Relax, 'Veep' fans: The new producer didn't screw up the show
One of the running gags in the new season of Veep involves Selina's daughter Catherine trying to film a documentary about her mother's work, and constantly being shooed out of the Oval Office because she's just captured an unflattering moment from America's first female president.
"Catherine, do not use any of the vulgar parts," Selina eventually warns her.
"But that's, like, all of it," Catherine points out.
So, no, Veep fans, you don't have to worry about the Emmy-winning HBO comedy transforming into a radically different show in season 5 (which debuts Sunday at 10:30), even though creator Armando Iannucci has moved on to other projects, replaced by comedy veteran — and Veep newbie — David Mandel. This isn't going to be the gas leak season of Community: the four episodes I've seen feel very much like the show Iannucci was making, not only in the way they continue the cliffhanger of Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) trying to overcome a tie vote in the presidential election, but in the way that the characters still speak and act the way they always have. It is, to borrow Selina's own terrible campaign slogan, continuity with change.
Earlier today, I spoke with Mandel about the challenges of taking over the show at this stage, how he feels Veep has and hasn't changed under his watch, getting to write for Louis-Dreyfus again 20 years after he was a young Seinfeld writer, and more.
What was your reaction to finding out they wanted you to replace Armando?
David Mandel: It was a weird mix. It was a little shocking. LA's a small community, in the sense that writers talk. Not that I knew him — we'd met once — but I was shocked as a fan of the show that he was even thinking of leaving. And then I was double shocked that, "Oh, wait, they want someone to replace him, and that person is me." I definitely wasn't sitting around thinking, "What really successful show is out there enting its fifth season, that I could take over, and then watch them win an Emmy for the work that they did before I got there?" It wasn't high on my list.
You've come into shows late, but not in this scenario.
David Mandel: I joined Seinfeld in the middle, but as a writer. I rose up in the natural way way one does it. With Curb, I kind of joined in the middle, but even early on, my guys and I would have lunch with Larry, and he'd run some crap by us, or he'd play poker. Even though I didn't work there, it seemed like I worked there. And even there, we had a season where we helped Larry in the office breaking stories but weren't on set, and then the following season, we joined as exec producers and directors and stuff.
So was there any pause where you thought, "I don't want to be the guy who comes in and screws up Veep"?
David Mandel: Look, I have a giant ego, as I think all good comedy writers do. It probably occurred to me for half a second. But I was more overwhelmed by, "Holy crap, I like that show. Holy crap, I don't like most TV. Boy, that's a good cast. And I get to fuckin' work with Seabiscuit." So how do you say no? I don't mean to sit here and sound like an a-hole and say, "No, I was never nervous!" It was daunting, like how one thinks, "Oh, I've got a big mountain to climb," but I'm not scared to do it.
When you were given the show, you were also given this cliffhanger about the election.
David Mandel: The cliffhanger was also an added thing. First, you get the phone call, "Would you even want to talk?" I sat down with Julia, and we caught up, and when she started to tell me about where things were, the exquisite prison that they had written themselves into was also exciting. As hard as, "How the hell do you resolve it?," that's what made it interesting. If the show had simply been ending, "Oh, she's the president, and next season she's still president," yeah, I'm still taking the job. But once I heard the conundrum, that's when my mind started racing, and I went, "So what would I do, how would I do it?" Somewhat quickly, I figured out how I wanted to resolve it, and once I knew how to resolve it and pitched it at Julia, and went, "This is the show," it became a question of, "Where's the paperwork? Let's get going."
You'd been watching the show. Did you go back and revisit early episodes as prep for running it?
David Mandel: Not really. I was a fan. This one checked off two boxes in my life: as a comedy writer fan of comedy, I watched it every Sunday. I was a pretty big fan of it from a comedy perspective, and it's one of the few shows that my wife and I watched together. I didn't feel the need to go back. I probably watched the rough cuts they had given me of last season, read those scripts, and then rewatched them as they started airing. But for the most part, I felt pretty at ease with the history of the show. Certainly, there were times where, "What was that one, where you did that thing?" And someone would have to explain, or every once in a while, I'd go, "Let's rewatch that scene to retrace that relationship," but no, I didn't feel that need overall.
I'm asking less about boning up on continuity than about making sure you had the voice of the show in your head. When I talk to comedy writers about watching TV, some of them are able to turn off their comedy writer brains and just enjoy, while others are deconstructing everything as they watch. Did you feel comfortable enough with the voice and the mechanics of the show?
David Mandel: I felt comfortable enough. We shot a scene in the first episode, a scene with a doctor treating Selina. The guy who played the doctor was a guy we'd never seen before, actor-wise, and that's always a nice, rare thing, when a new guy comes in and makes you laugh, and it's not, "Oh, that guy was on six other shows." He really made us laugh, and he was really interesting, and we had this concept of how Gary and the doctor have this weird rivalry over Selina's well-being. We shot the scene, and we all really loved it and it was a fun scene, and then I got to the edit room around Christmas, and I watched the scene, and it was just sitting there. I went, "I don't understand. Why is this like this?" It took me a minute or two to realize it wasn't Veep. We had to reshoot it. Originally, it was just a scene of her, the doctor, and Gary. And I realized, right there, there's one thing happening, which is her and the doctor. And we added Ben and Kent to the scene talking about a crisis in the world. The doctor's performance, the doctor himself, the dialogue is almost identical — maybe there's one other joke at most. But we added more to it. We thickened it up a little with this other cross-talk and things going on. And all of a sudden, that scene became a very nice scene that was the scene I wanted it to be. In that first show, I was figuring out a lot of it, but that was one thing I hadn't quite grasped of what is Veep? I feel like I did figure it out as comedy writer fan, I felt like I had spent a lot of time deconstructing the voice and whatnot. Definitely, there were drafts where you went, "This isn't quite it yet," but by the time we got to our shooting script, we felt good about it.
I used to hear stories about new writers coming in to NYPD Blue, and they would try to write the creative profanity and the weird Sipowicz dialogue from having watched the show for years, and it always seemed phony and had to get rewritten by David Milch.
David Mandel: That was my fear of the entire show. I went into this thing going, "If I do some knock-off version of Veep, where I'm trying to do exactly what they would do, and how they did it, this is not going to be good for anyone." No one wants grey market Veep with a Chinese warranty. I took what I knew about Veep and tried to add a little of me and what I like, story-wise and dialogue-wise. There are definitely places where you'll go, "That sounds like Veep in a good way," and there are hopefully jokes where you'll go, "That's a new kind of joke." But I know what you mean: you don't want to be going, "You're Lord Fuckington of Fuckville." That can sound shitty if it's done poorly.
In terms of how the show needs to be busy, the cast of characters has gotten bigger as the show has gone on, first with Kent and Ben, then with Richard, now to a degree with Tom James. Is it challenging to have that many actors and characters to service, or fun because they're all so great?
David Mandel: It's wonderful. I find myself doing a lot of aquatic comparisons to diving. We're always trying to increase the degree of difficulty. It is hard. Just in terms of the science of shooting. Not even if everyone is funny, but just having a scene in the Oval Office where 16 people are talking. Like, how is this going to get on the digital media? How are we going to capture it in a camera? And then there's not only plot, and you want everybody people to be funny, but you're trying to carry through stories and subplots. But we're not going to stop things to spend a lot of time on different characters' subplots. A lot of times, subplot stuff has to be worked into main scenes. So it's a giant scene about the tie, and yet Mike's going to tell us that he and his wife are trying to adopt a baby from China in the midst of everything else. But when it works, and it's flying, you go, "Okay, good." But it's a high level of difficulty.
Have you found certain character combinations you really like? Obviously, Jonah and Richard is gold.
David Mandel: Jonah and Richard is wonderful, and I would have been happy to just keep it going. But one of the things that was great was, knowing they were so funny and had this existing work relationship, was being able in episode 1, to turn it on its head and create all these additional wonderful things. It allowed the genius of Richard's character to flower: is he a simpleton, or is he a genius? And obviously, Jonah's petulance at Richard being spotlighted it added new layers to it. Yeah, the combos are really fun. We started off the season in a way where the characters are split up, and later in the season, there's another rejiggering. It is fun. Later in the season, there's an episode that takes place at the Congressional Christmas ball. There's some really enjoyable stuff between Gary and Amy, and just talking to Tony and Anna, we realized they hadn't had time together in a really long time. And it was a fun combo to put together. But, yeah, you do think, "What would it be like to put those two together?" We've been obsessed with an idea we've never quite figured out that Kent and Gary were very bonded over something. The bad version we never quite cracked was that they were both big fans of some sci-fi book. We never quite figured it out, but it was us asking, "What would it be like for them to spend time together?"
You mentioned Mike's adoption story, and one of the interesting things the show does is to occasionally pull back from everyone being terrible and shallow to allow someone a moment of humanity. How do you decide when and how often to do that?
David Mandel: A couple of the characters, Mike in particular is a little more human than the rest of them. Even Selina, there's an episode (coming up) where her reactions are not necessarily normal compared to the average human being. But they're real. I don't think you or I would react that way, but it's fascinating to see her react, and it's fun to be able to play in that world.
There's a subplot in one of your early episodes about a Twitter DM gone awry, which is bad for Selina, but seems almost mild compared to some of the insults that, say, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been slinging at each other on the campaign trail? As a political comedy, how do you deal with being in an environment where the real thing is already so ridiculous?
David Mandel: It's harder and harder. A million years ago, one of my first jobs was working at Saturday Night Live, 92-95. One of my favorite things was the commercial parodies. And the commercial parodies got harder and harder as people in the ad world started making funnier commercials. How do you parody something that's already funny? As Julia is fond of saying, if we had started pitching Selina talking about hand size and penis size in the middle of a debate, HBO would have fired me and shut us down. They'd have said, "Boy, that's crude, not interesting, not funny, and also it doesn't seem like the president or someone running for president would do that." And yet, here we are. It does make it tougher, and yet I guess it's the challenge. I don't have a great answer about how we do it. I will tell you, we are always inspired by the real world, but we're not directly parodying the real world. We're not doing a Donald Trump character or anything like that. But it definitely makes it harder for us to find those moments. People always watched the show going, "I'm glad Selina is not President of the United States," and now we have candidates that you think that about. It's tough.
Related to that, the show's ideology has always been that none of the characters have ideology. Right now we're in the middle of an election where ideology is everything. Most of the remaining candidates have very strong and loud ideologies. Is there a risk that your show could feel like a period piece when none of its own politicians seem to believe in anything?
David Mandel: I don't think it makes it a period piece. What it basically says, and maybe as we move forward, it's something I think about, is they definitely have ideologies when they're out there. Let's pick on Trump for a second: his ideology is an ideology of convenience. He has decided that today, he's against abortion, but do we really think he's always been against abortion? I certainly don't. I think if you can think of the show as when they're out there campaigning, my assumption is my characters are spitting out an ideology, it doesn't matter what it is, but my people have a veneer of an ideology. We're just showing you what it's like when they're not out there pretending to have it.
How has Julia changed as a performer, if at all, in the 20 years you've known her? Other than the age difference, could the Julia of 1995 have played Selina?
David Mandel: First of all, I think she's aging backwards. We've got a real Benjamin Button situation. I'm older, grayer, and fatter, and she just looks good. Yeah, she probably has gotten better. But go back and watch her Elaine stuff, Old Christine. Maybe she wasn't being asked to do everything she's asked to do in Veep, but goddamn, she could do it. I think all the time about moments and line readings. There's a moment where she picks up the co-worker's hearing aid, and puts it in her ear as the alarm door goes off, and she just goes down from the sound of the alarm being magnified. Obviously, her dancing speaks for itself. All the time, she does things where I can't even explain to you why they're funny, and it puts a fucking smile on my face. And that's her. She is the best.
What's it like, then, being able to write again for an actress who can basically do anything you throw at her?
David Mandel: It's just liberating. The moments when you're in the writers room at 2 in the morning, and you don't even have to think, "Can she do this?" And then there are places where you're not thinking something is difficult, and then she adds some other layer that you, the comedy writer, didn't even think about. And it's even better than you thought. That doesn't ever happen in the real world.
Is there a line you feel the show can't cross about how mean Selina is to Catherine?
David Mandel: There's a lot more to Catherine to come this season, that I think is interesting. (Selina) is mean, and one of the things we did was to give a peak into why is she this mean. You start to figure out why. I find that helps make it more understandable to me. It's not random comedy. There's a real reason she is this way, as a person and as a mother, and as a mother to a daughter. It would have been different if she had a son. There's a real reason, rightly or wrongly, that you start to get a peak at. But I do think there is a line. I don't think she would hurt her, but that wouldn't stop her from using her to her advantage.
Anytime the creator of a show gets replaced — and especially when the replacement is new to the show — there's often paranoia among the show's fans that it's going to turn out badly, like that Community season without Dan Harmon. What would you tell the Veep fans that they can expect of the show under you when they tune in on Sunday night?
David Mandel: It's been nice as some of the early chatter has rolled in, most people feel like we keep going without missing a beat. To the naked eye, it is very much the show you're used to and the characters you're used to. Some of it's just different processes. I've gotten to know Armando a little bit. We spent time at the Montreal Comedy Festival last year. We work differently. He loves to find the show in the edit room, and I like to go into the editing room knowing what the show is. These are subtle differences that I don't think will affect the viewer. My training, which Larry and Jerry taught me, maybe I'm a little more story-based. Maybe there's a little more story this year? I don't know. That's my vague sense of things. But the characters are the characters, in a great way. I think most people probably don't care that Armando left and I came in. They shouldn't care, hopefully, and they can just enjoy the show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com