‘Doonesbury’ Creator Built an Unlikely ‘Alpha House’ at Amazon

Garry Trudeau had been looking to make the jump from comic strips to TV showrunning, but he didn’t expect to find a home at Amazon. And yet there he was, leading the massive online retailer’s charge into the original series fray when the political satire “Alpha House” launched last fall on the Amazon Instant Video streaming service.

Inspired by an oddball true story of four congressional Democrats — Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer, George Miller and Bill Delahunt — sharing a house in Washington, D.C., Trudeau first pitched an edgy comedy about four fictional Republicans living “Real World”-style to networks back in 2008. He couldn’t find a taker, and returned to his celebrated day job as the Pulitzer Prize winning creator of long-running comic strip “Doonesbury.”

A few years later his friend and producing partner, journalist Jonathan Alter, mentioned Amazon was looking to get into originals. “My first thought was webisodes, YouTube,” Trudeau recalls. “I wasn’t thinking this was comparable to high-quality cable and I wasn’t sure they’d step up to that.”

Meeting with Amazon execs quickly changed his mind: “They had an aspiration we would deliver a show that HBO would be proud to air, and they gave us the resources to do that.”

Trudeau assembled a top-notch cast led by John Goodman, Matt Malloy, Clark Johnson and Mark Consuelos. After receiving an enthusiastic response from Amazon’s user-approved pilot testing process, “Alpha House” was picked up for an 11 episode first season and Trudeau was off to the races. In addition to serving as showrunner, he wrote or co-wrote every episode — an experience he describes as “extremely stressful.”

Working with Amazon, however, was anything but taxing. “Amazon hadn’t had an opportunity yet to build an infrastructure of people who would interfere with the work,” Trudeau says, only half-joking. “We had the good fortune of having smart, talented, young executives to collaborate with. I would say we were lightly supervised and very productively so.”

Creative collaborations are unusual for Trudeau, who has enjoyed a steady following with “Doonesbury” since the strip entered syndication in 1970. He’s dabbled in film projects in the past (including HBO’s cult classic series “Tanner ‘88,” directed by Robert Altman, and the Cannes prize-winning and Oscar-nominated animated short “A Doonesbury Special”), but is far more accustomed to flying solo in his work.

While he happily takes advantage of Amazon’s comfort with the sort of TV-MA content he can’t employ in family newspapers, the practical considerations of TV production have their own trade-offs. “I’m so used to writing new characters,” Trudeau says. “‘Doonesbury’ has roughly 75 characters recurring. If one of the existing characters isn’t suitable for a story I want to tell I’ll just create a new one — that’s kind of my mindset. I had to rein that in a little bit.”

Nevertheless, Trudeau has wholeheartedly embraced the process, recently announcing an extended hiatus from daily duties on “Doonesbury” to work on season two of “Alpha House.”

“I’m a guy who’s spent decades by himself in a room,” Trudeau says. “Now I have 125 people who are my teammates and they all have their own special needs. I think it’s good for me, socializing. Get me out of my room and into the real world. We’re having fun.”

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