Republican-Filled 'Alpha House' Aims For Bipartisan Laughs

Nov 16, 2013
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Fans of "Doonesbury" have been doing without the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip since the summer. The strip has been on vacation. But its creator, Garry Trudeau, has not exactly been chilling at the beach. Trudeau spent the last several months in a New York film studio making a sitcom called "Alpha House." The show is being launched online on Amazon. It chronicles the misadventures of four fictional Republican senators who share a Washington, D.C., townhouse. Jon Kalish visited the set and has this story.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Garry Trudeau's work was last seen on TV 25 years ago in the HBO series "Tanner '88." He says...

GARRY TRUDEAU: Writing episodic TV isn't wildly different than writing episodic comic strips. I'm writing small scenes that I try to carefully work out with characters that are well-defined. And I've been trying to do that and perfect that for 40 years.

KALISH: One scene from "Alpha House" could have been a "Doonesbury" strip. One of the senators is standing at a sink washing an Army helmet when one of his housemates and his girlfriend walk in.


YARA MARTINEZ: (as Adriana) Oh, my God. What is that for?

MARK CONSUELOS: (as Senator Guzman) He's going to Afghanistan.

MARTINEZ: (as Adriana) Really? Why?

MATT MALLOY: (as Senator Laffer) Congressional delegation.

MARTINEZ: (as Adriana) Wow. Amazing. Amazing. You are so brave, Louis. Are you going? You should go.

CONSUELOS: (as Senator Guzman) Me? What the hell for? I'm not running this year.

KALISH: Three of the four "Alpha House" senators are facing primary challenges from the right.

TRUDEAU: It's a fascinating conflict. You see them doing these breathtaking turns out of an existential fear. That's just good drama to track something like that.

KALISH: The Pulitzer Prize-winning Trudeau was on set every day sitting right beside the director.

ADAM BERNSTEIN: A little tighter on one and step to your left.

KALISH: "Alpha House" is not intended as political diatribe but human comedy, says John Goodman. He plays a North Carolina Senator and former college basketball coach facing a challenge from a tea party candidate.


CLARK JOHNSON: (as Senator Bettencourt) Well, it is a little unusual that you don't campaign.

JOHN GOODMAN: (as Senator Biggs) Why should I? Everybody in the state knows my record: two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships.

KALISH: John Goodman says he doesn't want his character to become caricature. But when I asked him if he had gone to Washington to study legislators in real life...

GOODMAN: No. No research. I just used my imagination. And what was on the page seemed good enough. Jonathan Alter, the great reporter from the late-lamented Newsweek magazine, is around to give us details.

KALISH: Jonathan Alter served as executive producer of "Alpha House" along with Trudeau. Alter says he's proud of the show's authentic set, which includes the Senate floor and interiors of the Russell Senate office building.

JONATHAN ALTER: A guy I know who was a very close aide to Harry Reid came on the set and was stunned by how accurate the details were.

KALISH: Alter thinks "Alpha House" will have bipartisan appeal, even though it is mostly Republicans who are getting skewered.

ALTER: If you have characters and you want to live with them over a season, you're going to like them on some level. So, you know, anybody who's expecting this show to be savaging Republicans every week, they maybe should watch MSNBC instead.

KALISH: The first three episodes of "Alpha House" debuted Friday for free. Its creators are hoping viewers will want to see the following eight installments enough to subscribe through Amazon. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.