Even the people who make your favorite pop culture have their own favorite pop culture. In Surprise Top Five, we ask them to list, off the cuff, their five favorites in a particular field of interest. They get no advance warning.
From his first play onward, Beau Willimon has marked the theatrical world of the American political system as his territory. That play, Farragut North, was loosely inspired by his work for the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, and it was later adapted into the George Clooney film The Ides Of March, for which Willimon received an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay. Willimon’s focus the last several years, however, has been the Netflix adaptation of the British miniseries House Of Cards, for which he has served as showrunner for the first two seasons as well as the upcoming third season. The series’ tracing of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) making his ruthless rise to power has earned Willimon plaudits, while the show itself has become an Emmy favorite. The first two seasons of the show are available on Netflix, and season two is released on DVD today. As House Of Cards is one of the top political dramas of the moment, we thought it would be fun to ask Willimon…
What are your top five acts of political comedy?
1. President Barack Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns
Beau Willimon: The first one that comes to mind, of course, is Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns. That was pretty extraordinary, not only because I love that program. I think Zach Galifianakis is a comic genius. To see the president on that shabby set, getting taken to task by angst-filled Galifianakis, is about as good as comedy gets. And I think it’s a great example of a president taking a moment to not take himself too seriously. It’s a job that is burdened by responsibility and solemnity, but every once in a while, we like to see our leaders have a laugh at themselves.
The A.V. Club: Are there other presidents you think have done a very good job of being humorous about their own image?
BW: Sure. I loved when Clinton played sax on Arsenio. And I think a lot of presidents have found ways here and there to lighten the mood, whether you agree with their politics or not. I have a lot of friends that are reporters who traveled with George W. Bush on his first campaign, and they actually all loved hanging out with him because they said he would come to the back of the plane and crack jokes and be extremely personable. I think that maybe some of that lightheartedness began to dissipate, as world events took over center stage. But even if you look at Nixon when he was on Laugh In, that’s a great example of someone exploiting television to bring another side to the presidency, which is, hey, tap into popular culture, have a few laughs. I think he had learned his lesson from the Kennedy debates, where he didn’t know how to utilize television, and at that point, he realized its power and, particularly, the power of a laugh.
AVC: Is there a part of you that imagines what Frank Underwood is like on a late night talk show?
BW: Of course. In fact, we’ve seen him do a CNN debate, which isn’t quite like a late night talk show. But we’ve seen how he performed on television when he was debating Marty Spinella during the teachers’ union strike. He actually tries to bring some humor to that debate, and it backfires on him. It goes viral. People are making techno versions of his mangled joke. It’s become common, actually, for presidents to make those sorts of appearances, so it’s certainly something that we think about and have played around with in the writers’ room. And who knows? Maybe one day you’ll see it on the show.
2. The Candidate
BW: One of the great political films is The Candidate, which isn’t a comedy insofar as you fall on the floor laughing, but it is satire at its very best. There’s a lot of drama in there too, but it was really the first modern movie, in the last 40 or 50 years, to take on politics with that level of satire and a very dark humor. But when [Robert] Redford’s character is showing up at those fires, to exploit it for political reasons, again, it’s not necessarily the sort of humor that has you falling our of your seat, but because it’s so real and so offensive in a way, it veers into comedy. Even that final iconic line “What do we do now?” while he is squirreled away in a broom closet, not sure what to do with all this power he’s just been vested with, is comedy at its heart.
AVC: Do you remember the first time you saw that film?
BW: I must have seen that film when I was in college, so almost 20 years ago. I was still discovering all of the great filmmaking of decades past, and that film really leapt out at me as about as close to a perfect film as you can get.
AVC: Were you always interested in politics as a vehicle for storytelling?
BW: No, in fact I got into politics on a lark. I was a painter in college. I also studied history. I had a double major, but that was more out of curiosity and interest than any notions that I would pursue politics. The summer before my senior year, my very best friend, Jay Carson, who is now the political consultant on our show, asked me if I wanted to work on Chuck Schumer’s first Senate campaign. I didn’t know who Chuck Schumer was. I didn’t know anything about New York politics, but at the time I was taking two accelerated courses, one in ancient Greek and the other in German, and I was failing both miserably. And I thought this was a great excuse to drop out of those two classes and go do something else.
It was addictive. All the people working on that campaign were young. They were ambitious. They really believed they could change the world in their own small way, and Jay and I poured ourselves into it. There was no turning back after that. I wanted to work on more campaigns, and it was never a vocation for me. I never saw politics as a career, but I wanted to come back for more whenever I got the chance. So Jay would invite me on to subsequent campaigns. I worked for Hillary [Clinton], for Bill Bradley, eventually for [Howard] Dean. In none of those cases did I see myself doing research for something I might write one day. I honestly believed in the candidates, and I wanted them to win. It was only after the Dean campaign, after I had been in grad school for playwriting—when I knew that writing was what I wanted to do with my life—that I thought back to what I knew, and politics was something I knew at that point. So it was natural to write about it.
AVC: How do you feel The Candidate has influenced both House Of Cards and your work as a whole?
BW: It doesn’t treat politics with kid gloves. It comes out swinging. It does so in a way that’s deeply honest but also entertaining, and at the center of it is a luminous star. That’s the same recipe for our show.
3. Stephen Colbert’s hosting of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, 2006
BW: What Stephen Colbert did in turning to a sitting president of the United States and challenging him with hard-hitting comedy was not only deeply funny but also deeply uncomfortable and extraordinarily brave. It is always an incredibly powerful and electric thing to take a president to task for real. On Between Two Ferns, everyone’s in on the joke, but in that situation, the president wasn’t. So it was as much a form of protest and rebellion as it was entertainment. At the beginning of each season, one of the first things we do in the writers’ room is watch that bit to get us in game mode and “Eye Of The Tiger” mode, because it’s that sort of full-on assault and dedication to honesty, which we want to emulate in every line that we write.
AVC: Even having seen it so many times, do you find new things in it every time?
BW: We almost know it by heart at this point, so we know what he’s going to say next. I’m even going to have in my mind when C-SPAN’s going to cut away to the president, and he’s sitting there stone-faced, trying to force a smile onto his lips. In terms of discovering new things, I think it’s really just more of a reminder of what’s possible, that what people are doing in Washington, the people who work in government, has much higher stakes than anything any of us try to accomplish in entertainment. Our chief goal is to tell a good story, give people something interesting and entertaining and sometimes enlightening to watch. But at the end of the day, we’re not influencing the national world stage the way a president can with the stroke of a pen. On rare occasions, those two worlds intersect in a way where someone like Stephen Colbert actually can wield, for a moment, as much power as a president, and that’s exciting and something to pay attention to.
I don’t say this out of any presumption that our show really can affect policy or politics on any major level. That’s not our project. That’s not our goal. But because our show deals specifically in politics, it is, by nature, a confluence of those two worlds, and it also is a reminder that politics is theater, and theater, in a lot of ways, is political. More than anything, it just inspires us and gets us in the right mindset.
AVC: Do you see the show, even in a small way, as something of a protest, maybe against the system rather than any specific politician?
BW: The show doesn’t have a political agenda. In fact, we take great efforts to make sure that it doesn’t come across that way. The moment you start to push a particular political belief system, you’re not creating drama. You’re creating propaganda. The story becomes didactic rather than an exploration of the human soul. I believe that characters are a bundle of contradictions. People in real life don’t add up. And a lot of us try to hold on to certain belief systems or world views in order to make sense of our own lives, but we often contradict ourselves. The ways in which we contradict ourselves, whether it’s personally, internally, domestically, or politically, is the stuff of drama. So I’m much more interested in trying to put myself in the shoes of a whole bunch of different characters who have completely different belief systems, seeing how those collide with one another, but also how those people contradict themselves.
AVC: Can you think of works that have been successful as political propaganda?
BW: I’m a huge documentary nut. That’s usually what I watch when I have time to myself. I watch far more documentaries than I watch scripted material, and I actually produce documentaries in the few hours I’m able to carve out here and there when I’m not working on House Of Cards. Documentaries are the one medium that can have a political agenda, and it works. Not all documentaries do. Some are just an exploration of a story. The great documentary Searching For Sugar Man doesn’t have a political agenda, although in some ways it kind of does, with what it says about class and the ways that people can be manipulated by a system. But at the end of the day, it’s really a portrait of a person who’s lived an extraordinary life.
Some documentaries have had great impact just in recent memory. Blackfish is a really good example. Inconvenient Truth, of course, is a great example. A documentary that’s coming out on PBS very soon, Ken Burns’ 14-hour documentary on the Roosevelts, isn’t necessarily pushing a particular political agenda but will remind us of how complicated our own political process is and a lot of the assumptions that we make about our leaders will be challenged. That is not necessarily pushing forth a particular viewpoint, but it does, I think, make us reconsider everything that we think about our government now. Burns actually worked with his daughter and her husband on a documentary called Central Park Five, which addressed the five young men who were falsely accused of a murder in the ’80s at Central Park. That actually had an extraordinary effect on those men’s lives and the city coming to terms with a deep injustice. I could go on and on. There’s something magical in a documentary’s ability in 90-120 minutes to completely make you re-evaluate your viewpoint on a given subject, and that’s why I think they’re so powerful when done well.
4. The War Room
BW: You wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a comedy, but there are incredible comedic moments in it: War Room, the documentary about Clinton’s first race for president. [James] Carville in that is hilarious. He’s also deeply moving, but he brings so much color and passion, and a little bit of lunacy to that story. I think it’s a great reminder that even when the stakes are incredibly high, there are human beings that are making all of this happen. Their anxiousness, their neuroses, their idiosyncrasies get amplified in that sort of environment. Carville is a larger-than-life character, and with him as the sort of comic clown—and I mean that in the best possible way—and [George] Stephanopoulos playing the straight man, it makes for a really entertaining dynamic.
AVC: Elections are far off on the edge of House Of Cards. Is that something that you would like to deal more with?
BW: That’s a very sneaky way of trying to get me to talk about upcoming seasons, but I’m going to hold the line. We did deal with an election in season one, a gubernatorial election when Peter Russo runs for governor of Pennsylvania. We really only brushed up against it. We didn’t go deep into it because there’s only so much real estate in a season. You have to focus the story, but we got a little bit of a taste.
AVC: So many other political dramas or comedies focus on elections, and you guys seem much more interested in making law and consolidating power. Why do you think you skew toward that?
BW: Well the story of the first two seasons is Francis becoming president of the United States, and the wonderfully terrifying core of that story is that he’s doing it without a single vote ever having been cast for him as president of the United States. So we were much more interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes manipulation, intimidation, seduction, persuasion, that was required among a very small but powerful subset of people in order to achieve that, rather than appealing to 300 million people.
BW: There are a lot of shows out there right now that are dealing with Washington, and who knows why. Certain times, certain subjects or places come to the fore and the cultural consciousness. There’s a lot of shows about vampires now. Why are there more shows about vampires now than there were 20 years ago? Who the fuck knows? But for whatever reason, there’s a lot of shows about Washington. A lot of people asked me whether they think our show is an accurate portrayal or reflection of Washington. And I say no show can be completely reflective of Washington; it’s a vast place. There are so many different angles from which you can approach it, but I think all of the shows out there collectively might begin to scratch the surface. So I think it’s great that there’s all these shows, because it takes the pressure off any one of them to try to completely encapsulate this city and its people, which is an impossible task. The great thing about Veep is it takes a completely opposite angle from the one that we take. It delves into the absurdity, the mundane moments, the neurotic humanity of all of its characters. Everyone on it is brilliant. The writing is fantastic. And I think that the two shows complement each other, actually, and prove that there’s plenty of room for lots of great shows about Washington.
AVC: Veep is a show that is obviously very funny, but it also has some really nice moments of actual drama. You guys are much more dramatic, but you have moments of humor in there. How do you use humor as a writer, and who do you think is the funniest character on the show?
BW: It’s a balance. If you spend most of your time in the dark, you need some light in order to put it in relief, and Veep does the opposite. If you spend more of your time in the light, you need some dark in order to make it that much funnier. The funniest character for me is Francis Underwood, and a lot of people might find that surprising, because he’s, in many people’s minds, a cold-blooded killer. But he can turn to the camera, and he can say something like, “I despise children. There I said it.” And people have a chuckle. It’s one of his ways of winning you over. That’s the real power of the direct address, not just to give you some insight into his political thinking, but also a strategy that he has for seducing you, the audience, and making you complicit in what he’s doing. And there’s no better way to do that than to make someone laugh. You’re trying to pick someone up at a bar. The best way to get into their pants is to put a smile on their face.
AVC: Where are you in the process on season three?
BW: There’s nothing I can tell you about themes or story, but I can tell you where we are in the overall process. We begin filming in a matter of days. We’re a little over halfway through the writing process, and over the coming months, we will create 13 hours of content, and I hope we don’t fuck it up.