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"1600 Penn" and the Tedium of the Goofball White House Comedy

Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett may be a co-creator of the show, but “1600 Penn,” which premieres tonight on NBC, stays far away from actual politics. The mechanics of government get clownishly redrawn: the Oval Office is a revolving door of foreign dignitaries with wacky accents, the president’s son can schmooze his way into an international trade agreement negotiation, and the situation room is the site of urgent debriefs about the personal life of the president’s daughter. As White House comedies go, the show’s closest relative currently on television is probably “The First Family,” a syndicated sitcom about a black president that similarly uses the duties of statecraft as little more than a foil for the first family’s madcap antics. Like “The First Family,” “1600 Penn” borrows from Washington the symbols of power and little else. It makes “Veep” look as sober and factual as C-Span. Worse, it’s a lot less funny. 

The pilot of “1600 Penn” opens with a scene that could have been plucked from Animal House: a bunch of nerdy frat boys launch a firework through the window of a rival frat, and one student promptly gets whisked away by the secret service. “The meatball is in the oven,” an agent says into his radio. Enter the president’s son Skip, played with galumphing eagerness by Josh Gad, who most recently starred on Broadway in The Book of Mormon. Gad has an uncanny way of making broad physical comedy seem specific and contained—it’s a trick of his elastic voice, which registers subtle shifts in feeling even as he careens around the White House like an oversized golden retriever—but here his shtick gets old fast. Skip is a tubby dork, seven years into his college career, with a knack for screwing things up despite his best intentions. Shortly after the frat incident, he sets a chair on fire and sends it hurtling through a window onto the White House lawn. Other P.R. disasters ensue: Type-A presidential daughter Becca (Martha MacIsaac) gets pregnant, and the secret service drags the young perpetrator of said pregnancy from his job at the Friendship Heights Old Navy to the White House for an interrogation.

And at the center of all this mayhem is President Gale Gilchrist, played by Bill Pullman, who has traded the flinty gravitas of Independence Day's President Whitmore for the pleasant forbearance of the comedic straight man. Pullman’s Whitmore was magnetic, but playing a sitcom president is a less sexy gig: it generally entails being the dull, quiet nucleus of a tornado of bureaucratic and domestic kookiness. That was also the case in network TV's last failed First Family sitcom. “Hail to the Chief,” which aired on ABC in 1985, was, like “1600 Penn,” a running joke about the difficulty of balancing presidential and familial duties. It starred Patty Duke as a blandly sane female president dealing with the nutsos around her, and got cancelled after seven episodes. And like “1600 Penn,”  it tried to mine comedy from the presidency while steering clear of making the President in any way laughable. 

The only White House comedy to portray the commander-in-chief himself as a doofus was “That’s My Bush!” from 2001; the Comedy Central show was framed as a sendup of the Bush presidency, but mostly just lampooned ’70s and ’80s sitcom conventions, with its stock characters and rowdy laugh track. It’s so hard to make the president funny that in HBO’s “Veep” he is fully invisible; the office of the president is the sacred, unbreached core of Armando Iannucci’s cynical vision of American politics. Though the whole Washington ecosystem gets skewered, the president alone remains remote and unscathed.

But “Veep” is funny because its vision of Washington is so brutally specific. “1600 Penn” is so broadly drawn that it ends up saying nothing much at all—neither about the Beltway nor the hoopla of modern family life. Of course, that’s why Obama could screen the show at the White House on Wednesday; Washington feels like a cartoonish alternate universe, as mild and harmless as Skip himself.