Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau pokes fun of American politics in a new medium

November 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The new web series "Alpha House" puts a comedic spin on politics in the era of tea party conservatism with a story about four Republican lawmakers who work and live together on Capitol Hill. Jeffrey Brown talks to "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the creator behind Amazon's first original streaming series.

GWEN IFILL: So, four senators share a house on Capitol Hill in Washington, a little reality, a little fiction, a lot of fiction.

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau explores that premise in “Alpha House,” Amazon’s first streaming series. It features John Goodman as Republican Senator Gil John Biggs, a lawmaker running for reelection who, as it happens, is not exactly keen on joining his colleagues on a trip to Afghanistan.

JOHN GOODMAN, actor: Whoever put that on my schedule is about to have a bad day. What a waste of time. Do I look like somebody prepared to fly to —- Kabul for the —- National Committee?

ACTOR: You do not. You look like someone prepared to fly to Philly for the World Series.

JOHN GOODMAN: You get me, Robert. I will give you that.

My wife.

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What, Maddie?

ACTRESS: You’re going with the delegation to Afghanistan, right, G.J.?

JOHN GOODMAN: Why would I do that, Maddie?

ACTRESS: Because a full brigade of North Carolina guards rotated over there last week.

JOHN GOODMAN: So what? They know I support them. I will make a video.

ACTRESS: Gil John, everything has changed.

JOHN GOODMAN: Changed? How changed?

ACTRESS: Taylor had another stroke last night. He withdrew from the race.

JOHN GOODMAN: What? That’s — that’s good. Well, not for him, obviously, but that’s an outstanding development.

ACTRESS: Wrong, honey bear. Guess who just announced he’s running?


ACTRESS: Digger Mancusi.


ACTRESS: You’re in a real race now, darling. You can’t just sit in your little man cave anymore waiting to be reelected.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown picks up the story from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The creator of “Alpha House” is Garry Trudeau, best known for his long-running “Doonesbury” comic strip. He took a break from the strip to work on the new series.

And he joins us now.

And welcome to you.

GARRY TRUDEAU, “Alpha House”: Sure. Glad to be back.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is almost too easy to make fun of Washington, is it not? What were you up to here?


JEFFREY BROWN: What did you think you could bring to the party?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I was — it’s a different medium entirely from what I’m accustomed to.

Obviously, I have written about politics off and on for 40 years. I think there is a bit of a misperception as to how much I write about politics, that “Doonesbury” is somehow a rolling critique, rolling progressive critique of political America, when, in fact, it is actually a very small percentage of what I do in the strip.


JEFFREY BROWN: This time, though, here you are right there on Capitol Hill.

GARRY TRUDEAU: This time, that was the case. It’s very focused.

We’re right there on Capitol Hill, although all our episodes were shot in Queens.


GARRY TRUDEAU: But, nonetheless, we tried to capture the spirit and feel, look and feel of a certain culture.

Some years back, about — in the previous election cycle, in 2008, I saw a piece about these four senators who shared a house up on Capitol Hill. And that seemed like a wonderful premise for a TV show. And so I wrote a pilot.

Schumer said — I think it was Senator Schumer who was one of the four — or maybe it was Senator Durbin — who said, well, people have always said they’re going to make a TV show about us. But then they remember that it’s about four middle-aged men with no sex and violence, so they would lose interest.


GARRY TRUDEAU: So, we got around that problem by adding sex and adding violence. And that…

JEFFREY BROWN: And making them Republicans.

GARRY TRUDEAU: And making them Republicans.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. So let me ask you about that, because the original — in reality, the four were Democrats.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Were Democrats.

I had them Republicans from the start. But it was…

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, why is that?

GARRY TRUDEAU: In the — I wanted — at the time, which was 2008, I wanted to kind of look into the lives of these four Republicans who were going to be dealing with the aftermath of the Bush presidency and what that meant for the party, because the Democrats were coming on strong. They had a very interesting, lively campaign with Obama and Clinton. And, in fact, they won.

And there was quite a shift on the Hill. So I thought, well, let’s see what those guys are like in the middle of a difficult time, because that’s — those are where the stories are. I find them in adversity. The first show I did, which was about 25 years ago, was — for HBO — was called “Tanner ’88.” And it was about a Democrat at a time when Democrats were in disarray.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Right.

GARRY TRUDEAU: And he was an old-school liberal who tried to redefine himself by basically turning up the volume.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but you’re — but the — that’s a serious subject. You know, whither the Republican Party after the Bush years and after — and in the Obama…


JEFFREY BROWN: And one we talk about on this program all the time.


JEFFREY BROWN: In a serious way, Right?

GARRY TRUDEAU: But something very interesting happened in those four years since then…


GARRY TRUDEAU: … which is that they were withering under all this fire from the left, and suddenly it’s all coming from the right.

And that’s what is so different and so fascinating. So, as primary turned from a noun into a verb over the last few years, I thought, wow, what if — what if these guys, their whole world is shaken up by attacks from their right, where they least expected to see it, that the Washington they knew, because they’re all — they have all been in Washington for some time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your main characters…

GARRY TRUDEAU: The main characters.

JEFFREY BROWN: … the people who are sort of what you would call mainstream, I guess, Republicans.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Right, main — mainstream conservatives.


GARRY TRUDEAU: And so they’re used to a political culture of accommodation and civility.

And suddenly they’re in Ted Cruz’s America. And things are very different. And they don’t quite — they have lost their bearings. And so they have to keep sort of trimming their sails. And now they are in uncharted waters.

And that’s interesting to me, you know, people who are caught in crisis, from a storytelling point of view, not simply because I have some agenda that I need to act out on.

JEFFREY BROWN: How does this compare to your “Doonesbury” work, both in terms of the — the way you work — for one thing, I guess it’s a group thing, as opposed to sitting alone in your room, right? Which I have seen in your studio, which is, you know, you are working away by yourself.

GARRY TRUDEAU: It’s just me. My whole life, I have had a handful of part-time employees.

And, suddenly, I’m — I have got 120 teammates. That’s very different, obviously. And you have certain responsibilities when somebody like a Jeff Bezos from Amazon basically hands you a medium-size corporation and says, don’t mess it up.

So, yes, that was a major change for me, although I had worked in television. I had done some pilots and I worked on a couple series.

JEFFREY BROWN: This, of course, though — and it’s something we have looked at on the show, is this new model of television. This is a new thing, Amazon taking this on, streaming video, right, digital. It’s not turn on your television.


And I had some serious misgivings about that. When I was first approached by my partner Jon Alter about taking it to Amazon, I had — I had some pretty serious misgivings. I thought, well, everything I had seen Web TV — in the world of Web TV had not been very impressive. And it had been under-resourced.

And my association was with YouTube videos, not with serious high-end episodic programming. So, there being no model for that, I was a little skeptical. Then along came “House of Cards” and a lot of other players got into that particular space.

And I’m going, wow, this is — this is beginning to happen. People are committing some pretty serious budgets to these projects. It’s attracting high-end talent. It’s attracting very good people. Why not jump in and take a chance?

JEFFREY BROWN: You raised “House of Cards.”

I want to ask you about the — you have been at this a long time looking at Washington in one form or another. What is the — what do you think of the state of political, well, satire, for one thing, or the political — the state of creative people looking at Washington?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, I think it’s never been better. I mean…

JEFFREY BROWN: Never been better?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Yes, never being more interesting.

And there are such good-talented voices, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and The Onion on and on. It’s — there’s a lot going on. And I have far more competition than I did when I first started out. I pretty much had the field to myself. There were a few late-night comics who were doing rapid-response humor. But it was humor. It wasn’t really satire. It was very gentle.

And so probably part of the reason that I did as well as I did in the early part of my career was just through sheer novelty. Now there is a whole universe of wonderful political satire.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The new series is “Alpha House.”

Garry Trudeau, thanks so much.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Thank you, Jeff.