Congratulations! You are now the showrunner of a successful HBO series! After the feeling of victory has had time to wash over you for all of maybe one minute, you must confront some particularly sticky questions. For one, the show is arriving on your plate after an exceptional four seasons. The characters have all found their voices and the audience has come to appreciate its particular plot patterns. How do you combine your own styles and preferences with those of your predecessor? How do you adjust for a lifetime of experience as a writer, director, and producer to suit that of another?
When David Mandel learned that he would be taking over for Armando Iannucci as the showrunner of Veep, these were some of the questions that faced him. Mandel was an excellent choice. His experience speaks perfectly to a show such as Veep; in particular, he has written for Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he gained additional experience as both a director and an executive producer.
As he revealed in the interview below, Mandel knows that he is inevitably going to be leaving his mark on show. However, Veep is no worse for it. Having previewed the first four episodes of season five, what mostly stood out were more wide-ranging plots and more interwoven characters. Otherwise, it still has the enjoyable look and feel of the Veep we’ve come to know and love. If anything, Mandel’s involvement lends the show a sense of freshness that befits Selina’s new predicament in her pursuit for the presidency.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mandel and discuss the tremendous weight of responsibility he has taken on, how his experience informs his approach, and how he has adjusted to account for his influence on the show’s trajectory.
From what I understand, you’re out here in New York at the moment because Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] is hosting SNL. It must be great to be back working with her again – were you close when you were involved with Seinfeld?
You know, it was a different thing. At the time, I’m sure in her mind I was some young kid. We always got along but you know, she was having kids and I was living in my first apartment. So we weren’t hanging out a lot together back then. Certainly, I like to think she appreciated what I was doing and I just thought what she was doing was incredible. Then when we did the Curb Seinfeld season, she and everyone were back. Certainly, when Veep came along, as you weigh what’s good and what’s bad about it, I guess even if I didn’t know her, just because of her, I would have been interested.
Was there a lot of turnover during the transition from Armando [Iannucci] to you?
You’ve got to remember the entire show was basically written and produced in the UK. Then it was shot in Baltimore. So there was… you’re asking specifically about writers, but the show just in general went through a big change with the move to LA. Then writer-wise, Armando took some of his people with him onto his next stuff. We had three Brits from the staff who had been on the staff that kind of came with us. They’re great, but I think even they would be the first to say it was tough. I also wouldn’t necessarily want to be from LA flying to London and living there for periods of time away from my family. So, it was hard but good.
There’s so much production oversight that you’re responsible for, but you’re also working intensely from a creative angle – how do you balance both of those? Speaking for myself, I feel like whenever I’m under a lot of stress or I’m unusually busy, either my productivity or my creativity ends up suffering.
Yeah, I mean they’re two very different things. I think some of what allowed the creative production, especially as it got crazier, crazier and crazier, was really from the first talks that I had with [Julia Louis-Dreyfus], which were over a year ago now. When she and Armando first knew that Armando was going to be moving on, my name came up. I sat down with Julia and she told me about where the show was heading and then I got to read scripts and then I started to see cuts of the season.
So I knew about the tie before the rest of the world, and I started thinking about where to go next, like sort of the exquisite corner that he had painted it into. It was figuring out where I wanted to go, mapping out of the season, which all took place when things were sort of leisurely. Then what worked out quite well and sort of, I will simply say it’s the way we did Curb, the way we did Seinfeld, it’s the way I like to write a movie, whatever it is. It’s you make that plan when things are sort of easygoing. What was interesting was the 10 episodes that I pitched out to her back in June of last year and we outlined, the really rough outlines, boxes of just “Here’s some things, and here’s some things…” I have pictures of those boards, our dry erase boards, and I was actually thinking when each episode airs of like posting the original sort of board.
Yeah, that would be really interesting to see.
Yeah, and like I said, sometimes something moved from this show to the next show, or vice versa. So that in the insanity, when it was like, “What’s the next episode? What are we doing?” We pulled out pictures and documents and went, “Okay, right.”
Does it feel to that end more like you were starting a totally new project, as opposed to picking up on one?
It was certainly picking up on one, but because of where he put it, there were a lot of new elements to it. Again, I think that’s what made it really interesting. You never know the what-ifs, but I don’t know. If someone calls you up and says “Hey, you want a chance to do Veep?” you’re going to do Veep. That being said, perhaps if they had called up and said, “Hey, it’s Veep, and the end of the season, it’s just another episode, and you’ll take over and she’s just the president.” I’d take the job, but there was something really exciting about the tie and figuring out how the hell we get out of this.
Do you feel like what you’ve worked on in the past is going to influence how you approach Veep?
I feel like… my two bigger previous jobs, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, I was with Larry and Jerry and then just Larry, and they were story-driven. From the earliest days of Seinfeld, you got hired by going, “Here are a list of some George stories, and some Jerry stories, and some Elaine stories.” That’s how you got hired. On Curb, ultimately, since we didn’t have full scripts, but just as we’re putting these things together, it’s just all ideas. It’s coming in and the four of us, it was me, Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and Larry during our period of just coming in with stories or emailing each other, and Larry pulling out his pad and going “This thing happened to me” and putting it together. Occasionally we’d have a friend or two pitching stuff in. Still, it was all very story-driven.
I think I’m a little more story-driven perhaps, and I think I’ve brought that to the show. In particular, this season may be more so than past seasons of Veep, in the attempt to resolve the tie. Our first episode starts the morning after the election and Congress is going to vote when they get sat in January. So we’re doing ten episodes, it’s not real-time or anything like that, but it is 10 episodes over a roughly 10 or 11 week time period, where we’re attempting to resolve this singular story right from the get-go if you will.
In past seasons of Veep, even though obviously last year, she was running for President and that kind of ran its way through, it came and went and then it kind of heated up a little more. I think this season is more along the lines of ten episodes just telling one large story.
Are longer story arcs something that you just like naturally or do you think that’s something that developed because of the trajectory of your career?
Well Seinfeld was my first sitcom job, and my first job was Saturday Night Live, so the long form there is the long sketch. I learned to outline a show from Larry and Jerry. I think one of the things that really all three shows have in common is denseness. I remember even in my early days at Seinfeld, the first outline I ever did seemed like I did an act of an outline. This was my show, I had my four stories and I sort of worked out Act I. I remember Larry and Jerry coming in and liking what I’d done but kind of paring it on down so what I thought was a whole act of a show was just two scenes. That forced me to go further in the story and take it places. Then that got pared down and it was a learning process, but you look at those shows, the speed, the density and Veep is that much more so: speed and density.
Do you feel like there was any particular point when you felt like you’d really figured it out, or has it all felt like a continual learning process?
Well, I started Saturday Night Live when I was like 21 years old and I think I was on eggshells for the entire time, certainly up to the first sort of whatever it was, the 12 or 13 week mark when I was told I had been picked up for the rest of the year. Then even for the rest of that year, it was just still very nerve-wracking. There was a moment at the afterparty for the final show of my first season where I got up the nerve to say hello and thank you to Lorne, and he said, very casually, “See you next year.” I felt like I came into my second year vested with confidence. At that point I was no longer worried about the job. That was sort of maybe point number one, if you will.
How do you manage all the stress of being showrunner and keep yourself from buckling? Or do you just buckle?
I don’t sleep a lot, which helps. You get it done. You get it done because you have to. There are things where you kind of go, “Well I guess someone else could do that,” but I don’t want to let somebody else to do that. I mean, I obviously have editors doing assemblies and I have directors doing their director’s cut, but I sit through every cut. I get it down to where I want to get the show. So, yeah, it’s incredibly stressful. I am beyond tired at this point. There’s no great answer, but maybe that’s why Armando did four years and then enough was enough.
It was all of one year for me. I mean, boy I hadn’t… Doing all of this, I wish I was 23 or something. It’d be a lot easier, but it just is. I mean, I guess to me what ultimately keeps me going is just: when this show is good it’s incredibly good. I’m proud of all the episodes we made, but I’m particularly proud of the fourth one. I feel like it’s something different and somewhere new and that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me going.
Was it stressful settling into these characters that were already fairly developed?
I guess at this point I feel, yeah, I think I feel pretty comfortable. There was definitely a little bit of a learning curve, just the early drafts of things. There was finding a “voice.” The first time you sit down at a keyboard you don’t have a voice. Even as a big fan of this show, I watched this show every week Sunday night. That doesn’t mean that the first time I sat down at a keyboard and wrote Selena it was exactly Selena.
By draft two, though, it was getting there and by draft three it was pretty much okay. There are going to be a lot of people that say it’s different. All right fine, yeah, it should be a little different. It is going to be a little different. I think there are jokes that are more my voice than his voice. I think ultimately the show will be Veep with a tinge of me. I’m making a show that makes me laugh. That’s the only thing I can do and that’s the only thing I ever tried to do. If it makes me laugh, it’ll make some people laugh.
Do you have anything that’s on the back burner now while you’re working on Veep?
The guys who I used to do Curb with, Schaffer and Berg, Alec does Silicon Valley and Jeff was doing The League, I’m doing this. But somewhere in there, we still want to get together and we have some movie stuff that we’re always sort of tinkering with, so there’s always that.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you are reading this you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.