With Amazon’s ‘Alpha House,’ Garry Trudeau again trains his cross-hairs on D.C.
By Michael Cavna,
NEW YORK — As the church doors open, Tom Brokaw and Michael Steele pivot quickly in opposite directions, neither of them quite sure what to do with the dead man.
Not everyone within arm’s reach of this stiff is required to react so swiftly. Some Beltway fixtures, like Jeff Greenfield and Dick Morris, calmly wave from the scrum of dark designer suits. Anthony Weiner is subdued and largely confined to the sidelines. Grover Norquist, Mr. Tax Reform himself, will have a special role to play in this surreal circus of political power-mourners.
He gets to say a line or two on camera.
From beyond the bright lights pops Garry Trudeau, who is choreographing this dance of famous faces. The celebrated political satirist, best known as creator of the Pulitzer-winning comic strip “Doonesbury,” has an idea. Let’s have Norquist corner one of the many senators in the room and start badgering him about a tax promise. Dollars before decorum, Washington-style. And faster than you can say “special interest,” Trudeau has scripted the senator’s retort to Norquist:
“I’m just living the pledge.”
The camera rolls and the casket wends its way around the vaulting pillars and vaunting egos. Norquist nails his half of the dialogue and . . . Cut! The lines elicit hearty laughter from the largely Hollywood-honed crew of 150 or so.
Miles from his art board, Trudeau is channeling his inner Robert Altman. The late filmmaker was his partner on HBO’s “Tanner ’88” and the Sundance Channel’s “Tanner on Tanner” (2004), a pair of comedy series that served as Trudeau’s early forays into live-action televised political sendups. With the new “Alpha House,” which is wrapping shooting on this day, there is one major difference.
“For the first time, I’m the boss,” the 65-year-old New York native says on his lunch break.
Deciding how scores of people and millions of dollars are to be deployed might overwhelm or terrify many show-running rookies. But Trudeau seems utterly in his element. He has vowed to make a great new comedy series with the money Amazon Studios has afforded him.
Now, he’s just living his pledge.
Here where Manhattan hugs the Hudson, parked trucks and trailers circle the block of the historic Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, just past 120th Street and Columbia University. Shortly after dawn, dozens of sound and lighting technicians are rigging this towering house of worship for a funeral scene. It’s the final day of shooting for “Alpha House,” the first original series from Amazon Studios, and it’s less than two weeks until the first episodes appear online. (You can watch the first three episodes for free starting Friday; streaming the season’s remaining eight weekly episodes online will require signing up for Amazon Prime, which gives you access to Amazon Prime Instant Video. The studio’s other new show this month will be “Betas.”)
“Alpha House” is a pioneer, perhaps a bellwether — and, just maybe, the canary in the gold mine. As online-streaming programmers aim to make inroads into Hollywood, Netflix already has its Emmy-winning political show, “House of Cards,” which gained insta-cred after it landed Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in starring roles. Now, Amazon Studios is betting on a political comedy that has a lofty pedigree of its own. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos purchased The Washington Post in October.)
Based on a real Hill living arrangement from last decade, “Alpha House” centers on four Republican senators who are also roommates: The singular John Goodman embodies with both force and nuance a long-serving North Carolinian named Gil John Biggs; actor/director Clark Johnson (“The Wire,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) brings depth and swagger to his Pennsylvania legislator, Robert Bettencourt; veteran Trudeau troupe member Matt Malloy (the “Tanner” series, “Six Feet Under”) deftly lets you feel his serial humiliation as Nevada incumbent Louis Laffer; and Mark Consuelos is a revelation as Florida lawmaker/playboy (not necessarily in that order) Andy Guzman.
Amazon has about a dozen new shows slated for next year. Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, is pleased that “Alpha House” is its first entry out of the gate. “I like that it’s a balance of comedy,” Price says by phone, “but it’s also about real people and relatable things. . . . I think it’s less artificial than a lot of comedies.” The show “has struck a real good balance,” he adds, between personal issues and “the stakes and issues of the political game.”
A balance, naturally, much like “Doonesbury” itself. Even if just five years ago Trudeau hardly seemed the likeliest candidate to pioneer an online studio’s path to original programming.
But that was before the light went on.
Standing behind video monitors in the middle of this soaring church, Trudeau is touting the experience of working with Amazon Studios. Yet he was no quick convert to the temple of Amazon programming.
Five years ago in an interview with The Post, Trudeau voiced some skepticism of streaming content. He noted that his competition as a comic-strip satirist wasn’t limited to late-night comedians and other traditional established outlets. “Any kid can knock this kind of stuff off in his bedroom and throw it up on YouTube,” he told me. “Satire is no longer in the hands of responsible licensed professionals like me.”
Back in 2008, Trudeau was looking to make “Alpha House” through a traditional outlet.
A year earlier, the left-leaning cartoonist was inspired after reading a New York Times piece by Mark Leibovich about four Democrats who were “Real World”-style roomies: Rep. George Miller, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Bill Delahunt. He wrote a script, but the project never gained traction.
In 2012, Trudeau’s friend Jonathan Alter — the best-selling author and former Newsweek senior editor — got a tip from former CNN president Jon Klein. “He told me Amazon was going into the content business,” Alter recalls. “This was pre-‘House of Cards,’ ” he says, so the idea took some sounding out.
“Garry’s first reaction was, ‘Online?’ ” says Alter, who now serves as executive producer of “Alpha House.” “ ‘Is this going to be like YouTube videos that get made for $10,000?’ I said: ‘Let’s just see how it goes.’ ”
“I’d love to say I saw the possibilities right away,” Trudeau said in one of our early interviews this year, “but I didn’t.”
Klein put Team “Alpha” in touch with his friend Joe Lewis, head of original programming at Amazon Studios. “I read and liked” the first two scripts, Lewis says, “then got on [the line] with Garry for us to hear where the story goes, and for him to hear where Amazon was going.
“We both liked each other’s answers enough to take a step forward into the great streaming unknown together.”
Even then, Trudeau had reservations early this year about how Amazon would decide which projects would be chosen for development: The studio let the public watch and vote. “Garry was still skeptical about their pilot process, because of the idea of putting it out there for everybody to peck away at,” Alter says. “But letting viewers have a voice worked very well for us.” (Once “Alpha House” was chosen, Trudeau, Alter and Elliot Webb formed Sid Kibbitz Productions — named after the “Doonesbury” character — and began hiring.)
“I don’t think Garry was a full convert,” Alter says, “till after we shot the pilot.”
On set, Trudeau says he has “no complaints” about the budget, which Variety has put at $1 million to $2 million per episode. (Neither Amazon nor the “Alpha” team would confirm numbers.)
Here in Riverside Church, with the sunlight streaming through the high stained glass, Trudeau now wants to make believers of others about streaming content.
In the church’s foyer, the swarm of networking D.C. types is keeping the casket from moving easily through. Today’s scenes are skewering the pomp and circumstance of the Official Washington Funeral, at which the ultimate purpose for some is not to remember a life but to embellish and elevate your own. Tim Russert’s 2008 memorial service at the Kennedy Center was the epitome of that, Trudeau says — a scene that Leibovich, in his recent bestseller “This Town,” described as red-carpet stampedes of “power mourners.”
Goodman, in character as Sen. Biggs, uses his stature — both physical and political — to part a path for the casket. Then, in a deep, miked voice that is one part authority, two parts wry humor, he booms: “Coming through! Deceased in the house.”
The moment plays brilliantly. It also demonstrates the show’s core combustible engine: Trudeau’s sly satire married splendidly to Goodman’s nuanced line-readings.
Goodman — a Coen brothers regular (“The Big Lebowski,” “Barton Fink”) who appears in their upcoming “Inside Llewyn Davis” — has nothing but praise for Trudeau’s writing. “It’s smart, it’s concise — and it’s funny,” he says.
Trudeau returns the praise, calling Goodman his “fantasy pick.”
“John Goodman has a well-deserved reputation for selecting worthwhile projects,” Trudeau says. “When word got around that he’d joined us, it was an enormous boost to our credibility. He signed early, after mulling it for all of two days, and the rest of the cast was assembled within a few weeks.”
It includes comedian Wanda Sykes and Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”), who play Democratic senators. Nixon sees Altman’s influence in how Trudeau is running his own show. “Some of what he might get from Altman is creating a big canvas” of characters, Nixon says. She also praises his Beltway barbs, adding: “Politically, he’s so steeped in that.”
Directing this season finale is Johnson (perhaps best known for playing a newsroom editor on “The Wire”), who transitions well between acting in the episode and helming it. He and Trudeau work in an easy shorthand. “We were lucky to get him as an actor, too,” Trudeau says.
The biggest surprise might be Consuelos, who fully inhabits his role as a handsome, recently divorced Cuban American womanizer from Miami. (The character, Alter says, is part Marco Rubio, part John Edwards.) Trudeau says he and the pilot’s director, Adam Bernstein (“Breaking Bad”), knew early on that Consuelos was popping off the screen.
“It’s literally the best role I’ve had,” Consuelos says. “You come to work and you know the writing is going to be smart. So smart, sometimes I don’t get it,” he jokes.
“Alpha House” also landed Grade A cameos from Bill Murray (“Jane and he have a special friendship from way back at NBC,” Trudeau says of wife Jane Pauley) and Stephen Colbert (Alter’s wife works on Colbert’s Comedy Central show).
Not every celebrity makes the cut, though.
“We have a no a--hole policy,” Alter says. Does that mean they rejected some prime talent because of questionable reps?
“I can’t name names,” Trudeau says, “but yes.”
“Do you think this bulge shot of me is in violation of new [Twitter] guidelines?” correspondent Roland Hedley says in a strip from the new “Doonesbury” collection, “Squared Away” (Andrews McMeel), published this month.
And look — Anthony Weiner is here for his “Alpha House” cameo. So, what makes a politician say yes to Trudeau? “You’d better ask the actors,” says Weiner, declining to comment further.
The new book also takes a gentle jab at Norquist but he’s here, too. He calls himself a “Doonesbury” fan, though he admits having not yet seen the strip in question. “It’s just criticism among friends,” adds Norquist, noting that he’s known Alter since college.
“It’s a badge of honor,” says Alter, noting that in the ’70s, at least some of the Watergate figures liked the “Doonesbury” strips they were depicted in. (Trudeau won the Pulitzer in 1975 for his Watergate strips.)
Besides, Norquist says, he recalls fondly his days at the Harvard Crimson with Alter — “back when the Bolsheviks were running it.”
Tom Brokaw is improvising small talk with former Maryland lieutenant governor and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele as cameras roll. Looking toward the church’s high ceiling, the longtime NBC newsman says in his signature drawl: “This was built by Rockefeller.”
Indeed, this church — one of the tallest in the nation — was built by John Rockefeller in the late ’20s, opening as an interdenominational church in 1930.
For “Alpha House,” the church is loosely standing in for the Washington National Cathedral — and is “interdenominational” as Democrats and Republicans literally reach across the aisle between the pews. (Like most TV shows based in Washington, “Alpha House” films outside of the District; Trudeau cites cost.)
On Tuesday, it was announced that new legislation will be introduced that seeks to provide such online video services as Netflix and Amazon Studios with a more level playing field to compete against cable and satellite companies.
And the man introducing the bill? Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.).
Once again, the House of Rockefeller seems to be in “Alpha House’s” larger corner.
Toward the end of the day, as each actor wraps a last take for the season, the cast and crew applaud and exchange hugs. The partings are bittersweet because they have no idea whether “Alpha House” will be granted a second season.
“We don’t yet know what defines it as a hit,” Alter says. “There are no Nielsens to measure it by.” And Price offers that Amazon Studios is taking “a long view” toward series development.
From Amazon executives to production designers to stand-ins, most everyone seems to agree that the vibe on the set is eminently upbeat and positive. “That all flows from Garry,” Alter says. “He’s a WASP mensch.”
It helps, too, Alter says, that none of the three executive producers — himself, Trudeau and Webb — is giving up his successful day job. “We approach this,” he says, “as a serious lark.”
And perhaps one of the highest compliments of the day comes from Steele, sitting in a pew and laughing, as he watches the lead actors deliver self-congratulating and politically expedient eulogies.
“This,” he says, “really feels like Washington.”