Jonathan Alter on the Making of Alpha House

The star-studded political comedy, by the Chicago-born reporter and the Doonesbury artist Garry Trudeau, is Amazon’s big entry into original streaming video content.

Mark Consuelos, John Goodman, Clark Johnson, and Matt Malloy in Alpha House.   Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com

I reached former Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter while he was exiting the State Department, where two of his college roommates now work in high positions. He has just finished visiting with one of them, Cliff Sloan, formerly of Winnetka, now the State Department’s special envoy to close Guantanamo. Next stop for Alter was the Washington premiere for the first season of Alpha House, the creation of  “Doonesbury” cartoonist and Alter friend of 25 years, Gary Trudeau. Alter serves as executive producer and all-around wise man—making certain the DC details are right—to the comedy, Amazon’s first step into original streaming video content.

Alter, 56, who now lives in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, grew up in Lincoln Park and went to Francis Parker en route to Harvard College.  He is among the most connected people I know—from the aforementioned State Department official, to his cousin, the just-retired Ambassador to France, to his buddy Trudeau, 65, whom he met while writing a Newsweek cover story on the cartoonist, to his own wife, Emily Lazar, who also grew up in Winnetka, and is currently co-executive producer of The Colbert Report.

It was Alter who corralled many famous names to appear as cameos—Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray, Tom Brokaw, Jeffrey Toobin, Jeff Greenfield, former RNC chief Michael Steele, Anthony Weiner, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform (he and Alter wrote for the Harvard Crimson).  “I made contact with all of them,” Alter tells me.

The first three of the first season’s 11 episodes are now available and free on Amazon Instant Video; after that, every Friday, starting this Friday, the next show will be available to those joining Amazon Prime; the last episode will be released in January 2014. This is Amazon’s initiation into original programming. 

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

What exactly is your role in this endeavor?

I’m one of three executive producers—me, Elliot Webb, a former TV agent, and Garry Trudeau, but Garry is the show’s creator and writer.

Tell me more about your relationship with Trudeau.

In 1990 I wrote a cover story for Newsweek called “Inside Doonesbury’s Brain.” It was the first interview Garry had given in 17 years. We became friends and we traveled every four years to the New Hampshire primary. In 2012 Garry told me about a script involving four senators. I helped him develop the project. I sold it to Amazon and then he promoted me from consultant to executive producer.  He’s a wonderful guy. I call him a WASP mensch.  We named the company Sid Kibbitz [after the Doonesbury LA super agent].

I do some work in what’s called breaking stories. That means something different than it does in our business—helping figure out what’s going to happen to the characters over the course of the season. I’m on the set every day, usually on a soundstage in Queens across from the [Kaufman] Astoria Studios. We started with three people, and then it snowballed in a fun way. Now we have 150 including cast and crew. We got a medium-sized business going.

So the story is based on a real house in DC shared by four Democrats—Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, George Miller and, until he retired from Congress, Bill Delahunt—and follows four fictional Republican senators sharing a house, also in DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. But it’s shot in Queens?

Most of it, yes. Sometimes we would be on location—for example, Riverside Church up near Columbia University.

In real life, Leon Panetta and Marty Russo from Illinois also lived in that house. So why did you change the roomates’ party?

That was Garry’s decision; he thought it would be funnier if they were Republicans. Three of our senators are facing primary tea-party challenges. The fourth is running for President in 2016.  In the show we have pictures of real senators who lived there before—Larry Craig, John Ensign, David Vitter. [All three Republicans landed in embarrassing personal scandal while in the Senate—a hint that Republicans may take some hits in the show.]

Using a sound stage, how realistic is that?

We recreated the interior of the Russell Senate Office Building on the sound stage. The details draw on my 30 years covering politics. In 1975 when I was in high school I interned for Sen. Adlai Stevenson [III] who had an office in Russell. The hallway we built in Queens, when Chuck Schumer, who appears in one of our episodes, was there he said, “this is Russell.” For me, I’d flash back almost 40 years to when I was an intern walking that hall.

Does each episode have a different director?

We have eight different directors. The first two were done by Adam Bernstein, the Breaking Bad director; also Bob Balaban from Chicago does a couple. Then there’s Jan Turner, Michael Mayer, Clark Johnson who directed Homeland.

Did you write any of the scripts?

No, Garry is the writer. Very much his vision and his show and I don’t second-guess him. He very smartly rejects my suggestions. From time to time he’ll take one of them.

You mean you don’t even get to red line a script now and then?

We hired five writers who write notes on the scripts and later people from Amazon’s studio write notes on the scripts.

You were a print guy and later an on-line guy (most recently for newyorker.com) and now you’re doing on-line streaming TV?  Did you have any experience to prepare you for this?

The answer, with one exception, is no. I did one episode in [the early ‘90s] with [Chicagoan] John Eisendrath for a show roughly based on WBBM-TV called WIOU. It ran for part of a season. 

So now you’re working for Amazon whose chief, Jeff Bezos, just bought the Washington Post, which used to own your former employer,  Newsweek.  So was Bezos involved in getting this project going and will he be involved in deciding whether you guys get a chance to make season two?

Yes. He’s the CEO. I don’t know when the decision about another season or two will be made; we just have to wait.

Was Alpha House Bezos’ vision?

He’s involved in every important Amazon decision, so the concept of doing a series like this probably was his vision. The director of Amazon Studios reports to Bezos in Seattle.  Amazon Studios is a small part of the company but they’re putting a lot of money into marketing. [Alter wouldn’t answer my question about the budget for each episode, but it’s been pegged by other reporters as between $1-2 million an episode.]

Have you ever met Bezos?

Yes, he came last week to the New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As we were coming out we chatted.  He said how much he liked the show.

Any Chicago connections we should know about?

Wanda Sykes plays an African-American senator, Democrat Rosalyn DuPech, from Illinois.

Was she modeled on Carol Moseley Braun?

When the costume director asked how he should dress Sen. DuPeche, I googled Carol Moseley Braun and DuPeche ended up being dressed in ways similar to Moseley Braun. 

Chuck Schumer’s been around this project.  How about Schumer’s roommate and competitor [for Senate Majority Leader should Harry Reid retire], our senator, Dick Durbin?

Durbin has a standing invitation to be in Alpha House.  He couldn’t work out his schedule to participate. [Alter emailed me that Durbin did attend the Washington premiere on Tuesday night.]

Who are some of the actors in this first season?

John Goodman plays one of the senators; he’s a retired University of North Carolina basketball coach. One day at a wrap party I was talking to him about the Cubs. He was interested that I grew up near Wrigley Field. He shot part of Babe here and really likes Chicago. Amy Sedaris plays the wife of the senator from Nevada. …. Cynthia Nixon plays the Democratic senator from New York; Mark Consuelos plays the senator from Florida who bears some resemblance to Marco Rubio and some resemblance to John Edwards. (The other two senators are played by Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy.)

What’s next? 

I’ve been doing this full time since July.  I’ve just signed a new contract [for political analysis] with MSNBC. Now that we’ve finished this season I’m going to start on a new book, and I’m not sure what the subject is yet. (Alter wrote books on the 2008 campaign and the 2012 campaign.

Are you a fan of House of Cards?

It’s very well done and it’s very important for our show. Before it what we were doing was hard to explain. It’s a comedy but it’s on Amazon the way that House of Cards is on Netflix. When I saw Kevin Spacey at the White House Correspondents dinner I said,  “You guys paved the way.”

Will Obama’s terrible problems with the Affordable Care Act affect your show? [Although the senators and supporting cast are fictional, it’s set squarely in Obama’s and Mitch McConnell’s Washington.]

I hope that our show, with its realistic framework, in terms of mood about Washington, will detoxify things. We deal with some issues like immigration, and energy. Those are the backdrop of our comedy. The show is really not about Obama except to the extent that Republicans are portrayed as being so afraid to be seen with Obama. They know they’d be in trouble in primaries if in any way they supported him or appeared to be bipartisan. 

So it’s not pure comedy?

Right, not 100 percent comedy. We do have scenes that are not funny on purpose. You’ll see that at the end of the third episode. The comedy comes out of the characters, grows organically out of the characters. The comedy is in the tone of Doonesbury. It’s character-driven… It’s a particular sensibility that’s different from insult humor, or comedy on networks. It’s quirky. I like to say it’s simultaneously warm and piercing.

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