The Tony-nominated actor talks about his new family comedy, 1600 Penn.
Actor Josh Gad
Tavis: Josh Gad is a talented actor whose starring role in “The Book of Mormon” earned him a Tony nomination back in 2011. He is now the creator and star of the NBC comedy “1600 Penn.” The show airs Thursday nights at 9:30. Here now a scene from “1600 Penn.”
Tavis: Is the Obama era the right time for (laughter) – I’m not making a judgment one way or the other, but is this the right time for this kind of sitcom?
Josh Gad: You know what, interestingly enough the Obama administration invited us to screen it there, so I think we got their blessing. (Laughter) Ironically, Obama’s speech writer, Jon Lovett, is our head writer, essentially.
So I think so. I hope so. But the interesting thing about it is it’s not necessarily a show about politics. It’s a show about a family with a backdrop of politics, if that makes sense. They just happen to live in the White House.
Tavis: Yeah, it ain’t just a backdrop. It’s the White House, Josh.
Gad: No, it is the White House, yeah. (Laughter) It’s a frontdrop.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter)
Gad: It’s a scrim.
Tavis: Before I go further, I was asking you off-camera, because I wanted to know, I’m just curious.
Tavis: Your last name is so unusual, not that “Smiley” is common, or “Tavis,” for that matter. But Josh Gad – tell me about that last name?
Gad: Well, Josh is short for Joshua, and Gad is short for Gad. (Laughter) The actual truth about Gad is it’s one of the original 13 tribes of Israel, so you can actually trace my lineage back to, like, those guys who had, like, a hand in the Bible and have since become very famous from that.
So I come from very famous lineage. Granted, they didn’t have cameras back then so none of them had TV shows. It was more about their contributions to biblical stories.
Tavis: I was about to ask – what does being a descendant of one of those tribes, what does that –
Gad: Well, it gets you into bars.
Tavis: Yeah, I was about to ask. (Laughter)
Gad: It definitely comes with some extra pull. But that’s, yeah –
Tavis: Does it work with the ladies?
Gad: Yeah, I couldn’t tell you, I’m married. But off the record, yes.
Tavis: Yeah? (Laughter) Okay.
Gad: Yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: So this “The Book of Mormon” was huge.
Gad: Thank you, yeah.
Tavis: It was huge.
Gad: It was great. It was unbelievable. I was involved with “The Book of Mormon” five years ago. I get a phone call one day and Bobby Lopez, who wrote “The Book of Mormon” with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, said, “I’m working on this new musical with the guys from ‘South Park.’ Do you want to do it?” I said, “Hell, yeah, of course I would want to do it.
He sends me a demo, and on the demo I play one of the first songs. It’s called “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which is some very choice words for what God can do to himself. I remember listening to it and calling my agent immediately after and saying, “I cannot do this show.”
He said, “Why?” I go, “Because I don’t want to die. I don’t want to get shot for doing something like this.” I remember being terrified. We did the very first workshop of it, a hundred people in a black box theater, and I remember just white-knuckling it and thinking to myself, God, I hope this works.
People just went with it, and they went with it because at its core it was doing some very dangerous things, but it was doing it so brilliantly and wrapped up in this satirical, masterful way, that people just went along for the ride and I never looked back ever since.
Tavis: What has been – I suspect there is, even comedians have to process things in life through a serious prism, and you learn things even from going through comedic situations. What was the takeaway as a writer, as an artist, for you, what was the takeaway of being able to make that work, to pull that off, when you were skittish about it to begin with?
Gad: The takeaway, it’s really interesting, because when I – my perception of it was this was going to be something that young people, people of my age, people who are fans of “South Park,” are really going to dig, but it was going to have that limited prism and that limited appeal.
I remember thinking that right through the first preview, and then I started seeing something unusual happen. I started seeing 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds and Jews and Christians and Mormons and everybody from every age range, denomination, coming to see the show, and loving it and standing up and applauding.
Tavis: The Mormons loved it?
Gad: Mormons loved it, literally, and people – I have gotten letters, I swear to God, from people saying to me that because of our show, they converted to the Mormon Church. (Laughter) I always want to write them back and tell them, “I think you misunderstood the message, but congratulations.” (Laughter)
But the lesson that I learned is you cannot doubt the appeal of taking risks from a comedic standpoint. I’ve had a chance now to work with Jon Stewart; I’ve had a chance to work with Trey Parker and Matt Stone. These guys are master satirists, right?
Gad: The fears that you have will prevent you from doing the greatest thing that you can possibly do in that field, and I really, truly believe now that you can’t be afraid to take the leap.
Tavis: But there’s a line somewhere, I suspect, and do you know or have fears about whether you will know where that line is when you get to it?
Gad: I absolutely fear I will not know where that line is, (laughter) and that’s why I’m not writing the next musical about religion.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Gad: But what I can tell you is that I admire those who can.
Gad: No, I do think to a certain extent you do have a grasp. Look, there were things up until the very last performance that I was questioning why don’t we just get rid of that, is that pushing it a little too far, and they believed in themselves so heartily that there was – they were right, I was wrong.
Tavis: To your point earlier, Josh, about not – you were being funny but I suspect serious about not writing the next musical about religion, but what did that experience say to you about the way that we’ve – I’m trying to find the right word here – view, value, hold the notion of religion?
Because it is the most sacred on the one hand, and as a result the most controversial of topics in the nation.
Gad: It is. I’m spiritual by nature.
Tavis: Yeah, of course you are. You’re from one of those tribes.
Gad: I’m from one of those tribes and it’s in my DNA.
Gad: I actually can get him on the phone any time I want because we’re so close. (Laughter) But for me, you’ve seen the show, right?
Gad: Yes, it appeals to an agnostic or an atheistic sensibility, but it also truly delivers a message of spirituality, and it delivers on the promise of what religion can do, right?
Here are these people who absolutely have no reason to have faith. They are people at their lowest, they’re at their lowest. When these missionaries come and they give them something to believe in, even if it is outside of the realm of normal, even if it is a little crazy and comes from a lie, which it does, inevitably, in our story, it still gives them something to grasp.
It still gives them hope. That message, I think, is a universally appealing message. It’s something that I think we all struggle with. We all grapple with this idea of losing people who are important to us, of seeing tragedies happen day-in and day-out and say to ourselves, “In a world where there is a God, how is this possible?”
Yet when we have that thing, when we have that thing to grasp onto, it somehow gives us the strength to get through enough time to answer those questions. I think that that’s the promise of the show. I think that it lets us laugh at that, but inevitably, that’s a question that we leave with.
Tavis: When you suggested a moment ago that you were joking when you said you’ve gotten letters from people who became Mormon because of the play and they missed the point, was there mail that you received or conversations that you found yourself in that you really wrestled with?
All jokes aside, that you wrestled with how to respond to or that made you go inside, made you re-examine your own assumptions, expand – I’m just trying to figure out what, on the serious side –
Tavis: – what you were dealing with with –
Gad: Coincidentally, I never got a negative piece of mail.
Tavis: Not one?
Gad: I never, I never –
Tavis: Come on, Josh.
Gad: I swear.
Tavis: You didn’t read it.
Tavis: I swear. My concern going into it was I remember we had a conversation about security. I remember we had a conversation about how to respond to those things. People embraced it. It’s very strange.
In 450 performances, I saw maybe half a dozen people walk out of the theater. It’s a very unique thing.
Tavis: Stop, stop, stop. When you’re on stage and you actually are aware, you can see people walking out of the theater – and I’ve had this experience of giving lectures before when somebody didn’t like something I said.
Gad: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: It’s one thing to see somebody go to the bathroom. I can tell the difference in the body language when they’re going to the bathroom.
Gad: Totally. It’s one of these things. (Makes motion)
Gad: Yeah. I’ve been there. I’ve been that guy who walked out of your lecture for that reason. (Laughter)
Tavis: When they’re going to the bathroom or a baby’s crying and they go, that’s one thing.
Gad: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: But you can tell the body language when they’re walking out because they are not happy with this presentation, with what you just said.
Gad: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: So before you go further, as an actor, when you’re on Broadway and you see that, how do you process that?
Gad: Oh, (laughter) in the moment –
Tavis: And stay on cue?
Gad: Well, sometimes you don’t stay on cue.
Gad: I remember there was one incident where this couple, this elderly couple, got up – they had stayed (laughter) through two acts and somehow it was the second to last song, where they were like nope, now I draw the line.
Two hours into it, (laughter) I won’t stay for the finale. Shame on you. So they got up and they walked out, and I’ll never forget seeing at the back of the house they take their program and they slam it and it bounces out of the garbage (laughter) and it hits them, and they storm out.
I remember literally forgetting my next line because I was so – (laughter) I was keeling over laughing at the fact that even their statement of disgust –
Tavis: Bounced back.
Gad: – backfired.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)
Gad: I think that that’s the – Trey and Matt actually took joy in that kind of response, because that’s a dialogue. That’s creating a dialogue, that act, that action. So yes, I always notice it.
It was one of those theaters that was small enough that I could literally look out in the house and see Bono looking back at me, who I actually sing about in the show, and seeing George Lucas, who we make reference to, and all of these crazy people. It was very surreal.
Tavis: So I cut you off. Thank you for answering that. I cut you off when you were talking about, though, the fact that you never got any negative mail, and I was asking you whether or not this play in any serious way made you come to terms with issue X, Y, or Z.
Gad: It made me come to terms with issue X, Y, and Z through the process, not through the actual production. The process was a three-year, four-year process where it made me struggle with the – the biggest question that I had, to be honest, wasn’t an internalization of oh, man, what is my take on religion.
I’m very adamant about what my take on religion is. It’s that I’m not smart enough to know what the answer is. That’s my take on it. But I believe in a higher power. The question for me is what gives me the right to go out and make fun of one person’s ideas in religion and I had to struggle with this idea of where inside of me is it okay to do this.
Once I found that answer, then it allowed me to go out there and believe enough in the project and the process to accept what my role was.
Tavis: Situate this for me in the context of this play in the era of Romney building up for his run for the White House.
Gad: Right. Yeah, well, I remember that leading up to it, Romney wasn’t even a figure in politics that was – I guess he had made that run in 2000 –
Tavis: The first time, yeah.
Gad: – yeah, in 2008, but it wasn’t one of those things where he was the frontrunner. It wasn’t even, we hadn’t even gotten to that stage yet. The play opened in 2010.
But I remember a “Newsweek” article coming out going, “The Year of the Mormon,” and it had a picture of our poster, which is a Mormon jumping up in the air, with Romney’s face on it.
I remember thinking to myself have we somehow manifested this reality, or is it coincidental that all of these things are converging at once and this is truly the Mormon moment?
I grappled with that a little bit, because it is strange that – it’s rare that any pop cultural event will have such crossover appeal that “The Book of Mormon” had. It’s even stranger that a musical, inevitably seen by 1,100 people a night, gets that kind of broad appeal.
So for me it was one of those wow moments were I was like this thing is bigger than I think any of us ever imagined it would be. I don’t think it influenced the election in any way, and I certainly don’t think it influenced people’s decision to make Mitt Romney their candidate, if that’s what you’re asking. I do think that it was just one of those strange situations.
Tavis: Circling now back to “1600 Penn,” at this stage in your career, aside from the fact that you’re the guy behind the project, how did you know that this was the right vehicle for you to do the sitcom thing?
Gad: I didn’t. I was leaving “The Book of Mormon,” I had been doing eight shows a week. I had sat down with Jason Weiner, who’s this brilliant, mastermind director behind the pilot episode of “Modern Family,” and I was like, well, that guy knows how to make hits. I’ll just ride his coattails. (Laughter)
Then we sat down and we had this discussion about what’s the next thing you want to do, what’s the next thing you want to do, and I had said that I was interested in doing a show about an ordinary family in the most extraordinary bubble imaginable, that of the White House.
He said, “That speaks to me.” I said, “But this may not speak to you – I have no interest in starring in it.” He was a little annoyed, but also adamant that he can convince me that I wanted to.
So we sat down and we got this young kid, Jon Lovett, who had been one of Obama’s speechwriters, to come on board, and when that happened and I started to see the development of this script, I said, “Man, if I see anybody else play this character of Skip, I’m really going to be (blank),” because I knew inherently that it just spoke to my comedic sensibilities and it was something that I could kill.
But I didn’t want to necessarily dive back into that schedule, and I certainly didn’t want to do something that was so similar to the last role that I played.
Tavis: Unpack for me what you mean when you say your comedic –
Gad: My comedic sensibility lies somewhere in between the surreal and the – taking the surreal and grounding it, right? My idols range from Charlie Chaplain to John Belushi.
Tavis: Who you get compared to a lot.
Gad: I do get compared to all these dead men (laughter) very often.
Tavis: John Candy.
Gad: John Candy.
Tavis: Do you –
Gad: Anybody who’s been fat at one time or another –
Tavis: And died.
Gad: – I get – right, and died, I get compared to. (Laughter) Yes. So it’s a dark struggle that I have to live. (Laughter) I was actually once in a diner in Big Bear and this waitress came up to me and she goes, “I know I know you from somewhere,” and I said, “Well, I don’t know,” that is always not the way to start the conversation with me.
So I was like, “Don’t know where you know me from.” She goes, “I know I know you,” and she kept pushing me. (Laughter) I go, “Yes, you know me.” She goes, “Where do I know you from?” And I said, joking, I go, “You know me from ‘Animal House.'” She literally looks at me and she goes, “That’s it.” (Laughter)
“Shelly? Shelly, we got the guy from ‘Animal House’ here. What’d you say your name was?” “John Belushi.” “John Belushi’s here.” (Laughter) I remember being like this is – not only did I get younger, but I never died.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Gad: So it was –
Tavis: That’s everybody’s dream.
Gad: That’s everybody’s dream.
Tavis: To get younger and never die. It’s like Benjamin Button.
Gad: Benjamin Button, yeah. So it was very – people just –
Tavis: On a serious note, though, how do you take, how do you process, how do you internalize the comparison to a guy like Belushi?
Gad: Oh, well, I take a lot of joy in the comparison to Belushi.
Gad: In all seriousness, I think that there’s a big dilemma. Melissa McCarthy just opened this new movie, “Identity Thief,” and Rex Reed, who’s a known critic, wrote a scathing commentary on her weight.
I think that weight designation is one of the last frontiers of bullying. I don’t know what the right “ism” for it is, but I think that there’s a level of that that’s happening that’s certainly not okay. I went back and I read a review that he wrote for me, and I never read reviews, but I wanted to see what his take on me was.
He called me “obscenely obese” and something else, something else, and I think about that. If you were to comment on a person’s race in that way or if you were to comment on a person’s sexuality in that way it would not be okay.
I struggle with the idea that it’s okay to comment on that as an access point for criticism. I think bullying in print like that is a very dangerous thing to do.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there, and I don’t disagree with you, but I want to press two buttons, if I can, and just get your take on it. So Melissa McCarthy is an actor and she’s opening a film.
Tavis: Chris Christie may want to be president one day.
The health of the president is a very serious concern.
Tavis: So where is the line – we’ll come back to Rex Reed and entertainment critics in a moment. Where’s the line on those of us in my field, journalists, broadcasters – I’m not a journalist; I’m a broadcaster, but for those who are journalists and broadcasters, where’s the line for how we treat Mr. Christie’s weight, were he to be in the race for president?
Gad: Right. Well, I think that you answered that question yourself when you said that if it’s a health issue and –
Tavis: He says it’s not, though.
Gad: He says it’s not, but –
Tavis: He’s on “Letterman” eating doughnuts.
Gad: That’s right, but he’s – if you haven’t read it, it’s a ballsy man. (Laughter) So he, I think, has an obligation to answer for those things. What I do is I entertain. I’m not asking to lead you, I’m not asking in any way for you to trust me enough to help you or your family.
What I am offering are my services to make you laugh, to make you think. I don’t see the relation there with – you have a choice whether or not you want to watch me based on your own preferences.
Gad: If I’m too big, literally, physically, for you, then you have the option to tune out. To view my weight as the overriding factor for my form of entertainment is I think an unfair prism with which to judge me.
Tavis: So why did you stop reading critics, or did you never read them?
Gad: It’s funny, because “1600 Penn” was the first time I really started to read the reviews, because I am an executive producer and I wanted to see what people were enjoying and not enjoying as a means to an end, right?
Tavis: Sure, that’s fair.
Gad: As a way to see if there’s an overriding narrative here and I can help guide the series in a certain way. But when it comes down to me and people personally judging me, there’s just no need for me to read it. I don’t really care what a guy getting paid to judge me thinks.
I care if people who are watching – I’ll read tweets, I’ll read what the masses think. I enjoy conversing with them.
Tavis: Everyday people.
Gad: But I think that a lot of critics and a lot of people in that field have an axe to grind, and there’s nothing healthy about engaging or acknowledging that criticism of me like it’s – I can’t help you. I can only give you what I know how to give you.
Tavis: You used a phrase earlier in this conversation, as I wrap this up – and I could do this for hours, I’ve enjoyed talking to you – you used this phrase earlier, Josh, “master satirist,” and there was a sense of reverence – my word, not yours – that came along with that, which leads me to ask what you ultimately want to do with this comedic gift that you have.
Gad: Well, I appreciate the term “gift.”
I think of it as a curse.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Gad: What do I want to do? I want to contribute to the ages. I think what we try to do, all of us as artists, is make that one piece of difference that for me were movies like “The Great Dictator,” for me were those iconic songs from the ’60s, for me is “The Book of Mormon.”
I think “The Book of Mormon” has made that difference in its field. It changed the game. It’s something that 20 years from now people will still be talking about, hopefully. That’s my goal as an artist, as a creator, as a work for hire, is to choose projects that make people think, make people talk, and make people interested in having a dialogue.
Tavis: Well, they’re talking now about “1600 Penn.” It stars one Josh Gad, from the tribe of Gad. (Laughter)
Gad: You’re from the tribe of Smiley, is that correct?
Tavis: Yes, I am. I started my own tribe. It’s just the tribe of Smiley.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you on the program.
Gad: I’m honored to be here.
Tavis: Your first time, not your last, I hope.
Gad: I’ll be back so long as your people call my people. We can arrange it.
Tavis: We’ll work it out. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.
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