David Mandel is having a bit of a Selina Meyer moment: He is taking over as the leader of a national treasure. Mandel became the new showrunner of Veep after series creator Armando Iannucci announced last April that, much like a real American president, his four years of service was enough for him. Mandel, formerly an executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm, is used to being the new guy in the room — he’s pretty sure he was the only new person when he showed up at Saturday Night Live in 1992 and when he joined the Seinfeld writing staff in time for season seven. He also happened to inherit a very wonky, impossible cliffhanger, as the season-four finale centered around a presidential election that ended in a tie. Mandel spoke with Vulture about what his outsider status brings to the series, the completely bonkers system that is the electoral college, and race jokes and cynicism in the age of Obama.
What was your first day at Veep like? I’m picturing the first day of school as a new kid, carrying your lunch tray and not knowing what table to sit at in the cafeteria.
The truly crazy first day was, I think, before we started. Obviously I knew Julia from previous work, but she had a little get-together at her house, and a bunch of the cast was there. And that was the “oh, how do I look?” feeling, a moment when you’re outside your own body going, “What the hell am I saying?” I felt like we were all sitting there, laughing, and I was like, what am I saying? That was the bad day.
When you did get to work, what was the transition like? You’ve got this well-oiled machine, but you also want to bring your own ideas and voice to the room.
It was definitely a well-oiled machine. One of the things that happened, along with the transfer of power from Armando to me, was we were able to get the tax credits in L.A. So we were also moving the show from Baltimore to L.A., and in a weird way, I think that worked to my advantage. I get the sense that, had the show continued in Baltimore, I do feel like I would have been the only new guy. But because we were moving to L.A., there was a new DP, a new crew, new production people. I didn’t feel quite as nervous.
You’ve been a Veep fan since it premiered, right? As you were watching, did you ever have thoughts about what you would do differently if you were writing it?
I was very obsessed with the show. It was one of those shows that everyone gets to have: One that my wife and I can agree on, that we can watch together. But I don’t think I was sitting there going, “I can’t wait for Armando to surprise everyone with leaving and they’ll hire me and this is what I’m going to do.” I definitely took a lot of delight in the characters and what they did. And I’ve been lucky enough, almost all the shows I’ve ever worked on, I was a fan of first. That’s what happened with Seinfeld and SNL. It’s a little different coming in and loving the show. But being a fan really helps, and in a way, it gives you an ever-so-slightly outsider’s view on it.
As I was talking to them about the whole thing and they told me about the cliffhanger [at the end of season four], I was obsessed with it, because it’s brilliant, and as complicated and exquisite a prison that it was that Armando trapped me in, that’s what got me excited: thinking about how to get out of that cliffhanger. Getting out of that is really defining this season. As a fan of the show, I was able to bring, “Here’s some things I’ve always been thinking about.”
One of the things that’s been striking to me in the early episodes of season five is how brutal a mother Selina is. She’s harsh to everyone, but with Catherine, she really does not hold back.
When you get to the fourth episode you get a little insight into Selina and her mother, and I think that’s the kind of thing I brought to the show as an outsider: Looking at some of the characters to get a little deeper with them. In my mind, that’s what I was thinking. And sometimes it allows you to do certain kinds of jokes: Catherine is filming this documentary, and Selina says to her, “Don’t use the vulgar parts,” and as a fan of the show, I loved the concept of “don’t use the vulgar parts,” because that’s what the show is.
What’s great to me in that relationship is that Catherine is also terrible. She’s this insufferable Vassar girl working on a documentary who struggled last semester because she “was tired all the time.” Apples and trees!
And you’ll see the other tree and realize Selina was an apple from that tree, and it’s a long cycle of dysfunction.
Part of what makes Veep so enjoyable is just how vicious everyone is. We see little glimpses of their humanity, but not much. Is that challenging, figuring out when to let that side of their personalities come through?
They are vicious, but I find more reality in their viciousness, in terms of just interacting with most people, than perhaps I do on more aspirational shows that take place in D.C., like The West Wing. I watched every episode of The West Wing, from first to last, so this is not a criticism, but I find this more believable. Maybe it’s something about being a New Yorker.
It’s interesting you bring up being a New Yorker because, though you say you bring an outside perspective to Veep, for obvious reasons, you’re also bringing an inside perspective, because you’re an American writing about American politics [Iannucci is British].
I hadn’t thought about that and that’s very true. They had a unique perspective on our politics. I’m definitely a bit of cynic which helps me, and oddly enough, I was a government major back in school. My parents are finally getting their money’s worth. There definitely have been times where little bits of story and whatnot come out of my vague recollections of, “Wasn’t there an L.B.J. Sargent Shriver story about something?”
What is it like to be writing about an election — or the immediate aftermath of an election — in the midst of a completely batshit real-life election season? How has that influenced the writing of the show?
It’s done two things. I’m glad we’re past our election and we’re dealing with the aftermath of the election, which is this insane tie. There are interesting possibilities, as people talk about a contested election and the possibility of a third-party candidacy — this real election could get thrown into the House and the Senate. I am glad, though, that we’re not doing an election story this year, because I don’t think we’d be able to keep up with what’s going on. It’s easy to parody things when they’re sort of straight and even a little full of themselves, but this [election] season has been so crude and horrific, it’s turning our show into a documentary more than anything else. What is more horrible, the thing Selina said to Ben or the thing that was talked about on the stage at the Republican convention?
The great thing is, we live in this universe where none of these people exist. There is no Donald Trump character. You’ll see manifestations of it down the line, but I think one of the strengths of Veep is, it’s not particularly reactionary to what’s going on in D.C. Selina is not Hillary. We cherry-pick from the real world of things we like. But if we’d written some of that Republican debate dialogue into the show, you’d turn it off, because it’s boorish and foul-mouthed in an uninteresting way. We like eloquence in our foul-mouthed-ness.
I imagine it’s challenging to stay true to the voice of the show but not make it sound like you’re writing Veep fan fiction.
It’s a fine line. And not just fan fiction but, would a human say this? You don’t want it to sound like it was written by a writer. It was a delicate line. If I had one fear, and it wasn’t a giant one, I felt like I had to do lines the way I wanted to do them, and not try and do the way Armando wrote. Otherwise you would just end up with, as you put it, a bad copy.
Do you have any jokes in this season that you’re especially proud of?
One of my absolute favorites, in the first episode, as the markets are melting and the entire financial system is collapsing, and Selina is taking it all in, and Ben tells her, “They’re already calling it Black Wednesday,” and she says, “Jesus, it’s only Wednesday?” That line made it into the trailer. That’s, perhaps, one of my favorite moments and lines, that was written by Lew Morton, an old friend and one of the writers on the show.
It seems like there are more race jokes this season. Was that intentional?
It’s funny, it may be true a little bit. In episode one, we are doing a story about a symposium on race. So perhaps if you were to subtract that, it wouldn’t seem that way.
But even throughout the first few episodes, there are a bunch of jokes that the main cast makes among themselves about Native Americans, the Latino vote, that sort of thing.
None of it’s planned. We didn’t sit down and go, “This is the season of race.” As we’ve been playing with the stories, it’s where the characters voices take us. I will say this: I think race, perhaps, when we talk about English vs. America, it’s something that they don’t enjoy talking about quite as much. And personally, I feel like it’s something that’s worth taking head-on. That’s why we’re doing the symposium on race story, and it’s about her and her team putting together this symposium and forgetting to invite any other race besides white Europeans. And you can draw parallels to the Republicans having symposiums on women reproductive issues and having no women, which has nothing to do with race, but is about government hypocrisy.
But I am fascinated by race. I’m fascinated by what President Obama’s race has done to this country, in terms of the hate that it has shown. I used to like to think we were a very advanced country, and after eight years of his presidency — and I’m a big fan of his — I find the racism that has bubbled up is just madness. For me, it’s one of the most important issues of our time. If we’re not going to talk about race on Veep, I don’t know what we’re doing.
So the Obama presidency has made you more cynical, not more optimistic?
I don’t know about more cynical, but as a student of government, you would read stories about Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, and Reagan, who was a Republican, and yet, they got work done together, and at the end of the day, they could even have a drink together. And it seems now, if you’re a Republican in Senate or Congress, you don’t vote “yes” on anything the Democrats or Obama wants you to vote on. At all. There seems to be almost no bipartisanship at all. It’s shocking. As you see the at Trump rallies, there’s this undercurrent of racism that’s quite frightening.
In the Veep world, Obama was never president, right? What’s the last living president you have existing in the show?
The latest real person we ever identify, I believe, is Jimmy Carter. We’re not quite sure what happened after that. We make a lot of jokes in the room, just weird alternative histories where weird people are president, or other people, famous people, are there. It’s a room of nerdy writers; there are a lot of alternative history jokes.
What’s the best alternative history joke you all have come up with?
There was basically a notion of: Somehow Beyoncé is the same in all universes. Despite the time traveling, she is a constant and can travel between them. She exists in the Selina universe and the real one, and no one else does. I might need to draw you a map of that.
I would love that, actually. I’m a big fan of the Richard and Jonah relationship. Are there any character pairings that you particularly enjoy writing, or that have surprised you?
I love that pairing. Sam [Richardson], the actor, and the character of Richard was just a brilliant addition to the show. And the notion of Jonah finding his loyal solider was just this wonderful thing, and I loved it so much, and one of the first things I did was fuck it all up and flip it. Out of the ashes of the tie, Richard reveals certain specialties in election law, so Selina puts Richard in charge. That has been a joy. And it also affects the Amy-Richard alliance, because he started out getting coffee for Amy, and in some ways, Selina just finds Richard to be a great source of comfort and knowledge in lieu of Amy, even though Amy technically outranks him. It’s great to watch Amy see Selina listen to someone like Richard more than her. And I cannot get enough of Ben and Kent together. I’m not sure we’ve done a lot of scenes with only one of them. It’s just a wonderful, Abbott and Costello comedy team. And they’re both half a straight guy, half a comedy guy.
I don’t know if you watch any of the other D.C. shows, but you and Scandal are both dealing with the idea of, what does it look like to have a president who is single and dating? And I’m curious if you did any research about how that would work in real life, or if you didn’t want to be bound to those rules and you just did your own thing.
We have a team of consultants, and one of the things we went into with was, just as I come into the show, what resonated with me? And one thing that did stick out to me is, she is a single woman, attractive, powerful, and she’s always dated very much beneath her. Her ex-husband is much beneath her, as is her old boyfriend, and the last time we saw her hooking up with her trainer, he’s also incredibly beneath her. Well, if she were going to date, what is an equal? What if it’s the president or prime minister of another country? And that felt a little fake and salacious, and perhaps more fitting — and I mean this in a good way — for Fitz on Scandal. They can have more fun with something like that.
We went out of our way to create this Jamie Dimon type, a captain of industry, and we cast John Slattery. Arguably she’s more powerful, but he gets paid a lot more money.
I did love that she was with her trainer, though. Because you know if she were a man, she would have had some hot, 20-something female “trainer” come by the White House all the time …
Ben basically says that to her, “I can get you a …” He’s saying, as the British might say, a rent boy. And that’s the thing I do also love, and it’s one of the things I loved about the Ray [the trainer] story line: She’s a woman. Who the fuck cares she’s a woman? A powerful person has needs, and it doesn’t make a difference if she’s a man or a woman. And she’s dating. People talk about the notion of her dating because she’s the president, but no one is talking about how she’s a woman.
It does seem, in the world of the show, that people are pretty much over the fact that she’s a woman. Or that they’re just busy talking about other things.
She’s over it. And she’s happy to use it; she’s happy to talk about becoming the first elected female president. That’s a great sound bite, with great optics. But day in, day out, it’s not something she concerns herself with.
One of the long-running questions I’ve had, as I’ve watched the entire series, is: Why does Selina want to be president? Aside from the power of it, does she have any actual interest in public service?
I will simply say, sit back and watch this season, because, it’s not like we do giant flashbacks, but we definitely get into her head a little bit more. As a fan and a viewer, that’s the stuff that fascinated me as well.
I think about that even with our real politicians, all these people in Congress who apparently have no interest in legislating. And they could make so much money and have power doing something else, so I always wonder, why did they even run for office? Why be in politics at all?
That’s a darn good question. I do think there’s a certain power to it, and there’s the thought process of, “Right now I’m not getting paid, but after, I can get paid a lot.” That’s one of the real problems with our system. It’s a little bit of what they tried to do last season, of the Dan and Amy story lines, how easy it is to move from inside the White House to lobbying the White House for a lot of money, and then sometimes coming back into the White House.
What kind of wonky stuff did you uncover about the electoral college in your research for this season?
We’ve tried to simplify it and reduce it to its most simple and base form. Technically speaking, electoral-college voters don’t have to vote for the person they’re supposed to, which could really mess it up. We, rightfully so, stayed a bit away from that, because it started to get a little too “how is someone at home supposed to follow that?” It does become a giant mess. And it’s unclear, if there was no president elected and the Senate chooses a vice president, and that vice president became the president, technically speaking there would be great discussion of, that isn’t really a first term, that’s filling in for a president that doesn’t exist. You could have that person in office, arguably, for 12 years.
There’s a joke about this in the season premiere — the electoral-college votes don’t add up to an odd number, which makes no sense. Why is that?
I’m not sure I can answer that. But that is one of those things that came up, and it’s like, oh my God, why is that an even number?
This interview has been edited and condensed.