HBO’s best shows are masterpieces of excess. Game of Thrones has its ever-sprawling cast and its continent-hopping locations. The pilot of Boardwalk Empire famously cost a record $18 million. But all Veep needs to rise to its status as one of the best comedies on TV is some four-letter words.
And it uses them brilliantly. Fucking brilliantly.
Freed from the shackles of the FCC as a premium pay-cable network, HBO’s series have long employed obscenities with almost gleeful abandon. On shows like The Wire, the frequent use of words that would make grandma blush mirrored a so-called reality, allowing foul-mouthed characters to actually speak like the foul-mouthed people they represent in the real world. On shows like Entourage, the language was used as much as a celebration of gratuity as the frequently unclothed women and the main characters’ hyperdrive frattiness were. But on Veep, cursing is actually a tool for comedy, and one that’s harder to use properly than you might think.
A political farce following the hurricane of comedic chaos swirling around Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s hapless and harried Vice President Selina Meyer, Veep consistently makes good on its genius conceit as a show: it turns out the second most powerful person in the free world actually has no power at all. When Veep returned Sunday night, its sharp-tongued writing was honed to a perfect razor edge.
Selina is full throttle in a whisper campaign to run for president, even though the president and other potential candidates haven't stepped aside. The staffers working for her, pulled in dozens of directions because of the frustrating complexity that comes with running a phantom campaign, don’t so much circle around her in a calm orbit as they collide into each other like frantic pinballs. Because everything is stress-inducing for Selina and her team, Selina is also promoting a book, Some New Beginnings, and finds herself having to formulate a new stance on abortion. Struggling to come up with one, she bemoans, “Maybe I should just say, ‘Get the government out of my fuckin’ snatch.’”
The line is delivered perfectly. It’s a good line—exactly what an exasperated female politician’s inner monologue would be at that moment—made great by the f-word as unfiltered comedic punctuation. The perfect amount of raunchy shock value to color a guffaw with a gasp. It’s also delivered masterfully by Louis-Dreyfus, who’s to cussing what Meryl Streep is to accents in the world of acting.
All of the so-wrong-it’s-right cursing in Veep is so delightful, though, that it makes it easy to gloss over the fact that it’s hard to get foul language for comedic effect in a TV show right. There’s a misconception in many cable shows or R-rated movies that excessive cursing inherently makes a project mature. The more four-letter words, then, the more mature. The more dangerous. The edgier. The cooler. That notion, as one of those shows might say, is horse shit.
Like any word in any dialogue in a script, cursing only works when it’s carefully chosen to be the exact right word at that moment. Sometimes an f-word or a b-word is used in TV and movies like a stutter. “This is TV-MA, so rather than have this character say “um” or “like,” let’s just have them say ‘fuck’ a lot.” But curse words are words that have a lot of value. They startle viewers, rouse viewers, occasionally put off and occasionally turn on viewers. Using them over and over again, or when they’re not necessary, cheapens them and eradicates their effect.
There is a lot of cussing in Veep. A ton, really. And each one, and the value it brings, is earned.
A lot of that is owed to creator and writer Armando Iannucci, the cursing savant behind the swear-laden In the Loop and The Thick of It. When it comes to crafting a raucous, devastatingly brutal insult, he is a Shakespeare. A Shakespeare of shit.
So often, cussing as an insult is employed lazily in scripts. A person is called a “cunt,” and that’s that. Nothing else is said because writers assume that the one word has enough meaning to say it all. Iannucci raises the game. A person isn’t a “cunt.” They’re “Cunter S. Thompson.” His dialogue is positively literary in the creativeness with which he invents new ways to use and morph curse words into insults. It’s poetry with four-letter words.
When one character makes a mistake, Selina tells him, “That’s like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo. It doesn’t do the job and it makes a fucking mess.” One character is a called a “varicose dick vein” and “jolly green jizzface.” Or there’s Selina’s take on her constituents: “So they want me to go to a pig roast to meet a bunch of men who probably took turns to fuck the pig before they roasted it?”
Iannucci, as you can tell, has made a name for himself concocting these shining gems of vulgarity, and as such is asked about it all the time. In a recent interview with The Wrap he said that even though the show seems like it has a lot of dirty words, “they usually only come as required. We don’t just spoon them in. We only do them when we feel the moment’s right.” It may seem as a shock to Veep fans, but all that cursing is actually an act in expert editing and judiciousness.
"A lot gets made of the swearing in Armando’s work, but I know that he is very careful of there being too much,” Timothy Simons, who plays “jolly green jizzface” Jonah on Veep, told me. “He’ll go through scripts and be like, ‘too much fuck.’ Or ‘de-fuck this’ is actually the phrase.” As an actor on the receiving end of so much of the cussing, Simons knows firsthand how tempting it can be to such let the curse words fly, and how important it is to resist that urge when making quality TV. “Sometimes swearing is a crutch that can be leaned on rather than used for emphasis,” he says. “Armando does a good job of being mindful of that and making sure that it’s not just a repetition of the f-word over and over again.”
The carefully curated dirty words are all the funnier, of course, because when used in just the right amount, it closely resembles the way the more loose-lipped of us speak in real life. “D.C. is a very sweary town,” Simon says. In fact, the characters on Veep are such spot-on depictions of players inside the Beltway that their names are used as shorthand to describe people. Someone can be a “Jonah,” for example. And those similarities extend to excessive swearing.
“From what I understand, the Department of Defense is incredibly sweary,” Simons says. “So the show does stay true to the realism of the work place. But we do work hard to make sure it’s not just a non-stop cavalcade of ‘fucks.’”
Maybe not a cavalcade of “fucks.” But certainly an appealing procession of them. A promenade of “fucks.” And, in its third season, Veep is kicking off its funniest, deliciously vulgar promenade yet. So fucking enjoy it.