 30, co-creator of 1600 Penn, NBC’s new prime time political comedy. He worked for President Barack Obama for three years and wrote everything from speeches about the financial crisis to jokes for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. While he did some stand-up just after graduating Williams College, he made a name for himself as a comedian in the Beltway when he won Washington’s 2010 “Funniest Celebrity” contest, cracking up the audience with his spoof of Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and touchy TSA agents (“Virgin America had to change its name to ‘Technically Still a Virgin’ America”). He left the administration in the fall of 2011 to pursue the funny business full-time, and shortly after, Modern Family director Jason Winer and The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad approached him with an idea for a TV comedy set in the White House.
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If you thought Washington was dysfunctional, wait until you meet 1600 Penn’s First Family. The commander-in-chief, Dale Gilchrist, is played by Bill Pullman — the same actor who played the President who saved Earth from alien domination in Independence Day (1996). The First Lady is the President’s second wife Emily (Golden Globe-winner Jenna Elfman), who’s constantly butting heads with the President’s oldest daughter Becca (Superbad’s Martha MacIsaac). Gad plays the President’s son Skip, a well-meaning doofus, who destroys almost everything in his path, while White House Press Secretary Marshall Malloy (Friends with Benefits’ André Holland) tries to pick up the pieces and make sure the family stays on message.
The real POTUS is so eager to watch 1600 Penn that he invited the cast to an afternoon screening of the show on Jan. 9, before the first season premieres on Jan. 10 at 9:30 ET.
TIME talked to Lovett about creating a family show in a political world and his move from D.C. to Hollywood.
Is any part of 1600 Penn based on the Obamas or other former First Families?
Here and there. I do think everybody went to the books and read about past First Families, just as a source of unexpected stories and anecdotes. But we never based any part of the 1600 Penn family on President Obama and his family. The President and his family are pretty extraordinary, and we were looking for a family with ordinary dysfunctions.
I hope that my experience in the White House helps us give some credibility and jumping off points for unexpected family stories that people are fascinated by. What would it be like to run for school president when your dad is the President? Or what would it be like to fight with your stepmom in the middle of a public press event? The characters are dealing with ordinary problems in an extraordinary environment.
So you were the guy who could say, ‘That would never happen on the Hill’ or ‘the President would never say this.’
That’s right. But this show is not about treaty signings and passing executive orders; it’s about the family. I would rather tell a really funny joke than make sure we’re following Senate procedure for how to fill a tree on a resolution.
Why did you cast Bill Pullman as the President?
We wanted somebody who could convey the gravitas and assuredness of a President, somebody who could inspire people. At the same time, we wanted somebody who also would be able to have this awkward relationship with his son because that relationship with his son and his family is the core of the show. It had to be someone who would be great at speaking to a crowd of 10,000, but would struggle in those one-on-one conversations with his kids. And he had to be funny.
Bill Pullman has not only played a President, but he’s also been in Spaceballs (1987) and had this pedigree as a stage actor. He is someone that everybody would look forward to seeing return to the White House, especially after his first term [as the President in Independence Day] was so iconic.
Did you always know that The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad was going to play Skip, the President’s oldest son?
I don’t know if Josh Gad always knew that he was going to be playing Skip, but [co-creator] Jason [Winer] and I always knew this part was meant for him — that sweet but oblivious, “bull in a china shop” character, who fails to recognize the social cues around him. He is such a good person and so oblivious to negativity, and that’s what gets him into trouble.
The press secretary Marshall Malloy seems to be the President’s closest adviser and the guy who is trying to keep the family together. Is that dynamic true in the White House?
It’s certainly true that Presidents have confidantes who rise above what you would call just staff. Presidents have been through really long, grueling campaigns. They often have people around them that have been with them forever. So the press secretary character is rooted in that idea. In future episodes, you’ll learn that he’s been with the President since he was a kid and has come into his own working for the President, who was first a congressman and then a governor. That’s why he has this great, brotherly dynamic with Skip and why he’s like another son to the President.
What would you say to the political junkies who will be comparing your show to Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing or even HBO’s Veep?
People are welcome to make whatever comparisons they want. Veep is a great satire of democracy. The West Wing was an incredible, inspiring show — and one of the reasons I wanted to be a speechwriter. But 1600 Penn is a family comedy; it’s a different thing.
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Was it tough to shift from writing jokes for the President to writing jokes for television?
The great thing about writing jokes for President Obama is that he is not afraid to tell jokes that are actually funny — and not just funny for a politician. He wants to get up there and give everybody — including himself — the roast that they deserve. The thing about writing jokes in the voices of [1600 Penn] characters is that you’re not just doing standup; you’re trying to tell jokes that tell a story. And it’s really hard to develop a TV show with characters that people want to come back and watch every week.
Did you get to write for fun when you were a speechwriter?
Wait, when is writing fun?
I wanted to, but given the crush of speechwriting, I never had time. There were a lot of Word documents with very sad beginnings. That was part of the reason I decided to leave. There were other kinds of writing that I was desperate to do.
What was it like to watch Obama’s re-election campaign from the sidelines?
It was hard. I do feel like I got to participate in some way from outside, whether by writing columns or making sure that my views were out there on Twitter. I had a chance to go after some of the pundits who I believe are awful and deserve to be made fun of. I am not afraid of confrontation, and I really like having the chance to speak my mind more, especially because I’m just a guy now.
What’s the biggest difference between living in D.C. and living in Hollywood?
There are a lot of similarities; they’re both industry towns. But there’s a lot of hugging in L.A. The hugging has got out of control. If you meet people for the first time, you will hug, and you will hug the next time you see them. And there’s literally no one you can’t hug anymore. What happened to shaking hands?
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