'1600 Penn': Politics play second fiddle to funny family

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1600 Penn - Season Pilot
The cast of "1600 Penn" on NBC.

Bill Pullman suspects that he's gotten "thousands" of offers to play a sitcom dad over the years, but it wasn't until a script for "1600 Penn," featuring a father who resides at a very familiar address -- the White House -- came across his desk that his curiosity was piqued.

"It's [always pitched] like it's a no-brainer, but I had no interest. But [the first family] is like royalty," said Pullman, wearing an all-too-familiar navy suit and American-flag lapel pin, as he took a seat in his new TV kitchen on the set of NBC's midseason comedy "1600 Penn" next to his new TV wife, Jenna Elfman. "It's higher stakes and more theatrical than a domestic story in another setting. There's an incredible contrast between public and private life. That's good for comedy."

Pullman on being called "Mr. President": 

While an important element is the unique work-life setting and constant juxtaposition of the president as both the capable leader of the free world and a bumbling widowed father of four who recently remarried his campaign manager, Emily, Elfman is quick to remind potential viewers that the series puts family first. "The politics are a backdrop to tell a story about a family. There will be a drop of something, a domestic issue, just to feed the family story."

One example is a scene where a discussion about a potential terrorist cell with the generals in the Situation Room evolves into a solicitation for parenting advice by President Gilchrist. The show deals with everyday family issues like communication between spouses, a grown son moving home after he fails to figure out a career path at college, a stepmom trying to win over her stepchildren, an unplanned pregnancy, and many household accidents. "We try to keep things close to the chest and do a little damage control with all the family stuff, which I think all families do. It feels very close to my family. I'm always trying to put one public face forward. It never works," said Pullman, who also played a president in "Independence Day."

[Related: The Yo Show visits the '1600 Penn' set]

There is even a child questioning her sexuality. Sometimes so many ripped-from-the-headlines issues are happening at once that executive producer Mike Royce joked that the family seems as if "they might have had a reality show before this show. But every family is quirky and has insane people in it."

Unlike the average family, though, the Gilchrists go through all their highs and lows in the public eye. "The family stories become heightened to a whole new level, being in the White House," Elfman said. "Any little flap is a massive flap when the entire world is looking at you. I cannot imagine going from normal to having Secret Service around you at all times [while] trying to raise children and be a woman and wife and maintain your sanity."

Elfman on working with Josh Gad: 

For those worried that "1600 Penn" will just feed the Republican-versus-Democrat fatigue or stir up residual issues from election 2012, executive producer/creator/star Josh Gad said, "As long as we are on the air, there will be no mention of this family's politics. We wanted to do a story about a dysfunctional family like any other in the most extraordinary circumstances underneath this microscope of the 24-hour news cycle."

[Related: Josh Gad tells Yahoo! TV why he signed up for '1600 Penn']

Executive producer Jon Lovett, once employed as a presidential speechwriter, added that "the show has almost nothing to do with politics. Washington, the world, and the press seeps in, but (declaring) whether the president is a Democrat or Republican would only shortchange what we could potentially do. I hope that people of either persuasion or no persuasion could watch this show. Party identification has nothing to do with it."

Not that there aren't clues hidden in the half-hour. "But the hints are equal opportunity," according to executive producer/creator/director Jason Winer. "This president has a ranch, but his energy policy, which is vaguely alluded to, is being protested. You see his daughter shooting a gun while pregnant, saying it is encouraged by the NRA. Our Oval Office rug takes starburst details from the George W. rug and quotations around the edge from the Obama rug. We like to use little things like that to give the show texture and depth."

However, Elfman's FLOTUS fashion is unabashedly partisan, with her "innumerable" sheath dresses. "There's no reason a first lady has to be staid, dull, and boring. Michelle Obama has really cracked that open, which I love about her," Elfman gushed. "It's always classy, but it's forward, contemporary, fresh, and alive. As long as you look good and appropriate, why can't she push it a little?"

[Related: The '1600 Penn' cast at NBC Universal's Winter Press Tour]

It was also important to everyone involved to treat the presidency with the deference it deserves. Winer continued, "We deal with the presidency and the institution of the first family with a lot of respect. Our characters are smart, formidable, and really good at their jobs. We aren't making fun of that."

Thankfully, plenty of other stuff is fair game in Season 1. Here are some other tidbits we were able to gather during the set visit, which coincided with the filming of the first-season finale:

  • We will find out more about the evolution of the president's relationship with the first lady. "There's some still photographs in an episode that help tell that story," Elfman explained. Lovett added, "There will be little snippets going forward that will let us know more. In an episode early in the run, she talks about how she ran his campaign for governor. She was the reason he was elected president to begin with, yet she carries the trophy-wife burden because that's the way the press is in this world."
  • Gad, who was originally resistant to playing the bull in a china shop that is first son Skip, contemplates a career in magic ("I don't know magic, but I did that trick with the tablecloth and I'm very proud," beamed Gad) and dusts off his award-winning "Book of Mormon" vocal cords a couple of times. He is also personally excited for people to see the episode "in which I take a girl on a first date that goes terribly awry that pays homage to one of my favorite stories of all time." Winer gave another detail: "In that scene, they may or may not use the Secret Service communication system to funnel information to Skip."
  • First daughter Becca, who has always been the perfect student and daughter, finds out she is pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to keep the baby. Martha MacIsaac, who sported a third-trimester foam baby bump complete with bellybutton at the press day, said that playing pregnant has been "bizarre" and that despite turning down what might be the worst marriage proposal ever from the baby daddy, she will continue to deal with him throughout the run. "They give it a shot even though it was a one-time thing they are now dealing with for the rest of their lives. They both want to make it work for the best of the baby. DB's a great character for Becca to be around because they are so completely opposite of one another." She and Andre Holland, who plays the kickball league-joining, French-speaking press secretary, were coy and fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats when asked about a possible romance brewing between their two characters. Holland carefully mentioned, "He worked with President Gilchrist back when he was a congressman, so he's been around the family for a long time. He is an extension of the family (despite) having this professional job that forces him to deal with the president. He goes back and forth between the different worlds."
  • Henry Winkler portrays a senator, "Today" co-host Savannah Guthrie and Jay Leno appear as themselves, and Bruce Campbell guest-stars as the president's brother.
  • The press corps is not a benevolent entity in this comedy. And one reporter tends to do more damage than most. Holland explained, "Adam Shapiro plays Evan, who is always in the press room at the moment when things go off the rails, and he has no problem speaking up. We have a very antagonistic relationship that is carried from the pilot all the way through the end of the season."
  • Sibling rivalry is sparked when Marigold and Xander, the president's other two kids, played by Amara Miller and Benjamin Stockham, figure out that they like the same girl. Miller, last seen in "The Descendants," with George Clooney, is thrilled to play such a complicated and empowered character. "There is one scene where I'm in school and talking with my crush Jessica. You see a [different] side of Marigold, stumbling, nervous, and not sure what to say. At home, she's tough and confident. She's a normal human being. I talked to Jon about it, and he said Marigold doesn't have much to hide about it. She's not embarrassed. She just goes, 'I like girls, and if you have a problem with that, I don't care.' I'm fine with that. I grew up in a very accepting family." Stockham, on the other hand, forgot that he even liked the classmate in the pilot and is just excited to be the smartest person in the family. "He's a cool dude who likes wearing black [because] he looks sexy in it and uses big words I have to Google or Bing. I just wing it. It's been working so far."

Watch the series premiere episode:

"1600 Penn" airs Thursdays at 9:30 PM on NBC.