Can Veep Keep Being The Funniest Show in America?

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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.

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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 its unavoidable.

Mandel became showrunner of the fifth season of HBOs Emmy-winning comedy after Armando Iannucci, the foul-mouthed savant responsible for the madcap political satires signature comedic voice, notoriously fired himself.

Any showrunner would look at his team and say, Whos 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 wont be giving a hundred percentso Im 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 HBOs Bryant Park-adjacent New York office.

Its episode five of the season, and Louis-Dreyfuss 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, were 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 epiphanyhe mashed too much. Its always funny seeing Selinas public face, he says. I think it makes her private face that much funnier when we see her interacting with real peopleand real turkeys.

He combs through footage and re-adds an awkward interaction between Selina and her daughter, Catherine. Some of Selinas 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, didnt ya honey?

Mandel nods. Thats the start of something.

It makes sense that Mandel wants to get things right. Not only is Mandel stepping in for one of TVs most celebrated and unique showrunners, but hes 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 shes gotten what she always wanted? And if she loses and isnt in office anymore, is there still a show at all?

We talk through all of that, the ridiculousthough perhaps understandableassumption that Selina is modeled after Hillary Clinton, what its like to write a political show in an election year, and how hard it is to make all of Veeps 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, everyones 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 dont you come over to London and lets sit down proper. I flew over to London and had tea with him, which was very nice.

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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 dont meet this in a bad way, but he wanted to go. I dont think he was looking to continue. On the flip side, and again I dont 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? Youre 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 doesnt have to end. If they were only interested in doing one more year and wrapping it up, they probably couldve figured that out perhaps with Armando. Theres a lot of life here. Theres a lot of places to go. Were not exactly worried about how to end it yet, but you cant 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 youre not afraid that she would lose, theres 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 youre giving her what she always wanted? Of course the way he did it was Im giving you what you want but now youre 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 youre overwhelmed? What happens when you confront the fact that, in this job, your staff isnt 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 hypotheticallydont spoil anythingSelina loses?

Yes. I dont ever want to say no to anything. Like I said, in any situation youre still going to have to build those obstacles. In my mind, if shes in office shes going to want to stay in office. If shes in office, its 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. Thats how you keep remaining in office fun and exciting. And I guess to me if shes not in office, well its, How do I get back into office? She has one thing: I want that. Even if shes there she wants it, and if shes not there she wants it.

What is different about doing a show like this when youre 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 Im sure in some cases people will go, Oh my god, you did that! Were like, well, we thought it would be funny and then, oh my god, it happens. Its 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. Its not exactly a tied electoral college, but its basically that version of things, where theyre writing about the possibility that we thought we were making up. Its just baffling. Were always inspired by the real world, first of all.

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 cant 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], thats our version of Florida, which in a way is a slightly older version of things. With some distanceIm not sure Id 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, wouldnt it be funny for Selina to make an entrance like that crazy Ben Carson, where it didnt even seem like he knew where he was? That was brilliant. Thats the one thing I wish I couldve stolen. Thats one of the ones where you go, I just want to do that. It wouldve 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. Shes horrible to her daughter. Horrible to people who work for her. In a great way! Its fun to watch shows about horrible people. But you dont want people sitting around and going, Oh shes horrible, Hillary must be horrible. Not just as a candidate or possible office holder, but as a person. So I dont think it necessarily stops us, but I wanted to make clear that this is not The Hillary Show. I cant even think of the equivalent. All sailors are not Gilligan. I dont know what to say. It aint 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 dont want to be doing the black market version, the Chinese knockoff, if you will, of Veep. Its really easy to fall into youre as fucked as a fuckity fuck fuck fuck fuck. Its 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 wasnt just random cursing for cursings 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 dont want to get numb to the word. If its in every scene then it loses its power. There are places too, like one of my absolute favorite lines is when Ben says, Theyre calling it Black Wednesday. We were playing with a lot of things in response, with lots of cursing. And somewhere it became, Jesus, its only Wednesday. Theres no cursing in that line. But to me its 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. Youre up against four years of really wonderful ones. Theres one in episode two where Jonahs like, Youre starting Hakeem Olajuwan. Youve got Michael Jordan on the bench. And Amys like, Youre not Michael Jordan. Youre a seven-foot-seven goony Lithuanian whos going to drop dead of Marfans syndrome. Again theres no cursing in there, but Id like to think its very enjoyable. Im a fan of a Marfans syndrome references. Youre not going to see Marfans syndrome references on the average episode of the Jim Belushi show. 

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