His Pulitzer Prize-winning Doonesbury comic strip began running in 1970, and its political viewpoint made its characters both beloved and controversial. (Some newspapers, like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, occasionally withheld the strip and then moved it to editorial pages.) In 2013, Garry Trudeau took a hiatus to create the Alpha House series for Amazon, featuring John Goodman, about Republican lawmakers living as housemates in Washington, D.C. Trudeau was inspired by a 2007 New York Times article about four Democratic Congressmen rooming in one sloppy house. Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin was quoted as saying, “Everybody in the world says they’re going to do a television series based on us … But then they realize that the story of four middle-aged men, with no sex and violence, is not going to last two weeks.” Alpha House, however, may get a third season. This month, Trudeau will be in town to speak at the sold-out Jan. 24 Richmond Forum event.
RM: Watching Alpha House, there are some resonances to older political dramas — from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to The Candidate and The Seduction of Joe Tynan.
Trudeau: I remember seeing Joe Tynan in the theater. The one detail I took away from it was when Alan Alda’s character is on the phone talking to a lobbyist or constituent, an aide puts an index card in front of him so Tynan can ask about the wife and kids by name. The phoniness of it stuck with me. And of course, everybody knows how The Candidate ends. There the question is, “What do we do now?” now it’s, “How do we get elected again?”
RM: The men of Alpha House get elected through political machinations that far exceed what was going on when you wrote the Tanner ’88 miniseries for HBO (broadcast in the months before the 1988 presidential election).
Trudeau: I think that’s right. Tanner’s was a kind of a ragtag operation — nobody would have chance with a candidate like that who just thought being more emphatically liberal was enough to win, on the verge of the Reagan era. What made that series interesting — it was created in real time, on the air within 10 days of events. It was real guerrilla television. HBO seemed to be fine with not getting scripts in advance. [Director Robert] Altman got passages a day or two ahead of shooting – which certainly kept it fresh. The New Hampshire primary pilot episode finished two hours before airtime. I can’t imagine that kind of freedom now. Altman felt he could jag away from the script if he found something interesting while on location — he found the art in it — and the actors who trusted him followed along. The big contrast to Alpha House is that every line is scripted.
RM: Given the current political tenor, and Congress’ unpopularity, we’re prepared to dislike these men. But their nuance and complexity reveals them to be more than stereotypes. This is not Lacey Davenport’s Republican Party.
Trudeau (laughs): No, no, it most definitely is not. The men of Alpha House came to Washington before Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann, and suddenly they start taking fire from the right because of their positions. They grew up in a political environment that requires compromise, but now the environment demands that they be uncompromising. They are grappling with: Do I own these principles or do they own me?
RM: That Amazon is streaming original content seems sudden and unusual.
Trudeau: I was suspicious at first. When you think of streaming TV, you think of low production values. But Amazon said, “We want to compete directly with HBO. We want shows of that production quality, and we’re prepared to put up the resources.” Once they were in at that level, I began taking their offer pretty seriously. And they’re impressive people, especially the smart young woman who worked with me, Sarah Babineau [a comedy executive at Amazon], and helped get Alpha House launched. But she’s leaving to become a Comedy Central vice president. Good for them, not as good for us. We’ll miss her.
RM: Doonesbury became a musical. There was a Thanksgiving-time special in 1977. Ever thought about a live action or animation film?
Trudeau: I did it as animation in 1977. John Hubley directed that and he, quite sadly, died in surgery during the production. We did it for NBC. I hoped it would be an evergreen — the gold standard was Peanuts. The show got really wonderful critical response. It even got an Academy Award nomination because it was released in theaters in Los Angeles. The network calls me in and I’m thinking they’ll tell me, “This is just the beginning!” But, no, it was, “Sorry, we’re not going to do it again.” “Why not?” “The ratings don’t justify it. Only 21 million watched.” It was a different era. Today, the audiences are so tiny and slight, and they’re very specific — and sometimes quite fanatic. The Daily Show, which is a huge hit, has about 2 million viewers. Its cultural influence is outsized in proportion to its numbers. Also, it just happens to be a brilliant show.
RM: Here in Richmond, as elsewhere, Doonesbury has been reproduced in ever smaller sizes.
Trudeau: The size issue is a huge problem for newspaper comics, generally. The audience that is most devoted to the comic pages is, let’s face it, getting older and they have to strain to see the things. Comics have dwindled now in comparison to their golden era, not only in their physical size on a page, but their impact. You go back to the 1940s and strips were part of the national conversation and the culture. I came in at the tail end of that era.
RM: Speaking of the 1940s, certain elements of Doonesbury are reminiscent of Walt Kelly and Pogo.
Trudeau: Pogo is part of my education. Still mesmerizing. I can’t believe his brilliance. He could write and tell stories that remain relevant and through it all, even the tiniest little bug had a personality. He trained with [Walt] Disney; he had that fluency, and he was good right out of the gate. In 1948 [when Pogo began running as a newspaper comic], the strip was almost there already. His political caricatures were unbelievable.
RM: At this stage of your career, do you get more anxious about starting a project — or finishing it?
Trudeau: Doing the strip, week after week, year after year, I got accustomed to deadlines. The biggest challenge, and revelation [with Alpha House], is that I’ve worked for decades by myself in a room. I never had a full-time employee — now I have 120. Turns out I actually like collaborating with highly talented people working at their best. There’s something to this that came from a very, very early experience. Between the ages of 7 and 17 — I gave it up for college — I ran a neighborhood theater. I built the sets, posted photos in the program, in imitation of a professional theater. I called it “The Acting Corporation” — “The AC.” I thought the word “corporation” made it seem important and more real. I didn’t want to be in the show; I just wanted to be the impresario that made the show happen. And now, here I am.