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Jonathan Alter on Garry Trudeau, Politics, and Going Hollywood with Alpha House (And Amazon)

imageBest-selling author and journalist Jonathan Alter (The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope) explains what it has been like to go Hollywood and produce a pilot for Amazon – Alpha House, created by Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury). Alter explains the real-life roots of the show and what it was like to work with Trudeau, as well as with an amazing cast led by John Goodman. And those cameos! (Might there be more Stephen Colbert? Read on.)

For most of my life I’ve been a political animal. My mother was a politician in Chicago, I was an intern in the Senate and the White House in the 1970s, and for the last two decades I’ve written a column about politics (first for Newsweek, now for Bloomberg View), authored books about presidents and gabbed about the events of the day on NBC News and MSNBC. But becoming an accidental executive producer of a scripted TV series about politicians is a whole new experience for me. Actually, Alpha House is a new experience for everyone, given that we’re at the dawn of a new age of online television. It’s been ridiculously fun and my friends are insanely jealous.

I don’t honestly know how the idea for Alpha House started. Garry Trudeau hasn’t told me and he probably doesn’t know himself. As I learned in 1990 when I profiled him for Newsweek on the 20th anniversary of Doonesbury, Garry has all of these characters and bits of political and cultural news dancing in his head and he’s never sure where they will land.

After I wrote about him, Garry and I became friends and we developed a quadrennial ritual of traveling together to New Hampshire for the presidential primary. In January of 2012, I was reporting for my new book about the campaign and Garry seemed focused on his strip. Then at dinner one night in Manchester he casually mentioned he had been developing a project about four senators living in a man-cave on Capitol Hill, based on the real-life living arrangement of four Democratic legislators. He thought making them Republicans would be funnier. One thing led to another and the project took off.

All of the characters in Alpha House are original, though elements of the Republican senators played by John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy, Mark Consuelos and (in a profane cameo) Bill Murray, can be found in the politicians of both parties that Garry has sometimes put in his comic strip. Political junkies will notice other details in the pilot that connect to the news. Future episodes (which will be produced if you tell Amazon you like the pilot) will have plenty more real stuff, filtered through Garry’s creative genius.

Garry is not just the creator and author of Alpha House; his gift for characters and subtle wit about politics have infused everything about the project, which is part of what makes it exceptional. As someone who writes about history, I’m always trying to fit things into epochs. Our era has only a few premier satirists. We don’t remember the names of 18th Century British politicians, but we still delight in the drawings of William Hogarth. The same for 19th Century American politicians and the Boss Tweed cartoons of Thomas Nast. A hundred years from now, people will still be reading “Doonesbury” for a feel of our own times. With any luck, they’ll be watching old Alpha House episodes, too.

The setting for the show is borrowed from the townhouse on Capitol Hill shared by Democratic Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York and Congressmen George Miller of California and William Delahunt of Massachusetts. Since Miller bought the house in 1977, a revolving cast of male Democrats have bunked there during the week when Congress is in session. I’ve known Durbin and Schumer, the second and third ranking members in the Senate, for many years, though they never let me inside the mouse-infested place they inhabit, in part because Schumer doesn’t make his bed. When I once asked Miller if I could come over, he good-naturedly replied, “Hell no!” (A New York Times reporter eventually got in). I’ve also long been familiar with the C Street Center, a former convent used by a conservative religious organization to house a few Republican members. In 2009, Senator John Ensign, embroiled in a sex scandal, was counseled there by a fellow resident, Senator Tom Coburn.

Most Hollywood ideas go nowhere. This one has had a better fate so far thanks in large part to our third co-executive producer, Elliot Webb. Elliot, Garry’s longtime agent, sold his agency a few years ago and now produces television shows and movies. He’s the model for Sid Kibbitz, the fat, sweaty and cynical Hollywood agent in Doonesbury, except that Elliot is none of those.

Our new company, Sid Kibbitz Productions, got going on the project last fall after Amazon Studios bought the pilot. Roy Price, Joe Lewis and Sarah Babineau of Amazon made it happen and offered great suggestions throughout. We hired the talented director Adam Bernstein (now also an executive producer) and a terrific cast and production team. In January, Senator Al Franken’s staff arranged a tour of the Capitol and we scouted exteriors. We had an illuminating meeting with Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and chatted with other senators in both parties about the project.

We shot the pilot in late February in New York. Our production crew built a perfect replica of the Senate floor at the Cine Magic Riverfront Studios in Brooklyn, where we also found a perfect townhouse to shoot in. The Bar Association of the City of New York worked well for scenes of Senate offices and hallways. We ended our five-day shoot at the Colbert Report, where we taped fake anchor Stephen Colbert interviewing fake Senator Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy) in front of Colbert’s real Comedy Central audience—a meta experience made possible through Colbert’s generosity and the efforts of my wife, Emily Lazar, a Colbert producer, and others on that show. The Colbert bit comes at the end of the pilot and we’ll use more of it in future episodes if the show gets picked up.

You can imagine how great it was to watch John Goodman (the only actor ever to star in two Oscar-winning Best Pictures two years in a rowThe Artist and Argo) and our other performers at work. The whole thing was a Walter Mitty fantasy for me. My favorite moment so far was when I made a tiny suggestion related to senatorial verisimilitude on the set (I knew better than to intervene much) and as I was walking away, Senator Gil-John Biggs of North Carolina (aka John Goodman) says with a smile, “Thank you, Jonathan Scorcese.”

It’s all gravy after that.

– Jonathan Alter

Learn more about Amazon pilots and Amazon Studios.

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Sorry to rain on John Goodman's (or Jonathan Alter's) parade, but that Best Picture fact just seemed too good to be true, and it is. Here's the (or at least a) list of other back-to-backers (including one actress):

Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty)
Walter Pidgeon (How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver)
Meryl Streep (The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer)
Christopher Walken (Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter)
Russell Crowe (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind)
Guy Pearce (The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech)

Walken and Pearce might not be "stars" in their first ones, but the others are pretty undeniable.

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