As you probably have heard, Selina Meyer, as played to perfection by Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is gearing up for another presidential run. Her increasingly diminishing political legacy has been boosted, ironically, by the unending incompetence of her former White House Press Secretary Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh). This was just one of many revelations to come out of Veep’s season finale, which also included a hilariously apropos flashback to when President Meyer first “met” her unconditionally loyal and constantly doting personal assistant, Gary Walsh (Tony Hale).
The season 6 finale was written and directed by showrunner David Mandel, who took over for Armando Iannucci starting with season 5. Mandel has shown himself to be the ideal successor to creatively navigate the show that adeptly combines the irreverent satire of Spinal Tap with the raunchiness of South Park and the political intelligence of The West Wing.
This is no surprise to fans of Mandel’s, whose writing and producing credits include Saturday Night Live, Clerks: The Animated Series (developed by), Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and being a co-writer and director along with Jeff Schaffer (creator: The League) and Alec Berg (executive producer, Silicon Valley) on the cult classic feature, EuroTrip (2004).
I recently sat down with Mandel to talk about the finale, as well as what he loved about working with Senator Al Franken at SNL and how the internet has become the great equalizer for anyone who wants to break into comedy writing.
Veep has the best one-liners and witty insults on television. Do you ever allow the actors to tweak/improv the dialogue as written?
Absolutely. Sometimes a line comes out of the script that just can’t be beat. But oftentimes it’s us identifying a line and the writers, actors, and even the writer’s assistants throwing in an alternative possibility. In a perfect world I get to go into the edit room with three or four really funny ones. It’s almost like a battle on every line, but in a good way.
There’s also actor improv as well as writer improv in between takes. We’re just constantly refining and making anything we can better – anything we can do to just keep jam packing it with jokes. In a perfect world the audience misses like 20 to 30 percent of it and has to go back and watch it again. It’s a very rare thing in television, but we’ve been very lucky. For the most part we usually have a large contingent of writers on the set. We even have a system set up where the night before me and Julia will go through the script and identify places where we could use something better.
Do you have any checks and balances as to whether a joke has gone too far?
Honestly, 99.9% of the time the cast will go “That’s horrible” and say “Okay, let’s do it.” Every once in a blue moon there will be something we don’t use, but before we abandon it we’ll try it and see. A great example of this is from the end of the Thanksgiving episode from last season, where Selina says “Somewhere in the world there’s a woman exactly my age getting her pussy eaten out and I’m stuck here watching this.” Julia was a little shocked at first, but of course did it. Originally, it wasn’t in the cut and then I put it in. It hits you over the head but is also really, really, funny.
Have you ever had someone come up and say to you that one joke or episode just absolutely crossed the line?
Truthfully, the more common criticism I hear about the show is someone saying that something isn’t real or could never happen. We definitely take liberties, but one of the things I’m very proud of is that we do a tremendous amount of research and that everything’s based in reality. We have advisors from both sides of the aisle that fill us in on congressional law, how a bill becomes a law…just every aspect of politics. Our research is something that we vet with a lot of people and that we take very seriously.
You’ve had some great mentors including Senator Al Franken at Saturday Night Live and Larry David at both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Is there one thing you took from each one individually that you can pass along?
What I loved about Al is there’s a certain joy he takes in writing. You could see him having fun and laughing at what he’s writing, in a good way – not in an egotistical self absorbed narcissistic way, but in a way where he’s really enjoying what he’s doing.
From Larry, what I really learned is outlining, outlining, outlining. Larry taught me that every scene has to have a point and every scene has to move the story forward. By doing this, you are allowed to keep jam packing story in and you not only get a great pace, you also compact the story. As a result, it extends the episode and you’re taken to interesting places that you weren’t expecting.
More along those lines, having good mentors can make all the difference for a writer. Any advice for someone who didn’t work at SNL who isn’t based in LA, NY or Chicago and wants to find someone who can guide their career and help them to break into the biz?
The amazing thing right now that has changed from when I started is the internet. It is the great equalizer. Of course, having a mentor is always valuable but it’s not as necessary anymore. You no longer have to fight your way into SNL in order to get your stuff seen. In fact, as far as I can tell, many of the recently hired late night writers and the writers for Weekend Update are being hired right off of Twitter. You can be in, for example, Iowa, and you can tweet funny jokes and be discovered.
I’ll take it a step further and say in this day and age with an iPhone you can write and film your own sketches quite easily, and, if it’s funny, you can get that sketch seen. So, once again, in this respect, the internet has become the great equalizer. At this point, the real challenge is figuring out how you’re going to get off your couch and put it together. I think the amount of people whose writing career is starting there is increasing by the year.
How was your second full season on Veep different from the first? Do you feel like you’ve made a full transition?
This year was definitely different because you feel a little more comfortable. So that allowed me to fine tune a little bit. One revelation I had about this season was that the episodes that I really prefer are when Selina mixes both the personal and the professional. More is going on, because in this scenario, she has multiple storylines that overlap and affect each other.
How has Selina changed, dare I say grown, during your tenure as showrunner?
I think she’s learned from her previous runs for the presidency and now has a self-awareness that she lacked the last time she ran. A good example is during the finale, the fact that she was crying after breaking up with Ambassador Al Jaffar (Usman Ally). Of course, when you jump to her giving a speech a week or so later, she was fine, which is probably not very healthy. But, the fact that she actually acknowledged that she was upset about the breakup was a small step forward for her.
All of the supporting characters are so well written. Is there one that you have a particular fondness for?
That’s just so impossible. I will say, it was a real pleasure and fun to have Peter MacNicol (Uncle Jeff Kane) back. Just to watch him tear both Jonah (Timothy Simons) and Shawnee apart. Poor Mary Holland had never encountered that before.
Two of the ruthless insults MacNicol directed at Shawnee included:
Who is this tranny knuckle dragger? Someone you hired so you don’t get erections?
Tell me this, did he (her father) sell your training bras as cum rags to the sex offenders in his prisons?
Once again, I think they’re all fantastic, but one person I don’t think gets enough praise is actor David Pasquesi for the irresistible sleaze that is Andrew Meyer. He seems to be able to have any woman he wants including Selina and he’s just so wonderfully awful with his trucks and trucks of snake oil that he is constantly moving.
Tell me a little bit more about the Godfather II inspiration for the flashbacks in the finale.
I love playing with format. It’s something I’ve done throughout my career. If you go back to my Seinfeld days “The Bizarro Jerry” episode plays with the character concept and then of course there’s the backwards episode (“The Betrayal”) I did with Peter Mehlman.
Also, one of my favorite episodes of the Clerks cartoon was the second one, which was the flashback episode.
As far as Veep, I loved doing Catherine’s film with Erik Kenward from last season. After doing that episode, which had some archival footage of Selina, Gary and Andrew from the ‘90s as well as young Catharine (Sarah Sutherland), I wondered if there was a way to do a flashback structure. My head then just went naturally to Godfather II. In this instance it was more used as a device to color in the lines as to what’s going on in the present day as opposed to the more traditional TV flashback which recall a specific event. The only thing about playing with time is you have to pick and choose your moments or else you’re just doing easter eggs for doing easter eggs sake.
Finally, you routinely hold tweet sessions during the airing of episodes as you did for the finale. Is this more that’s something fun for fans or does it help to infuse the shaping of the show?
I enjoy interacting with the fans. I also like the chance to credit people from the show. Someone may have done the heavy lifting and have his name on a script, but it’s always a team effort. I’m also a film and TV nerd and as a young wannabe writer I learned a lot from the behind-the-scenes DVD segments. This is basically my version of this. It’s a way to pass along that knowledge to any aspiring TV or film writers and directors.
As a matter of fact, people may not even know this because they rarely buy DVDs anymore, but last year we did seven or eight behind-the-scenes commentaries as well as seven or eight for this year. The honest answer is: I loved watching, listening, and learning from these commentaries, so I love doing them. There’s also the element of the aspiring writer who is able to read some of my Twitter behind-the-scenes insight, and hopefully it helps their own writing career.