Interview: ‘Veep’ showrunner David Mandel talks political comedy

David Mandel took over as showrunner of Veep after its Emmy-winning fourth season. As the new showrunner of one of the most critically-acclaimed shows on television, Mandel had pretty big shoes to fill. But in his first season as executive producer, he not only succeeded in keeping the spirit of Veep alive, he also added his own unique style to the show and led the political satire to its second consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Veep has consistently proven to be the best and most accurate political show on television. The series realistically shows power players in Washington not only to be cold and calculating, but also vulgar and infinitely self-important. And while a show like House of Cards might turn that self-importance into villainy, Veep turns it into embarrassment, as Selina Meyer, the protagonist played by the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is as often agitated as she is vindicated.

That’s why David Mandel was such a fitting replacement for creator Armando Iannucci as showrunner for Season 5 and beyond. Mandel wrote and produced for Seinfeld before becoming an executive producer and director for Curb Your Enthusiasm. And with his Curb-like knack for writing characters into awkward situations, it’s no surprise that Mandel would turn a story arc that revolved around an awkwardly tied presidential election into a superb illustration of hubris and humiliation.

I had the chance to ask David a few questions about his history with political satire and comedy writing.

What is your personal history with satire? Did it start with the Harvard Lampoon?

Yes, I went to Harvard University and I joined the Lampoon when I was there. I was a big comedy nerd before I ever got to college. I loved listening to stand up albums and I raided my mother’s collection of Mort Sahl albums. My first job out of college was Comedy Central’s Indecision 92 hosted by Al Franken. And then I joined SNL on Al’s recommendation.

Do you have a favorite satirical piece you wrote early in your career?

One of my all time favorite pieces was Bill Clinton jogging into a McDonald’s. Al and I wrote it together.

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Late night TV is now saturated with satirical news. How do you think the satirical approach to political coverage has changed since you worked on Comedy Central’s first InDecision back in 1992?

One of the very nice things about InDecision 92 was that it was multi-night coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions. It was a couple of hours each night of the convention and so we could take our time and do slower, silly things—like every night we would read and re-enact sections of Marylin Quayle’s novel that she wrote. I like to think it set the table for the current shows and proved that there was a hungry audience out there for nightly satire.

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You were new to Veep this season. What was it like taking over the reins of a show with such a strong satirical presence? Did you actively insert your own satirical voice or did you see it as your task to continue on with the show’s established POV?

I was a real fan of the show. I wanted to continue what it was doing, but at the same time, I had to make it my own show or it would seem like some kind of weird copy. So I did my version of the show, which was really all I could do.

This season, and especially episodes like “Mother,” showed a different side of Selina Meyer. Did you go into writing Season 5 with a desire to focus on humanity and character or did the gridlock of Selina’s tied presidential election just naturally lead away from the political process and more to those affected by it?

There was no master plan to focus on humanity, per se; however, after four seasons of watching Veep as a fan, a lot of the ideas for Season 5 came out of things I wanted to see. I thought it was time to figure out a little more about what makes Selina tick, and I thought the tie, and the stress of the tie, would allow that.

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A tied election can be fodder for political reproach, but it can also be used for madcap antics. Do you make any distinction between comedic situations and satirical situations when writing? 

I do not separate them. I am interested in story and I am interested in things that make me laugh, and that can be satire or “antics,” as you say, or a combo of both. I look at something like Jonah shooting himself in the foot to be the ultimate in madcap antics, but at the same time, there is strong satire about the NRA and guns in general.

I’ve read that Veep uses improvisation to punch up the script. What is your process like for writing scenes that will eventually be improvised? How do you guide that improv towards a satirical point of view?

That is where the Curb [Your Enthusiasm] training comes in. Curb is all improv on top of wonderful outlines. And when we shoot it, it’s kind of like a live rewrite. On Veep, we have the scripts—that is the base—and we can play with stuff, as long as it doesn’t destroy the story we are there to tell.

Do you sometimes find it hard to resist making pointed blows at specific political players?

Specific players—i.e. Donald Trump—don’t exist in our world. There was a Nixon and a Reagan and Carter, but somewhere history became different and we had President Hughes and then Selina. So we can enjoy making fun of types of people and types of hypocrisy, but it’s easy to avoid the real players.­

In her Emmy acceptance speech this year, Ms. Dreyfus said, “Our show started out as a political satire, but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.” What do you think it is about the show that allows it to so closely resemble the current political arena?

I don’t know. It’s actually kind of horrifying.

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