Sit down for lunch with Matt Walsh and it’s hard not to see Mike McClintock, the hapless, perpetually rumpled former White House Press Secretary for Selina Meyer on “Veep,” which wraps up its final season Sunday on HBO.
Meeting at a casual yet crowded sushi restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, the affable Walsh looks and sounds every bit the relaxed yet thoughtful and considerate figure — three adjectives that can’t be said for really any one of the characters on “Veep.” First created by Armando Iannucci, whose biting U.K. series “In the Thick of It” set the show’s template with an often vulgar mix of incompetence and ambition at the lower rungs of government, the series has taken the venal self-interest of “House of Cards” and — for six seasons — played it for laughs.
Iannucci departed in 2015, giving way to showrunner David Mandel, but the show barely skipped a beat as Meyer (multiple Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff moved on from a brief stint as president to navigate different corners of the beltway with an ear for absurd, self-interested behavior that, frankly, has been occasionally trumped by reality. While that could be seen as a challenge to raise the bar further, the series stayed the course for its seven-episode final campaign, which was placed on hold after Louis-Dreyfus was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017. In February 2018, she announced she was cancer-free and the series resumed production.
“ ’Veep’ is still a true fiction,” Walsh said. “[The writers] constructed it so you never see Anderson Cooper walking in or any of these CNN pundits or a real politician like Mitt Romney. They never violate our pure fiction and I think that, hopefully, will help the show age well and speak to the larger truths about say, all politicians or all power-hungry people inside of government.”
In addition to finishing up his run on “Veep,” Walsh also recently led the indie comedy “Under the Eiffel Tower” and can be seen in Netflix’s National Lampoon biopic “A Futile and Stupid Gesture.” That’s in addition to his duties as one of the original members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv institution he co-founded with Ian Roberts, Matt Besser and Amy Poehler. Its two L.A. theaters remain anchors of the city’s comedy scene. (Months after this meeting took place, UCB closed one of its two New York City locations, citing financial challenges.)
Below, in a recent conversation edited for length and clarity, Walsh talks about the new season of “Veep” and the heartfelt emotions of the barbed series ending its run as well as his time with UCB.
You just finished filming your last scenes in ‘Veep’ the other day, right?
I think it was almost eight years to the day from when I got hired for the pilot, and then our last episode filmed Tuesday night. Pretty much eight years of my life bookended that whole series.
Are you going to miss Mike?
Yeah — it’s a great character and it’s great work environment. It was a whole roller coaster of emotion. I was one of the first main cast to wrap, and I didn’t cry yet because there was so much work to do. So I gave a quick speech, and then I played a silly instrumental song to [Beyoncé’s] “Single Ladies” and invited the crew to dance with me. I didn’t want to connect emotionally to what was happening to me — it’s what comedians do.
And then cut to we had a Saturday wrap party and we all gave very sincere, loving ‘we’re family and I love you guys.’ Lots of crying there, and then wrapping Tuesday were the final people — Anna Chlumsky, and, obviously, Julia was the big one. She was the last to wrap up. I thought I’d cried out completely on Saturday, and then it came up again. And that was another weepy roller coaster and then it was drinking tequila until 2 in the morning in the writers office, which was not a good idea. I paid for it the next day. But that was also another farewell, and then there’s been text chains, all of us saying “it’s odd isn’t it?” But that’s been the journey and I’m sure it will sink in.
But I will miss doing Mike. I love pushing the believable dumbness.
I imagine the emotions were particularly high as the show ended given what Julia had gone through.
Julia’s such a force of nature you don’t want to be assuming anything. [This season,] I think they wanted to lighten her load because she’s basically in everything, so they gave us nine days [of shooting per episode] and added a camera, all with the intent of let’s do 12 hour-days, which isn’t easy. I think to be fair to her, they toned it down, and rightly so.
The absurdity level the show reaches with behavior in politics runs neck and neck with the real world. Does it feel hard to keep up?
Fortunately, Season 6 had really nothing to do with her being in the White House. It was all that post-presidency library and legacy and Mike writing the book with her — a great source of comedy but not the context of being an elected official. So this season, when she’s running for president, we’re going more head-on into the Trump craziness again as she gets back in the electoral process.
Even months ago when we started seeing the first script or the second script, you could see commentary on the current trends in politics appearing, and it was very satisfying because it took a while for us. I think we’re all being slapped around that first year with just what an anomaly [it was with] the president acting like an idiot publicly, being an unbridled narcissist. With time, I think the writers were able to [figure out] the pattern, what’s, behind the scenes, really happening.
Do you guys still have a lot of room to stretch out and improvise on ‘Veep’? So much of the show feels that way.
As the seasons have gone on, there is less of the “free” take because the show got bigger, and it just feels like we have a good script, let’s just nail this. You can always play with it or try the choreography different, or to pitch jokes. . . . But the looseness is choreographed. I always feel like the camera guys are the unsung heroes of our show because they sort of pass the joke as if you’re not really seeing it.
You were in another comedy earlier this year, ‘Under the Eiffel Tower.’ Was this just a scam to get to go to Paris for a few months? I mean, no one would blame you.
That is 100% true. No, Archie [Borders], who wrote it with his friend got a hold of me, and he’s like, I have this thing; we’re going to film it in France. I was like, can I bring my family? And he said yeah, and I’m like, great, I’m super interested. (laughs)
Are you still pretty involved with UCB as well?
It’s an ongoing business so it’s very adult — you know, emails about signing checks and we have a human resources person on each coast now. It’s pretty grown up.
We’re “The Man” now. We were the alt-comedy upstarts, the revolutionaries when we landed in New York. We benefited from no one else in New York doing long-form improvisation. So kids would see us and they were like, “That’s what I want to do.”
Has it been strange to watch generations of improv groups and comedians that have kind of come up under the theater’s influence?
I feel like kids starting out now don’t realize how much time [success] takes. They can see the journey, and they can see the pipeline — and it happens too, kids can have a YouTube channel and circumvent getting onstage and then, lo and behold Comedy Central or TruTV gives them a show. So that marketplace has changed, but the thing that can’t be replaced is hitting the boards, getting in front of an audience, having them teach you what works and what doesn’t.
So that’s sort of the grandpa in me saying, you don’t have it. You have to keep working it much longer than you think.
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.