How an Obama Speechwriter Is Making It in Hollywood

1600 Penn's co-creator Jon Lovett discusses making a presidential sitcom after working in the White House.


(From left) Jenna Elfman as First Lady Emily Gilchirst, Bill Pullman as President Dale Gilchrist, Martha MacIsaac as Becca in the pilot episode of 1600 Penn.

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Jon Lovett, co-creator and head writer of the new television show 1600 Penn, may have once called President Barack Obama his boss, but don't go comparing the NBC comedy's first family, the Gilchrists, to their current real-life counterparts. "Well, the fathers are both presidents," says Lovett, and the similarities end there.

The sitcom follows the fictional President Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman, revisiting his Independence Day occupation) and his dysfunctional brood: his man-boy son (Josh Gad); his uptight high school daughter (Martha MacIsaac); his two precocious younger children (Amara Miller and Benjamin Stockham); and his second wife (Jenna Elfman), who is flailing in her role as step mom.

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It is their relationships—not presidential politics—that drive the show, says Lovett:

After working six years as a speechwriter—three in the Obama administration and for Hillary Clinton prior to that—the fresh-faced Lovett decided to escape the D.C. Beltway to pursue a career in entertainment.

"I had never really planned on being a speechwriter," says, Lovett, who speaks of his political career as if it happened by accident. After graduating from Williams College in 2004 with a degree in mathematics, Lovett spent about a year in New York trying to become a stand-up comic. After stints with John Kerry's 2004 campaign and in then-Sen. Jon Corzine's D.C. office, his sense of humor was noticed by Hillary Clinton's team, who drafted him to help write her roast of Barbara Walters. "If I did [think about speechwriting] it was this back-of-my-mind, 'one day' idea. But then, all of the sudden, in a matter of months I was then-Sen. Hillary Clinton's speechwriter."

After working on Clinton's presidential campaign, he was brought on to Obama's White House writing team, and even in the all-consuming world of West Wing politics, he never let go of his love of comedy. He won Washington's "Funniest Celebrity" competition in 2010, and says working on the president's White House Correspondents Dinner address was his favorite part of the job.

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But eventually Lovett decided he wanted move to Hollywood to pursue comedy head-on, feeling as though he never fully fit into the role of political speechwriter. "I didn't know what would happen if I left, and because I didn't know what would happen if I left, I never explored leaving. And it was a vicious circle, so finally I just decided I have to try."

Those who knew Lovett weren't surprised when he decided to move California. "It was awesome how supportive the White House was. It meant a lot to me that when I left, the people that I worked with—Jon Favreau and David Axelrod and others—really understood that this was something that I felt I held had to do," says Lovett.

Once in L.A., he met with Modern Family director Jason Winer and Book of Mormon star Josh Gad, who were already brainstorming a comedy about the first family. Though the premise seems like the perfect fit for a D.C. transplant in Hollywood (and NBC is not shy about advertising Lovett's former employer), Lovett was at first reluctant to jump on the idea: "I didn't want to do a show about the White House. I just left the White House!"

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But as Lovett discussed the show with Winer and Gad, he felt better about the direction it was taking. "One, it wasn't going to be a show about politics. It was going to be a show about an ordinary family in an extraordinary situation. And two, it was a chance to tell stories that everybody can relate to."

Time will tell whether 1600 Penn will gain the audience to cement Lovett's Hollywood success, though NBC has heavily promoted show. So far, the reviews have been mixed, The political Tweeting class was also skeptical about the special preview NBC aired last month, but Lovett took it in witty, 140-character stride.

After all, Lovett says 1600 Penn isn’t meant to be an insider’s look at the workings of Washington, but rather challenges that everyday families face: “Husbands and wives trying to find time to go out on a date, step mom and daughter not getting along, kids trying to fit into school. We could tell those kind of stories that everybody can relate to, but we could put them in this crazy, strange, ridiculous fishbowl of a home that is the White House.”