Inside Veep’s Fuck Politics, Fuck Cancer, Fuck-It-All Final Season
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her cast on how ‘Veep’ managed to remain the funniest show on TV despite Trump, regime changes, and a cancer battle—all the way to the bitter end.
There were the metaphors about the pressures of taking an Emmy-winning, Peabody-winning, make-audiences-dizzy-with-laughter TV series to the finish line.
If comedy was a sport, consider the final season, which begins Sunday night on HBO, the equivalent of an Olympian leaving it all on the floor at their last Olympics. “We’re Michael Phelps-ing it big time,” says Clea DuVall, who plays bodyguard-turned-daughter-in-law to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer.
“We have these secret plays that we didn’t show until the Super Bowl,” says Matt Walsh, the man behind hapless former press secretary Mike McClintock, punting his own football metaphor. “There’s a lot of stuff you’d never see coming, and have never seen in a Veep episode.”
Or there’s even the fact that Anna Chlumsky, who plays Amy Brookheimer, was on her way to her fantasy football draft when Louis-Dreyfus called her to say that the show would be ending after season seven. “I pulled the car over and had a complete catharsis cry,” she says.
More than all of that, there’s the athlete’s desire to return from hiatus in top form.
“I’m a competitive guy,” says David Mandel, who took over as Veep showrunner in season five. “I want to be the funniest. With this final season, I was like, there’s a statement to be made, which is we’re fucking funny.”
That goes for everything from the last scene to the season’s trailer: “I’m not going to lie, I wanted to remind people we’re Veep.”
But then there’s this sports-related fallacy when it comes to Veep season seven, that it is some sort of victory lap. Veep’s triumphant journey to the end—though you may be fooled by its reliably, breathlessly, viciously profane comedy and astute political satire—was never assured. In fact, given the obstacles it was forced to overcome on the way, that it’s sprinting to the finish at all is some sort of miracle.
Creator Armando Iannucci’s maniacally smart dissection of insider D.C. culture racked up accolades from the start, with Louis-Dreyfus winning the first of her record six consecutive Best Actress in a Comedy awards for the first season.
Its understanding of the depraved circus raging inside the Beltway was so shrewd that it characters were regularly compared to real-life political figures. (Is Selina Meyer based on Sarah Palin? Hillary Clinton? Joe Biden?) Capitol Hill acolytes began gossiping about which Veep characters their colleagues most resembled. (If you thought someone else was a Jonah or a Gary, you were probably the Jonah or the Gary.) And the show’s plot even began even predicating real-world political events, including 2013’s government shutdown.
But each year, a slew of creative decisions and unforeseen outside forces almost doomed the entire series.
Iannucci, for one, had a devious—though successful—tendency to blow up the series entirely at the end of each season, rendering the show’s title nearly meaningless by season four when Selina becomes president, again later when she leaves the White House entirely, and now as she runs for president for the fourth time.
Then, after four years of commuting between his home in London and Baltimore, where the series filmed, Iannucci left as showrunner entirely. Rather than end the show, Louis-Dreyfus turned to her friend and former Seinfeld writer David Mandel to take over, a risk for a comedy so reliant on a signature voice to be effective.
Then came something that could have been catastrophic for a series skewering American politics: Donald Trump was elected president. A show that began in one era of politics and discourse is ending firmly in another, and navigating that transition wasn’t easy.
But none of that compared to the gut-punch to everyone involved with the show that came in 2017: Louis-Dreyfus was diagnosed with breast cancer, right before the series was to go into production on a final season.
But like Meyer and the lunatics that orbit her, the show somehow managed to outlast the catastrophes. Mandel capably took the reins. The Trump administration forced the writers to think smarter. Louis-Dreyfus kicked cancer’s ass and, after a year’s delay, seven season went into production. Now we have this crass, wickedly dark and lacerating fuck politics, fuck cancer, fuck-it-all final season.
Mandel, Louis-Dreyfus, and 10 other members of the Veep cast all spoke with The Daily Beast to look back on the show’s unlikely journey, after nearly a decade of playing this constellation of petty egos and narcissistic buffoons.
But it’s Louis-Dreyfus, delivering the mantra that has always served as a Bible for the show, who underlines how they all carried the show’s ethos to the deeply bitter, somewhat cynical, always hilarious end: “It’s gotta feel real. There can’t be any false notes. And it has to be funny as shit.”
When Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her sixth Emmy for playing Selina Meyer in 2017, she followed up her thank-yous with an apology.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to personally apologize for the current political climate,” she said. “Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics. Our show started out as a political satire but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.”
The audience roared with laughter, but Louis-Dreyfus was, in a way, raising what would be an existential point for the series: How do you satirize Washington when the Oval Office is more outlandish than the comedy itself?
The show, in a bit of irony, was shooting an election scene for a season six episode when, like the rest of the world, the cast and crew was stunned to learn that Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton and won the presidency.
In hindsight, the greatest advantage the series had is that it had already mapped the entire season by the time Trump took the election. But the three-ring Trump administration cast a looming, circus tent-shaped shadow as the final season was announced. When production was delayed following Louis-Dreyfus’s cancer diagnosis—and the pace of insanity in real-world politics only escalated—the challenge became all the more daunting.
A major tenet of Veep’s early seasons was the shock value of revealing how politicians, even in the highest offices, talk behind closed doors. With Trump, that talk is all out in the open. “It’s not shocking anymore,” Mandel says. “It’s still funny, but it’s not that shocking.”
During the extended hiatus, the showrunner had another issue to grapple with: how to reckon with the fact that, in today’s world, politicians don’t seem to suffer repercussions for outrageous screw-ups. (If there’s any character who could be compared to Trump in Veep, it’s Timothy Simons’ Jonah Ryan, who fails upward each time he offends.) “That notion of paying a price seems to go out the window,” Mandel says.
“It has been more challenging because discourse has been so lowered in the political universe,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Fortunately for us, we are not doing a parody. We haven’t identified party. So those facts have turned out to be a tremendous virtue and helped us navigate these waters.” The season, she says, is more extreme when it comes to the characters’ behavior. “I think that’s appropriate.”
And while all cast members trust in the writers, always, there was one thing making everyone nervous: How would audiences react to this particular brand of political comedy in this climate?
“In my own life, when we first started I had no trouble making fun of politics,” Simons says. “But it’s been a struggle for me to make jokes about what’s going on in the real world because it’s not fucking funny.”
“I was nervous about people being able to laugh at things in the same way,” says Sarah Sutherland, who plays Selina’s daughter, Catherine. “I’ve been really surprised by people’s ability to laugh and maybe even find the show cathartic.”
The show has certainly become meaner and darker in response to America’s changing political reality, reflecting what Mandel calls “a real pessimism in this country.” Louis-Dreyfus warns that the season is going to get “crazy dark.”
“Full Game of Thrones,” jokes Tony Hale, who plays right-hand lapdog Gary Walsh. “There’s a Red Wedding episode.”
By all accounts, it’s the storytelling, not the Trump of it all, that dictated the end of Veep. But it’s fairly evident to all that the political climate the show is ending in, given the nature of the show’s comedy, coincides appropriately with that natural conclusion.
“It was very fortuitous that Veep came along at this time, and we got to watch the evolution of media and politics almost in real satirical time through it,” says Reid Scott, who plays Dan Egan. “It’s why it’s right to end the show now.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus was all smiles while giving that fantastic Best Actress Emmys speech in 2017. Icing on the cake, Veep won its second consecutive Best Comedy Series award later that night. But underneath, emotions were more complicated.
Two days before the ceremony, she had a biopsy performed on a lump on her breast. The breast cancer diagnosis came the day after the awards, an example of the “good news/bad news” cliché that the actress can only laugh about in hindsight.
“I think you could ask anybody this: Nobody cared what would happen to Veep at that point,” Mandel says, his voice cracking as he recalls the tick-tock of that time. “I don’t mean that casually. It wasn’t a concern. It was, is she going to be OK?”
He remembers the painful period when he knew she had cancer but it wasn’t public information yet. Crew members were discussing the next week’s shoot, but there wasn’t going to be one—only he couldn’t tell them. “It was awful,” he says. “When she was so sick from the cure, you start to go, ‘Oh my God, there’s a hole in my life,’ because she’s dealing with this. You try not to bother her, but she’s my partner in this thing.”
Louis-Dreyfus’s initial optimism that she could shoot the final season while receiving treatment eventually evolved into a plan that would allow her to participate in table reads on her strongest days, but a delay in filming until early 2018 when she had beat the disease.
Her first day back on set to film, everybody lost it.
She delivered a speech to the crew, many of whom were without a job while the show was on hiatus, to thank them for their support. There was not a dry eye to be found. “And then moments later, she’s in character as Selina, shaking and screaming ‘I want a war!’ in a monologue and doing all these wonderfully horrific Kennedy jokes,” Mandel laughs.
It’s a scene that’s featured heavily in the season seven trailer, and an undeniable highlight of the premiere. Selina, in a bathrobe in her hotel room, is dictating to Gary everything she would want to say in a campaign announcement speech, a rafters-shaking moment of catharsis for the character.
“I should be president because it is my goddamn turn!” she bellows. “I was a game changer. I took a dump on the glass ceiling and I shaved my muff in the sink of the old boy’s club.”
I ask Louis-Dreyfus what it was like to execute that scene. True to form, she focuses on the random, though hilarious stage business of nailing a bit in which Selina messes up Gary’s attempt to change the bedsheets. “I’ll tell you what was hard to nail in that scene was the bed making.”
For nearly a decade as Jonah Ryan, Timothy Simons has been on the receiving end of some of the most operatically vile insults ever seen on television. “Jolly Green Jizzface.” “80-Story Skyraper.” “Seven-Foot-Seven Goony-Looking Lithuanian Who’s Going to Drop Dead of Marfan Syndrome.” More, he’s spent a great deal of that time talking to journalists about them, dissecting them, and how they make him feel.
“People assume the insults started when the show started, but I assure you that I have looked like this since I was a child and they started a long time ago,” Simons says, laughing. “I say this honestly: it never fazed me.”
The filthy writing is Veep’s chief calling card, causing envy among the cast members who play some of the more chaste characters. “I think it would probably be therapeutic to lay into someone with a crass attack,” says Sam Richardson, who plays relentlessly upbeat adviser Richard Splett. “Just to be mean in a way that, unlike the real world, there’s no consequence.”
In the real world, of course, there is consequence. It makes the sheer number of issues typically ruled to be comedy landmines that Veep did not tip-toe around and instead, and with a giddy reckless abandon, just straight-up exploded all the more impressive.
The season seven premiere alone lands multiple jokes about the politicization of school shootings, with Selina not only struggling to come up with alternative language for “thoughts and prayers,” but also becoming more concerned with whether the shooter was white or Muslim—one would be more politically advantageous for her.
And a storyline introduced in the season six finale gets deeper exploration: Amy is pregnant with Dan’s baby. She’s forced to discuss with him whether to keep it or have the abortion, leading to lines like, “If you want to go Dutch or whatever on the abortion, just hit me up on Venmo,” from Dan, and two truly unforgettable scenes at an abortion clinic.
Scott remembers a table read last season when Walsh leaned over to him and said, “This is the episode that sends us all to hell.” The abortion storyline is as if the writers took that as a challenge, he jokes. “But I think if you’re going to go for something, go for the throat.”
Reminding us that the jugular has always been Veep’s target, Louis-Dreyfus says, “Those were issues that we tackled in earlier seasons. We’re just revisiting them with a sharper edge.”
That idea permeates everything in the final episodes. Anna Chlumsky compares it to a theatre tradition. “We had the no regrets of closing night feel. ‘Let’s go for it! We’re not going to have a chance to do it again.’”
The final days of shooting were a relentless parade of cast members wrapping, applause, cake, and tears.
DuVall remembers showing up for the final table read early and seeing Simons in the conference room. She stopped in the doorway, they looked at each other, and then both melted into sobs for a solid five minutes. Matt Walsh remembers that he didn’t want to make everyone cry on his wrap day, so instead he insisted production play the smooth jazz version of “Single Ladies” through the speakers. “I made everyone dance.”
Chlumsky is still grappling with how dramatically her life, and the lives of so many other cast members, changed over the course of the show. “We didn’t have children, you know?” she says, gesturing at Simons, who also started a family throughout the run of the series. “Everything happened.”
“We’ve had kids, we’ve had marriages, we’ve had people passing away, health crises,” Louis-Dreyfus says, gesturing at herself. “The whole nine yards. We had a change of showrunners. We had the company move from one coast to another. It has been a lot of change that we’ve all walked through together.”
She leans back in her chair, smiles, and shakes her head, almost in disbelief again about it all. “It’s been kind of a miracle.”