What Makes 'Veep' So Funny? - Pacific Standard

What Makes 'Veep' So Funny?

Showrunner David Mandel explains the craft behind portraying some of contemporary television's most iconic—and often embarrassing—politicians.
Author:
Publish date:
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's Veep.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's Veep.

The sixth season of HBO's Emmy-winning political comedy Veep concluded on Sunday on one of its most hilariously dispiriting notes yet: Humiliated ex-president Selina Meyer, played by the Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, signaled that she was intending to run for for the presidency again. HBO has reportedly renewed the show—fresh off another round of rave reviews and Emmy buzz—for at least one more season, but viewers will have to wait until 2018 to see how low Louis-Dreyfus' craven, careerist character will go to return to high office.

To tide viewers over in the meantime, Pacific Standard spoke with Veep's showrunner, David Mandel. A contributing writer on a slew of legendary television comedies from the past few decades—including Saturday Night LiveSeinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm—Mandel took over the show from former showrunner Armando Iannucci last season. He also serves as executive producer alongside returning producers, including Louis-Dreyfus and political columnist Frank Rich.

We spoke to Mandel after he sat on a panel with two of the show's stars, Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale, at the University of California–Santa Barbara in May. Backstage, Mandel discussed the American politicians he finds funny, how to write realistic dialogue, and whether he thinks political comedy can change minds.

section-break

One of my favorite Veep scenes from recent seasons involved President Selina Meyer talking to a wavering United States representative before a crucial, tie-breaking vote determining whether she keeps the presidency. Meyer issues a vulgar, minutes-long tirade before asking if she can count on the representative for her vote. How do you pull off that kind of long-winded insult comedy pile-on without it feeling gratuitous?

You get away with a scene like that because the track was laid ahead of time—it was a culmination of stories, not just Selina yelling at somebody for yelling's sake. This is the presidency on the line. And it's not just the presidency—she had just [slept with] her vice president, Tom James, [who had been maneuvering behind the scenes to sabotage the House of Representatives' vote in his favor], and was uber-energized.

Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] has talked about her character not liking women; in some ways, there's a man quality to her, the notion of having sex with your foe and vanquishing him through sex, it's considered a manly ideal, I think. And so, this is her sort of victory yell at [the representative] Penny Nickerson; the story culminates in that yell.

Your show is all about embarrassing politicians like this. Do you have a favorite politician, or did you have any politicians you actually respected growing up?

I've always been a big James Polk fan, for the westward expansion. Ron Chernow, who wrote the [Alexander] Hamilton biography that begat the Hamilton musical, wrote a George Washington biography: It was a real eye-opener [for me] in terms of how much of the modern presidency we take for granted. Washington decided to give a State of the Union [address], and thus we do State of the Unions. There's so much of that stuff that isn't in the Constitution that he took upon himself because he thought it was the thing to do. When I was in elementary and high school, the reasons they told us that we were to like Washington were simply that he was the first president. But they never really enumerated what that quite meant.

I'm certainly biased, but I'd also include one of my mentors, Al Franken, now Senator Al Franken. Even before [President Donald] Trump, I admired the fact that Al was willing to put aside his comedy career because he wanted to help. In a world where we're very cynical about politicians, this is not something Al needed to do. In an un-cynical way, I really appreciate it. I think it takes a politician like Al Franken who can combat the constant bullshit with comedy. I'm not sure it's going to convince anybody, but it definitely helps to deflate the balloon on a lot of things.

Franken aside, who do you think are the funniest politicians today?

Bernie [Sanders] has made me laugh a lot lately. I think the older he gets, the crankier he gets, and the funnier he gets.

Who else? It's slim pickings, I'll simply say, what passes for humor in D.C.—they’ve touched on it a little bit on Veep when they did Selina trying [and failing] to do comedy at events. But it's pretty awful watching these people [in real life]. When I've been around and observed Al, watching other senators try and be funny with Al because they think that's what you should do—this is me, not Al talking, but it was some of the most painful shit I've ever seen in my life. It's not a funny bunch of people.

I mean, there have been other guys. I feel like [John] McCain was once a lot funnier. He's gotten a little older and crankier now and his crankiness is not funny. Bernie's crankiness is funny, McCain's is not. I'll tell you, I think [Barack] Obama is hilarious. I mean, talk about dry, really.

I know you have a background studying government in college, but your jokes seem to hit very close to home for people working in politics today. Do you follow politics more closely now that you're doing this show?

I've gone from being a guy that used to wake up and read the New York Times and a little bit of online stuff—that was my morning, and the New York Post—to now devouring a couple newspapers, usually the Washington Post. James Hohmann's morning newsletter, the Daily 202, is super duper. I now read Politico every morning, which is just fantastic. That stuff will get into not just the presidential stuff, but Capitol Hill, and that's the one level beyond where I was.

Do you find comedic material at that granular level of coverage?

Oh yeah. It's rarely specifically like, "Oh we're gonna do that." But always inspiration.

Does it make writing easier that this is a show about politics, where the stakes are so high? Curb didn't have that.

I do think there are differences, between when [Meyer] was vice president, president, and now a former president. There were moments last season when she was president, where it was sort of like, "Oh, that's not that funny, because you're talking about launching a missile." Sometimes too much of those kinds of stakes hurts the comedy.

Personally, one of the things I didn't enjoy about [Meyer] holding the presidency [was that] sometimes it was a little too unbelievable—although now I guess we've rewritten history. But, pre-Trump, it was a little hard for me to believe that the president could do some of the things she was doing and getting away with, and screwing up that much. Now, of course, [post-Trump], it seems like nothing. But back then, it was one of the things I didn't love about her being president: You still want the scenes to have drive and reason, you want there to be stakes. But sometimes [you want] personal stakes and other stakes, as opposed to too-scary, real-world stakes, even though you want the reality in the show.

Malcolm Gladwell recently did a podcast episode about satire in which he criticized Saturday Night Live for inviting Sarah Palin on the show after Tina Fey's impersonation had gone viral; some critics thought that let Palin in on the joke, and off the hook. More recently, Jimmy Fallon got pilloried for palling around with Trump and rustling his hair on the The Tonight Show. Can political comedians do better than normalizing the things they think are awful in politics?

I'm never a big fan of inviting the celebrity we’re mocking on the show, whoever it is—at the same time, Saturday Night Live is a live show; it is what it is.

[On Veep] we're equal-opportunity attacking: What we're really going after is the hypocrisy of saying, "I'm in government to do good," but sort of not. And I do think our policy of no cameos helps things. We don't have any friends. We don't have any enemies, either, but we don't have any friends. The point we're looking to make is a point about hypocrisy. It's a point about power and abuses of power, which I think are very relevant and ripe for attacking. And I don't want to pull those punches by palling around with the governor or whomever.

Do you think political comedy can change minds?

Sometimes my father will say: "Oh, did you see Maureen Dowd's piece in the New York Times? If only more people could see it." And it's like, no. The people who think the other way aren't going to read Dowd and change their mind, much like I don't think anyone's going to watch an episode of Veep or a Saturday Night Live sketch or a well-written John Oliver thing and change their minds. I think, rightly or wrongly, people are pretty dug in, unfortunately.

Could a show like this have taken off the way it has today 20 years ago? Setting aside how comedic taste might have changed, just the fact that it is about politics.

You have to thank The West Wing. The West Wing allowed people to get comfortable with the idea of fiction in this area, something that we previously put on a bit of a pedestal. And so, after The West Wing, you get shows like 24, which brought drama to this world. And now there's comedy. Same way in movies: One day, there were no Vietnam War movies, and then there's Rambo. And you go, "OK, it's kind of a Vietnam War movie." And then there's Platoon. It's a journey to accepting things. I think there is a trend in entertainment of the audience getting comfortable with concepts.

What are Veep's comedic antecedents?

I think Seinfeld begets all of this. There's a direct line from Seinfeld to Curb [Your Enthusiasm], and not just because Julia worked on Seinfeld and I worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I didn't create but I'm damn proud of. And then from CurbJudd Apatow. I think in Veep there's also a little bit of [Robert] Altman, in terms of [layering] dialogue upon dialogue upon dialogue. We're forcing the audience to sort of sit up and lean in and engage. One movie that always jumps to mind—Billy Wilder films in general, but especially his film One, Two, Three. I mean, talk about speed, it's on rocket skates.

It can be hard to keep up watching Veep, almost.

We're not worried if you can't hear it or if you have trouble hearing it because someone else is talking. We'll bury important information in very covered-up dialogue not to challenge the viewer on purpose, but just to make it like life. This is just how people talk. And then with speed, which I think certainly comes from Seinfeld, goes to Curb, and now Veep. We'll take a six- or seven-page scene and crunch it down to one. By the time we're done performing it and taking the air out of it in edit, it's rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

I’m thinking about your work on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld and now Veep. Have you always been interested in unlikable people, or was it coincidence that you always landed jobs where you work with these kinds of characters?

It"s where I've worked, but at the same time, it's the shows I was drawn to. "Unlikable" is your word. When I saw Seinfeld, as opposed to a lot of other shows, it was the first show for me that felt like, "This is what it's like with me and my friends in New York." Not, obviously, the misadventures, but the sitting around diners a lot. That's what my friends and I did. We sat around diners. The Tramway Diner under the tram over to Roosevelt Island had great black-and-white milkshakes. There was a crappy little diner on 70th and Broadway right near my house where we just spent a lot of time. If they're unlikable then I guess I’m guilty, I'm unlikable.

I was thinking more like, have you always paid close attention to the less flattering and redeeming qualities and tics in people, and what makes them compelling and funny?

No, a lot of the tics and things in my writing come from me, I guess, for a lack of a better word. A lot of times, I can simply say a lot of Selina's pettiness and obsessions and whatnot—I'm not saying I'm channeling my own thoughts, because I was never president of the U.S., I was never vice president—but a lot of the feelings [are mine]. What can I tell you? I walk around with a chip on my shoulder. Slights real and imagined and grudge-holding: That's me in a nutshell. It's why I wrote for Seinfeld, it's why I wrote for Curb. I can write for Larry very easily. It's why I can write for Selina. For lack of a better word, it's how I'm wired.

The timing on Veep is really impeccable. How do you foster that kind of chemistry between the actors?

I take no responsibility. I think the actors were incredibly well cast by [Ianucci], by [Louis-Dreyfus], by Allison Jones, who did the casting. I think there's something interesting in the fact that the show was shot for four years in Baltimore, where they were there as their own mini-island. And I think it created a theater-troupe atmosphere: They acted together, they rehearsed together, they had dinner together, they went to the movies together. They might as well have been on a tour bus. Not that you can't get than in Los Angeles, but I think it's very different than, "OK we're done, I'm now going back to my world, to my family." So I think Baltimore had a lot to do in a weird way with the secret sauce. And then you come into a world like that, and you just try and keep it going.

HBO is great about us having the rehearsal time. And there's no preciousness among the writing staff. My philosophy has always been, if the craft service lady has a funny line, it's going in the show. I don't care how we get there, I just want it to be as funny as it can humanly be. And it haunts me to the end of time if it isn't.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Related