Josh Gad and Jason Winer Talk 1600 PENN, Creating the White House Family Comedy, Improvisation During Filming and Viewers’ Perception of the Characters

     January 8, 2013


The new NBC comedy series 1600 Penn follows the lives of the Gilchrists, who are just the average American family dealing with everyday issues, all while living in the White House.  The President (Bill Pullman) is finding it more difficult to be the head of his family than the head of the country, the First Lady (Jenna Elfman) is trying to win over her step-kids and the First Son (Josh Gad) just keeps sticking his foot in it, especially when it comes to his pregnant sister (Martha MacIsaac).

While on a set visit, where Collider and a few outlets were invited to tour the Oval Office and then conduct interviews in the Situation Room, co-creators/executive producers Josh Gad and Jason Winer (who also directed the pilot) talked about what led to them creating a family comedy set in the White House, why the Skip character was such a natural starting point to introduce the First Family, how the perception of the other characters will change as viewers get to know them better, balancing the lovable idiot aspect of Skip so that he never gets grating and annoying, the amount of improvisation done during filming, and Skip’s love interest.  Josh Gad also talked about how perplexed and pleasantly surprised he is about the success that he’s gotten from being in the original Broadway cast of The Book of Mormon.  Check out what they had to say after the jump.  

1600-Penn-josh-gadQuestion:  In the pilot, viewers were introduced to the First Family through Skip’s eyes.  How heavily will Skip be featured, throughout the series?

JASON WINER:  It was a natural starting point because we created the show with Josh.  We had his voice before we had anybody else’s.  When Jon Lovett, myself and Josh were developing the script, the one character we really knew intimately was his, so it was a natural way in, to write through Skip.  As we go on, that changes, 100%. 

JOSH GAD:  It’s an ensemble comedy about a family.  It just happens to utilize the fact that my character is now being forced into this world as a jumping off point.  But, in no way is it the crux of the series.  It’s simply an introduction to the world. 

Will perception of the other characters change then, as viewers get to know them better?

WINER:  I think that’s fair to say.  Part of our goal, in the episodes moving forward, is to deepen and dimensionalize every other character, to get into their relationships with each other, expand that stuff and really sink our teeth in.  I think you get to know and love everybody in different kinds of ways, and see them in fun situations. 

What originally led you to the decision of setting a family comedy in the White House?

WINER:  The idea began with Josh.  He and I have been friends since the time he auditioned for Modern Family.  I directed the pilot for that, and that’s how we met.  He pulled out of that audition process to go do some silly show about Mormons (The Book of Mormon).  Somehow it worked out for both of us and, years later, we decided to work on a show together.  We were trying to come up with what that was going to be, and Josh does such an amazing job playing a lovable idiot.  Not many people can do that, as convincingly as he can.  We thought, “What’s an amazing, contrasting environment to put what could potentially be a bull in a china shop?”  We thought, “Well, the White House is the biggest china shop there is.  Can we do that convincingly?  Can we do that with nuance and detail?”  And we didn’t think we could.  That’s when we went and met Jon Lovett, who was just coming off of three years of being a presidential speech writer and had just arrived here to be a comedy writer in Hollywood.  We thought he was super green, in terms of this world, but he knows so much about the world that we’re attempting to write about.  At the end of the day, we are writing a family comedy, with politics, Washington and the White House as a backdrop.  To us, it seemed like a juicy comedic opportunity to create something where we had a family whose mistakes and foibles would be examined and heightened by their place in the public eye.  That seemed like a unique idea to us. 

1600-Penn-josh-gadWhen it comes to that lovable idiot aspect of Skip, where do you draw the line with the idiot side, in order to keep him lovable?

WINER:  We don’t draw a line.                                         

GAD:  They allow a spotlight on my idiocy.  Especially as you get into the episodes past the pilot, there is a real sense of Skip’s maturation and his learning from some of his mistakes while always being the clumsy foil to his father and the other characters.  There is this progression of the character, where it was important to me and the entire team, to make sure that this isn’t somebody who’s going to become grating and annoy you, week after week, with his mistakes and his antics, and you see this lovable side of him a lot.  

WINER:  Just to specify, when we say lovable, he actually has a lot of qualities that other members of the family need to actually learn from.  The President is a guy who’s great at addressing a crowd, but is not great when it comes to expressing emotions to his children.  Skip is nothing but heart.  The thing he understands, above all else, is emotion.  This President and father has something to learn from his son who seems, at first, like a thorn in his side.  That’s the kind of thing we mean when we say that the character deepens and dimensionalizes, as you go.  You realize that he’s actually a cog that brings this family together and helps them learn from each other.

Josh, do you do a lot of improvisation on this show?

GAD:  The question is, do I ever do scripted lines on the show?  They give me a lot of freedom.  It’s a wonderful, playful set where you just get to go off the rails a little bit.  

WINER:  Josh is such an amazing improviser and is so good when the material is flowing from him that sometimes, if a written scene isn’t working quite right, I’ll tell him that we’ve got it and that he can just play.  He’ll blow us away with some super weird stuff and some wild things that we might use bits and pieces of in the edit, and then I’ll say, “Just for good measure, let’s do one more of the scripted version.”  And then, the scripted version has this new life to it.  So, we use improv in all kinds of fun ways.  Sometimes it’s to invent or discover new things, sometimes it’s to weird out the other actors, and sometimes it’s to create a sense of fun, to find new things inside the scripted lines. 

1600-Penn-josh-gadJason, how similar is Josh to Skip?

WINER:  In real life, Josh is a different kind of lovable idiot.  In real life, he’s a much filthier idiot.  He has a dirty sense of humor.  

GAD:  I do have a dirty sense of humor.  

WINER:  We don’t say this out loud, but Skip is probably a virgin. 

GAD:  It’s very sad!  

WINER:  He’s very sweet and innocent in the ways of the world.  

GAD:  My character and I are a little different.  

WINER:  They’re both different kinds of tornadoes.  Josh is a tornado of talent.  Skip is just a tornado.  

Will there be a love interest for Skip? 

WINER:  Skip does have an on-again, off-again love interest, throughout the first season.  You meet her pretty early on.  

GAD:  She’s in the second episode.  

WINER:  She’s played by Susan Park, and she is a very awkward wallflower who works in the mailroom.  Skip thinks she’s just the greatest thing in the world and he paints her with a very romantic brush.  He’s constantly freaking her out with his overly romantic gestures.  After a notable and very public romantic failure, he gets a chance at a comeback. 

Once you had Skip, how did you determine what you wanted the rest of the First Family to look and be like?

WINER:  There was a character development process where Jon Lovett, myself, Josh and also Mike Royce.  We all brainstormed and worked on these characters.  Part of it happens in the pilot process, and part of it happens in the series process.  For example, I don’t think we discovered until we got to series that one of Jenna Elfman’s character’s most lovable and funny qualities is that she goes overboard in getting too involved in everybody’s lives.  That’s just something that ended up being true to Jenna, that we borrowed.  She has the best of intentions and just can’t stay out of it, and that gets her in trouble.  That’s not something we knew about her, in the pilot.  But, I think back to the Modern Family pilot when we didn’t know that Julie Bowen had a spotty party girl past, but that’s something that we layered in, throughout the first season.  That’s just part of the fun of series television.  You get to discover these things. 

1600-Penn-josh-gadGAD:  When you’re doing a pilot, you’re doing it in this bubble that almost works against the creative impulse.  You don’t have time to get to know the actors first, and you have three writers, as opposed to a room full of writers.  And then, when you get into the series, the progression is much different.  You actually have breathing room and the chance to sit down with each actor, which was a part of our process, to talk to them about their pasts. 

WINER:  Now, because of this big backdrop that we’ve given ourselves, these little personal, human details take on a whole new context and give us opportunities for comedy. 

How is the bromance between Skip and D.B. (Robbie Amell) going to develop?

WINER:  There’s a moment in the show where Josh stares into Robbie’s blue eyes and says, “My god, it’s like looking in a mirror,” and I think Skip really believes that.  

GAD:  I would say that they’re both different sides of the same coin.  There’s a different kind of idiot being born in Robbie’s character.  Skip is smart, but I think Skip is more ADHD.  He’s all over the map.  

WINER:  Not to overstate it, but Skip is emotionally a genius, and Robbie’s character is not.  Robbie’s character is emotionally an idiot.

Josh, when you started out with The Book of Mormon, could you ever have imagined that both you and Andrew Rannells (from The New Normal) would be on TV shows, on the same network?

GAD:  No, we both thought we would be doing feature films.  We just had to settle for what we could get.  No.  It’s funny because The Book of Mormon is The Book of Mormon now.  When I was doing it at the very beginning, and I was a part of it for four years and always believed in it, I never really knew if it was going to be more than a convention for South Park fans.  I certainly never imagined 80-year-olds singing along, like they were watching Cats.  I’m fascinated by that kind of pop cultural zeitgeist that it’s attached itself to.  I think Andrew and I are both very perplexed and pleasantly surprised about the success that we’ve gotten out of it.

1600 Penn airs on Thursday nights on NBC, starting on January 10th.