Stripping the Cover Off D.C.’s ‘Alpha’ Culture

At the age of 7, Alpha House creator Garry Trudeau was already in the business of entertaining people. The young entrepreneur organized a neighborhood playhouse in Saranac Lake, N.Y., which he ran until he left town for college.

“I never had the slightest interest in performing,” says Trudeau of his community theatre. “I just wanted to put on a show.”

Trudeau has been doing just that—in one form or another—ever since. First with Doonesbury, the Pulitzer Prizewinning syndicated strip he created while attending Yale, and most recently with sitcom Alpha House, the first original series from Amazon Studios, the e-commerce site’s production arm.

Alpha House follows four Republican congressmen who live in the same house on Capitol Hill. The political comedy’s 10-episode second season bowed on the site Oct. 24.

The idea came to Trudeau after he read a 2007 New York Times piece about the frat-like abode of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), Sen. Richard J. Durbin (DIll.), Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.).

But by the time he started shopping the series—he thought the concept lent itself to a sitcom from the get-go—it was too late in the 2008 production cycle. The material then sat on the shelf until 2012, when Trudeau told his longtime friend and Alpha House executive producer Jonathan Alter about the project while the duo took their quadrennial trip to the New Hampshire primary.

“I started to see if I could sell it,” says Alter, who first met Trudeau while profiling him for Newsweek. “And I had heard that Amazon was going into the original content business.”

Trudeau had major misgivings about Amazon, though. “My idea of streaming television pretty much began and ended with low-end productions on YouTube,” he says. “And so I really wasn’t very interested. I just didn’t see the potential.”

Trudeau says Amazon told him they wanted the project to be HBO quality and were willing to put in the resources necessary to make it successful. Trudeau had an earlier foray with HBO, having created the network’s seminal political miniseries, Tanner ’88.

Trudeau wears multiple hats for Alpha House, serving as showrunner, director, producer and writer. As in many cases, streaming’s gain has been newspapers’ loss, with Trudeau needing to put his daily Doonesbury strip on hold as a result; he still writes the Sunday edition in his spare time.

“I worked by myself for decades, and I never had a full-time employee,” says Trudeau, who has three children with his wife, journalist Jane Pauley. “Now I have 120 teammates. So, it’s a very different world that I’m in right now.”

Perhaps, but it’s a world he’s quickly been able to embrace. “He’s a guy who’s so talented that even though he’s worked alone for 40 years, he turned out to be a natural manager of people and leader of our show,” says Alter, who cites producers Elliot Webb and Antoine Douaihy as major players in the Alpha House team. “The tone of the show is set at the top, and Garry’s decency, sense of perspective, attention to detail, focus and work ethic all flow down through our production.”

While Amazon has yet to order a third season of Alpha House, Trudeau says he would sign on “in a heartbeat.”

“If this looks like fun, it is, and particularly after a second season,” he says. “The cast and the company becomes very close and very tight.”

Alter attributes the tight-knit company largely to Trudeau because “people really like working for him and do their absolute best work because he is motivating them to do so to live up to the very high standard that he sets.”

“I’m surprised to find myself still doing it,” says Trudeau.

“I think when I finished up the first season I went right back to the strip, I imagined it to be a grand adventure that was over. And now I see that there’s the possibility of a long haul,” he adds. “And it thrills me, because there’s nothing more fun than making this kind of television.”

Trudeau didn’t expect Doonesbury to last either, thinking the strip was a “one-off.” His father, Dr. Francis B. Trudeau, Jr., was even more of a skeptic.

“He kept asking me what I would be doing after the strip,” he says of his dad, who was a physician. “He couldn’t imagine that that was an actual career. He actually couldn’t really quite grasp that it was a job.”

Trudeau comes from a long line of medical professionals. His great grandfather Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau founded the country’s first fresh-air tuberculosis sanitarium in North America and his grandfather, Dr. Francis B. Trudeau, was a physician as well.

“[The sanitarium] was a pretty long shadow for me to grow up under,” says Trudeau. “I can’t say that I felt any particular pressure to go into medicine because my father had and kind of resolved that his son would be able to make his own choices and live his own life.”

The cartoonist and writer worked one summer in the sanitarium laboratory but the experience “didn’t take,” and he moved on to other pursuits.

In addition to art and theatre, Trudeau has long had an interest in politics, which has long been reflected in Doonesbury and was the seed of Alpha House, as it had also lent the structure for his first such series, Tanner ’88.

The HBO series, directed by Robert Altman, followed Jack Tanner, a U.S. representative from Michigan who was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. The miniseries was a documentary-style scripted comedy that Trudeau describes as “kind of guerrilla filmmaking.” The script, he says, was only a road map.

With Alpha House, Trudeau’s writing is much more. “He wants you to do [the script] his way most of the time,” says Alter, who adds that Trudeau does take suggestions.

Trudeau tries to keep his personal politics out of the series, saying that he made the four main characters in Alpha House Republicans because he narratively thought the GOP was going through more interesting changes with the rise of the Tea Party in contrast to the more moderate conservatives from preceding years.

But Alter says that some of the qualities found in Trudeau’s writing do translate to his personal life.

“He is just an enormously warm and convivial guy,” says Alter. “The same quality that you find in Doonesbury and in Alpha House applies to him personally, which is that he combines heart and bite. He is an idealist and he explained to me in that first interview in 1990 that to be a good satirist you have to believe in something. You can’t really be a cynic.”

This idealistic approach coupled with his way with words has helped long cemented Trudeau’s place as a creative force.

“A hundred years from now, when people want to know about the latter part of the 20th Century in American politics, they’re going to be reading Doonesbury,” says Alter. “So Garry Trudeau’s place in history is already secure.”

“I think it’s a huge win for television, and particularly online television, that he’s bringing his talent to this new medium,” Alter says.

Jessika Walsten

Jessika is an analyst for TVREV and Fabric Media. She previously served in various roles at Broadcasting + Cable, Multichannel News and NextTV, working with the brands since 2013. A graduate of USC Annenberg, Jessika has edited and reported on a variety of subjects in the media and entertainment space, including profiles on industry leaders and breaking news.