Jenna Elfman talks about '1600 Penn,' new NBC sitcom about presidential family
BY RITA SHERROW World Television Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2013
1/10/13 at 5:54 AM
Check out a promo for “1600 Penn”
with Jenna Elfman.
Actress Jenna Elfman is known for her spot-on comedic talents but not so much for rubbing shoulders with high-up politicos and their spouses.
So for her role as the first lady and second wife of President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman) in NBC's new comedy "1600 Penn," she had to do her research.
"Well, thank God I have so many first ladies on my speed dial," said Elfman, who starred as free-spirited newlywed Dharma Freedom Finkelstein Montgomery in "Dharma & Greg," Naomi Walling in the final season of "Damages" and Billie Chase in the CBS sitcom "Accidentally on Purpose."
"So it was just like I closed my eyes and I scrolled and just picked, you know, anywhere my finger landed.
"I wish. Unfortunately, I couldn't ring up any current or former first ladies, so I used the old-fashioned way of a bookstore and books about first ladies."
Elfman said she really tried to get a sense of their reality as they transitioned from their former life to the White House, including the obstacles they faced and the goals they had as first ladies.
Those books probably don't confront what it's like to be on display 24/7 in a televised and Twitter-enabled world as stepmother to a brood that includes overachieving daughter Becca, younger siblings Xander and Marigold, and oldest son Skip, who may be the worst liability in the history of the White House and is played by "The Book of Mormon" star and series co-creator/executive producer Josh Gad.
It's a nonpolitical show that happens to be set in a house with an address that everybody knows.
Gad told reporters that writer Jon Lovett, a former speech writer for President Barack Obama, told him that it was never his intention to portray the current presidential family because they are almost "supernaturally perfect, and perfection doesn't lead to comedy."
Not being supernaturally perfect, Elfman said in a recent teleconference that she did want to feel closer to her character and the show's writers obliged.
After the show got word it was picked up as a series, the writers asked Elfman to come and see them before filming began again.
"The writers asked me to come in and meet with them and hear stories of my life and things that are specific to me that they may be able to incorporate," she said.
She said that led to her background as a classically trained dancer being worked into one episode.
The writers also wanted to learn about "my own humor, my voice, my rhythm, my timing so they could really write specifically toward me in their incorporation of the character."
And it worked. She said adjustments were made between the scripts for the pilot episode, which was filmed during last year's presidential campaign, and those for the new episodes.
"I'm so glad they did, and it's really made a difference."
Obama hosted a screening of the comedy series - which will include cameos this season by real Washington news figures including Mika Brzezinski, Savannah Guthrie, Joe Scarborough and Chuck Todd - Wednesday at the White House.
The pilot will be re-aired at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, and the first new episode will be shown at 8:31 p.m. on channel 2, cable 9.
On the show, Elfman's character, who is a lawyer and former political consultant with a sharp wit, finds herself desperately trying to win over her husband's children, including Skip who creates public relations nightmares trying to win his father's respect.
His efforts leave press secretary Marshall Malloy (Andre Holland of "Friends With Benefits") cleaning up lots of messes.
"What I love about Josh's character is that in all of the craziness and all of the mis-estimation that is Skip, he brings ... a fraction of truth and a magic and honesty and realness and humanity to our family on this show," said Elfman, who lives in Los Angeles with husband, actor Bodhi Elfman, and their two children.
"And so while being very annoying at times and just confounding, he inevitably has a piece of humanity and heart and magic that ends up bringing the family together."
Don't look for the president and first lady in this show to be acting wacky, Gad said.
"If they were in any way goofy, nobody would buy them in the office and therefore we wouldn't have a show.
"Because the axis is so wobbly when it comes to the children, the centrifuge, which is the president and the first lady, needs to be as strong as possible," he said. "I think that is what gives us the freedom to go a little crazy with the other characters."
When: 7:30 & 8:31 p.m. Thursday
Where: NBC, channel 2, cable 9
Original Print Headline: White House wit
Rita Sherrow 918-581-8360
Jenna Elfman stars as first lady Emily Gilchrist in the new comedy "1600 Penn," airing at 7:30 and 8:31 p.m. Thursday on NBC, channel 2, cable 9. CHRIS HASTON / NBC