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“It’s Really About Selina Meyer and Her Quest for Power”

‘Veep’ showrunner David Mandel joined Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald to discuss the show, working with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, and more

(AP Images/HBO/NBC/Ringer Illustration)
(AP Images/HBO/NBC/Ringer Illustration)

David Mandel, a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm veteran, became the showrunner of Veep after the show’s fourth season and has continued the series’ Emmy-winning run. The current season, the sixth, has continued to be lauded by critics, and Mandel joined The Watch to talk about the show and working with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

The Process That Made ‘Seinfeld’ So Great

Mandel described what it was like to pitch Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. It wasn’t always easy.

“The first time I [pitched] what I thought was an act of a sitcom, [David and Seinfeld] came and mushed it down to two scenes,” said Mandel. “You keep doing that and [the point] where other sitcoms end starts to become, like, your fourth scene. And that’s part of why Seinfeld is Seinfeld if you think about it.”

Let Mandel explain what he means here:

“You see these traditional shows where it’s like, ‘We’re having a fight about taking out the trash,’ and then you take the trash out. In Seinfeld that’s not gonna be the last scene of your show — you’re gonna take the trash out in Scene 2 and now you still got all this show [left]. So what happens? Well, now you’re taking the trash out and you get hit by a car. These are obviously not real things — I’m just simply making it up — but you understand how Seinfeld is forcing you to now go somewhere else as opposed to an entire slow-motion show that nothing happens until the end.”

The Guiding Principles of ‘Veep’

Veep aims to make you laugh, but if it offends you in the process, well, that’s OK with Mandel.

“We’re gonna make a fucking funny show. That’s all we care about. We don’t care if we offend you, we don’t care if we don’t offend you, we’re just making a show that makes us laugh and we’re gonna do whatever we can to do that. … It’s funny, with Veep in particular we’re such an equal-opportunity offender with dialogue. But it’s when the bottle spins and lands on you and it’s like, ‘Well, wait a second. I laughed at the Irish joke and the Jew joke and I really laughed at that cripple joke, but you cannot say that about homosexuals.’ And you just go, ‘Well, wait a second.’”

Selina Meyer is no longer the president, and many fans haven’t loved the change. But keeping her in the White House wouldn’t have been interesting to Mandel and the writers.

“We’re gonna do things that are interesting to us and we’re gonna make her not the president of the United States, even if you don’t like that.”

Mandel compares it to Larry David’s decision to kill off Susan on Seinfeld.

“When [David] killed Susan, there was sort of that initial, ‘Oh my god, how can you kill Susan? Oh my god, how horrible.’ And you cut to like five years later and it’s like killing Susan was one of the really great [decisions]. Sometimes I do believe that the TV audience needs to be taught a little bit. They need to be taught that this is OK, that this is right, and that it’s good that the show is changing. I’m trying to make myself laugh, I’m trying to make Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] laugh, I’m trying to make my writers laugh, and I’m trying to make a couple of my college roommates laugh. And beyond that, I don’t care.”

Where ‘Veep’ Could Borrow From AHCA

Veep doesn’t mirror real life, but it does sometime pull from it. On the menu: the American Health Care Act that recently passed in the House of Representatives. The show won’t copy the saga of the AHCA line for line, but Mandel has some ideas related to it.

“At no point these days do we specifically do stuff, but [real-world] things inform [Veep] things. It’s not so much the specifics of the health care act, but it’s a lot of the side talk, the people who waited, like [Republican Representative Darrell Issa].”

Could the show lampoon a congressman who waits until the last second to cast his vote on a critical piece of legislation?

“He waited to make sure that everybody else voted and that his vote was important before he reluctantly voted yes. It’s those guys that there is a special circle of hell for. … That idea of how long can you wait [is] where I start to go, ‘Maybe that’s something.’ I don’t know what that is yet, but maybe that’s something.”

Having Flexibility Now

Mandel is a TV veteran now, and that gives him some agency to see things exactly the way he wants. He compares the feeling to how legendary coaches must feel.

“You have [Gregg] Popovich and I guess [Bill] Belichick. Maybe now a little bit of Theo Epstein also, where basically no matter what they do, whatever the rule is, [they can break it]. ‘Don’t cross the street without looking two ways!’ If Belichick just crosses the street and doesn’t look both ways, no matter how long you’ve been raised on that concept, and this goes for Popovich too, we all go, ‘Hmm. Maybe there’s something new here.’

“It’s not so much that, but … there’s a time in your life where you’re desperate to make sure you’re [receiving] everybody’s notes. I’m not talking so much Seinfeld but sort of in the period after Seinfeld where I was trying to sell my next thing. And [it’s] also very true in the movie industry, where you’re desperately like, ‘What are they looking for? How can I please them?’ At some point, you don’t care if you please them.”

How TV Has Changed Since the ’90s

Seinfeld would air more than 20 episodes in a season. Veep runs for just 10. Here’s Mandel on how writing for TV has changed.

“It’s a great time. You can sell your weird idea. You can find someone for almost anything. I have a weird idea that is so weird, like I mention it to people, they go, ‘Oh, that was really weird, we can’t do that.’ But I finally found someone that was like, ‘Yeah, we would probably do that.’ It was just nutso. But that’s the world.”

Of course, it’s not all good news.

“There’s a million shows. That means it’s hard to put a staff together, because everybody’s got a show or everybody’s working somewhere. The last episode of Veep this year that aired, we were trying to find somebody to play one of the two sort of oligarchs. What became the Stephen Fry part. And there was a period of time where we were trying to find people, and it felt like every time I brought somebody up, they were on Better Call Saul that week. It was just like, ‘They’re in New Mexico in Better Call Saul.’ Then there was a period of time where everybody was in London making The Orient Express, which I guess isn’t a TV show, but it’s hard to cast [now]. It’s harder to find people because there’s so much television. That’s a thing people don’t really talk about, but I do think is very true.”

Where the Show Goes From Here

It might be called Veep, but it’s not necessarily about what happens in Washington, D.C.

“I thought a lot about what the show was. It wasn’t so much about any particular job, it’s really about Selina Meyer and her quest for power in general. She had power but didn’t really even have it because she was sort of an illegitimate president. … [In] this sort of post-presidency world it’s still about power and it’s about respect and recognition and all of these things. And I do think there’s a lot to be had there.”

Indeed, there’s a real-life example for the show to pull from.

“One of the good things that is going on right now that we’re just beginning to get a taste of is [Barack] Obama reemerging. And he is reemerging in his post-presidency [with] a very high-paid book. He was just in Chicago talking about his library. He was kitesurfing. But also even just the big controversy: He got offered $400,000 to speak. Selina would kill for $400,000 to speak, so all of a sudden that stuff is starting to happen. And much like Selina, [Obama] is not old, there’s life there to be had. I think Jimmy Carter is sort of fascinating and [Bill] Clinton is fascinating. So where [the show] is going, I don’t know quite yet. We’re sort of just now figuring it out. And obviously you never want to overstay your welcome, but I do think this post-presidency still has some life in it.”