Baltimore native Jason Winer talks about '1600 Penn' on eve of White House visit

Jason Winer talks about his new sitcom, "1600 Penn," which joins NBC's prime-time schedule at 9:30 p.m. Thursday.

Baltimore native Jason Winer knows something about family comedy. He's been an executive producer on ABC's "Modern Family" and won a Directors Guild Award for his direction of the hit series' Emmy Award-winning pilot.

This week, "1600 Penn," a family sitcom about a fictional first family that he co-created, joins NBC's Thursday night lineup. (A sneak preview of the pilot aired in December.)

On Wednesday, Winer and the cast will be guests at the real White House where the series will be screened for President Obama. There will also be a press conference at the National Press Club.

Winer, who has finished shooting all 13 episodes for season one, talked last week with The Baltimore Sun about his new series starring Josh Gad ("Book of Mormon"), Bill Pullman ("Independence Day") and Jenna Elfman ("Accidentally on Purpose").

So you are now joining the prime-time lineup at midseason. Did that make any difference in the production of the series — midseason versus a fall launch?

I think it gave us a tremendous advantage, being picked up for midseason, because it allowed us to spend a little bit more time with the writing process and to shoot all 13 episodes in the absence of a public response. So we were really able to make the series we wanted to make, and now we're going to see what people make of it.

I had not thought of how the public response to initial episodes might shape the ongoing production process. But of course, it would.

It's human nature. Whether it's the network's reaction or that of the creators, you can't help but be swayed by peoples' opinion of it. And your desire to please kicks in. It's not like we're not trying to make a crowd-pleasing show from the outset, but at the same time, getting to make it true to what you intended in the absence of that is a real advantage.

And now that you have finished shooting all 13 episodes and some are in post-production, what's the future?

I will say the network is very behind it. Again, because of the midseason thing, the network has seen as many as eight episodes at this point, and they're enamored of it. They know where the show is going, and I think that's why they've gotten so behind it in terms of a promotional push for the premiere. Because regardless of what people think of the pilot or the first couple of episodes, we know that we're going someplace great with this and so does the network.

So, they're really behind it, which is awesome. Of course, we won't know officially until May [if the show is renewed]. But hopefully within the first four or five episodes, we'll get of sense of how the show is doing. And if we're holding our own on that Thursday night, we should be OK.

I saw the first three episodes. And I have to say I had some problems with the pilot. But by the end of the third episode, I thought the series found its voice.

I know exactly what you're saying. I think we didn't quite have it with the pilot. Look, I'm really proud of the pilot. But with a pilot you have the burden of introducing so many things that it's really hard. But to give us the platform to find our stride really within episodes two and three, I give Mike Royce [executive producer] a lot of credit for that. He's the former executive producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and creator of "Men of a Certain Age," who came aboard and joined us after the pilot and he has been a great creative and steadying force for us. He really helped push the show in a way that deepened and dimensionalized the characters when they could have, under a less steady hand, become cartoonish.

Yes, by the end of the third, I started liking Skip [the adult son who returns home and is played by Gad]. I thought the character might even have some wisdom that his father, the president, could learn from — a wisdom about what it means to be a father and a man. But in the pilot, not so much. I thought Skip was too much in your face.

Skip does have a goodness and a wisdom, especially when it comes to emotion. He's a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. That's what makes him seem childlike, because he's really in touch with his emotions. And I'm saying that in a good way.

Some might say it's inappropriate for an adult. But it's really the key to what his dad needs to learn both as an human being and a president. The president is kind of a tough guy: former military, former Marine, former governor of Nevada. He owns a ranch, we come to find out — one episode is set on his ranch. He's very at home chopping wood or herding cattle. He's kind of a throwback figure, sort of solitary and masculine, and Skip is the opposite of that. ...

The president is a guy who can communicate to masses of people but can't really engage emotionally with his own children. And that's what he has to learn from Skip. We feel like we have a really relatable dynamic in a father-son odd couple.

I would guess one of the issues with setting a comedy in the White House is that some people expect a level of verisimilitude for your show that they probably wouldn't for any other comedy. Is that true?

People like to ask about the "reality" of this stuff. And, you know, we do have a former speechwriter for Obama in Jon Lovett. He was in the White House and he's one of our partners [with Gad and Winer] in creating the show. So there are lots of times when we rely on his experience not just for the details of the White House as a workplace, but also for the interpersonal dynamics and the status dynamics between characters. There are all kinds of things from his experience that crop up — even when it comes to the design of our White House hallways and that kind of thing.

But when people talk about the "reality" of the show, I like to say when it comes to politics, I'm not quite sure. But as far as sitcoms go, I would argue that ours is one of the more realistic sitcoms ever made, because our family actually has a reason to be in the house all the time.