‘Veep’s’ Selina Meyer ‘would hate Kamala Harris,’ says showrunner
“Veep” is the TV comedy that, particularly in recent days, feels more like a documentary.
Though it ended its six-season run last year, the Emmy-winning HBO series, which starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has seen a resurgence in mentions on social media over the last week as the final phase of the election began to feel like it was ripped from an episode of the political satire.
Many noted the parallels between Trump campaign gripes and plot developments in the show’s “Nev-AD-a” and “Mother” episodes, in which then-presidential incumbent Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus) calls for a recount of votes in the Southwestern state after an electoral college tie — only to backpedal on the messaging when it becomes clear that absentee military ballots will not trend in her favor.
By Saturday, there was a more notable resemblance to “Veep” in our real-life process: the election of a female vice president, Kamala Harris — who breaks boundaries not only as the first woman in her role, but also as the first Black and Asian American person to be elected vice president.
The Times reached out to “Veep” executive producer David Mandel, who served as showrunner for the comedy’s final three seasons, about the presidential election’s wild final days. Speaking Saturday from Los Angeles (the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity), Mandel shared his thoughts on the show’s resonance, what advice Selina Meyer might offer to Harris, and whether political comedy can recover from the Trump presidency.
Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and others celebrated on social media after Sen. Kamala Harris was named America’s first Black, Asian American and female vice president-elect.
Where were you when you heard Biden had been named the president-elect?
Funny enough, I woke up to it. I’ve not been sleeping much since Tuesday. I’m not the best sleeper to begin with, but I definitely had sort of shifted into, like, a full-on just staying up all night watching them slowly count nothing. And so, of course, ironically, having stayed up till about 2 or 3 in the morning [Friday] night — which was, I guess, better than all night like I did on Tuesday. ... But I completely missed it and kind of woke up to it [Saturday] morning, which was fine and good. I was driving a little bit ago, just kind of through L.A., taking my daughter somewhere — and you know there’s people out with their Trump flags and whatnot, but there’s also people on the street just happy and honking their horns in a great way, which was kind of wonderful. It was very enjoyable.
Has there been a text chain going with any of the “Veep” cast members?
No, no text chain. A little back and forth with some people. I actually just talked to Julia about a minute ago. And don’t get me wrong, we’re quite happy, but we were like: “OK, so Georgia. Got two Senate seats [still in contention] there ...”
People have referenced “Veep” quite a bit in recent years, as it relates to the current administration. But this week especially, people couldn’t help but note the parallels — the Nevada storyline, the recount, etc. What’s gone through your mind this week, seeing how things have played out?
The funniest thing to me, just conceptually, is “Veep” seems more popular now than when we were actually on the air. I feel like more people are discussing it than when we were actually on regular HBO on Sunday night. We’re getting more relevant — maybe not for good reasons, but we’re getting more relevant.
In terms of what’s gone on, honestly, I do take a little pride in it. We took the non-humor part of “Veep” very seriously. We always had just fantastic consultants, from both sides of the aisle: Democrats and Republicans. And I myself was a government major in college. Me and Julia, we took that part of the show really seriously and so when we were talking about what happens in disputed elections or what would happen in these various [election outcomes], we did our research, and so obviously we were always trying to think about what could happen; we didn’t think it would happen. Sometimes we were looking even for what’s the craziest thing that might happen. I don’t take any credit for it happening. But we were definitely trying to think of insane things that could happen.
The writers and I and the cast spent a lot of time thinking to ourselves: What would the most incompetent president and his or her team do in any given situation? And we spent a lot of time coming up with that. And I will say: Kudos to the Trump administration for outdoing us on being the worst administration ever. They out Selina-ed Selina.
We have to talk about Nevada. You crafted that [arc] out of what creator Armando Iannucci teed up before he stepped down as showrunner at the end of the show’s fourth season.
I mean, honestly, the Nevada storyline really ... came out of the cliffhanger that Armando left me with, and in many ways, besides being a fan of the show and wanting to work with Julia again [Mandel was a writer on “Seinfeld”] and the amazing cast and all of that stuff, the actual cliffhanger that he came up with, the electoral college tie — which thank God still hasn’t exactly happened — was like this exquisite puzzle that he left me. And when I was first told that that’s where I would be starting, it was my brain kind of going into overdrive of all the things that could happen off of that, that really got me to take the job.
Friends say the 55-year-old entertainment lawyer, who attended college and law school in Southern California and lives in L.A.'s Brentwood, would “make an impact” should Biden and Harris win in November.
Where my head went at the time — again, never thinking anything like this would happen — was [that the scenario] was a way for “Veep” to talk a little bit about what happened in Florida during Bush-Gore. So we very quickly came up with our own Nevada version of things, where Nevada was our Florida. We weren’t going to do butterfly ballots and hanging chads, but we were going to get into this notion of a state in dispute that could flip the results and what happens with a president who ... first, they want the votes counted and then of course, in an incredibly wonderfully stupid way, they then don’t want the votes counted. But we never thought it was going to happen; it came from our trying to do our version of a disputed election. ... What would really terrible people like think and do? And here we are. That being said, watching some of the Trump people demanding the votes be counted and watching other Trump people demand they not be counted, it was just creepy. It was funny but it was creepy. Even I was a little freaked out.
Saturday’s Four Seasons Total Landscaping situation also sparked a lot of confusion and fodder online. President Trump tweeted that his lawyers were holding a press conference at the “Four Seasons, Philadelphia,” which he later corrected to ... the Four Seasons Total Landscaping. The building was located next to an adult book store.
It was like some sort of exquisite cherry on top. I’ll be sending our Emmys to the writers of the Trump administration because again they really outdid us. In no episode of “Veep” was there ever a press conference in a strip mall with a porn shop on one side and whatnot so, again, you just have to acknowledge your betters too and all I can say is just kudos on a really perfect ending to this.
You’ve tweeted about some things playing better on the small screen than in real life. How would you critique this election week if it were written as a “Veep” spec script?
I’ve got to be honest with you, I feel like if we had like taken this to a table read ... Don’t get me wrong: People would have been like, “Oh, I love the laughs; I love that thing with the Four Seasons, that was good.” There were definitely some strong moments, but it felt like it needed more story. I’ll simply say a few too many scene after scene after scene of people watching a guy standing in front of a map, reminding us that they’re still counting votes. Many years ago, when I first went to work at “Seinfeld” for Larry David, one of the main things I learned from Larry was: In every scene, the story needs to move forward a little bit. And this story was not moving forward enough. Before we started shooting, we would have been, like, can we come up with a B story or maybe a C story to sort of get a little more story going in there? There wasn’t enough happening for a couple of days.
And yet we were glued to the TV.
Yes, just glued to those map guys: “This could be red and this could be blue or it could be red, or it could be blue. Let’s look at this county again, just up we’ve got some movement. We see 85% are reporting ... oh wait, news just in, we’re now at 86% of the votes have been counted.”
As Julia noted in a tweet on Saturday, a female vice president is no longer just a fictional character. What do you think Selina would have to say to Kamala? What advice would she have? What would she think of her?
I want to be very clear about this: Selina Meyer would hate Kamala Harris. There’s just no question about how much she would hate her. She would hate her intelligence, she would hate to know how much people like her, how popular she is. So I don’t think she would readily give advice — but if truly pressed, perhaps in the middle of the night and a little drunk, maybe. Some of the things Selina would hate about her ... Kamala is so readily ahead of where Selina ever was. She has a really great incredible staff around her that I’m sure will only get better. Mainly, Selina would say, don’t hire Amy Bruckheimer — that would be her key, key piece of advice. And definitely don’t hire Mike McClintock.
Number two, [the show’s] President Hughes basically put Selina on the ticket to be a woman and then that was it, and I believe as Ben [Cafferty, the fictional White House chief of staff] said to her once, “And you’ve done that, relatively OK.” I think one of the great things about President-elect Biden — boy, that feels good to say — is that he was in that job. That’s where [he and Harris] are starting on this relationship. And so that’s only going to be get better. And by the way, again, Selina would be incredibly jealous of that.
Finally, Selina spends so much time trying to sort of justify her job and the terrible tasks that Hughes gave her. And unfortunately, this is a giant job that Biden-Harris have in front of them. They’ve already called for a coronavirus task force on Monday — like, we can’t wait for the 21st of January. This starts now. So there are 18 different top-of-the-list items that need to get dealt with: the economy, unemployment, the virus, fixing the environment, fixing our international relationships... The two of them, but certainly the vice president herself, is going to have her plate full with real, actual agenda items in a way that Selina Meyer never had.
What about Selina’s bagman, Gary? Would he be trying to join the Harris team?
I think Gary, if he could get the job, would be in seventh heaven because he would be able to worship her very similarly [to how he worshipped Selina], but it wouldn’t just be all one-way. I think [Harris] would be very respectful of Gary, which would of course then send him into a higher state of orbit, if that was possible. Plus, I think he would be quite taken with her hair. It would just be really something special for Gary to get four years of that hair. And, I mean, the sneakers with the outfit — he would just be really thrilled.
You’ve talked before about ending “Veep” at a time when the news cycle around the current administration was its own TV show at times. Where do political comedies go from here?
Well, it sounds silly, but we’ve spent four years of talking about how Trump, the Trump administration, and his family have just constantly destroyed the norm. The phrases “I’ve never heard a president do this, say this, whatever” were broken records. For comedy to work, you need the straight line. You need what it’s supposed to be. You need: This is the situation that you’re expecting; a president is supposed to say this, therefore, isn’t it funny when our TV president said blank? But it only works when the person who is the president does, for lack of a better word, what he’s supposed to. So, we can, under Biden, just get back to a certain level of normalcy — where a day or two go by and you don’t actually think about who the president is. ... Wouldn’t that be glorious? Then you can begin to get back to jokes and satire about what if and what if. If we can get back to a little bit of normalcy, a little bit of straight line, we can then start making punch lines.
At this point, many of us have watched a lot of election coverage this week. Who were the on-air personalities that you were particularly fond of?
I’ve become quite enamored with John King on CNN. I definitely spent a lot of time with him calmly retelling what the situation was. They need to figure out some new colors on that map. There was a lot of like: In 2016, this was red but then this might be red, but now let’s turn it blue. Now, let’s turn red. There’s got to be some grays or something. They should get some other colors to help make it a little more clear. But I found him to be a very calming influence. I think there was some really exciting sexual chemistry between him and Wolf Blitzer — that was enjoyable.
And then the other guy that I really just enjoyed, not just on election night, but also in the days since election night, especially when Trump has spoken out: Just a real shout-out to Jake Tapper for what I consider to be a very nonpartisan way — although I’m sure partisan people would disagree — to sometimes actually just say that what the president is doing is just wrong. The combination of Tapper and King with his map got me through this.
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