Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Barack Obama heard that his speechwriter Jon Lovett would be leaving the White House to follow his dream of becoming a Hollywood comedy writer, the president joked something in the vein of, “You’re not going to write about me, right?”
The commander in chief didn’t need to worry. True, Lovett, along with actor Josh Gad (a Tony nominee for “The Book of Mormon”) and “Modern Family’s” Jason Winer, has created the new NBC sitcom “1600 Penn,” about a first family. However, the fictional Gilchrists are decidedly not the Obamas: “This is a show about a family with dysfunctions and screw-ups, but it’s pretty clear that this current first family doesn’t fit that mold,” Lovett said by phone recently.
“The Obamas seem extraordinarily normal, which, frankly, is a little boring when it comes to comedy,” Winer said in a recent interview in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot.
It’s also not about Beltway intrigue, like HBO’s wickedly funny “Veep,” nor heady political fare, as on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” “1600 Penn,” rather, is a family sitcom set in a White House led by President Dale Gilchrist (played by Bill Pullman, in his first role as commander in chief since saving Earth from aliens in “Independence Day”), who is having more tsuris managing his family than the nation.
There’s Gilchrist’s gaffe-prone son, Skip (Gad), who is called home after seven years in college in an attempt to keep his Billy Carter-like antics in check; his overachieving teenage daughter, Becca (“Superbad’s” Martha
MacIsaac), who is appalled to discover that she is pregnant after a rare one-night stand; his two arch younger children; and his second wife, Emily (Jenna Elfman), who is struggling not only in her role as stepmom but also with the scheming Washington press corps.
When, for example, Emily hosts a school event and a student asks her what it means when her father says the first lady is a “trophy wife,” Emily erupts in an outburst that has the beleaguered press secretary, played by Andre Holland, hauling her away from the cameras. When the media pounces on news of Becca’s pregnancy, even Al Jazeera picks up the story.
“The press corps on the show serves the same role as it does in real life,” Lovett, 30, said. “They’re just so annoying, but they’re really necessary in that they hold the White House to the fire — although we portray that in a heightened, comedic way.”
Otherwise, the show remains apolitical: “The goal on network TV is to reach the broadest-possible audience, and politics is, by its nature, divisive,” Winer, 40, explained. “We don’t even mention the words ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ in the entire series. It’s more about a family that just happens to be in the fishbowl of the most famous address in America. I’ve always loved the theme of public versus private — of those things that we try to keep to ourselves and, yet, can’t.”
Winer said he draws inspiration from his childhood in Baltimore, where he had his bar mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue, and “Jewish humor in my family started with laughing at others — not in a mean-spirited way, but looking out at the world around you and marveling at the craziness.”
All that came in handy for him as an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and director of ABC’s hit sitcom “Modern Family.” and now for “1600 Penn.” The show’s history also dates back to when he met Gad as the actor was auditioning for a role on “Modern Family” six years ago. “Josh dropped out of the process to go do this silly little musical about Mormons, which baffled us all at the time,” Winer recalled.
But he was impressed by Gad’s finesse in portraying what he calls “a lovable idiot,” and kept that persona in mind when he and Gad agreed to collaborate on what would become “1600 Penn” around 2011. “We wanted to take advantage of the bull-in-a-china-shop character that Josh plays so well, and we decided that the White House was the biggest china shop in the world,” Winer said. “But I didn’t know if we could give the show enough real-life texture and detail, which is where Jon Lovett came into the picture.”
Turns out Lovett — who grew up Reform on Long Island — got into politics almost by accident in the mid-2000s. After graduating with a math degree from Williams College and trying his hand at stand-up comedy for a year in New York, he went to work for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, where Hillary Rodham Clinton noticed his pithy wit and asked him to write jokes to help her roast Barbara Walters. Before long, Lovett had become Clinton’s full-time speechwriter, and he went on to work for the Obama administration the week of the president’s inauguration. In 2010, he was named Washington’s funniest celebrity, in part for his spoof of pundit Arianna Huffington.
“I could have continued being a speechwriter for as long as I wanted,” Lovett said. “But I felt like I owed it to myself to take a chance on, for lack of a less cheesy word, my dream.”
And so, while he knew it would be hard to watch President Obama’s re-election campaign from the sidelines, Lovett packed up his belongings and moved out of the home he shared with White House co-workers to sleep on friends’ couches in Los Angeles.
Just three days after he arrived, he found himself at a meeting with Winer and Gad at a coffee shop on Larchmont Boulevard, insisting that “literally the only thing I didn’t want to write about was the White House.
“It was, in part, because comedy inherently makes fun of its subjects, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that to the president and the people I had worked with. So I was very reluctant about the whole idea, but the more we talked about it, the more I felt like the things I had experienced could lend itself to the show without being a satire of this administration.”
The “1600 Penn” creators have drawn on some of the shenanigans of past presidential relatives, like Bill Clinton’s half-brother Roger Clinton — whom the Secret Service dubbed with the code name “Headache,” due to his penchant for landing in hot water — as well as a visit to the White House, where Winer was stunned to discover that “the Situation Room was just this simple room in a hallway, not like something out of a Kubrick movie or some bunker in the basement.
“Just outside that room, there’s a brown plastic phone like you’d find in your mother’s kitchen from 1983, and our guide said that if you’ve never been there before, they tell you to pick up that phone and give all kinds of personal information — and then they tell you the phone doesn’t work. So there’s actually this prank phone in the White House, and that’s the spirit of our show in a nutshell.”
When the real commander in chief presided over a screening of “1600 Penn” at the White House last month, Winer said, “It was just art and life commingling in a way that just blew my mind. The president said that at the real 1600 Penn, we have to laugh at ourselves, because we have to deal with a lot of serious stuff every day. I was just so honored when he said it’s great that we’ve been able to create something for TV that brings some levity to this place.”
“1600 Penn” airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.
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January 9, 2013 | 9:27 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“It’s an honor to be insulted by you,” I told Judd Apatow during an interview about his new comedy-drama, “This is 40,” about the midlife angst suffered by record label owner Pete (Paul Rudd) and his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann).
“Yes, exactly!” Apatow replied.
I’d interviewed the comedy mogul several times over the years, most recently about his flick “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, and about his book “I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some that Might Not be Funny at All.” He’d opened up to me about how his Jewish childhood with atheist parents instilled in him a “frightening, empty” view of the universe that “certainly did more damage than they were aware of at the time.” Whenever I’d asked him if he read the Journal, he’d responded with an enthusiastic, “Oh, yeah!”
So I was thrilled – and initially a tad mortified – to see that “This is 40” actually had a scene with a Journal reporter, which is played for laughs: A schlumpy journalist wearing a yarmulke turns up to interview Pete’s star client, Graham Parker, asking him, “Why is this album different from all other albums.” “It isn’t,” Parker retorts.
Yes, parody is a form of flattery, but is that what Judd really thought of the Journal? Can we possibly appear less hip? And is this what he thought of me? “Well, I insult myself all the time in my films, so why not you?” he quipped when I asked him that question.
Q: Where did the idea for the Journal scene come from?
A: What I wanted to write about is that Pete feels like maybe he’s slipping. He’s in the music business but he kind of likes the older bands, not the newer bands, and it’s a symbol that his taste is not keeping up with what’s happening in the world and it terrifies him. He has this business model he thinks will work, which is, he’ll take these older artists, and he will have very little overhead; they don’t need to sell that many records and that’s enough, but then he’s not even going to be able to sell that many. So when it came to, who’s interested in talking to Graham, we thought, the only people who want to talk to Graham is the Jewish Journal. And we have our friend David Wilde, who writes for Rolling Stone magazine, playing the reporter from the Journal. And then the joke in the movie is that the old people who still buy hard copies of records are older Jews because they don’t download; they don’t understand what that means. (Laughs.) Which is probably because of the fact that my dad probably wouldn’t know how do download; he doesn’t have an iTunes music library. I’m sure this makes no sense to the reality of the Jewish Journal, or who reads it or the ages or any of it; it’s just a general, we didn’t get Rolling stone to cover this.
Q: Does the character reflect any of your impressions of the Journal?
A: No, not at all. But when you think of like the cutting edge of the music scene, you don’t think of the Jewish Journal. I don’t mean to insult your readers, but they are not going to find out the next hot band in the Jewish Journal.
Q: You never know.
A: Well, you should change that. If you find them, then you will prove my joke incorrect. You and I have done a bunch of interviews over the years, for a long time, but the joke is literally coming from the fact that it just sounds funny. Comedy is so much like a rhythm idea. And to me, although there’s been many great Jewish rockers over the years, you don’t instantly think that our people are rocking that hard, although the truth is that they probably are (laughs).
Q: Someone on our staff was thinking of doing a videotaped response to your Journal scene.
A: Yes! That’s right. You could, and it would be a great video for every person who doesn’t realize that the guy from that punk band is Jewish, or that the guy in that great rock ‘n’ roll band of all time is Jewish. You could show all of them. We could even get Adam Sandler to record it.
“This is 40” is now in theaters.
January 2, 2013 | 4:10 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In 2008, while doing research for what would become his first feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin climbed inside the pickup truck he had purchased for $500 and drove down each of the five roads leading to the bayou’s edge about 80 miles south of New Orleans. At the end of one of those roads he discovered the Isle de Jean Charles, a remote fishing village made up of a swampy enclave of about 20 shacks connected by planked walkways over brackish water. Mattresses patched sagging bridges, discarded refrigerators served as wading pools, and dead cypress trees loomed like skeletons.
“I got chills, because I had been trying to write about holdouts at the end of the world, and I sensed that this was truly the last stand,” Zeitlin said of his post-Hurricane Katrina mindset. “It was almost as if there was a different kind of air there; the atmosphere was so salty that everything rusted, and all the dead trees and shattered houses had this incredibly apocalyptic feel. [In another town], I asked someone why they didn’t try to replant the population somewhere else, and they said, ‘We were made by the marsh; we’re like this exotic plant that can’t grown anywhere else.’ ”
Zeitlin thought about the dying towns and their stalwart residents, and how they reminded him of the characters in a play by his childhood friend Lucy Alibar titled “Juicy and Delicious,” in which a child struggles to achieve a state of grace after he learns his previously robust father is dying.
“I realized I had two stories that were both circling around this one emotion: What do you do when the thing that made you starts to die in front of you? And how do you survive the loss of the things that created you — whether a community or a parent?”
The result is Zeitlin’s haunting, operatic independent film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fable about a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is pondering her place in the universe as her father ails and her harsh but utopian hamlet is threatened by a raging storm. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the Camera d’Or at Cannes and has four Independent Spirit Award nominations and is now enjoying Oscar buzz alongside the likes of such major studio features as “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Along the way, it’s joined the ranks of a growing number of acclaimed films (think “Life of Pi” and “The Tree of Life”) that tackle spiritual concerns onscreen.
Zeitlin, 30, called in for an interview from the stairwell of the New York Public Library, where he retreats to work on projects whenever he visits his native New York. His home these days is a rundown house on the outskirts of a construction site in the upper ninth ward of New Orleans, where, he said, his used car recently died. “I’ve pretty much lived in varying forms of shanties or shacks since I moved down there [around 2006],” he said.
The heroine of “Beasts” is left homeless when a hurricane destroys her detritus-filled hovel; only on the precipice of destruction does she come into a kind of spiritual enlightenment, Zeitlin said. “An important moment is when she regards the funeral pyre that is cremating her father and watching the sparks fly out into the air,” said Zeitlin, who directed the film and co-authored the script with Alibar. “She realizes that just because she cannot see them anymore, they have not disappeared — in fact, that nothing disappears, but things live on in different ways. It’s her understanding that while both her father and her community are going to be gone from the earth, the wisdom passed down from them is internalized in her, and she is now the vessel that will carry that forward into the future. She starts to feel like the intangible parts of the universe are taking care of her, as opposed to trying to destroy her, and that moment of enlightenment is related to visions of what God is.”
The funeral scene was influenced by Jewish thought, Zeitlin said — specifically the midrash of two ships, one leaving the harbor as another heads for shore, which suggests that one should rejoice over the returning ship, just as one should celebrate the death of a righteous man. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of wisdom,” Zeitlin said.
Zeitlin’s parents, both folklorists, celebrated all kinds of wisdom and fables; they studied carnival barkers, traveling medicine shows and, during frequent trips to Coney Island, they jotted down histories of the residents of the local freak show. Zeitlin remembers hanging out with a contortionist called the Elastic Man, who could slither his way through a coat hanger, as well as Otis the Frog Boy, who rolled up and lit cigarettes with his mouth.
“The myth in my own family is that we had basically one relative who escaped the pogroms in Russia in a hay cart,” said Zeitlin, whose father is Jewish and mother was raised Protestant in North Carolina. “My father very much studied Jewish culture and mythology, and he wrote several compilations of Jewish stories, folktales and jokes. He was always reinventing Jewish customs and making sure that the tradition was very much part of our lives. Every Shabbat we all had to bring a reading or some piece of wisdom we’d discovered during the week, along with a ritual where we would remember all the people we had lost.”
Not long after his backyard bar mitzvah, Zeitlin traveled with his family to New Orleans, which he found to be “an almost supernatural place where both death and joy are in the air.
“All Jews are obsessed with death, right,” he added, only half joking. “It’s recalling all the people before you who have died, and using their knowledge in your own life.”
Zeitlin moved to New Orleans after graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, initially to make a short film, “Glory at Sea,” and then to embark upon “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” He began writing the film several years ago while recovering from a shattered pelvis after a drunk driver rammed his car as he was on his way to a film festival. When he could walk again, he returned to Isle de Jean Charles, hanging out with his laptop at the town’s marina and interviewing locals, who initially hazed him as an outsider.
Over seven weeks in 2010, his largely improvised production came together in 100-degree heat, amid swarming flies and mosquitoes, with sets cobbled together, in part, from abandoned scrap metal. After Zeitlin’s pickup truck exploded in a fiery maelstrom, his crew transformed the charred shell into the boat in which Hushpuppy and her father traverse the swamp in the film. Zeitlin persevered even after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred on the first day of production, jeopardizing the locals as well as the movie.
The shoot, which took place in 20 locations, proved to be an exercise in independent filmmaking at its most extreme — which is why the low-key Zeitlin particularly appreciates his movie’s Oscar buzz. “It’s certainly not why I make films,” he said, “but any time a film gets recognition that was made outside of the film industry, the more leverage it gives to other filmmakers who are trying to tell stories in ways that are unconventional. So it’s just trying to forge that space in the world.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Searchlight.
December 8, 2012 | 12:02 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman