Can Veep Keep Being The Funniest Show in America?
A conversation with brand new Veep showrunner David Mandel about season five, comparisons to Hillary Clinton, and how to keep those foul-mouthed insults f***ing fresh.
“One of my first tweets after I took the job was something like, ‘Let me be the first to say that Veep has gotten much worse since Armando left,’” David Mandel says, laughing. “I feel like it’s unavoidable.”
Mandel became showrunner of the fifth season of HBO’s Emmy-winning comedy after Armando Iannucci, the foul-mouthed savant responsible for the madcap political satire’s signature comedic voice, notoriously fired himself.
“Any showrunner would look at his team and say, ‘Who’s not quite giving a hundred percent?’” Iannucci, who had been commuting between London and Baltimore to film the show, said after deciding to step down. “I actually felt, if I carry on doing it like this, I won’t be giving a hundred percent—so I’m fired. I decided to fire me from the show.”
Mandel, a former executive producer for Curb Your Enthusiasm and writer for Seinfeld, is sitting a few feet from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and two turkeys. Well, the Veep star and the pair of gobblers are splashed across a giant monitor inside the edit room of HBO’s Bryant Park-adjacent New York office.
It’s episode five of the season, and Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer is still president. The electoral tie that ended Season Four has continued to torture Selina in all the archaically convoluted ways that our democracy fosters. But Selina is still president for now and that means that, on Thanksgiving, there are still some turkeys to pardon.
Mandel is editing after having a bad dream about the episode. “With any episode, we’re always mushing the sausage,” he says. “We shoot long, and part of the way the episode gets not only its speed but also its thickness is just mashing as much possible.”
But when you have Julia Louis-Dreyfus acting against two unpredictable turkeys? Mandel had a very important late-night epiphany—he mashed too much. “It’s always funny seeing Selina’s public face,” he says. “I think it makes her private face that much funnier when we see her interacting with real people…and real turkeys.”
He combs through footage and re-adds an awkward interaction between Selina and her daughter, Catherine. Some of Selina’s classically inauthentic speech-giving is thrown back in, too. “Thanksgiving has always meant sharing happy times and sharing the bounty of our rich land,” she says with a smile plastered on her face. “But the one thing we will not be sharing this holiday is Drumstick or Cranberry. Catherine actually chose those names, didn’t ya honey?”
Mandel nods. “That’s the start of something.”
It makes sense that Mandel wants to get things right. Not only is Mandel stepping in for one of TV’s most celebrated and unique showrunners, but he’s also stepping in at a time when Iannucci had effectively written the show into the corner.
If the tie breaks and Selina wins the presidency, is the show still funny once she’s gotten what she always wanted? And if she loses and isn’t in office anymore, is there still a show at all?
We talk through all of that, the ridiculous—though perhaps understandable—assumption that Selina is modeled after Hillary Clinton, what it’s like to write a political show in an election year, and how hard it is to make all of Veep’s celebrated cursing fresh after five years.
Did you talk with Armando before you took the job?
We had an email early on because I wanted to make sure that when I got approached, everyone’s happy. He was very welcoming via email. And I think we had a phone conversation. That was very not anything. That was just he was cool with it. We had met once previously a few years ago, we had done a day together on a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. Just enough mutual respect. So very brief. And at some point or another and he said why don’t you come over to London and let’s sit down proper. I flew over to London and had tea with him, which was very nice.
Did he have anything to say about where he thought the show should go?
I told him what I was thinking in terms of an arc for the season. And he said something along the lines of, “That sounds great.” And then something along the lines of it being simpatico with where he was thinking of going. That was it. And I got a lovely Easter note from him. By the way, and I don’t meet this in a bad way, but he wanted to go. I don’t think he was looking to continue. On the flip side, and again I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I will also simply say, if I was somehow having to take orders from London, this would not be a job for me.
When you stepped in, did you have thoughts about how to end the show? You’re forced to think in a more finite way when you take over in Season Five than someone who is launching the show.
I oddly have some of those ideas. But when I came in there was the thought of, “This doesn’t have to end.” If they were only interested in doing one more year and wrapping it up, they probably could’ve figured that out perhaps with Armando. There’s a lot of life here. There’s a lot of places to go. We’re not exactly worried about how to end it yet, but you can’t not think about it.
There seems to be an interesting creative challenge going on where in order for the show to keep going, Selina would have to be in office. But if you’re not afraid that she would lose, there’s no tension. How do you balance that?
That is the thing. Those challenges began to exist the moment Armando, pre-me, decided to make her president. How do you keep it interesting when you’re giving her what she always wanted? Of course the way he did it was “I’m giving you what you want but now you’re fighting to keep it.” Our season is a continuation of that fight. You can still win that fight, but what are the new challenges that come up? What happens when you’re overwhelmed? What happens when you confront the fact that, in this job, your staff isn’t up to par? You can continue to create those obstacles even within the notion of job security or non-job security.
Is there a show if hypothetically—don’t spoil anything—Selina loses?
Yes. I don’t ever want to say no to anything. Like I said, in any situation you’re still going to have to build those obstacles. In my mind, if she’s in office she’s going to want to stay in office. If she’s in office, it’s not just “How do I become president?” but “How do I become a memorable president? How do I become one of the best? How do I make sure that history remembers me?” Those are the Selina pressures. That’s how you keep remaining in office fun and exciting. And I guess to me if she’s not in office, well it’s, “How do I get back into office?” She has one thing: I want that. Even if she’s there she wants it, and if she’s not there she wants it.
What is different about doing a show like this when you’re set against an actual election? Is there maybe even a bigger focus on reading into art imitating life?
We wrote most of this stuff a year ago. Then things start to happen and I’m sure in some cases people will go, “Oh my god, you did that!” We’re like, well, we thought it would be funny and then, oh my god, it happens. It’s been really weird that as people are just talking about the possibility of a brokered convention or Bloomberg talking about being a third party candidate, people were writing editorials about how it could go to the House of Representatives or the Senate. It’s not exactly a tied electoral college, but it’s basically that version of things, where they’re writing about the possibility that we thought we were making up. It’s just baffling. We’re always inspired by the real world, first of all.
If it’s inspired by the real world does that mean we get a Trump character?
There’s no Trump character and there’s not going to be a Trump character. We don’t do it like that. But there are moments, there are things that suggest stuff. Selina’s not Hillary. This is not the Hillary campaign. Hillary is in my mind far more competent than Selina Meyers. They happen to be women, and it’s very easy for people to just go “They’re the same.” But that doesn’t mean that things don’t happen to Hillary that we take note of.
Does it feel different doing this in an election year?
It does. I know it sounds silly, but it’s been funny with even just our season poster, the Shepard Fairey with the “Maybe!” Seeing that in the wild or sometimes seeing it near or next to a Hillary poster. Seeing an election poster in an election year, it does make it all interesting. That being said, if I had ever written a scene in a debate with somebody and that guy started talking about the size of his penis, I think I would have lost my job. Julia would’ve fired me. It would’ve seemed unbelievable, stupid, crude, easy. But that was reality.
When the election is crazy does that make it harder?
It makes it harder. My first job out of college was at SNL. One of the real fun things to do at SNL was the fake commercials. But there was definitely a period of time when the commercials themselves got very funny. When the commercials themselves are funny to begin with, you can’t make fun of a funny commercial. You know what I mean? So it does make things harder. You have to find your way. Obviously with the contested ballots in Nevada [an election plot point this season], that’s our version of Florida, which in a way is a slightly older version of things. With some distance—I’m not sure I’d have wanted to do Florida during Florida. But years later we can take pieces of it as inspiration and use it as story moments.
I definitely prefer that than trying to parody what happened a week ago. At the same time, wouldn’t it be funny for Selina to make an entrance like that crazy Ben Carson, where it didn’t even seem like he knew where he was? That was brilliant. That’s the one thing I wish I could’ve stolen. That’s one of the ones where you go, “I just want to do that.” It would’ve been fun just having Julia play that.
With the whole notion of Selina not being Hillary, is there any sort of cognizance while you guys are writing that people may conflate the two?
Sometimes I do worry. Some of the fun of Selina is the incompetence of her staff and how, sometimes in her desire for success, she leaps at things and makes giant mistakes and honestly is a horrible person. She’s horrible to her daughter. Horrible to people who work for her. In a great way! It’s fun to watch shows about horrible people. But you don’t want people sitting around and going, “Oh she’s horrible, Hillary must be horrible.” Not just as a candidate or possible office holder, but as a person. So I don’t think it necessarily stops us, but I wanted to make clear that this is not The Hillary Show. I can’t even think of the equivalent. All sailors are not Gilligan. I don’t know what to say. It ain’t her.
People tend to obsess over the cursing and the insults on the show. In Season Five of a show known for that, what kind of pressures are there? How do you calibrate it?
At the end of the day, and this is always a hard thing, I don’t want to be doing the black market version, the Chinese knockoff, if you will, of Veep. It’s really easy to fall into “you’re as fucked as a fuckity fuck fuck fuck fuck.” It’s fake-sounding. If I had to pick the biggest challenge, and I know this sounds silly, it was living up to the foul-mouthed reputation of the show, and also trying to do my version of it that wasn’t just random cursing for cursing’s sake.
How do you resist the temptation to do that?
Sometimes they sneak in. Sometimes in a take, people will change “this stupid car” to “this fucking car.” And we went through and realized oh gosh, three or four slipped in, we need to take them out. You don’t want to get numb to the word. If it’s in every scene then it loses its power. There are places too, like one of my absolute favorite lines is when Ben says, “They’re calling it Black Wednesday.” We were playing with a lot of things in response, with lots of cursing. And somewhere it became, “Jesus, it’s only Wednesday.” There’s no cursing in that line. But to me it’s as Veepy a line as anything.
Do you have favorite insults?
The “fuck fuck fucks” in the show are not the enjoyable ones. The enjoyable ones are the turns of phrase, if you will. It was enjoyable to find new ways to insult Jonah. You’re up against four years of really wonderful ones. There’s one in episode two where Jonah’s like, “You’re starting Hakeem Olajuwan. You’ve got Michael Jordan on the bench.” And Amy’s like, “You’re not Michael Jordan. You’re a seven-foot-seven goony Lithuanian who’s going to drop dead of Marfan’s syndrome.” Again there’s no cursing in there, but I’d like to think it’s very enjoyable. I’m a fan of a Marfan’s syndrome references. You’re not going to see Marfan’s syndrome references on the average episode of the Jim Belushi show.