The network’s fabulous new political comedy, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, premieres Sunday. Creator Armando Iannucci tells Jace Lacob about the vice presidency’s comic potential—and how Veep compares with The West Wing.
With HBO’s acerbic and dazzling political comedy Veep—which depicts a power-hungry if buffoonish female U.S. vice president and her staffers—Scottish-born creator Armando Iannucci turns his attention to American politics, bringing his deadpan wit, rapid-fire dialogue, and comedy of the uncomfortable to the corridors of power in Washington.
Veep, which premieres Sunday evening, stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld) as Vice President Selina Meyer, a politician who, although a heartbeat away from becoming POTUS, spends her days scheming about biodegradable utensils, filibuster reform, and getting the name of a potential future hurricane—Hurricane Selina, naturally—changed so as not to reflect poorly on her.
It’s not the first time Iannucci, 48, has tackled the follies and failures of petty bureaucrats. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his 2009 political feature film, In the Loop, which explored the so-called special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom.
“I always feel that Brits do themselves down when they come to America,” said Iannucci, speaking to The Daily Beast in January. “They always feel that because they’re in America they must just agree to whatever happens to them there, and then they go home feeling a little bit as if they’d done the wrong thing.”
“That’s what was going on in the Blair administration,” he continued. “They were just so star-struck being in the Oval Office that they didn’t quite keep a focus on what they were doing ... We’re slightly on more equal terms now because of the economy; no one now is the supreme controller of events.”
In the Loop depicted the breakdown of that relationship, the dirty dealings of both parties, and of the need to save face and retain control of public perception, even in the midst of monumental information failures. Before that came Iannucci’s breakthrough BBC comedy The Thick of It, which spawned three additional seasons and two specials, as well as a failed ABC adaptation in 2007, and introduced the world to the sadistic and rabid communications director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi).
With Veep, Iannucci leaves behind the dreary, utilitarian offices of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship of The Thick of It for the pomp of Washington, D.C., and takes a far deeper look into the American political system than he’s attempted before, building on the success of In the Loop. That film displayed the vast differences between the political systems of the U.S. and the U.K., something that’s keenly felt in Veep if you’ve even a cursory knowledge of British politics.
“In the U.K., all the parties are converging,” Iannucci said. “They’re all going for the same middle ground. It’s very difficult to distinguish one party from another. Here in America, it’s the opposite. They’re so diametrically opposed that it’s impossible to see how they could come to any compromise.”
“British politicians know that they don’t have much influence, or indeed any money, but can’t admit that, so all of their speeches are about trying to sound big and important … they’re full of figures to make it feel like they can do stuff, whereas American politicians, I find, do have power and influence, but they don’t want to admit that, so they keep all their speeches very neutral and abstract. It’s all about freedom and opportunity and bringing jobs back to the workplace … If you actually took the texts of a Gingrich speech, a Romney speech, an Obama speech, and a Clinton speech, you’d probably not find that much difference in them.”
With Veep, however, the issue of power is tenuous. The show doesn’t focus on the president, who does wield true power, but on his deputy, embodied here by Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer, who is typically on the outs with the as-yet-unseen president, her former political rival turned running mate.
“The vice president is traditionally a slightly clichéd comic role,” said Iannucci. “It’s usually in the Dan Quayle mold. Mondale was sort of a nothing. It’s become much more interesting: Gore had a quite firm relationship with Clinton over what the role should be, and Cheney had remarkable powers. For me, the comic potential for the vice president is that, at the whim of the president, they could be very powerful, or equally at the whim of the president, they can have all that power diminished.”
“It’s someone who is used to power, used to influence, finding themselves in a position where they don’t have any control over their destiny, except that they could, if something happened, become the most powerful person in the world,” he continued. “There’s that sense of being pulled in two different directions at once: being so near and yet so far.”
The disparity is keenly felt: Selina’s speeches are “pencil-fucked” to the point of absurdity; her desire to get a dog for her daughter is rejected because the president is getting a first dog (or “FDOTUS”) for the White House; a bitter rivalry, perhaps imagined, between Selina and the first lady is brought up repeatedly. Louis-Dreyfus is sensational here, rendering Selena as akin to Sarah Palin minus any whiff of folksiness, alternately a sympathetic cog in the machine and the instrument of her own self-destruction.
“If you actually took the texts of a Gingrich speech, a Romney speech, an Obama speech, and a Clinton speech, you’d probably not find that much difference in them.”
The rest of the cast includes Selina’s oddball staffers—played brilliantly by Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, Reid Scott, Matt Walsh, and Sufe Bradshaw—as well as various power players in Washington with whom Selina tangles, usually in an effort to carve out some influence and put her stamp on the country. A new hire in the pilot episode, the duplicitous and morally bankrupt Dan (Reid Scott), is emblematic of Selina’s efforts to seize control of what she sees as her destiny. (Dan may be a “shit,” but he’s her “shit,” as Selina reminds her staff.)
As the season progresses, Veep’s sense of scale quickly begins to open up, said Iannucci, and there’s a strong arc to Selina’s character.
“She’s on Meet the Press, she visits a hospital, Senate negotiations. We see her daughter, and the effect her job has on her family life. We meet her boyfriend. The arrival of Dan [Reid Scott] and him pushing her in a certain way actually has knock-on consequences on each episode, so that, by the end, everyone’s loyalties and relationships have been completely transformed. [Selina] is much stronger, and yet more fragile, at the end of the season. There’s lots of sparkle in her eyes at the start, and she becomes much more hardened by the end.”
Iannucci once championed Yes, Minister as the best British comedy of all time. The political satire, which ran between 1980 and 1984, and led to a sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, is a clear forerunner to Iannucci’s work, as well as a direct influence on Veep and his other projects.
“It was the first show that genuinely showed you what went on behind those closed doors,” he said. “Even though it was traditionally shot in front of the studio audience on a studio set, a lot of those storylines are all based on things that actually happened. We didn’t even have cameras in the House of Commons when Yes, Minister started going out. This really was the first time any of us got any kind of inkling of what it was really like. The ambition behind Veep is to try and show you Washington as it really is, and not necessarily as it may have been portrayed in dramas, or thrillers.”
Or even, one imagines, in glossy prime-time dramas like The West Wing.
“I was a big fan of The West Wing,” said Iannucci. “To my eyes, it still felt like a genuine insight into how things worked. But, yes, there was an aspiration behind it. They’re all great at the job, and they’re all good-looking, and they’re all talented, and in the end they mostly succeeded. I think if we were to try that in the U.K., people would not believe it. I suppose maybe we’re a little bit more cynical about politicians.”
It’s that cynicism that is manifested so brilliantly within The Thick of It. However, fans of The Thick of It and In the Loop needn’t look for a domineering Malcolm Tucker analog to appear within Veep. “What I didn’t want to do was replicate the dynamic of The Thick of It,” Iannucci said. “If anything, the guy who comes from the outside and tells them what to do, which is Jonah [Timothy Simons], is actually a slightly pathetic figure. He is a messenger and he just happens to know that his message is something that they have to respond to. He himself has no power, other than he knows that they have to listen to him.”
While Veep and Iannucci’s previous work may be separate, the connections to the U.K. remain firm: the show utilizes writers from both The Thick of It and In the Loop, and the entire cast went to London for two weeks of rehearsals so that the actors could meet the writing staff. “Once the writers meet them, they can start writing for the performers rather than the abstract role,” said Iannucci. “They know how they speak, how they move, they know what they look like, how they behave.” Improvisation is important, but “only in that it helps to make it seem like it’s not all been written down,” he added.
“I want the viewer to feel, very subconsciously, that they’re eavesdropping on something that’s actually happening,” he said. “It should feel like you’ve been lured into it without realizing it.” Iannucci credits the films of Robert Altman and the use of overlapping dialogue as a huge inspiration. What Iannucci achieves with Veep is a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, and, yes, a sense that the viewer is invited into a world of power and of privilege to which few are privy, a world which is ultimately topsy-turvy and often devoid of logic or reason.
Despite the accolades for his political comedies, Iannucci doesn’t see himself as a satirist, though the Daily Telegraph once referred to him as “the hardman of political satire.”
“I see myself as a comedy writer,” he said. “I love satire, and it’s always great to be considered a satirist. But I wouldn’t say I’m a satirist, because that implies your only job is to deconstruct the way the world works or to find the negative about something … My principal concern is to make people laugh.”
Iannucci’s life could have gone in many different directions. Born in Glasgow to an Italian father and a Scottish mother, he grew up writing comedy for fun—“I did my first stand-up routine when I was 12, pinching material that I’d heard off the radio,” he said—but considered entering the priesthood at one point (“I was very young,” he said), and even considered a career in the civil service.
“I did apply for the civil service when I was at college,” said Iannucci. “I nearly got into the Treasury, but they did say in the end they thought I wouldn’t take it seriously, which was probably right. It’s better that I’m doing what I’m doing, rather than trying to sort out tax problems.”