'Veep': How a Trump Pitch Evolved Into the HBO Comedy's #MeToo Take

Timothy Simons tells The Hollywood Reporter why Jonah Ryan was the show's "perfect vessel" to shine a light on the sexual misconduct movement.
Courtesy of HBO
Timothy Simons as Jonah Ryan in 'Veep'

[This story contains spoilers from the second episode of Veep's final season, "Discovery Weekend."]

Timothy Simons had an idea for his Veep character, Jonah Ryan, when the writers were breaking the seventh and final season. Amid an exploding #MeToo movement, reports about the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual misconduct were rampant, but Simons was particularly struck by reports that Donald Trump had utilized NDAs on his campaign staffers so that they couldn’t paint him in a bad light once they left his employment.

"The base idea that I pitched [to showrunner David Mandel] was that I thought it would be funny if a bunch of ex-girlfriends showed up to Jonah's apartment — women who Jonah had had consensual relationships with — and they are all showing up en masse to make sure their NDAs were being honored," Simons tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They were not saying they were going to break their NDAs or go public — they wanted to make sure the NDAs were honored because they didn’t want to be associated with Jonah."

That spin on Trump served as the beginning seed of the #NotMe movement that played out on the second episode of the final season of Veep, which aired on Sunday. Mandel said he and the writers were playing around with a couple of #MeToo-inspired ideas for Jonah, Veep's most offensive character, and when Simons called with his pitch, they started to plot out a Twitter movement where women around the world would come out publicly to say they never dated — and would never date — Congressman Jonah Ryan.

The plot invoked the real movement by playing with the language that has been heard in countless #MeToo stories. Indeed, women were being believed, but it was Jonah, a man famous for exaggerating about women, who was now "refusing" to stay silent as attractive females began to distance themselves from his orbit. "What nobody in our production wanted to do was to denigrate #MeToo in any way," says Simons of the meticulous detailing that went into the script. "The point was to comment on the fact that #MeToo exists, without trying to undercut it. It was way to bring a real thing into the show and it was built out by the writers so much better than I ever could have imagined." 

Jonah, after all, is certainly a man that women on Veep have always wanted to escape. A common gag that has followed the character around on the last seven seasons is that no person of any gender wants to spend more than five seconds around the leering White House staffer, and that women are always checking in on other women whenever they find themselves alone in his presence. After a disastrous attempt to find a wife when he was elected to Congress, the seventh season premiere revealed that Jonah — whose common nicknames include "Jonad," "Jolly Green Jizzface" and "80-story Skyraper" — married his stepsister (played by Emily Pendergast).

"Jonah is the perfect vessel for [Veep's #MeToo take] because he historically has always been such a well known verbal sexual harasser," says Simons of the way Jonah is perceived because of how he speaks to and about women. One thing Sunday's episode makes clear, however, is that Jonah never actually harassed any of the women who come forward in the #NotMe movement. Jonah himself was actually a victim of sexual misconduct when Teddy Sykes (Patton Oswalt), who is now back working for Jonah, groped him in season four. "Back then, Jonah was never able to and he’s still not able to connect his own inappropriate behavior with Teddy’s inappropriate behavior. He still doesn’t see how his own behavior in the workplace might affect other people. He has never put those two things together."

On the scale of bad men, Simons says Jonah is "a few running paces past Joe Biden but a lifetime short of R. Kelly." The timing of the episode once again lines up with a real headline, as former vice president and possible presidential hopeful Biden has been on an apology tour amid accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women.

When it comes to Jonah, "Women don’t really let themselves get close enough for him to even touch them inappropriately. They are always removing themselves, he's never in arm’s reach," says Simons, who calls Jonah an ultimately sad and broken man. "Maybe this is giving him too much credit, but I think even he understands the human cost of physical encroachment and physical harassment. I think he’s a guy who talks a lot and it never really goes much past that — but the things he says are definitely pretty bad on the scale."

On Veep's final season, Jonah is running for president, competing with Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) for the party's nomination. In the first two episodes, he has found himself embroiled in scandal over the revelation that his wife was his stepsister (the parents have since split) and targeted by thousands of women who find him to be generally repulsive, forming a #NotMe movement. Still, none of this is a wake-up call for Jonah. "He would have to have some sort of ability to self-reflect and he just doesn't have that," says Simons. 

In fact, the "Outsider's Insider" is even rising in the polls. "Something that Jonah and maybe some other real politicians now share is that he’s not smart enough to plan that," says Simons of Jonah unintentionally tapping into something and resonating with voters. "We think a person is doing one thing to distract from something else, but maybe they’re just doing terrible things because they’re dumb. Maybe they’re just a stupid person who hates a lot of people. I don’t think Jonah knows or even considers voters. He just says things, which is why he’s so popular."

When it came to plotting out the beginning stages of a presidential campaign, Simons says that, after talking to Mandel and the writers about their research, he quickly realized that in Jonah's case, it doesn't even matter anymore. "Whenever these speed bumps in the campaign hit, all they do is launch him up higher. Any bad thing that ever happens only improves his campaign," says Simons, who compares Jonah to Sen. Ted Cruz — a recent inspiration for his character. Initially, Simons says he never based Jonah on any one person. He spoke to real staffers on both low and high levels and quickly latched onto the idea that all Jonah cared about was "the proximity to power. He didn’t care about the issues, he just cared about the address."

But in Veep's fifth season, when Jonah was running for Congress, that's when Simons turned to Cruz. "I didn’t change anything about the character, but Ted Cruz was a good corollary of how somebody like Jonah could actually succeed. If you’re looking for an example of how that could work and be realistic, Ted Cruz is a good example."

Current politics — and some of the real politicians who make up that landscape — are the reason Jonah's rise on Veep is even believable. "When Veep started or even when you started seeing Jonah's behavior in Congress, you would have never been able to convince yourself that he could successfully run for president. And now, I feel like people are going to have to convince themselves that he couldn’t actually win. Everything that he does puts him in a powerful position. It’s now become absolutely realistic that he could win."

As the season goes, Simons says Jonah will continue to be "one of those people who says the quiet part very, very loud" — a tactic, he adds, that has proven to work well in recent years of U.S. politics — as later episodes will see Jonah continuing to be used as a "blunt instrument" as he courts the support of anti-vaxxers and embodies political tribalism. Being able to "mercilessly mock" that crowd is something Simons personally enjoyed, though he points out that the reason he doesn't often find himself targeted by real-life trolls is "because I'm a man on the internet — don't we live in a super fun world?"

Simons has already said the ending of Veep made him "scream and howl" with laughter because the final joke of the series is one that no one saw coming. The season is tracking Selina's last chance at happiness as she fights to return to the Oval Office and, if she doesn't win or get what she wants, Mandel has already warned of dire consequences. Could the season be building to a Ryan-Meyer ticket? "The world is crazy right now. The actual world we live in has been fully turned upside down and our show is supposed to reflect those things, so that’s what I would say to that," Simons replies.

When it comes to imagining what the world would look like under a President Jonah Ryan, Simons answers with a similarly cautionary tale for the world of Veep

"One thing I really liked that the writers did is how they brought in the Trump of it all to the show. They didn’t just bring in a Trump character or make any character do something they wouldn’t have done. The Trumpian things that are happening, some of them Jonah does, some of them Selina does and some of them other characters do," he says. "A Jonah Ryan presidency, if that were to happen, would probably look a lot like the one that we have now. Jonah is a child of privilege with no skills, no qualifications, is ruled by petty grudges and a belief that he is the smartest person around, despite all available evidence. So my only guess is that it would probably look a lot like the world that we have now, which is to say: abject chaos."

Whether that materializes or not, Simons praises the final season of Veep for staying true to the character of Jonah all the way through. "The thing that he cares about the most is power and proximity to power and I feel like the show stays true to that to the end," he says. "The last season puts it in clear focus that these were never good people, we just tricked you into liking them for a while. And one of the things I’ve always liked about Jonah and the writing for him is that if ever you feel bad for him, he always makes you pay for it."

Head here for all of THR's show coverage on the final season of Veep, which airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.