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“No politician does Colbert,” Senator Louis Laffer tells his staff on the new comedy Alpha House. “You’ve got no control, he makes you look like a horse’s ass!”
The show, which was greenlighted for first-season production as a part of Amazon Originals last month, is a comedy, but its humor has a certain verisimilitude to it. The conceit—four Republican senators living like overgrown frat boys in a group house on Maryland Avenue—was inspired by a 2007 New York Times story on the Washington flophouse occupied by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin and Rep. George Miller. A wake-up call that Sen. Gil John Biggs (John Goodman) pays to Sen. Vern Smits (Bill Murray) to ask whether the cops swarming their doorstep are for him can’t help but remind Washington viewers of the tense middle-of-the-night wake-up adulterous former Sen. John Ensign received from his lawmaker roommates at the Christian group house they shared on C Street SE. Even the Colbert comment is a dictum of real-life Capitol Hill: “My experience with that show is like herpes. It never goes away, and it itches and sometimes flares up,” a former aide to a Republican Lynn Westmoreland told Politico a few years ago, for a piece explaining why no one appears on The Colbert Report anymore. (Matt Malloy’s Laffer, facing a tough primary against a gun-toting Charlton Heston figure, decides to go on the show anyway, and the episode ends in an awkward nose-to-crotch wrestling match that does little to prove the senator’s already questionable heterosexuality.)
The Colbert cameo came thanks to political journalist Jonathan Alter and his wife, a senior producer on The Colbert Report. Alter met the show’s creator Garry Trudeau, longtime author of the Doonesbury comic strip, in the 1990s while writing a cover story on him for Newsweek. The two became friends and started traveling to the New Hampshire primary together every four years. In 2012, Trudeau mentioned his idea for a show based on the Times piece. Alter showed it to his contacts at Amazon, and when they approved a pilot, Trudeau invited Alter on as a co-executive producer—acting as a sort of utility player for ensuring that the show is politically relevant. “We want sophisticated viewers who understand Washington to feel like, ‘Wow they got something there. That really is kind of the way it works,’” Alter says.
It’s easy to spot when Hollywood gets something majorly wrong about Washington, like when Homeland portrays Farragut Square as a sprawling green park rather than a tiny city square. What’s less obvious is the effort some shows, like House of Cards or Veep, put into hewing closely to the real look and feel of Washington—if not in character and plotlines, then at least in setting and dialogue. It’s the result of a lot of effort from obsessive directors, writers, line producers, props and set designers. But behind all of them are political consultants, current or recovering politicos offering up their experiences and insight as grist for visual fiction.
America is currently awash in television and film about Washington, the best of which manage to capture real Washington’s imagination. “I think [Washington and Los Angeles] are a bit obsessed with each other,” says Jay Carson, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign (and Howard Dean’s in 2004) who advises on the Netflix show House of Cards, the latest drama du jour of official Washington. As more viewers are choosing their viewing content online, producers are looking to target niche audiences—and what better niche than a city made up of people who love talking about themselves?
In a town filled with the types of people who got off on correcting the teacher when they were in high school, getting the small things right matters more than a little—and that, as with all Washington business, is where the consultants come in.
Before Alpha House began filming in its re-created Senate—actually a soundstage in Brooklyn—Alter took Trudeau and company on a scouting trip to Capitol Hill, where they met with Senators and staff and got to take a close-up look at the building. The pilot catches details of Hill life that might not make the frame of a C-SPAN special: a hovering stenographer, for example, and bored-looking pages in matching uniforms, which make it seem more plausible when the show deploys the names of actual senators, or superimposes Laffer into the background of a press conference with (real) Sens. Mitch McConnell and John Barrasso.
When the first season production kicks into gear, Alter says it’ll be close to a full-time job for him. “We just are working hard to make sure that it doesn’t clang or sound off to people who know Washington, because the political world is our base so to speak,” says Alter, who has been interviewing Senate Republican aides to try to glean more about how their bosses live. (The show so far focuses on Republicans, but Alter promises you’ll see more Democrats in future episodes.) “One of the good things about online television is that you don’t have to have a mass audience if you have a committed niche audience—so we’re definitely going to need people in Washington to be watching this when our season starts in the fall.”
Like Alter, Carson got into political consulting for Hollywood through a friend—his college roommate at Columbia University, writer Beau Willimon. “I can’t think of a major project in my life that Beau wasn’t a part of, and there probably aren’t many major projects [of his] that I wasn’t a part of in some small way,” Carson says. In college, Carson convinced Willimon to work with him on Chuck Schumer’s 1998 Senate campaign, and the two worked in politics together for years. After their experience on the Dean campaign in 2004, Willimon decided to write the play Farragut North, with a character inspired loosely by Carson. The play was made into Ides of March, a movie starring George Clooney and Ryan Gosling, and after Willimon’s career took off, he approached Carson about consulting on House of Cards.
“It was really important to at least pass the smell test with people who live inside the Beltway,” Carson said, so he signed on as a political consultant. (Carson, like several of these consultants, actually lives outside the Beltway: He worked for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for several years and is still based in L.A.) Their process started broadly, with Carson explaining the basic outlines of how Congress works, and sharing stories from his time in Washington. Carson also introduced people on the show to experts who might have a better grasp of the minutiae than he did—the former head of a Secret Service detail, for example, or a former congressional parliamentarian. Like Alter, he took the crew on scouting tours of Washington. Leaders of Congress were so welcoming to them that Kevin Spacey got face time with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy—who let him in on a members-only GOP conference meeting.
Carson describes a level of attention to detail among the show’s producers that makes them sound almost obsessive-compulsive: “Doorknobs were redone because they were not right,” and air conditioning grills were moved to be the same distance from the ceiling that they are in the Capitol. “Members of Congress visited the set, and when they closed the door [to Frank Underwood’s office] they’d say, ‘Man, this door has the same weight as my door!’ It was important to Beau that when Frank walks out of the office and slams the door behind him it has the same weight that those big doors in Congress have.”
“It is important to pass the Beltway test,” Carson continues, because “if you’re making a show about Washington and everyone says, ‘Oh God, they don’t even understand how this works,’ that’s an important loss of credibility.”
That microlevel verisimilitude was especially critical for House of Cards, because the actors portray grotesque, cynical caricatures of Washington figures. The show took plenty of heat from Washington journalists complaining about the sex-for-scoops relationship between reporter Zoe Barnes and Majority Whip Frank Underwood. But at least the doors and light switches looked right. “It’s always been Beau’s feeling that the rest of it wouldn’t work—that the wonderfully fantastical parts of the show need to have the underpinning in fact in order to work,” Carson says.
The commitment to realism in the Washington drama may have had its apotheosis in The West Wing era early last decade, when Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, made accuracy, not just in setting and scene but in overall character development, a priority. Dee Dee Myers had moved to Los Angeles after a stint as White House press secretary in the Clinton Administration when Sorkin, whom she’d met at the White House a few years before, reached out to her about consulting on his new NBC show. When Myers first told her friends in D.C. that she would be consulting on the new show, she says, “They were all like, ‘What?! Hollywood never gets Washington right, why are you going to consult on this show?” After the first episode, “they were like ‘People don’t walk that fast in the halls.’ By the third episode they were calling me for story ideas,” she says.
Myers wasn’t the only insider working on The West Wing. Lawrence O’Donnell, a former staffer for the Senate Finance Committee and now an MSNBC host, was closely involved in the show’s production as an executive and writer. The West Wing’s commitment to bringing in people from various factions of Washington life was almost, well, political: Gene Sperling, current director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council; Fox News contributor Patrick Caddell; former George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan press secretary Marlin Fitzwater; conservative columnist Peggy Noonan; Reagan aide turned lobbyist Ken Duberstein; and GOP pollster Frank Luntz were all involved in consulting on the show. (Later, when E.R. director John Wells took over The West Wing, he even invited the pugnacious conservative writer John Podhoretz to help. Podhoretz had once blasted the show and Sorkin, who had previously been arrested on drug charges, saying, “I don’t know about you, but frankly, I don’t need any lessons on theology, destiny, public service, job creation, pay equity, or conservative ideology from a crack addict.”)
Myers says Sorkin operated under the theory that “good stories know no political boundaries or ideology, so let’s reach out to anyone who we think would come in and talk to us.” Between Myers, O’Donnell, and Sperling, the show had plenty of access to Democratic networks, so Sorkin was always keeping an eye out for input that could add balance—and reality—to the show. “What Aaron really wanted to do, which gave the show resonance, is he never wanted the president to win fake arguments,” Myers says. “If you win a fake argument, that’s not satisfying—it’s important to let conservatives make real compelling arguments, to make it hard to make decisions.”
Myers remembers consulting as a sort of free association—the show’s creators would ask, “When the president walks through a door, what happens?” or Sorkin would say, “I want 12 people in tuxedos and ball gowns in the White House at midnight, how do we get them there?” and Myers would draw on her experiences in the real-life White House for inspiration. She remembers that the props people were fascinated by her “hard pin”—the coveted Secret Service-issued lapel pins used to identify White House officials.
For some who worked on the show, the rewards weren’t just financial. Like Carson on House of Cards, Sperling met his future wife while working on The West Wing. “I always tell people that the real West Wing is the highlight of my professional life, but the fake West Wing was the highlight of my personal life,” Sperling says.
Political consulting for film is good work if you can get it, but few of the consultants wanted to talk about how much they made doing it: Answers ranged from “don’t quit your day job” to “big bucks for doing extremely little.” Just like mastheads or staff listing, the more lucrative gigs go to the people with the highest titles. It’s mostly done by a handful of people who have already ascended to elite status in Washington—the kind of people who would be mingling with Hollywood types in the first place—but not always.
In 2007, writer Spencer Ackerman, now the U.S. national security editor at the Guardian, was “unemployed and broke,” and wrote what by his own recollection was “one of the stupidest, most absolutely ridiculously hackish things ever,” for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section. “It was a terrible, terrible piece comparing George W. Bush to the Steve Coogan character Alan Partridge,” created by Armando Iannucci for British comedies, Ackerman says.
A couple of weeks later, Ackerman got an email from Iannucci’s assistant. Iannucci had read Ackerman’s piece and was impressed that he knew his character. As it happened, Iannucci was researching national security policy for an upcoming film project called In the Loop, and wanted to know if Ackerman—who happens to be one of the city’s best reporters on the subject—would be willing to show him around.
Ackerman was thrilled: “I was like, holy fucking shit. I’m a British comedy nerd, loved The Thick Of It, love…pretty much everything Armando has ever done.” He spent four days taking Iannucci around the city, introducing him to the likes of Tony Blinken, now a deputy national security adviser to Obama.
Ackerman remembers Iannucci “wanted to know a lot about interagency coordination—what levels of seniority would be involved in something like planning meetings to coordinate a faux-diplomatic effort to sell a war at the UN.” Consulting involved “some very limited script doctoring” but came with the benefit of getting to give pointers to James Gandolfini on how to read his lines. “I got paid pretty well for doing…pretty much nothing,” he says. His favorite memory from being Iannucci’s liaison to Washington was taking him to the Black Cat for a show. “Armando watched me and maybe 30 people mosh to—wait for it—The Gaslight Anthem,” he says. “There was this slim, slight, short and awkward British comedy genius watching this absurd spectacle.” In the movie, foreign policy aides show up moshing at a grindcore show in a club that looks very much like the Black Cat.
There’s a moshing scene in Iannucci’s new series, too, this time with White House aides. Like The West Wing and Alpha House, HBO’s Veep has a political insider for an executive producer—New York magazine writer Frank Rich. But the show also has a few boldface consultants—including Tammy Haddad, a producer of shows like Larry King Live and Hardball who’s now CEO of Haddad Media, which, according to her website, “brings together political and entertainment media leaders around topics of public interest.” When Veep execs first started scouting for the show, Haddad took them around Capitol Hill and introduced them to Anita McBride, a former assistant to George W. Bush and chief of staff for Laura Bush, and Eric Lesser, a former top aide for David Axelrod whose obsessive attention to luggage detail seems to have at least in part inspired Gary, the bag man for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character on the show. Lesser, who now reviews scripts while studying at Harvard Law School, says “the creators and writers are very earnest about it plausibly resembling reality.”
“With HBO, it’s a sophisticated audience,” Lesser says. “For the most part, people watching it are people who know about politics already—they’re reading the New York Times or CNN, they’re up on how things work. If it doesn’t feel at least remotely realistic, then it loses a lot of salience and is frankly not as funny.”
Lesser describes his involvement in the show as “fairly low key” script reviewing: “I’ll kind of say, ‘This is really far-fetched, or, ‘This would never happen,’ or, ‘This is how a filibuster works in reality’—or it can be things that are smaller, like, ‘This acronym is wrong,’ or some of the diction and word choice on technical things, like a press gaggle.” Other times their experiences provide fodder for comedy: McBride’s recollection of the gifts foreign dignitaries provide each other provided inspiration for the awkward gift exchange between the vice president and Finnish prime minister on a recent episode. Haddad will send them lists of terms like “grassroots, grasstops, third party validators” as inspiration for dialogue.
Like Carson, Haddad ascribes the new emphasis on verisimilitude to an increased interest in elements of Washington that were once hidden from public view. “I think it’s the same reason why people are interested in the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, why people are so interested in coming now,” she said. “Politics is more accessible than ever—everyone can have an opinion now.” So too, she says, is the increased viewer appetite for seeing people who are like them—in other words, real people—in a setting that has previously been used for overwrought drama.
That might get at what’s different about this moment in history. Hollywood has been turning to the capital for inspiration since Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But never before has Washington—with its freak-show politicians and gaffe-hungry media—seemed so eager to imitate the silliest aspects of celebrity culture. Washington is younger, more accessible, and more caught up in ephemera than ever. The more official Washington comes to resemble Hollywood, the better Hollywood gets at depicting it.
As a consultant, one of Haddad’s duties is introducing the show’s creators to people in Washington. On election day, Iannucci and writer Simon Blackwell came to D.C., and Haddad set up a lunch with White House officials at The Jefferson, followed by a dinner with members of the media at Café Milano. During the lunch, Haddad stood up and made a toast: “I said ‘We raise our glass to Armando and Simon, who have made us very famous. Thank you for making us so famous,’” she recalled. A flummoxed Iannucci said: “And you guys think this is good?”
“Everyone at the table laughed,” Haddad said. “Yeah, actually, we did.”
Later that night, Haddad, Blackwell and Iannucci were crossing I Street not far from the Hay-Adams on their way to the Politico election night party when they saw a bunch of young people rushing down Pennsylvania Avenue. The election had just been called for Obama, and people were running up and down the streets, cheering in front of the White House, hanging from the trees. The three of them jumped out of the car and got into the thick of it. “These people didn’t realize they were standing next to two filmmakers taking notes,” Haddad said.