MAKE AMERICA LAUGH AGAIN
Making ‘Veep’ In the Age of Trump: How the Cast Handles the Big Donald Question
How do you satirize politics when the real thing is its own comedy show? The cast of ‘Veep’ talk Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton parallels, and the show’s sobering comedy.
Last September when Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her record-setting sixth Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series for Veep (her eighth award overall), she said her thank yous—but she also said sorry.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to personally apologize for the current political climate,” the actress, who plays former president Selina Meyer on the series, said in her speech. “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. So I certainly do promise to rebuild that wall... and make Mexico pay for it.”
The audience roared with laughter at Louis-Dreyfus’s admission of what fans of the show had long been saying: that the clown-show politics beginning with the Republican presidential primaries and leading into Donald Trump’s showdown with Hillary Clinton in November bore an eerie resemblance to the circus-buffoonery in HBO’s comedic send-up of Washington.
It’s been several months—though it may seem a lifetime—since that speech and, much like the real-life one Louis-Dreyfus was mocking, there is no tangible progress being made on rebuilding that proverbial wall.
“Now we seem aspirational,” jokes Timothy Simons, who plays Veep’s reviled flunky Jonah Ryan, who in Season 5 of the series failed upwards all the way to a new position as U.S. Representative from New Hampshire.
On Tuesday, the Veep Season 5 DVD and Blu-Ray hits shelves, and five days later Season 6 of the series premieres on HBO.
Both the Emmy-winning last season of the show and Sunday’s premiere contain the kinds of political mishaps and gross incompetence that could seemingly only happen in a biting satire like Veep—only to then happen in real life over the course of the election and in these first months of Trump’s presidency.
It’s easy to shut down any talk about how the events of recent months might have served as fodder for either season. Most of Season 5 was written a year before the presidential primaries were heating up, and Season 6 was largely mapped out and written by June of 2016, long before Trump took the election.
“The show literally can’t be affected by what happened after it was written,” says Anna Chlumsky, who plays tightly wound campaign manager Amy Brookheimer. No matter how closely the conclave of headless chickens inside the Beltway seem to mirror her show’s characters, it’s sheer coincidence.
And while you might spend Sunday night parsing the premiere for gags inspired by Trump, Simons even rules that out completely.
“I know we’re going to get [the Trump question] a lot this season,” he says. “But the truth is nobody actually expected he would win. Even on the night of. It was something we could not even think about,” in terms of how he would affect the show. “Now it can’t just be a sideshow, in whichever way the show would deal with it. Whereas before it was, ‘Let’s pretend that this clown isn’t around.’”
That’s not to say, of course, that the current political happenings might affect how you watch events on the show—even ones that already took place in Season 5.
Matt Walsh, who plays Selina’s former White House Press Secretary, remembers a storyline last season in which Selina causes international news with an ill-advised tweet sent from her official Twitter account.
“It was funny then but is so tame now, because we have a president who fucking tweets every morning at 6 a.m. and says the most offensive, rude, douchebaggy things in the world,” Walsh says. “If we did that joke now it wouldn’t work. So going forward it will be interesting.”
Believe it or not, on the night of the election Veep was shooting an election scene.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Louis-Dreyfus and showrunner David Mandel were on set shooting a scene in which Selina was monitoring a momentous free election in the Republic of Georgia.
“That was the truth,” Louis-Dreyfus says, shaking her head. “We were actually in a polling place. With a lot of people in babushkas and chickens and things.”
They weren’t able to watch the results trickle in on live TV, with the news softened by the idle chitchat of talking heads all night. “Just every couple of minutes it was just like [Hillary Clinton’s] percentages were coming down. Like, ‘90 percent! 71, 55, 49, 29, she has to win Alaska, Ohio…’” recalled Louis-Dreyfus.
Quickly, as has happened all too often, the events began to resemble a plot on Veep.
Much of the fifth season centered on a tie in the electoral college that would require a recount in order to determine whether Selina Meyer would become the first woman elected president of the United States.
While the real-life nail-biter vote tally didn’t go to the extreme that Veep took it, it was rather unbelievable for the cast to be watching the potential first female president’s chances of office thwarted by the electoral college.
“It is so generally terrible that I kind of refused, at least for the little bit, to diminish it by even comparing it to any pop culture,” Simons says. “‘This is so awful that I don’t even want to make it a pop culture cross over.’ I just got hella drunk and smoked cigarettes and was miserable.”
Chlumsky nods emphatically: “I cried.”
“But there were elements of stuff that started to happen afterwards, like when they started to do recount stuff, I was like, ‘Oh I’m prepared for this,’” she says. “Because I read the book. I did the show. And I know about fucking recounts! Let’s do this!”
She shrugs and laughs: “So there was an element of feeling somewhat educated about how a non-traditional election could go.”
But for all the talk of how Trump might factor into the new season of Veep, you might be surprised to learn that the most uncanny parallels are to the recent months in Hillary Clinton’s life. And again, this was all written when it was assumed that she would win the presidency.
The Season 6 premiere deals primarily with how Selina Meyer is handling the awkward transition into a life outside of politics after having lost a high-profile, maddeningly close presidential election.
The comparisons couldn’t be closer if Selina was suddenly spotted taking selfies with supporters in the woods.
She’s starting to appear publicly again. The episode opens with Selina being interviewed by CBS This Morning. In real life, Clinton recently made a buzzy appearance at New York’s Women in the World Summit.
“To have gotten so close to the presidency and then have the American people and congress reject me was devastating,” Selina says in the interview. “But I did reacquaint myself with an old friend of mine, by the name of Selina Meyer. And I like her!” (Clinton’s own, breezier statement: “You know what? I am doing well, all things considered.”)
Selina is constantly fielding questions about whether she’ll run for office again. She is writing a memoir. She is working on a foundation. She is lining up speaking engagements.
While the parallels with Hillary Clinton—who Selina Meyer has always been compared to—embarking on a post-election life weren’t predicted, it is that dynamic that Mandel was most excited to explore in the new season.
“In a world where there are your West Wings and your Frank Underwoods and your Scandals, I thought let’s be the first person to take a bite out of the world of former presidents,” Mandel says. “Especially with the Clinton Foundation and all that stuff going on. Especially since we knew in the back of our heads that Obama would be leaving somewhere around when the show was coming out. There was all this opportunity.”
In terms of taking a political stance, though, Veep has always been staunchly non-partisan, taking equal shots at both sides of the aisle.
“We try to keep identifiable partisan politics out of it,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “There are obviously political parties, but they’re not identified. Personally, my choice is that I don’t want to use this opportunity to start talking too much about my own political point of view because I don’t know if it’s entirely appropriate.”
But increasingly the cast, its Emmy-winning star included, is finding themselves with no other recourse than to start wading into the more partisan waters. Louis-Dreyfus, for example, used the occasion of her SAG Awards win this winter to deliver a speech blasting Trump’s then-freshly announced Muslim ban.
“That moment at the SAG Awards was just something that kind of happened organically because the immigration ban had come down almost immediately before and it was something that I was deeply offended by and felt as if I couldn’t with a clear conscience not mention, particularly because my father was an immigrant,” she says about her decision to give that speech. “I wouldn’t have had a press conference about it, but the moment presented itself to me when I so happily won the award as a member of the Screen Actors Guild.”
As for the rest of the cast?
We’ll let an exchange between Chlumsky, Simons, and Walsh when Walsh is asked what his character Mike might think of Sean Spicer speak for itself.
“Sean Spicer is much worse than Mike McClintock,” Walsh says. “They’ve written things for Mike that sometimes you think ‘oh that’s too far,’ but lo and behold reality shows us that no, this is possible. Spicer is much worse than Mike at his job, which is amazing.”
Simons weighs in: “There is one thing that I will say about Sean Spicer: It is impressive how much public shit he is willing to eat. He is willing to go out there and eat an entire plate of shit.”
Chlumsky agrees—“He doesn’t just disengage.”—to which Simons replies, “He is like I will actively eat this. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him.”