Two White House Comedies Seek to Reverse History of Failure

by | December 23, 2012 at 12:50 PM | 1600 Penn, TV News

First Family: Bill Pullman (top left) stars as the president in "1600 Penn," with Josh Gad, Jenna Elfman (bottom left) and Martha MacIsaac (Photos: NBC)

Does the White House make you laugh?

Well, for most of us, that depends on who’s living there. But when it comes to TV comedy, sitcoms set in the White House have a long history of failure. And yet, there are two of them on TV right now that (presumably) seek to reverse that trend.

One of them, “1600 Penn,” premiered last week on NBC with a lead character — the ne’er-do-well son of the president — who has drawn comparisons to John Belushi in “Animal House.”

The other show, “The First Family,” made its debut last September on independent TV stations. This one has drawn comparisons to the Obama White House for the simple reason that this White House family is African-American.

So far, “The First Family” is hanging in there in its first season. It stars Christopher B. Duncan as President William Johnson, who’s living in the White House with his wife, two sons, two daughters and a colorful sister-in-law played by Jackee. Veteran comedian John Witherspoon is also in the show, as the president’s father. This show — distributed in so-called “first-run syndication” (which means it’s not an “off-network” rerun series such as “The King of Queens” or “The Big Bang Theory”) — comes from producer and comedy maven Byron Allen.

Watch the premiere episode of “1600 Penn”:

One way “The First Family” is similar to “1600 Penn”: The sets they are using to replicate the living room inside the first family’s private quarters in the Executive Mansion each feature an elaborate, multi-paned window shaped somewhat like a scallop shell. And indeed, the real presidential residence has such a window.

But other than their locales, the two shows are quite different. While “The First Family” feels more like “The Cosby Show” set in the White House, “1600 Penn” certainly earns its comparisons to “Animal House.” The aforementioned First Son — Skip (played with exuberance by Josh Gad) — is even shown in the sitcom’s very first scene involving himself in a fraternity prank that will make national headlines (since he’s the president’s son). Moreover, his father (Bill Pullman) makes mention of his son’s seven years in college (so far), which happens to be the same number of years the Belushi character, “Bluto” Blutarsky, spent at fictional Faber College, with no graduation date in sight.

“1600 Penn” made its debut last Monday (Dec. 17) on NBC — not a true premiere, apparently, but a sneak peek. The “official” premiere date is Jan. 10 — a Thursday, where “1600 Penn” will take up residence in the 9:30-10 p.m. slot (8:30-9c). For the record, last week’s sneak peek drew 6.88 million viewers.

With politics now being covered non-stop on cable TV and the Internet, you might think viewers would embrace a White House comedy. That remains to be seen, but what we do know is: Every single White House comedy that has ever been tried on TV has failed. We can remember at least four of them:

1) “Hail to the Chief” (ABC, 1985), starring Patty Duke as the first female President of the United States. The show lasted about a month.

2) “Mr. President” (Fox, 1986-87), starring George C. Scott in the title role. This sitcom, with Johnny Carson credited as creator, lasted about a season-and-a-half. It was part of the very first season of the newly launched Fox network.

3) “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer”: This UPN bomb from 1998 nearly sank all White House comedies for all time. In the show, Chi McBride played a black English nobleman in the 19th century who was kidnapped and pressed into slavery in Civil War-era America. Somehow, he became President Lincoln’s valet and also, in that capacity, the private advisor to the 16th president, who was portrayed as a blithering idiot by Dann Florek. The show was widely panned and lasted about a month.

4) “That’s My Bush!”: This parody of the Bush White House (George W. Bush, that is) was created for Comedy Central by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon.” Timothy Bottoms played the hapless title character in a show that became a rare miss for Stone and Parker, lasting about six weeks in 2001.

On the other hand, a current comedy about a fictional vice president — HBO’s “Veep” — won critical acclaim earlier this year, then earned star Julia Louis-Dreyfus an Emmy. Maybe the time is right for a White House comedy reversal of fortune.