1600 Penn Review: Sitcom Humor Succeeds in the Oval Office

I love NBC Thursdays. Since the 80s, the peacock has been calling its 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. comedy block “Must See TV,” and rarely has it failed to live up to that claim. The 9:30 time slot, which has been home to legends like Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends, was recently taken over by the all-new series, 1600 Penn. Last night marked the official season premiere, and I for one am proud to welcome 1600 Penn to those hallowed halls.

First off, the cast is excellent. Josh Gad, who made a name for himself starring in The Book of Mormom on Broadway, is quite simply a superstar. NBC is lucky to have him. His timing is flawless, and his physical comedy is both subtle and endearing. As a co-creator of the series, Gad clearly had himself in mind when writing for Skip Gilchrest, and the payoff is enormous. Equally great is veteran sit-commer Jenna Elfman, who is just stellar as First Lady Emily Nash Gilchrest. I actually like her even better now than I did in her career-making role on Dharma and Greg. Even though this character is the polar opposite of the ditzy, free-spirited Dharma, Elfman can still deliver the laughs.

Then there's Bill Pullman, who is playing the president of the United States for the second time in his career (Independence Day was the first). He's clearly the straight man on the show, with very few jokes of his own, but he fills that role expertly. He also has his presidential aura down pat. I haven't seen such a believable portrayal since Martin Sheen on The West Wing. Even the child actors are pretty decent, which is a relief since stilted dialogue from the kids has been a black mark on far too many family sitcoms (I'm looking at you, Full House).

As for the writing, while I wouldn't put it on par with other NBC Thursday programs like 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation, there certainly weren't any jokes that didn't land. Misfire jokes are for open mic night at the local comedy club, not primetime network television, and 1600 Penn was 100% “womp-womp” (sad trombone noise) free. Of course, it's not enough to simply avoid lame gags, and I did indeed laugh out loud several times during last night's premiere. I was especially impressed with the fact that they were able to draw comedy from their little throwaway lines as they were from traditional set-up/punch-line humor. The ability to tap into both of those sources is the hallmark of a truly great comedy.

I, for one, am definitely tuning in next week. The cast alone is reason enough to be excited about 1600 Penn's potential, and when you add in the relatively novel setting for a sitcom (I'm only giving partial credit to Comedy Central's That's My Bush), we could be looking at several seasons of hilarity. Still, as good as 1600 Penn was, the highlight of the evening for me was absolutely NBC's proclamation that my beloved Community will return next month. Six seasons and a movie! 

Grade: A-


 

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Jasper Zweibel

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