How Josh Gad was almost Cameron, and Sarah Palin led Jason Winer to '1600 Penn'

Director Jason Winer's new sitcom, "1600 Penn," was picked up by NBC.
Director Jason Winer's new sitcom, "1600 Penn," was picked up by NBC. (Handout photo, Handout photo)

Talk about instant success. Baltimore native Jason Winer doesn't even have a name yet for his Hollywood production company. But he and his two co-creators, "The Book of Mormon" Broadway star Josh Gad and former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett, already have an order for 13 episodes of their first production, a new NBC sitcom titled "1600 Penn."

"I really don't know yet what it's going to be called," he says of the production company. "I'm mulling a number of names, but I honestly don't know. You'll know when the series premieres, because the name of the company will be at the end of the show."

The pickup by NBC was announced last week at the "upfronts" in New York, where all the networks showcased their new fall lineups for advertisers looking to make early buys for the coming TV season. While "1600 Penn" won't debut until January as a midseason replacement, it was one of the network's most buzzed-about series at the event because of the talent in front of and behind the camera, including Bill Pullman ("Independence Day") and Jenna Elfman ("Dharma & Greg") as the president and first lady.

The high concept of setting a family comedy in the White House didn't hurt, either, when it came to cutting through the clutter of dozens of new series — many of them sounding like formulaic refried versions of one another — being announced in a blur of promotion and network hype. And while "1600 Penn' itself might seem like part of trend toward politically themed dramas and sitcoms, such as the Maryland-made "VEEP" or "House of Cards," none of those series are on network TV — all are cable or digital download. The difference matters.

In the shorthand of Hollywood trade publications, "1600 Penn," is being described as "Modern Family" meets "The 'West Wing." And while that characterization is in some ways misleading, Winer is basically OK with it, because there are some "Modern Family" roots — not the least of which is Winer himself, who won a Directors Guild Award for his work on the pilot of the hit sitcom about a diverse multigenerational family.

Outside of the co-creators of "Modern Family," Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, Winer played as large a role as anyone in shaping the look and on-air feel of the pilot that debuted to instant acclaim. And he directed another six episodes of the Emmy Award-winning ABC series this season.

But the story of how "1600 Penn" came together is also illustrative in its own right of the way the creative process in Hollywood sometimes works out for what seems like the better. That's despite all the commercial considerations involved in the business of making TV shows that entertain millions each night and still earn billions in advertising dollars for the networks. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW are expected to book $9 billion in ad sales off last week's upfronts.

"The series started with a mutual desire between Josh [Gad] and myself to work together," Winer says. "Josh, who you know has been starring on Broadway in 'The Book of Mormon' for the last several years, and I met when he auditioned for the role of Cameron in 'Modern Family.' He got very close to getting that role, but he pulled out at the last minute because he was in some silly play about Mormons."

Like the performer Winer studied to be at Northwestern University after graduating from Baltimore's Friends School, he pauses to let his audience of one finish laughing at the "silly play" line.

"And we were all baffled at the time as to why he would make that choice, but I guess it worked out for everyone, Eric Stonestreet included," he adds, referring to the actor who ultimately took on the character of Cameron Tucker and won an Emmy for his performance.

"But Josh and I kept in touch over the years, and when this opportunity opened up for me to develop a series at 20th Century Fox, he and I got to talking," Winer says.

One of the things they talked about was a show Gad saw about the family of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

"Josh had a sort of lightning-bolt moment after watching that show about the Palins," Winer says. "He started thinking how that dysfunctional family might have been just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. And what a ripe comedic notion: that there could be a family with problems, frankly like any other family, occupying the most hallowed address in America. And them trying to keep those problems under wraps seemed like rich comedic territory."

Even though Winer says he "flipped for the idea" right away, he knew they still didn't have a winning sitcom package in place.

"Josh had the notion right away that maybe he would play the screw-up son of the new president, the sort of black sheep of the family," he says. "Again, another big, funny comedic idea. But my concern was: Who in the world could we get as a partner to write this with us who could help us with the specifics and the reality of this world?"

Sounding as if he is writing his own script for "The Making of 1600 Penn," Winer answers his own question: "Enter Jon Lovett, who three days prior to our meeting at a coffee shop in Los Angeles had just left his job as speechwriter to President Obama. He left to become a comedy writer, which was his passion before he started writing speeches for Obama. He did stand-up comedy and wrote comedy. In fact during his tenure with the president, he wrote many, if not all, those jokes for the White House Correspondents' Dinner."

And so, a 29-year-old former speechwriter who had never written a line of a half-hour TV comedy script in his life became an executive producer and co-creator alongside a Broadway star and one of the hottest directors in television.

"I know it's crazy, but within five minutes of talking to him, I knew we had the guy who could help us make it real," Winer says.

The series will join the politically themed dramas and comedies in production or already hitting airwaves. That group includes three productions made in Maryland: HBO's comedy "VEEP" and docudrama "Game Change," along with Netflix's $100 million "House of Cards" series. Also in the mix is "Political Animals," a six-hour miniseries from USA starring Sigourney Weaver.

"I think what makes this show different is that it's not fundamentally a political show," Winer says. "I wouldn't be surprised if we never say the word 'Democrat' or 'Republican' in the entire series. This is a show about a family first and foremost. Whereas 'The West Wing' got into the nitty-gritty of political reality, this show focuses on the details of this family's life — a family that just happens to be in the fishbowl of the most famous address in America."

Looking at the political trend in TV from within the belly of the beast, Winer makes an important distinction that has generally been overlooked by media writers viewing the phenomenon from the outside.

"All of the shows you mentioned are on cable," he says. "And the truth is that in the network television landscape, politics is still something that I think people are a touch afraid of. And for good reason, because it's divisive. The whole idea of network television is to cast a wide net where families can watch a show together. I mean, that's certainly the spirit behind 'Modern Family' and why it succeeded. And that's certainly the goal here."