After putting yet another wearying, bitterly fought national election behind us, do we really need a sitcom set in the White House?
Yes, said Jason Winer, a creator of NBC’s newcomer “1600 Penn,” because it’s about a family in a colorful setting, not politics, and because it’s a custom-made showcase for “The Book of Mormon” sensation Josh Gad, not part of a partisan agenda.
Winer and Gad met when the actor auditioned for the “Modern Family” pilot directed by Winer. Gad jumped to Broadway instead for “some silly play,” as a wisecracking Winer put it. Fast forward, and the two were noodling about a project to collaborate on.
“He does such a great job playing a lovable idiot manchild,” Winer said of the actor who excels at chubby-cheeked impishness. “We tried to figure out an environment for that, like a bull in a china shop. And what’s the biggest china shop in the world? It’s the White House.”
Expensive china gets broken, and not just figuratively, in “1600 Penn” (9:30 p.m. Thursday), which serves up large helpings of silliness and slapstick ignited by Gad.
He plays Skip, the free-spirited, bumbling oldest child of President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman) and stepson to first lady and lawyer Emily (Jenna Elfman).
Gad is a solo whirlwind but benefits from comedic chemistry with sitcom pro Elfman (”Dharma and Greg”). She gets to display her toned arms, which in one episode delivered a right hook to media banality with help from a real NBC journalist.
When the president and first lady take part in a TV interview to lobby for a key education bill, an insistent Savannah Guthrie of “Today” instead wants Emily to share exercise tips for those great pipes.
It’s the kind of swipe that the show may take at Washington itself while remaining apolitical, said Winer, adding, “I think people will be hard-pressed to determine what party the president is a member of.”
Even in the goofy “1600 Penn,” one person’s comedy may be another’s political zinger. The Gilchrists’ fight for education reform pitted them against a racist, sexist senator, Frohm Thoroughgood (guest star Stacy Keach), whose name is an obvious play on the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Southern Republican who was an outspoken segregationist.