PASADENA, Calif. — Gags in situation comedies are inspired by many things, but the new sitcom “1600 Penn” takes inspiration from the actual Situation Room in the White House itself.
The NBC series, which had a sneak peek in December and kicks off in its regular timeslot Thursday night at 9:30 on Channel 7, chronicles the family life of President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, “Independence Day”). Jenna Elfman (“Dharma and Greg”) costars as his wife and stepmother to his four kids, and Broadway vet Josh Gad (“Book of Mormon”) plays Skip, the hapless eldest son.
The cast and producers met with reporters at the Television Critics Association here recently and discussed the genesis of the show, which began as the brainchild of Gad, who also serves as an executive producer, and his fellow executive producer Jason Winer, who met Gad when the actor guested on “Modern Family,” for which Winer was a director.
“We kind of fell in love with each other. Romantically,” said Gad with a laugh. “The two of us came up with this idea of doing something in the White House. And we both wanted to do something about a family.”
The series does not focus on politics, but rather how public figures struggle with private issues. For instance, it isn’t explicit to which party Gilchrist belongs.
“There’s a real theme here of public versus private, of this family with normal problems existing in a world where they can trip up and their lives spill out in the public sphere,” says Winer, including a story line in which Gilchrist’s daughter Becca becomes pregnant.
“At the same time, they exist in this political sphere, and we just decided that that’s not the emphasis of the show. We realize that people are going to ask questions about that and wonder about their politics. And frankly, we like to have a little bit of fun letting people guess in terms of what Bill’s character’s politics really are. He has a ranch, you’ll come to discover in coming episodes. We see the first daughter shooting a rifle. At the same time, he has a very liberal energy policy. So you be the judge.”
Another of the series producers is Jon Lovett, who spent three years as a speechwriter in the Obama administration.
“I think my experience has helped us ground the show and find ways to use real stories as a launching point for these family stories,” said Lovett. “I definitely have a lot of stories about the absurdity of Washington.”
At this point Gad playfully interjected, “Jon, tell them the story that you told me about Obama that could bring down the White House, potentially.”
The writers did get a tour of the White House, which brought them in close proximity to the actual Situation Room “which we were stunned to discover . . . was just a room in a hallway,” said Winer with a laugh. “We were stunned by the banality of it, frankly.”
Even more intriguing was an old telephone sitting outside the room. “It’s like brown plastic that would have been in your mom’s kitchen in the mid-’80s,” said Winer. He was informed it didn’t actually work anymore but it was still in use. “If it’s your first time in the Situation Room, they’ll tell you you have to pick it up and give all kinds of personal information. And then they tell you it’s not real. And I’m like ‘This is a bit phone? Outside of the Situation Room?,’ ” he recalls, sputtering incredulously. “This is a place where very serious things happen. And at the same time, it’s a workplace where people have to exist and they make jokes, and there’s a really delightful contrast there that the show sometimes exploits.”
And, Gad added, “I base my character on Malia, by the way, just to get that out there.”