1600 Penn technically premiered with a “sneak preview” last month, but is making its “official premiere” tonight at 9:30 P.M. Eastern on NBC.
Whether you end up finding NBC’s new comedy 1600 Penn funny or not will be based entirely on your feelings about physical humor and where you stand on the character played by Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad. Gad plays Skip Gilchrist, the President of the United States’ bumbling fool of a son who exasperates his family and causes both them and the White House press secretary several headaches whenever he tries to help, which so far is all the damn time. (The obvious comparison to Chris Farley’s Mike Donnelly from Black Sheep is legitimate.) If Skip causing two fires in the first episode and a power outage in the second ended up not being accidents, and Gad’s character was revealed to be a terrorist, that would be ridiculous and amazing, but it is unlikely to be the case. It is far more likely that he is a well intentioned man child with a never-ending tumultuous relationship with tact and physics, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something we have all seen before. Sometimes it is difficult for people who find themselves to be smart to let themselves laugh at physical humor and/or tolerate really dumb characters. I mean, I went to *college*, so perhaps I did not find any of Skip’s destructive moments funny because I am an unbearable snob. Whether I am or not, it still wasn’t funny.
Speaking of things we have all seen before, Bill Pullman reprises his role as President of the United States. Seventeen years after dealing with an alien invasion in Independence Day, Pullman is older but not that much wiser of a Commander in Chief, considering that he always has to find parallels between his family problems with the incredibly important issues that affect the entire planet. The joke that Bill Pullman is playing the POTUS again was kind of amusing when you first read about the casting and the premise of the show, but hasn’t really been funny since, and Pullman weirdly plays President Dale Gilchrist as someone who is either on the verge of snapping someone’s neck or has just figured out that a platitude he had heard once was mindblowingly true, and nothing else. (It might be on purpose, but if it is the joke is not landing.)
Martha MacIsaac played a teenage girl named Becca in Superbad, and since everyone dug her in that she decided to portray a teenage girl named Becca once more. The Becca on 1600 gets knocked up after a one night stand before the series premiere, and the pregnancy will generate story for presumably the rest of the first season, so watch out for the #grandpapresident hashtag in May. Jenna Elfman is a First Lady that does not have the first name of Dharma, which is just plain confusing. Instead, Elfman goes by Emily Nash-Gilchrist, a stepmom who continually attempts to gain some respect from Becca and the two tweenaged kids Marigold and Xander, whose absence in the third episode wasn’t missed at all, so they might take a permanent vacation to wherever Chuck Cunningham, Seven Bundy and Judy Winslow disappeared to pretty soon. The series centers around these people and their love for one another, with any incidents with foreign diplomats and military strategy sessions serving mostly to establish character motivations. Because we don’t care about these people yet, the episodes come off as slow.
In 1600 Penn’s defense, that can be said about virtually every character driven show’s first few installments, but most other shows don’t have as big of a sandbox to play with as this one while it waits for the audience to fall in love with its weirdos. Co-creators Gad and former Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, and executive producers Jason Winer from Modern Family and Mike Royce — best known for executive producing the final two seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond — seemed to learn to take advantage of having one of its characters be the leader of the free world in the third episode, when Pullman ordered a plethora of Secret Service agents to detain a lowly mall employee for knocking up his daughter. This led to the funny sight gag of a seemingly endless parade of scary looking men in suits and shades joylessly going up an escalator. The episode also showed that the four-headed creative staff is still figuring out what kind of show they want to be: there was a funny scene in which Skip sings a joyful improvised song to himself in a hallway, with a gentle piano and brushes accompaniment that he himself doesn’t hear but the audience does. It comes out of nowhere because it had already been established that 1600 a) is a single camera show, and b) had and continued to shoot certain scenes as if it was a mocumentary, like The Office and Parks and Recreation.
There was also a running gag involving light bulbs illuminating when a character came up with an idea, another odd thing to see on a single cam. Cartoonish and silly things is as much of an acquired taste as physical comedy, but at least the two somewhat go together. Also, for once Josh Gad did not dominate, and got laughs not from the things that should have thrown him into a windowless room for the next decade with Metallica ringing in his ears, but from smaller gags, like when he seemed to accidentally almost swallow some of Martha MacIsaac’s hair and the director decided to keep the camera going, or the aforementioned one man concert.
If 1600 continues to explore its own world and tricks the audience to feel compelled to root for its characters, NBC could end up having something with an unfair stigma of a broad comedy without the healthy ratings of a broad comedy. Or it could end up with a show it wants nuked by extraterrestrials, or wants to get caught drawing penises, or whatever bad thing happened on Dharma and Greg.