8:00pm PT by Jackie Strause
'Veep': New Showrunner Vows to Honor Its Roots, Take Show to a New Place
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season-five premiere of HBO's Veep, "Morning After."]
Minutes into the premiere episode of season five of Veep, sitting President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is reacting to the news that she has tied the electoral vote with her opponent, Senator Bill O'Brien (Brad Leland).
"Didn't those founding f—ers ever hear of an odd number?" Meyer asks her Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn).
"Two great, great contributions to society: democracy and getting f—ed up the ass," he replies.
"I've tried both and they're way overrated. Like jazz," says Meyer.
And with that, Veep is back.
For the first time since it launched, the beloved political satire is returning to HBO without show creator Armando Iannucci at its helm. Tasked with picking up the Emmy-winning series' torch — and the storyline from last season's whopper of a cliffhanger, where the election was too close to call, resulting in the tie — is new showrunner David Mandel.
"It’s actually wonderful from a writer’s perspective to be handed a sort of complicated math problem," the executive producer tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I was a fan of the show before I ever worked at Veep. It was a pretty and simple quick yes."
Not only did joining Veep allow the former Curb Your Enthusiasm executive producer the chance to return to his old HBO stomping grounds, it gave Mandel, whose writing credits also include Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld, the opportunity to reunite with Louis-Dreyfus.
"She’s somebody who works on a comedy show that wants it to be the f—ing funniest thing possible," says Mandel. "She has no vanity, she is fearless. She is willing to just take Selina places that are incredible."
Cue "Zitzilla," where Meyer's stress pimple grows so large she says it "looks like a dog nipple," and stay tuned, says Mandel, for an upcoming Meyer-driven episode as prime examples.
"That episode is very me," Mandel teases about episode four. "That’s an episode that I really wanted to do. I’m really thrilled we did it. It has a different taste and a different feel to it."
Mandel talks to THR about heading into unchartered territory with this season's storyline and beyond (the show has been picked up for a sixth season), the challenges and joys of writing amid such a comical political climate (no, Meyer is not Hillary Clinton) and how he plans to explore what makes Meyer and the others tick. Mandel also says he's willing to bet that his and Louis-Dreyfus' pal Larry David will return for more Curb Your Enthusiasm. Read the full Q&A below.
Congrats about the season-six pickup — did you know that was coming?
I’m more than thrilled, but dare I say, we kind of knew. I was feeling it probably earlier than I should have. Somewhere around the halfway mark, everything was feeling right. And then when they got to see the first cut, right around Christmas/New Year's, of the first show. No one said, “You’re back,” but it was like everyone seemed to be liking this. It is funny because you’re talking and then one day, they just start talking about next year, and you’re like, “Okay good, we are coming back.”
Did you go into the season assuming it would get picked up?
I can’t put words in HBO’s mouth, but from my perspective, when they approached me initially and then sat down with Julia and they sort of filled me in on the cliffhanger to season four, which I loved — it’s actually wonderful from a writer’s perspective to be handed a sort of complicated math problem, it made it that much more interesting, “Like, oh, I have to figure this out.” I definitely started to think not just about what this season could be but the season after. And again, no one said it to me, but I got the sense that Julia certainly wanted to keep going and [HBO] wanted to keep going. And if they only wanted to do another season and wrap it up, they could have convinced Armando or done a lower number of episodes or something. Hopefully what they were looking for was, how can we keep going? Lord knows with these characters, there’s so much more to do.
THR's cover story this week talks about how Julia was very involved in recruiting you to join, and it was the idea of reuniting with her that prompted you to say yes. How easy of a yes was it — did you have any hesitations?
It was a pretty and simple quick yes. What was nice about it is a number of things. No. 1: Because of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I was an HBO guy. So it’s a place I enjoy working. Then, I was a fan of the show before I ever worked at Veep, so that made that easy. And the fact that [Julia] is the star of Veep. While we were not necessarily, like, “let’s go have lunch” buddies, it was great to sit back down with her and talk about the show and the character and where it could be. It’s obviously always nice to be wanted. It was also nice from Armando’s side of things, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but that he seemed genuinely excited that if someone was going to do this, that it was me.
Armando had said he left the show in a “mischievous” place. Did you have fun exploring this place of unchartered Veep territory?
If it just sort of ended with “Well, goodnight everyone, I’m the President and we’ll see you next season,” in some ways, it would have been harder. The hardness of the tie was interesting and gave me something to do, as opposed to: anything could happen. I had to figure this out. The cliffhanger actually was easier, in a weird way. When I got a chance to sit down with Armando, and at that point I had figured out a large portion of what you’ll be seeing this year, and got a chance to talk it through, he totally seemed to dig it. Again, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I got the sense that it was in the direction of what he was thinking. We are not the same person, but I think we find similar things funny.
The THR cover story also stressed how hands-on Julia is — what is the creative relationship like between you two?
It was really nice. Going back to the Seinfeld days, that was a long time ago and I was definitely much more of a kid. When I was getting in there, she was a young mom. So I can’t say to you that she and I talked a lot about what was going on in her life or mine at the time. But we had a lot of common reference points, we both worked at Saturday Night Live when we were sort of young, we both worked at Seinfeld and she came back into the Curb world, which was great, and when I was perhaps a little more fully formed at that point as someone to talk to. She’s one of those few people, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of them, but she’s somebody who works on a comedy show that wants it to be the f—ing funniest thing possible. It doesn’t sound like it’s rare, but it’s way rarer than I find the average person thinks. She has no vanity, she is fearless. She is willing to just take Selina places that are incredible.
Is there a particular episode or scene this season that sticks out as proving that point of how fearless she is?
Over the years, we’ve obviously seen her and her relationship with Catherine and we’ve seen that she’s not necessarily the best mother. In episode four, we get to the root of that and her relationship with her own mother and her callousness [to her own mother] but then also what that brings out of her. It’s just not what the average human being wants to play, they want to be nice and she couldn’t care about it. There is a scene where she gets very bad news and very good news at the same moment, and the emotions that go across her face from kind of sadness to joy to almost hysteria, it's like, what is that? I can’t even write it.
When you and Julia sat down to discuss where you would take the series if you joined, was there anything you wanted to tackle story-wise, that the show hadn't explored before?
Very early on, I sort of figured out what the season would be about, how we would play out the tie and where we were heading to. Then things started to fill in from there. Those were our earliest conversations about how the season would go. Even in victory, the character of Selina Meyer constantly has shit dumped upon her. And as far as Julia is concerned, the more shit the better.
For discerning viewers looking back on season five, what will the difference be between an Armando Iannucci episode and a Dave Mandel one?
I think Armando and I have different philosophies that get us to very similar places. I think he’s somebody who likes to write a lot of drafts and find things in the edit room, those were his words. And I think I’m maybe a little of the way that Larry [David] taught me, which is an outline and structure kind of thing. When we worked on Curb, it was a fleshed-out outline, but it was: If the outline works, the episode works. For me, a lot of what this season is is mapping out really all 10 episodes in the months of June and July and the things I wanted to happen, and if you go back and look at that stuff, it’s what happened. At some point as the episodes start to air, I may stick up on my Twitter or Instagram pictures I took of the storyboards and you’ll see that it kind of all happened. Sometimes coming into a show as an outsider, I was definitely very curious about some of these characters and what made them tick a little bit. Maybe it’s me or it’s the season five, we get to explore inside the mind of some of these characters in a way that we hadn’t previously. So I think you’ll notice the differences. There are different kind of jokes and there is certainly the kind of stuff that [Armando] likes, and then there are a lot of similarities though. I would have hated to have done a bad carbon copy of him. I think I’m doing my version of Veep that also honors Veep, but takes it into a new place. That’s my hope.
Like in episode four, when you explore personal and character-driven stories? [In the episode, Selina is called to the hospital because her mother is sick.]
I’m glad you’re saying it. That episode is very me. I don’t know how else to say that. That’s an episode that I really wanted to do and perhaps not one that Armando would have done. I’m really thrilled we did it and I’m really thrilled by what we sort of find out, and by the way, it has a different taste and a different feel to it. Veep, which is so wonderfully dense, while obviously there’s still some denseness to it, there’s a sense that [Selina's] trapped in that hospital. In the White House, she so used to, “What about this and what about this?” And now she’s in a situation where they’re basically saying, “We’ve canceled all your calls, we’ve canceled all your meetings, you have no choice but to deal with this.” There are some wonderfully uncomfortable moments in that show that I relish in.
Will there be another episode like that this season, where you explore more of what makes a character act a certain way?
To me, it was about getting in their heads. I think there are some other times with these other characters where you will get into their heads a little bit. This episode resonates with how it affects the Selina-Catherine dynamic for the rest of the season in a really interesting way that I think people will be surprised. Not just on the surface ways, but in some bigger ways. Maybe perhaps not a whole episode, per se, but I did try and scratch the surface a bit of what makes these characters tick. I was talking with one of the writers and I said, you really do understand why [Selina] is a terrible mother to Catherine and you understand that perhaps if she had had a son, it would be a different situation. Her relationship with her own mother just sort of defines the relationship with Catherine and that’s so true in the world. And it’s nice to see it. We try to show it without saying it, but you definitely see it.
You’re also competing against a pretty comical political reality right now. Does it make writing the satirical version more challenging, or more fun?
Yes, that certainly makes it interesting! It's definitely more fun because right now politics is on everyone's mind, because of what’s going on. To be coming out with a political show right now, to be advertising our show with a poster that looks like a campaign ad and it’s in the wild next to real campaign posters, it’s a wonderful thing. Julia’s very fond of saying that when we had the idea of this boob-ish, foul-mouthed candidate that is Selina Meyer, that it was fiction and perhaps now, not so much. And that does make it harder. As things get outrageous, the answer isn’t always to go more outrageous. How does one top Republicans on a stage talking about their penis size? Had I written that, I’m guessing HBO would have fired me and you’d be talking to somebody else right now. The good news is, when people are so unhappy with the system, they are looking at a way to laugh at the system, and hopefully we’re there for that.
There's a reference to a "racist billionaire" in episode one.
You know it’s funny, we wrote that line in June. [Donald Trump] was technically running for president but thousands of political strategists at that point said, “One hundred percent, no way he’ll last more than a month.” But honestly, at the time, that wasn’t specifically about Donald Trump as much as about in both parties. Obviously we did a joke about a racist billionaire and there are elements about that that are Trump, but we also talked about a closeted, homosexual-hating, whatever we said, we were more just talking about the hypocrisy of people who run for office.
Julia told us Selina could give Trump a run for his money. But she also said it’s important for Veep to remain non-partisan, which it does by never assigning Selina as a Democrat or a Republican. Is that difficult?
It’s a little hard sometimes because the show relishes in it specifics. In my mind, I like to imagine in some way that this is what everybody is a little bit like, after they’re out there yelling about what they’re concerned with, this is what they’d be like in person. We really do want to maintain the idea of the lack of a party — it’s because it’s not about party and who is better than the other. We’re talking about people who espouse view points and don’t necessarily believe them in their private life. And I do think everyone in both parties, unfortunately, can relate to that point of hypocrisy.
You really get into the details of the recount process. Did you know from the beginning where Armando left off that you would definitely take this direction?
It concerns the first half of our season. I would not have wanted to do a recount story in the middle of Gore-Bush, but it is kind of nice we were able to co-op some images and also have that level of uncertainty, and bring that into our show with some really nice perspective on it because it has been so long. We are certainly not sitting there embracing the Bush or Gore side, Selina is — spoiler alert — racing to try to get votes in, except when the votes don’t go the way that she wants and then wants those votes eliminated. That probably applied to both sides quite evenly. We go to the Nevada Supreme Court, we never quite make it to our Supreme Court. Like the pimple — I don’t know if you remember the Bush pimple from the stress of the recount — but all of these things sort of suggest moments of the recount, but are used for our purposes.
Did you have to bring in extra consultants to go over the nitty-gritty of the process?
The show has always had consultants and they’ve always been really helpful with that stuff. We have some great ones. You do a little outside reading as well, I read the Jeffrey Toobin book [Too Close to Call] about the recount. And our consultants hooked us up with a visit to the Washington Post and you pick up anecdotes and things along the way and it sort of all goes into the pot. We are not parodying Bush-Gore; we are doing our version of a recount in Veep world.
I love the recent story of the Australian prime minister using Selina’s slogan of “Continuity and Change.”
Isn’t that amazing? And by the way, though, he did what any candidate does, putting words together they don’t particularly believe. And that’s what Selina does to. It’s slogan-like substance — it sounds like a slogan, so it is a slogan. My God.
Are there any other real-life moments you feel like you foreshadowed, or had touched on, this season?
There’s a couple things that have come up — again, spoiler — we’ve been really sort of horrified but also gratified by our take on some of what goes on with the Chinese hacking. That’s an ongoing issue and that comes into play in our world. You’re just sort of shocked when you’re writing this story and then one day you’re reading a story about sanctions being threatened and how it’s all happening. You go, “Oh, my God. Did we somehow cause this to happen? Did we conjure this up?” You feel like witches.
Is it hard for you to have to leave your personal politics out of it?
No, because ultimately it’s a fake, fake world. There is no Trump, there is no Ted Cruz, Selina’s not Hillary Clinton. I can sit here and say, perhaps, surprise, surprise to people who have certain judgments about Jewish writers in the entertainment industry, I am a Hillary supporter, but that doesn’t have an effect on anything. The number of people that somehow think Selina is Hillary because of that — if anything, I would make her smarter and better at her job, and I spend a lot of time doing the opposite. (Laughs.)
Have you talked at all about the show’s endgame? How long do you see it going?
I guess I will say this: Had they canceled us, had they somehow decided, enough is enough, I think you’ll be very pleased by the ending, it has an ending. But it also has an ending that easily suggests more, in a good way. Right from when I sat down with Julia and HBO way back when, I’ve got some ideas for a couple of years and as long as she’s game, I’m game. I think we’re still discovering new stuff. As long as we’re still making ourselves laugh, I’m content that we’ll make other people laugh.
What can you tease about what’s to come for the rest of this season?
When we were thinking about the show and as I was plotting it out, in a way, the first half of the season sort of resolves some of the storylines, and then all of a sudden a whole bunch of stuff gets launched at the midway point. You’re watching the show and enjoying it and then all of a sudden a whole bunch of new stuff launches in episode five, and I’m hoping people like where it goes.
You were just back at SNL, where you, Julia and Larry all began, writing for Julia’s episode that aired two weeks ago.
Yeah, it was pretty crazy. For me, I had the whole feeling of visiting your old high school, because it’s the same place and some of the teachers are still there. And then when Larry arrived, it got even weirder. It was sort of me, Julia and Larry, sitting around trying to reference lines from Bernie [Sanders] that are Seinfeld lines and talking about how Jason [Alexander] would have performed the line as George, so that’s what Larry should do as Bernie, and then what is Elaine going to say there and how would Elaine and George react? And somewhere in there, your head sort of just explodes from the meta.
Was there anything that didn't make it in that you’d love to revive some day?
I don’t want to give too much away because I’m hoping we’ll be able to do it. It was a very production-intensive Veep idea. I don’t want to say anything else aside from it being a parody of Veep, but there just was not enough time to get it done. So I’m very much hoping that perhaps we mount it as a surprise for people or something. I have to talk to HBO or maybe Funny or Die, I just need someone to pay for it! That’s all I want to say — anything more gives too much away.
What are the odds that Larry returns for another season of Curb?
Let me put it this way: if you were asking me to specifically tell you “when,” I wouldn’t take that bet. But if you want to bet yes or no, I would bet you every dollar I have on “yes, someday.” I just don’t know when that day will be. The wonderful thing about Curb is, I think he will do it again — and this is based on nothing, I think it’s based on me wanting him to do it again — I hope he continues to do it to the day he dies. I hope he does a couple seasons, takes more time off, then does it again. I hope he does it when he’s in a f—ing wheelchair one day. One of the things that’s really special about Curb: For a long time when Larry was married in his own life, the show was one thing. And then we he got divorced, that led to the divorce season, which was really fascinating. And then the show kind of became something else when he was fully divorced and single, which he’s going through in his own life. And I think the idea that he’ll do more that will reflect what’s going on in his own life, it’s fantastic and there’s nothing else like it on TV in a good way, so I hope he does more, I’ll tell you that.
Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Photos courtesy of HBO