LOS ANGELES – After putting yet another wearying, bitterly fought national election behind us, do we really need a sitcom set in the White House?
Yes, said Jason Winer, a creator of NBC’s newcomer “1600 Penn,” because it’s about a family in a colorful setting, not politics, and because it’s a custom-made showcase for “The Book of Mormon” sensation Josh Gad, not part of a partisan agenda.
Winer and Gad met when the actor auditioned for the “Modern Family” pilot directed by Winer. Gad jumped to Broadway instead for “some silly play,” as a wisecracking Winer put it. Fast forward, and the two were noodling about a project to collaborate on.
“He does such a great job playing a lovable idiot manchild,” Winer said of the actor who excels at chubby-cheeked impishness. “We tried to figure out an environment for that, like a bull in a china shop. And what’s the biggest china shop in the world? It’s the White House.”
Expensive china gets broken, and not just figuratively, in “1600 Penn” (9:30 p.m. Thursday), which serves up large helpings of silliness and slapstick ignited by Gad.
He plays Skip, the free-spirited, bumbling oldest child of President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, a mellower chief executive than in “Independence Day”) and stepson to first lady and lawyer Emily (Jenna Elfman). His siblings include the chronically perfect Becca (Martha MacIsaac), whose one slip led to a one-night-stand pregnancy.
Gad is a solo whirlwind but benefits from comedic chemistry with sitcom pro Elfman (“Dharma and Greg”). She gets to display her Michelle Obama-esque toned arms, which in one episode delivered a right hook to media banality with help from a real NBC journalist.
When the president and first lady take part in a TV interview to lobby for a key education bill, an insistent Savannah Guthrie of “Today” instead wants Emily to share exercise tips for those great pipes.
It’s the kind of swipe that the show may take at Washington itself while remaining apolitical, said Winer, adding, “I think people will be hard-pressed to determine what party the president is a member of.”
Such careful neutrality is typical for TV shows despite Hollywood’s reputation as a liberal bastion, according to Tim Brooks, a former network executive and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”
His book includes several examples, including mostly fluffy sitcoms “The Governor and J.J.” and “Benson.” Its scant exceptions include “The West Wing,” with a hard-charging Democratic president played by Martin Sheen.
The reason is simple, Brooks said.
“Controversy and selling cars and soap don’t go together very well. Sponsors usually run from that sort of thing,” he said. Networks, whether broadcast or basic cable, “don’t want to take chances to alienate advertisers.”
Premium cable network can be bolder, which is why HBO is home to “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin’s new drama “The Newsroom.” Series star Jeff Daniels plays an anchor who’s emboldened to uncover the “truth” – largely consisting of a left-winger’s dream agenda.
Even in the goofy “1600 Penn,” one person’s comedy may be another’s political zinger. The Gilchrists’ fight for education reform pitted them against a racist, sexist senator, Frohm Thoroughgood (guest star Stacy Keach), whose name is an obvious play on the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Southern Republican who was an outspoken segregationist.
And although the president and family in “1600 Penn” bear no resemblance to the Obama White House, there is a thread connecting them: Jon Lovett, one of its creators and producers, worked as a speechwriter for President Barack Obama.
Don’t jump to conclusions, cautioned Lovett, who left a fledgling stand-up comedy career to work for Obama (after a stint with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton).
“I wouldn’t have done it (‘1600 Penn’) if it was a political show,” said Lovett, who said he was eager to return to entertainment and leave Washington behind.
Can he really resist the chance to showcase his point of view? “You would be right to be incredulous. ... I am a political person and I have strong opinions,” he said, but added, “I guess that’s what Twitter’s for.”
Both conservatives and liberals should be able to watch the sitcom and laugh, Lovett said.
The ratings so far have been short of a landslide, although there is promise: The most recent episode drew 3.3 million viewers, which was an 8 percent increase over the previous week. (In comparison, top-rated comedy “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS reliably hits double-digit numbers.)
Will that be enough to win the sitcom another TV term? Given polling that shows widespread dissatisfaction with Washington, Brooks wonders how much time viewers want to spend there.
“Even if it’s comedy and slapstick, it’s just a place we don’t like very much,” he said. “It’s like having a sitcom in a sausage factory. We just don’t want to know.”