Veep's Showrunner on Clinton, Trump, and Insulting Jonah

Before David Mandel accepted the HBO show’s third consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, he spoke with The Atlantic about writing political satire for a fractious world.

The scene after 'Veep' won its third consecutive Best Comedy Series award at the 2017 Emmys
David Mandel, surrounded by the show's cast and crew, accepts the award for outstanding comedy series for "Veep" at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 17 in Los Angeles.  (Phil McCarten / Invision for the Television Academy / AP)

This post contains light spoilers through Season 6 of Veep.

“I’m out of a job,” David Mandel joked from the Emmy Awards stage on Sunday evening, as he accepted the statue for Best Comedy Series on behalf of Veep. “I guess we all are,” the HBO comedy’s showrunner added, motioning to the cast and crew assembled behind him—“so if anyone hears anything, I’m looking for movie work, but I’ll do television.”

Mandel was overstating the case just a little: While Veep, the political satire for which he serves as a writer as well as an executive producer, announced that its upcoming season, the show’s seventh, will be its last, he and his team are still very much employed: They’re currently planning that final season, set to air in 2018, and with it the fate of Selina Meyer, that perpetually powerful underdog, and the powerful underdogs in her orbit. Just before the Emmys, Megan Garber spoke with Mandel about how that work is going—about the show’s sixth season, just out on DVD, and about what it’s like to make a show about the American presidency during a time when, as so many people joked during the Emmys telecast, the White House can seem like its own Comedy Series/Drama Series/Reality Competition Program. The conversation below has been edited and condensed.

Megan Garber: You’ve said before that any similarities between Veep and the politics of the real world are usually coincidental—that you’ve made an effort to maintain the integrity of the alternate world you’ve helped to create. Will you keep to that separation in the final season, focusing on thematic overlaps rather than specific ones?

David Mandel: It’s always going to be thematic. And it’s always going to be its own world. For all I know, in Veepworld, at the 1980 convention, Reagan and Ford figured things out, and Ford was the vice president in ’80, and everything was different. Maybe that’s where the time-streams split. Either way, there will continue to be no Donald Trump character in the show, no appearances by any real politicians or real media people. But if there’s anybody on the show who seems like somebody … there are probably reasons for that.

And while you can’t ignore the changes of the last election, I also think that if you go back to 2008, you can already see the way campaigns, campaigning, and elections have changed. So I think there’s an opportunity now for us to dig into all of that.

MG: What in particular changed then, do you think? The rise of social media, that kind of thing?

DM: Social media. All the voter anger. A lot of these “What is an insider? What is an outsider?” questions. And also the idea that people can have just multiple interpretations of the same person. And the hate that has been bubbling up since 2008. I think that’s all interesting.

MG: Are there particular places you look to for inspiration when you’re thinking about how to consider those ideas as comedy?

DM: We do a lot of just looking at history. There’s so much, dare I say, real stuff that has happened. And we have wonderful advisors from both sides of the aisle who have worked on campaigns and for campaigns. In some cases, we’ve met with actual candidates. So we really run the gamut with our research, and in some ways our stories are amalgamations and slightly different versions of things that have happened in reality. I’m a fan of nonfiction. I’m a fan of history. I find that, by looking to the past, we can see some really interesting things.

MG: Have you read What Happened?

DM: I haven’t read it yet. I’ve read the excerpts. But let’s just say I’m well-versed in Shattered, so.

MG: I realize this is not a major coincidence, as coincidences go, but: In the introduction to What Happened, Clinton mentions that she wrote much of the book at her dining-room table, at her house in New York. And in the acknowledgements, she talks about the staffers who worked with her to write it, and she describes them sitting in her living room, writing and editing. Reading that, I couldn’t help but think of Selina, writing her own memoir at … her dining-room table. In New York. Surrounded by her trusty staffers.

DM: You know, especially when it comes to Hillary, it’s this funny thing. Sometimes I think it’s very exciting, when real life sort of hews to what we’ve done on the show—but then sometimes I think it blurs a lot of things for people. They go, “Oh, Hillary did this,” and “Selina did this”—and, “therefore, Selina equals Hillary.” And that’s the part that drives me crazy. Clinton lost, and everyone goes, “Oh, they’re doing that story now.” And it’s like, “No, we did that years ahead!” The show was created in a vacuum that had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton, and it continues to have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.

MG: I actually hadn’t realized until recently how early the Selina-out-of-office idea had solidified for you, and how long you’d been planning for the show to explore what it means not just to have power, but to lose it. And you’ve also mentioned that there have been jokes you’ve cut specifically because they might appear to be overly derivative of real-world events—even though you wrote them before the event happened in reality. I’m thinking of Trump jokes, in particular.

DM: Right—but also, there have been only one or two of those in a season of 10 episodes jam-packed with jokes. And then someone writes an article, and the headline emphasizes the changed joke. I mean, the notion that we had to change a joke because it was too close to Donald Trump is true. But think about the number of jokes we do in an episode—percentage-wise, you’re talking less than 1 percent of content. I understand why that’s very exciting to reporters, but it’s not particularly exciting to us.

MG: Very fair! But to be a little meta about that, one of the things that interests me about this moment is the new fluidity that can exist between creators and audiences, and the way shows function not just as art, but as ideas—which can often mean fodder for thinkpieces, that kind of thing. Do you read the pieces written about Veep, and do you respond to that audience analysis of the show? Or do you try to keep the show contained to your own creativity and your own desires for it?

DM: I don’t particularly respond. I mean, sometimes I read the reviews, and go, “Great, they see what I want them to see.” And sometimes I read them and go, “Nope, that’s wrong.” But, you know, what are you going to do about it? I am surprised sometimes—or not necessarily surprised, but there are things that I think to myself, like, “Oh, I wonder if someone will do something about this fact or this story”—little bits and pieces of things that are taken from real life. And people rarely do, which I’m always surprised by. And then I wonder why not. I’m not saying we made such a wonderfully obscure reference, but I do wonder, “Maybe people don’t know that story.” I get curious about that kind of thing.

MG: Are you thinking of anything in particular?

DM: I thought, last year, Sherman Tanz was a little bit of a quasi-Mercers-meet-Sheldon Adelson—I thought someone might have discussed it. But it’s more a curiosity than anything else. Just like, “What are people getting, or not getting?” And at the same time, while I’m curious, it doesn’t change anything. The notion of changing what you’re doing or rewriting because of what people say or think—it’s like how you get those Star Wars prequels, I guess. All of the sudden there’s a lot of Boba Fett clones.

MG: Something we’ve been interested in at The Atlantic is the broad question of what art can do at this moment, the political role that art can play in a time of turmoil. Do you have anything like that in the back of your mind as you’re going about the writing process?

DM: Maybe a little. But at some point or another, it’s a comedy. You’re not trying to change the world. But I do think the show has a lot of interesting things to say about political power. That’s what the show, to me, is really about: power. Who has it, who wants it, what they’ll do to get it—all of those things. That’s Selina in a nutshell. And obviously, because of what it has to say about power, the show talks a lot about hypocrisy, both in the government and beyond. And, with all that, I guess some part of me hopes that someone’s eyes will be opened to something through the show. But we’re trying not to be on a high horse.

And we enjoy pointing out the hypocrisy on both sides. So it’s not about Trump, and it’s not-not about Trump, if that makes any sense. Technically Trump is on one side, yes, but he’s not really on a side. And on the more liberal, Democratic side there can certainly be a lot of self-aggrandizement, and it’s very fun to take our shots at that, as well. I pride myself on the show really being about the both-sides abuses of power—both sides not really being about anything.

MG: Can I take that as confirmation that Selina’s party will never be revealed on the show?

DM: Never. Even in the episodes that are not written, you’re never going to know. It’s part of the show. Another thing the show prides itself on is that people from both sides enjoy it. The show has many a Republican fan, and I hope that means something to people who maybe have their own conceptual notion of what a Hollywood show about politics might be. We’re not that.

MG: Speaking of negative spaces, I have to ask you about Jonah. I love that you and the other writers keep a running list of insults for him. And it’s a small tragedy to think that the ones that don’t air will be lost to history. But, meanwhile: What’s your current favorite of the Jonah-insults that have aired so far?

DM: I was quite fond, last season, of an insult that didn’t even have a curse in it. It was when Furlong told Jonah to—I can’t remember the exact line, but told him to stop biting James Bond’s cable-car wire. Which really made me laugh. I was a big fan of the Roger Moore James Bond movies. I didn’t write the joke, but the allusion to Richard Kiel’s Jaws character made me laugh. And I think in its own very strange way, it bothered Tim [Simons, the actor who plays Jonah] a lot. Which made it doubly funny.