Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Trudeau puts daily ‘Doonesbury’ on long-term hiatus to work on renewed ‘Alpha House’

Michael Cavna in Comic Riffs.

At this point in Garry Trudeau’s career, John Goodman has just proved to be more irresistible a roommate than Zonker.

Hello, daily call sheet; goodbye for now, daily comics page.

Trudeau, whose TV show “Alpha House” recently ended its debut season with strong viewership, got the good news: Amazon Studios has picked up his politically satiric program for a second season, the cartoonist and his syndicate are set to announce later this afternoon. That’s right: Fans will get to see more of Goodman and the gang portray four Republican senators who banter and bicker as Hill roomies.

But providing punch lines for Trudeau’s newest characters comes at a cost: as of Feb. 24, the daily Doonesbury — Trudeau’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip — will be put on long-term and open-ended hiatus, distributor Universal Uclick will announce.

Trudeau will continue to create new Sunday Doonesbury strips; the rest of the week, readers will get reruns dating back to the feature’s syndication launch in 1970. More than 13,000 potential Flashback strips, Universal Uclick notes, haven’t been seen in a newspaper since their initial run.

“I’ve done the strip for 43 years — 45 if you include the college edition [at Yale] — and I’m ready for an extended break,” Trudeau, 65, tells Comic Riffs.

In making the move, the New York-based cartoonist takes nothing for granted: “A hiatus comes with uncertainty, of course: I can’t assume I’ll be welcomed back a year or two from now.”

But the chance to be among the pioneers of scripted streaming-TV is too strong. With Alpha House — which last year marked the start of scripted original programming at Amazon Studios — Trudeau is charting “new territory in the ground-breaking world of online video,” Universal Uclick says. The show is delivered via Amazon Instant Video.

“Comic strips and episodic TV actually draw from similar skill sets,” Trudeau tells Comic Riffs. “I’m accustomed to writing dialogue, constructing scenes and developing characters.”

In the case of “Alpha House’s” initial 11-episode run, the left-leaning Trudeau continued to especially develop and deepen his core quartet of characters — the conservative senators played by Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy and Mark Consuelos — as they fended off Tea Party challengers, ethics probes and blasts in Afghanistan.

Trudeau took a sabbatical from Doonesbury last summer to launch the show, which was inspired by the true-life living arrangements of four prominent Democrats — after Trudeau read a 2007 article about “Real World”-esque roomies Rep. George Miller, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Sen.Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Bill Delahunt, who were sharing a two-bedroom house in the southeastern shadow of the Capitol Dome. (Schumer tweeted just last month that he was looking for a new roommie after Miller announced his retirement.)

Prior to Alpha House, the Oscar-nominated Trudeau was no stranger to writing for the screen. He worked with the late-great director Robert Altman on the Emmy-winning HBO political series Tanner ‘88, and penned the Sundance Channel sequel, Tanner on Tanner.

Despite his range of related experience, Trudeau seems surprised with how fully realized Alpha House is, saying that “it’s amazing that the show looks anything like what I imagined it would be. And yet, miraculously, it does.”

“HOUSE” PARTY MEMBERS: Mark Consuelos (from left), John Goodman, Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy share both Hill and housekeeping tips in “Alpha House.” ("ALPHA HOUSE" / courtesy of Amazon Studios )

Comic Riffs caught up with Trudeau to ask him about his decision to creatively move in with the senators — and visit Michael Doonesbury, B.D., Zonker and the cast only on weekends:
Congrats on the Alpha House pickup, Garry. How did you arrive at the decision to put “Doonesbury” on hiatus again -- was it difficult or a no-brainer -- and is this a bit like caring for two of your creative children, one fully grown, the other toddling? How does one creator parent both?
Not very well — they're both full-time jobs. So I had to choose, and no, it wasn't that difficult. I've done the strip for 43 years — 45 if you include the college edition [at Yale] — and I'm ready for an extended break. A hiatus comes with uncertainty, of course: I can't assume I'll be welcomed back a year or two from now. The comics page is zero-sum real estate, and there are a lot of interesting new strips that editors could turn to while I'm away.

Any hiatus in this syndication climate can be risky — did your 2013 hiatus at all increase your belief that editors and readers will stick with Doonesbury Flashbacks out of fanhood and loyalty and, especially with these '70s and '80s strips to be rerun, fond nostalgia? Especially with the understanding that you [to quote Gen. MacArthur] "WILL return"?

There's no way of predicting whether readers will stick with it. And while returning to the daily strip is certainly my intention, I've been struck by how much lateral movement I see with colleagues in media and arts these days. We live in Free Agent America -- nobody stays put. It's hard to promise anything in an era that so prizes disruption.

Having said that, I've always thought of myself as a comic-strip lifer, which is common in our industry and an annoyance to younger cartoonists. I love working for newspapers, and can't imagine life without them. Which is why I'm keeping one foot in with the Sundays.

What does Alpha House do for you as a creator and commentator and storyteller that perhaps you can't do through Doonesbury? How has it been gratifying so far in its own way?

The goal is essentially the same: to entertain. Sure, commentary is part of the package, but if you can't clear the comedy bar, you don't have a show.

Comic strips and episodic TV actually draw from similar skill sets. I'm accustomed to writing dialogue, constructing scenes and developing characters. And, of course, I think visually.

The main difference is that the strip allows me to be a little emperor, in total control of every element. On a TV show, by contrast, I have to get buy-in from 120 teammates. Alpha House is a small corporation, and when you consider all the disciplines, talents and temperaments involved, it's amazing that the show looks anything like what I imagined it would be. And yet, miraculously, it does.

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