Life Imitates Art

10.02.13

How ‘Veep’ Nailed the Government Shutdown

‘Veep’ creator Armando Iannucci talks to Kevin Fallon about tackling a fictional government shutdown in a Season 2 episode of the HBO comedy.

Congress and the White House can’t agree on a budget. A revolving door of employees is getting furloughed … and then un-furloughed … and then re-furloughed again. Trash is piling up on the streets. There’s no one to fight bears.

Those events are from a Season 2 episode of the HBO comedy Veep, but they could easily describe the current state of affairs as the U.S. weathers its second day of a government shutdown—albeit reflected through a funhouse mirror.

In the episode, “Shutdown,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Vice President Selina Meyer is saddled with the blame when congressional gridlock leads to a government shutdown. She must decide which employees are “nonessential” and can therefore be furloughed. With government agencies closed, trash builds up on the streets. National parks can’t staff the grounds with park rangers. A hiker is attacked by a bear and dies. The widow blames the government (and, by proxy, Selina).

The episode first aired in June, but now that the U.S. government is actually facing similar calamities to those depicted in the installment—though, no confirmed bear attacks yet—we called up Veep creator and writer Armando Iannucci to talk about what inspired him to tackle a shutdown last season on the show. And, because he’s a Brit, we couldn’t help but ask how our operational debacle is playing out to people on the other side of the pond.

It’s fitting now in hindsight, but what made you decide to include a government shutdown episode last season?

I suppose it’s been sort of looming over the past couple of years. It so nearly happened already, and the whole threat was becoming a perennial thing, like Thanksgiving, really. So we thought it would fun to do. I kind of wanted to do it at that point, too, since in that season Selina was getting much closer to actually having real power. I thought, “What things would give her a headache, be problematic for her?” It seemed to me that there has been so much change in Congress, and the whole gridlock thing seemed ripe for examination.

Really, this whole idea of a government shutting down because Congress can’t agree is primed for laughs.

Right. We saw so many comic possibilities. Can you imagine being told you’re “not essential”? Or having to pare your team down and then operate? And when the country is suffering and you’re the vice president you have to make it look like you’re not living in luxury. The fact that it felt like an exaggerated version of what was happening at the time was ripe for comic possibility.

How did you settle on the two shutdown-related calamities that episode depicted: the trash piling up to unmanageable levels and then the hiker being killed by a bear because the park rangers were furloughed and no one could save him?

I was thinking one small one and one big one. Let’s make the big one far away, to show how far the shutdown reaches. Although it’s a ridiculous story, the hiker killed by the bear, there s a tragedy involved. There was some kind of personal tragedy and it still led to someone blaming the politicians. It’s a very difficult thing to have to deal with. It’s an unfair allegation, but at the same time, as a politician, you can’t go on TV and say the widow is talking nonsense. It’s watching politicians being dragged into their own mess.

I feel like a lot of Americans now are viewing our politicians as hapless buffoons, in the midst of all this—not so different from how Selina and her team are portrayed on Veep.

Yes. The empty rubbish and the trash piling up is a metaphor for when there is gridlock. The American Constitution only works when there’s collaboration and compromise. When you have people in power refusing to collaborate and compromise, it’s rubbish. And the rubbish builds up.

Looking at the mess we’re in now, it seems that you pretty much nailed it with this episode.

Sometimes we write stories that we think are funny, and then those things actually do come up in Washington and everyone is like, “How did you find out that was happening?” We were like, “We didn’t think it actually happened, or would happen. We thought it was just absurd, so we made it a story.” That’s the frightening thing here.

There’s a frustrating inability it seems, right now, to define what parts of government are “essential” and “nonessential.” Seeing that now and then rewatching episode, the fact that Selina keeps changing her mind over which staffers are “nonessential” and should be furloughed is extra hilarious.

It’s what she does, sees the opportunity to grab power and takes it. Suddenly she has the power to furlough people, so she uses it. She never had that power before.

So you’re abroad now. What does everyone over there think about what’s going over here stateside?

We just get the headline here. We don’t get the blow-by-blow—House says this, Senate that. We don’t get that. There is a general sense of the peculiarity of it. I can’t think of any other country that runs that way. We do find it peculiar. I think people are rather confused by it. Or rather appalled. I don’t think people are amused by it, because America is such an important site in the world, that its function should all boil down to extreme views of 20 people in the House of Representatives seems odd.

Will the government shutdown play a part in Season 3?

I don’t know. I tend to always move onto something that we haven’t looked at. But there are plenty of other areas of equally bizarre, complex things to tackle. I’m thinking in Season 3 that there are bigger issues to look at, like gun control and immigration. Selina’s campaigning a lot more in the third season so she has to express her own view on a lot of matters while, as VP, look in step with the president.

Video screenshot

"Veep," "Parks & Rec," and "West Wing" show us how to handle a shutdown (and laugh while doing it).