AS POTENTIAL YOUTUBE BAIT, it might be one of Bill Murray’s best on-screen moments in several years — a GIF that keeps on giving.
In “Alpha House,” a show pilot that debuted online over the weekend, Murray plays a senator who has slept through his appointment to report to the DOJ. As a flurry of agents takes positions outside his D.C. residence, a roomie (played by John Goodman) says wryly: That’s just “p--- poor staff work.”
All while Murray lets loose with inspired abandon.
Murray’s cameo performance was “beyond anything I imagined,” the show’s writer and creator, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, tells Comic Riffs. “I wrote some initial dialogue, but with my encouragement, he turned it into a profane aria.
“Bill’s special in so many ways, and we’re praying he’ll come back. We call him the unicorn.”
Whether the unicorn returns or not, Trudeau — the Pulitzer-winning and Oscar-nominated creator of “Doonesbury” — has helped assemble a cast of rare species: Top comic actors who can deliver smart, biting political satire with their own intelligent takes. And that bodes well for Amazon Studios, a “pop-up” studio that is venturing into scripted programming — and has just made its first 14 pilots available for free online viewing. [If you click, here’s your official salty-language alert.]
(The Internet retailer’s plan is to eventually charge for its original streaming-video shows by bundling them with its the Amazon Prime membership program — which lets its consumers pay a cut annual fee for two-day shipping on purchases.)
As Amazon aims to challenge Hollywood studios as a creator of TV content, at the head of its new class is “Alpha House,” a sharp, Beltway-savvy comedy in which four Republican senators share a residence. Trudeau was inspired by the true-life living arrangements of four prominent Democrats — after reading in 2007 about “Real World”-esque roomies Rep. George Miller, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Bill Delahunt, who were sharing a two-bedroom house in the shadow of the Capitol Dome. Where others have tried to mine this same idea, Trudeau might well succeed.
Beyond the writing, one of the strengths of the pilot is the virtuosic moves of Goodman, who won a SAG Award this year for his work in the Oscar-winning “Argo.” (Goodman will also soon be seen — or heard — in the sequels “Monsters University” from Pixar and “The Hangover III,” as well as the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewelyn Davis.”) As lazy and cynical North Carolina Sen. Gil John Biggs, Goodman sculpts ways to nail line after line.
“We knew he was killing, but in the edit room, I had time to study his performance, and I was astonished by how nuanced it was,” Trudeau tells Comic Riffs, noting that the actor was his “fantasy pick.” “We’ve watched John Goodman for years, but all his choices are still so fresh and unexpected.”
Also delivering deftly as his fellow housemate senators are director/actor Clark Johnson (”The Wire,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) — “We were lucky to get him as an actor,” Trudeau tells us — and Matt Malloy (”Election,” “Hitch” and Trudeau’s “Tanner” work). The pilot also features Mark Consuelos and a cameo by Stephen Colbert, on whose Comedy Central show Trudeau has guested.
As “Alpha House” vies to get picked up by Amazon for more episodes, Comic Riffs caught up with Trudeau, who has been on set for filming in New York and Washington. Here is the full Q-and-A:
MICHAEL CAVNA: To borrow a phrase of [your] guest star Stephen Colbert: Is John Goodman a great comic actor, or the greatest comic actor? In other words: What’s it like to hear him deliver your comic dialogue?
GARRY TRUDEAU: A joy. All of us were in awe. We knew he was killing, but in the edit room, I had time to study his performance, and I was astonished by how nuanced it was. We’ve watched John Goodman for years, but all his choices are still so fresh and unexpected.
MC: At least based on this pilot, the casting is an incredibly strong suit, including not only Goodman but also Clark Johnson — so memorable in David Simon’s “The Wire” and “Homicide” — and Matt Malloy. Were you fans of their work prior to casting — and how much say did you have in the casting?
GT: I was co-executive producer on the three [Robert] Altman projects, but I always stayed in my lane as the writer. This time around, I had actual responsibilities. I had to be more involved. John Goodman was always our fantasy pick. We sent him the script, and I wrote him a letter. Two days later, he accepted. How could we get that lucky?
Clark, I saw in “The Wire”, and that performance put him at the top of my list for Robert — [I] really wanted to work with him. I didn’t realize he was mostly a director — he did both pilot and finale on “The Wire” — so we were lucky to get him as an actor. Matt was in “Tanner,” so I’d known him for years.
The only one of the four principals whose work I was unfamiliar with was Mark Consuelos, but what a delight. After the first day of editing, our director, Adam Bernstein, called me and said, “This guy is popping off the screen.” Mark nailed it.
MC: Having written successfully for the screen before — in addition to “Doonesbury” — you could pitch scripts to any studio and be heard. Why did you decide to go with Amazon Studios — what about this launch was appealing?
GT: Well, that’s a long story — developing projects usually is — but essentially [co-producer and Bloomberg View columnist] Jon Alter talked me into it. I’d love to say I saw the possibilities right away, but I didn’t.
MC: So by doing this through Amazon [Studios], do you think you have greater creative control?
GT: At this stage, Amazon is a pop-up studio — it’s only a handful of executives. So if all of the show runners feel like they’ve had more creative control than they would’ve elsewhere, it’s only because we outnumber them so badly. Amazon didn’t give me any notes on the pilot script — the head of programming, Joe Lewis, just told me to cut it down and go make it. I’m sure this is our honeymoon period. By the fall, if we do well enough to go to series, they should be all staffed up with people paid to interfere.
MC: Do you remember when — and whose story — you read about the real “Alpha House,” and whether it struck you at the time as fertile fodder? And did its real members provide any inspiration in writing this pilot?
GT: Yes, it was a 2007 piece by [former Post Style writer] Mark Leibovich in the [New York Times], which I unnecessarily optioned. The story was already out there, indeed had previously inspired at least one other script. But I’m still grateful that the Times put it on my screen. I’ve never talked to any of the real senators about the project. The premise was all I really needed to get traction.
MC: We’ve spoken [in a prior interview] about how [Jon] Stewart and Colbert have affected the market for TV political satire. Do you think this is a particularly ripe climate to have audiences be receptive to politically satiric scripted shows like yours?
GT: I hope so. We’ll see. The audience gets a big say in whether the show is picked up.
MC: From “The Council for Normal Marriage” [scenes] to the line “Not losing is a Democrat thing,” conservatives come in as targets more than left-leaning politicians — though you also skewer the whole of life on the Hill. Did you wrestle at all with how partisan you wanted this humor to lean? [Note: The members of the real “Alpha House” in 2007 were Democrats.]
GT: Not at all. I never gave any thought to doing the show about Democrats for a simple reason — at the moment, they’re pretty boring. Republicans, on the other hand, are tearing themselves apart and will be for the foreseeable future. Three of my four guys were elected prior to the Tea Party, so as old-school Republicans, they’re compromised and vulnerable. Which makes them far more interesting to write about.
MC: In the opening scene, it’s as though Bill Murray gets to let completely loose — he seems to be having tremendous fun doing that scene. How tough was it to get him to sign up [as elusive as he is], and did he deliver in a way you hoped he would?
GT: Beyond anything I imagined. I wrote some initial dialogue, but with my encouragement, he turned it into a profane aria. Bill’s special in so many ways, and we’re praying he’ll come back. We call him the unicorn.
MC: Was writing for the pacing of a 24-minute comedy particularly difficult or easy, given your four-plus-decades as a supreme [print] political satirist? I’ve talked with some daily cartoonists who found the transition to TV comedy writing especially challenging.
GT: For me, all writing is hard. Experience hasn’t made it any easier, just less scary.
MC: Home delivery of The Washington Post is prominently featured at the show’s opening, so: ... At what size does “Doonesbury” run in your fictional Washington Post — gloriously large, or shrunken like four-panel postage stamps?
GT: Full page. Great idea.
[THE CAREER-SPANNING BOOK: Trudeau celebrates “Doonesbury” at 40].