Back to IndieWire

Garry Trudeau on Bill Murray’s Friendship, Jon Cryer’s Dancing and ‘Alpha House’ Season 2

Garry Trudeau on Bill Murray's Friendship, Jon Cryer's Dancing and 'Alpha House' Season 2

After getting selected to go to series, “Alpha House” maintained enough positive buzz from viewers throughout the course of its 10 additional episodes to warrant a second season. So, now that “Alpha House” is
back in session — Season 2 premiered today on the streaming service — Trudeau spoke with Indiewire about the origins of the series,
revealed his secret to securing the aforementioned Mr. Murray, the surprising
lack of a learning curve when shifting from comic strip to sitcom, and some of
the other small-screen projects in his filmography, including collaborations
with Robert Altman, Stephen Lang and Jon Cryer.

First
and foremost, let’s just get it out there: You must’ve been thrilled to get a
second season of “Alpha House” at all.

[Laughs.] Anyone who’s not thrilled after one season to get
picked up for a second season is not telling you the truth.

So
what’s the secret origin of “Alpha House”? Did Amazon cast a line
looking for creative types who had pilot ideas, or did you have a pilot idea
and the timing matched up with Amazon kicking off its initial flurry of
original series?

I didn’t even know Amazon Studios
existed! I mean, they were kind of a pop-up studio when we first started, and
Jon Alter… I don’t know if you’ve talked to him, but he’s a fellow executive
producer, and he actually was the one who brought it to Amazon. I kind of had
to be persuaded that this was a real opportunity, because I, like the rest of
the world, had not associated Amazon with high-end television. So when I first
heard about it, I thought “streaming television,” and my whole notion
of that was YouTube and Funny or Die. It was just kind of low-rent stuff. I
mean, as good as some of it is, it just didn’t seem to be appropriate for the
show we had in mind.

READ MORE: Will Its Mild Debut Comedy Series ‘Alpha House’ Make Enough of a Splash for Amazon Studios?

But my first conversation with Amazon
assured me that they were actually looking to go head to head with HBO, in
terms of quality, and that they were prepared to put the resources behind it.
And they were good for their word. I’m delighted, because I was highly skeptical.
And, you know, I don’t think I was a
game changer, but I think John Goodman was, in that when he signed on, I think
Hollywood really took note that maybe this was the platform of the future.

You’ve
worked in television before, with Robert Altman on “Tanner ’88.”

Yeah! I think “Tanner” was
[HBO’s] first episodic-TV venture. There was a wonderful executive there named
Bridget Potter who was driving all that in the ’80s and ’90s, and she really
kind of put us on the map by giving us a whole season, because they hadn’t done
that before. Yeah, that was a great experience.

I’m
guessing you don’t get asked about this
very often, but… how was the experience of working on “Killer
App
,” the pilot you did with Altman a few years later?

Uh, no, I don’t get asked about that very often! [Laughs.] “Killer App”
is kind of a sore spot, because I have to take full responsibility for it never
really coming to anything. We were offered an opportunity to do that for
Turner, and they were going to give us a whole season without a pilot…and
genius Trudeau decided, “No, I’d rather take my chances with a network,
because I’ll just reach a bigger audience.” And Bob Altman just was not a
good fit for network television. It had a very cinematic vibe, and it just
wasn’t what they were hoping it would be. And it’s a shame, because we were a
little ahead of the curve on that: “Betas” and “Silicon Valley”
were still 16 years away! And then the tech bubble burst in 1999, and everyone
said, “Well, it’s just as well. No one would want to watch the show
now!”

I’ll
be honest: I wouldn’t even know that the show existed if I hadn’t interviewed Stephen Lang a few years back.

Oh, yeah, Stephen! Boy, believe it or
not, we never met! I was on the set intermittently, but we just never
overlapped. But he was fantastic. I gather he had a good experience. He liked
working with Altman.

Yeah,
actually, the reason it came up was because I’d asked him to cite a favorite
project he’d worked on that didn’t get the love he thought it deserved, and he
said, “Well, I’ve got to go with this pilot called ‘Killer App.'”

Oh, how nice of him! Yeah, y’know,
it’s heartbreaking, that comedy, because I wrote four scripts, and I was ready
to go! [Sighs.] Anyway…

READ MORE: Amazon Renews ‘Alpha House,’ Orders Six Series including Chris Carter’s ‘The After’ & Michael Connelly’s ‘Bosch’

To
happier matters, then. In working with Amazon, “carte blanche” may
not be the right phrase, but it certainly seems as though you had a pretty open
playing field as far as doing what you wanted with “Alpha House.”

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I used to
joke during the first season that they just didn’t have the manpower to
interfere with what we were doing… and there’s some truth to that. They were way
understaffed. But also they believed in lightly supervising their projects,
in letting creative people do what they do without smothering them in reams of
notes. And the notes and comments that I get from Amazon now are almost always
smart and often helpful, so I don’t have that kind of contentious relationship
with the studio that a lot of folks find themselves in to be at the network
level, where they have to deal with not just the studio but also the network. 

As
far as the cast goes, you mentioned that John Goodman was a game changer, but
presumably you had a hand in bringing Matt Malloy aboard, given your history
with him on “Tanner.”

Oh, yeah, Matt and I go back a long
way. What I did not know until recent times, however, was that we gave Matt his
first job. He was on the fence: Either he was going to be acting or he was
going to become a golf pro. [Laughs.] And he still loves golf, but obviously he
didn’t make that decision. He was just about to pull the trigger on a life of
being a golf pro when Altman offered him the job on “Tanner.” He’s
one of those great unsung journeyman actors who’s worked a lot and been in a
lot of cool projects, but isn’t a well-known name. I think Matt was also an
early hire, but I think John came first.

Did
you have a strong hand in the casting, or were people pitched to you?

I did, but our casting director,
Kathleen Chopin, is so capable that I rarely see a candidate for a role who
isn’t incredible. One of the wonderful things that’s happened in casting, at
least wonderful to me in terms of being a showrunner, is that the casting team
does their work, and then they narrow down the field and send us the auditions.
So when I come home at nine or 10 o’clock in the evening, I can sit down at the
computer and actually focus on three or four candidates, all of whom are
completely credible for the role, and I don’t have to spend all those days
listening to a lot of actors. [Laughs.]

Because in fairness to the actors, I
think producers get tired and cranky, and they don’t always notice things that
the casting directors will. And you can look at the audition multiple times,
you can ask for another one… It’s all uploaded, and you can watch it when
you’re fully able to focus on it. So through that process, I was able to stay
very involved in consultation with the directors on the individual episodes to
make sure we got the best possible person. But I can’t say I saw anyone who
wasn’t pretty good. [Chopin’s] got a wonderful eye, and we’re just on the same
page in terms of our taste.

Next: How the elusive Bill Murray ended up in “Alpha House.”

So
who was the key to getting Bill Murray for his appearances? My guess would be
John Goodman, if only because of “The Monuments Men.”

No, it was, uh, my wife. [Laughs.] My
wife, Jane [Pauley] worked for many years for NBC, as did Bill on “Saturday
Night Live,” and Bill used to come down and snag doughnuts off of the “Today”
show set. That’s where he and Jane first encountered one another, and they
developed this friendship. Subsequently she interviewed him two or three times,
and they’ve kept in touch. She goes down and plays in his celebrity golf
tournament, the Caddyshack
tournament in Florida
, and they’ve just remained pals through the years. So
that was my “in” with Bill Murray! 

When
it comes writing political comedy for television, as noted, you had some
experience in the field, but is it still a challenge to shift into that medium?

Well, my day job has actually been a
tremendous training ground for doing this kind of work, because if you think
about it, it’s a character-driven deadline business of telling stories in small
comedic scenes. It very much draws from a similar skill set, and I know how to
construct scenes after doing this for decades, so… it’s not that big a
stretch for me. What is a big stretch
is managing. I’ve been alone in a
room for an awfully long time, and to suddenly find myself with 120 teammates
was a bit of a shock. As executive producer, you’re really responsible for
setting the tone and the culture of the place and getting everybody pulling in
the same direction. But we made a few good, smart hires in the beginning, and
were able to make that happen. From what I’m told — because I haven’t been on
all that many sets — it’s an unusually supportive and generous working
atmosphere.

As
far as the real-life cameos you’ve had on the show, is there anyone you’ve been
trying to get that you still haven’t been able to pull off?

Oh, sure, there’ve been some. I can’t
tell you exactly who I had my heart set on that we didn’t get. But the reason
for not getting some of the political cameos that we had hoped for this season
had more to do with the campaign season. The real-life campaign season. During our production schedule, they
were all home campaigning themselves and Queens isn’t exactly on the stop for a
lot of these guys. [Laughs.] The one I wanted the most that I got was Elizabeth Warren, but she’s not
running. She was going around the country supporting various candidates, but
she was able to get us into her schedule, and she was wonderful. She received
an incredible reception from our gang. It turns out she’s quite a hero to a lot
of people.

In
regards to the first season, one of the strongest episodes was “Ruby
Shoals,” the end of which took a somewhat unexpected shift into rather
moving territory.

Yeah, I think what’s going to keep people coming
back is if the show has as much heart as it does satiric bite…or, in fact,
moreso. I think that was an important turning point for John as well, from an
acting standpoint. He really liked that that was what was happening to his
character, that he was backing off of this new version of himself that he’d
permitted to evolve in response to attacks from the right and tried to pivot
back to his traditional comfort zone as a mainstream conservative.

That
was also the first of the “Alpha House” episodes where you had
co-writers: Peter Gwinn and Alison McDonald. What was it like for you to
collaborate on a script?

Well, um… [Laughs.] It was…
challenging. And, you know, I ended up probably spending a lot more time
putting it in my voice than I would’ve preferred. I mean, I’d love it if it
were something that was easy for other writers to do, but… I’ve ended up doing a lot of rewriting as a consequence.
But I think that’s important, to set the template and the tone of the show. And
I don’t want to take anything away from the talented story producers that we’ve
had. But so far I haven’t been able to crack that nut.

So
what can viewers expect from the second season of “Alpha House”?

Well, the grand narrative arc, of
course, is the general election, and they’re now faced with a different set of
problems with their Democratic opponents than they were when they had to
address attacks from their primary opponents. Two of them are running against
real-life candidates. Louis is running against Penn Gillette, of the magic duo
in Las Vegas [Penn & Teller]. Penn turned out to be a wonderful actor, and
he gave us some of our funniest moments throughout the season.

And the other is a very popular,
well-known politician from Pennsylvania named Ed Rendell, the former governor,
and… we didn’t use him quite the same way as Penn, because we couldn’t put
him in scenes where he had to do a lot of acting. Mostly with real-life
politicians, you want to put them in scenes where they’re comfortable and
familiar, where there’s not a lot of lines to learn, and they can just do what
they normally do. But in Penn’s case, because he is a performer, we were able to push him a little harder to get him
to do all kinds of interesting things.

You’ve
said that you won’t be going back to doing “Doonesbury” full-time
until “Alpha House” has completed its run.

Right, that’s what we told our client
newspapers last February: that I would be stepping away from the daily [strip]
for the life of the show, however long that is now. I could be back as soon as
this fall, or it could be a year or two away. I mean, there’s no way of
knowing.

Not
that you haven’t taken hiatuses before, but do you find yourself missing the
routine?

Um…not at all. [Laughs.] You know,
it’s a totally different kind of pressure. You’ve got a pretty big show that
kind of depends on you producing scripts, so that is a fair amount of pressure, but it’s different in nature than
just week in, week out, year after year, trying to clear the bar and do work
that you’re proud of in the strip…and without the fun of doing it with
collaborators! You’re just on your own. So even though they’re both stressful
jobs… I mean, all jobs are stressful. Let’s face it. But I think that
collaborating, as it turns out, really suits me. I like actually spending my
days with people, all focused on a common goal. It turns out to be good for me.

When
you’re writing “Alpha House” scripts, do you ever think about
throwing in Easter eggs for “Doonesbury” fans, or putting in names of
characters you’ve used in the strip?

[Laughs.] No, no, I’ve tried to keep
the two worlds separate.

Just
as a quick sidebar, I interviewed Jon Cryer last year, and…

…and his favorite show was
“Rap Master Ronnie.”

It
sure was!

[Skeptically.] No!

Okay,
maybe not. But he did say of the experience, “I got to hang out in my
dressing room with Garry Trudeau for an hour and a half, which was more fun
than I had any right to have at the time.”

[Laughs.] He is great in it! If you ever see or talk to him again, tell him I’ve
used that clip in lectures for years,
because… I don’t know if he told you what he did for us, but he did a song
called “Top Jock,” and it was a send-up of “Top Gun” where
he plays a fighter pilot who’s just returned from a bombing mission over
Tripoli. You certainly don’t recall this, but we bombed Tripoli back in the ’80s: Reagan order an attack, and it
killed one of (Muammar) Gaddafi’s wives and a bunch of other people and missed
Gaddafi.

So we wrote a song about it for the
show, which was a political cabaret, and Jon played the pilot – or one of the
three pilots – and he was incredible!
It was a real kickass performance. He’s a real musical-comedy guy in addition
to all the other things he can do. He can sing and he can dance. It was great!
And then there’s the irony of how, 20 years before the 2003 invasion, we had a
fighter pilot bombing an Arab country, and it’s all the same slurs about
“ragheads” and everything, the same working up an anger over a
Middle-Eastern conflagration. But, yeah, Jon was really good in it.

To
wrap up, you’ve got Democrats and Republicans in “Alpha House,” which
gives you the opportunity to play both sides of the fence from a
political-humor standpoint, but I’m sure that still doesn’t keep you from
having people, “Oh, he’s too much on this side” or “he’s too
much on that side.”

Yeah, we occasionally hear it, but…
it’s such an odd complaint. There’s no comedy protocol that says, “If you
make fun of one group of people, you have a responsibility to make fun of
another.” Satire is, by definition, unbalanced and unfair. It has a point
of view. The show is about four Republican senators, the way “Tanner”
was about a Democratic senator. But if somebody out there thinks there’s a
funny, interesting show out there about four Democrats, then by all means they
should make it. [Laughs.] And if it’s entertaining, I’ll watch it, just as many
Republicans watch our show! I mean,
no one says to the creators of “The Big Bang Theory,” “You know
what? You’re just so unfair to geeks. You really should give equal time to
taking on liberal arts majors!” The show’s about Republican senators! Of course most of the commentary is going
to be on their lives!

In the late ’80s, it was the
Democrats who were in the wilderness, who had the interesting political problem
of identification. You know, “Who are
we now?” And it wasn’t until Clinton came along with the Third Way
that Democrats came out of the wilderness. So we caught Tanner at just that
point: he was an old-school liberal who thought that if he just pushed his
liberal ideology a little bit harder, if he just ramped it up a little bit and
made it more vivid to people, then that was going to work in the age of Reagan.
Well, of course, it wasn’t, so from a dramatic standpoint, that was the more
interesting thing to write about in 1988. Today, it’s the Republican dilemma
that’s far more interesting.

READ MORE: Amazon Pilots Ranked Best to Worst (Season 3): Whit Stillman & Steven Soderbergh Compete for Your Votes

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , , , , ,