At the risk of belaboring a metaphor, David Mandel has run a more successful Veep administration than any of the fictional, potty-mouthed politicos under his watch. The veteran of Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, and Curb Your Enthusiasm joined the HBO comedy in its fifth season, taking over for creator and original showrunner Armando Iannucci (The Thick Of It, The Death Of Stalin) and smoothly transitioning into an arc in which the presidency slips through the grasp of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ gaffe-prone, egotistical executive, Selina Meyer. (As is usually the case, it happened because she’d put her trust in the person least deserving of it.) Season six pushed the characters and the show out of its comfort areas, but the biggest challenge was to come: Louis-Dreyfus’ breast cancer diagnosis, delivered just a day after her record-breaking sixth consecutive Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy. The show was put on hold for her treatment and recovery; a healthy Louis-Dreyfus returned for Veep’s seventh and final season, which finds Selina and her band of “stupid little fuckers” making one last run for the White House. Speaking with The A.V. Club at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Mandel discussed Louis-Dreyfus’ return, making the show during a period of so much unintentional political comedy, and his favorite “just horrific” moment of Veep dialogue.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that when you’re planning a season, you’ve got the first scene in mind and you’ve got the last scene in mind. Obviously you can’t say anything about the last scene of this season of Veep, but could you give us a little preview of what the first scene might look like?
David Mandel: I actually can. It is Selena on an airplane heading to make her presidential announcement. So Amy and the team on the ground waiting for her to land for a spectacular, historic, “I’m Selina Meyer and I declare today…”
AVC: When the star of your TV show receives a diagnosis like Julia’s breast cancer, what’s your reaction as the showrunner? Are you even thinking about the show at that point?
DM: You’re not, honestly. I got a phone call telling me there was going to be a phone call, and that there was bad news. I thought maybe like, “Oh, one of the cameraman got another job.” If you were to ask me what at that moment to me was the worst thing I could think of—and by the way, I’m a Jew from New York, so I travel in “bad things happen to good people” all the time. [But when I got the call], my head was just not in that space. And the second you hear it, nothing about the show matters.
People keep asking me, “Oh, it’s the last season, it’s the last season, the last season.” In some ways, when Julia got the cancer it just obliterated the fact that we were doing a last season. And then the last season of it all snuck up on us as we were shooting because so much of it was just about getting back and getting her back and getting back to it—Veep in general and Julia, healthy and good—and not last season nonsense. ’Cause it all goes out the window. And one of the great things that I got to see was our cast, our crew, our writers—people whom, I don’t know how else to express this, were losing their jobs—didn’t care, because of how important she is and how important the show is to everybody.
AVC: So once you were back at work, did it feel like a refreshed energy on set?
DM: I don’t know if it was a refreshing. The goal then, instead of going into the final season going, “It’s the final season”—in some ways the lead-up to the final season was almost the lead-up to “I can’t wait for that moment where Julia steps back onto the set.” And I was saying to somebody, “It wasn’t real.” Not that I was thinking like, “Oh my god.” But until that moment where she stepped out in the wig, and it was like “She’s back,” then I felt like “We’re back.” And then we could get on with the business.
AVC: Is that the thing that stands out in your mind about that first day of her being back? “There she is, she’s ready”?
DM: I just remember her and the emotion that kind of came out from her of being back there. For me, I worry like, “Well, is it going to be different?” And then the next thing you know, we’re making some joke about, you know, William Kennedy Smith, and it’s like, “We’re back! All’s good!” It’s like I could unclench, dare I say.
AVC: If there’s any silver lining to this, you had additional time to plan the season.
DM: Not so much plan. It’s so hard. We’re living through such changing times. The previous election was so different than the election four years before it. And god knows what the next election is going to be. This midterm was wild. And so we are living in history. It’s very hard to figure out what’s next and you have to try and step back. And I guess what I’ll say is as we were initially putting the season together, the overall story that we’re telling very much came from where I felt these characters should go in general. So nothing changed overall about a lot of those notions.
However, as we took the break and we entered “the second season” of Trump, I will say—for me, Dave Mandel, not necessary for the show—I was starting to get struck by the fact that year one of his presidency was, “Can you believe this guy’s president?” And year two it started to sink in, for me at least, how he was fundamentally changing America. I will say for the worst, but whether you agree or disagree with what he was doing, the right or the wrong of it, you can’t disagree with the changes that have happened. And I interpret them my own way, but you can’t deny that year two was even more of a tumult than year one. And all over the world: Brexit, the rise of all of these authoritarian governments, the murder of journalists, whatever you want to pick. Because I don’t want to make it just about Trump. I’m trying to go big picture. These things were happening and you couldn’t deny a darkness, and I started to feel that if Veep doesn’t at least comment on this or take this into account, then I’m not doing my job, and the show will seem out of step in some way. And so not a lot of things radically changed, but a lot of coloring changed. Maybe you’ll look at the changes and go, “Boy that was big, but it’s not that big in my mind.” And yet this last scene is the last same last scene.
AVC: What kind of lens do you think Veep is going to provide into this period in history?
DM: One of the wonderful things I think about the show—even though I just talked about the fact that we’re influenced by what’s going on in the world—is so much of daily, nightly, weekly comedy is so Trump-centric. And so much of the news: When he says something outrageous, the great debate of “Do you put it in a headline?” Or do you have to say in the headline, “He lied and said,” because if you print the headline, isn’t that as good as validating him? So much of everything is through a Trump lens that I think one of the great things about the Veep lens is that we are balanced. There is no Trump counterpart: Selina’s Trump, Jonah’s Trump. They both have Trumpian qualities. They both have Hillary qualities. They both have Kamala [Harris] qualities. They’re not any particular person. And so I think Veep’s unique, cold, vicious, un-partisan attack on what politics is in general is one of the many things that it will be remembered for.
AVC: You think you can take that kind of objective stance even considering the positions of people on the crew, the writing staff, and on screen?
DM: You can. I don’t get into it with a lot of people. Dare I say, just generically speaking, I think most of my writers lean to the left and there’s probably a lot of crew guys that lean to the right. Because again, we’re not doing the Trump joke, and we are making fun of the right and we are going after the left. As a leftist, I am the first to say we can often be—well not me—but the left can be humorless. It can be self-satisfied. It can be holier than thou. It can be obnoxious. It can talk down to people without realizing it. There’s a lot to be mined on attacking both sides. And again, I think that is to Veep’s credit, and I think that’s perhaps why nobody’s driving home grumbling at the end of the day. ’Cause it’s not like “They’re going after my guy.” We’re just going after anything and everything.
AVC: Do you view it as a blessing or a curse that this final season is playing out in the midst of the lead-up to primaries?
DM: At this point, it is what it is. That’s one of the things we deal with as a fact of life. We try to do things that are real, from the stories to the casting. When we go to cast somebody sometimes we’re sitting there going, “This guy’s funny. Does he look like a congressman?” Whatever that means. That reality is so important to us that the reality of the real world is just part and parcel of things.
People will give us credit for things that end up happening in real life that we didn’t plan. Maybe we even look a little smarter by commenting on stuff and seeing it come to fruition. But you can’t plan on that. You just try and be funny.
AVC: The shutdown arc from season six feels especially prescient.
DM: I posted, like, six clips from the shutdown episodes during the shutdown. Just funny Jonah things. And it seemed like we had a crystal ball.
AVC: What’s it like to end a story that somebody else started?
DM: One of the wonderful things, to Armando’s credit, was he started changing his own show. I couldn’t say to you, “Did he know when he started Veep that one day he was gonna make her president?” or any of those things. I don’t think he knew that there was gonna be that tie story until later on. So I don’t know if he knew where it was going, but he set up the notion that the show, despite being called Veep, was about Selina’s journey. And so I was able to sort of pick up on that.
I flew to London when I first took over the show and sat down with him and a couple of his guys, and met some of the writers that were going to stick with the show. And I gave him a little bit of an overview of what we were planning, which was that Selina was going to lose the presidency, and that the show was going to be a little bit about a former president of the United States. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something very nice, that that sounded right and sounded like something he thought of. I’ve taken that as “Great, I’m not crazily out of bounds. I’m not ruining the man’s show.”
It’s strange. Obviously, he’d do it differently. But I guess that’s a good thing. Had I come onto the show and tried to do my bad impression of Armando’s show, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. Veep would have run one more season and we’d be done. At some point or another, I had to make it my show—maybe I had to make it mine and Julia’s show. But that’s what it had to be. It’s the same but different. And I’m sure there are people that like it less. I’m sure there are people that like it more, and I’m sure there’s some people that don’t even know because who the hell cares about comedy writers anyway? They don’t know who Armando Iannucci is. They don’t know who Dave Mandel is, and they’re very happy because Julia and the cast make up their own lines all the time and the whole thing is made-up—you know what I mean? And I’m fine with all of that, but I had to do what I wanted to do, and I had to end it the way I want it to end.
AVC: And you’d already been through something similar when Seinfeld changed hands.
DM: The difference being I was not the one going, “Here’s how we’re going to end it.” My job there was more to go,“Okay, great. That’s the ending? Great. What about this? What about this? What about this?”
AVC: What did you learn about the characters on Veep by removing most of them from the political machinery in season six?
DM: That was the goal. By taking them and forcing them out of their comfort zones, I just felt like, “Now we’re going to see the even realer people.” And I didn’t always know what the answer is going to be. Can they function? What are they like? What does it expose? And that’s why we did it. I loved every second of tearing away the comforts of the White House. Also tearing them away storywise: Many of the stories, they’re in the White House, and somebody comes in with the next crisis and then they deal with it. Now there are crises, but they don’t concern Selina. Forcing her to deal with that lack of power, and then forcing her people to deal with their lack of power-adjacency was just wonderful. And it gave her a real chance, such as she’s able to, to dig into herself and her world as she tried to write her autobiography. Is it progress? I don’t know. But she definitely dug up some stuff, whether she knows what to do with it or not.
AVC: Ultimately, can they escape from it? The ending of the last season suggests—
DM: That they cannot. I think the only way to get these people off the stage is to push them off.
AVC: How would you characterize that? Is it an addiction?
DM: I always joke it’s the old fable: I am a scorpion. Selina Meyer, as she’s getting a ride on the frog across the the lily pond, she’s going to sting that sucker and she’s going to drown 99 percent of the time. She maybe now is a little more aware that she is a scorpion and endeavors to fight it. This is going to sound pretentious, but this season of her running is a little bit about the struggle with who she is.
AVC: So will we see some of the Selina that we see going down that escalator at the end of season six, after she’s broken up with Jaffar?
DM: That’s not gone. And I think you have to ask yourself, if she’s willing to do that, where’s the line?
AVC: If one Veep insult were to enter the popular vernacular, which would you want it to be?
DM: I mean, I love “jolly green jizz face,” which I had nothing to do with. My all-time favorite, just horrific, Veep moment, which is not exactly an insult per se, was a line written by Erik Kenward in “Kissing Your Sister,” the documentary episode. When you come in on Jonah in the classroom of like the nursery school, and he says the thing about “I’m eating so much pussy, I’m shitting clits.” And Uncle Jeff, Peter MacNicol, is like “What is the matter with you?” If only that could be on T-shirts.