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Veep Showrunner on the Show's Greatest Pop Culture Influences

Emmy nominee David Mandel takes us inside the writers room for a look at the cultural touchstones that most influenced his beloved HBO comedy.
  • Veep Showrunner David Mandel on set with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale (Photo: HBO)
    Veep Showrunner David Mandel on set with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale (Photo: HBO)

    Earlier this year we wiped our eyes and did weird "I'm not crying" laugh-hiccups as we said goodbye to Veep. The political satire, created by Armando Iannucci in 2012, burned D.C. denizens of all stripes, taught us how to swear in ways we never knew possible, and in its seventh and final season even found a way to send-up the Trump era in a way that felt fresh. Loved by critics and audiences alike, the legacy it leaves behind can't be overstated.

    Maybe that's why when the Emmys announced their 2019 nominees, Veep's David Mandel wasn't totally surprised. “Even if the earth had opened up and swallowed Los Angeles whole, I figured Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] would get a nomination,” says the showrunner, who took over from Iannucci in 2015 and who has since led the political comedy to eight statuettes (including two for outstanding comedy series). To be sure, Veep has always been a reliable awards contender (it has 17 Emmy wins total), and viewers probably would have taken to the streets had Louis-Dreyfus — who rebounded from a battle with breast cancer to finish the story of Selina Meyer with aplomb — not received a nod.

    That's not to say Mandel isn't a little surprised. There were, after all, at least a couple notable snubs, including Kathleen Felix-Hager for wardrobe, and Timothy Simons aka fan-favorite fink Jonah Ryan. “People will look back on the fact that he was never nominated for this show once,” says Mandel, “and realize what a crime that's been.” Nonetheless, the beloved series hopes to add to its trophy case this Sunday when the Emmys touch down in L.A.'s Microsoft Theater. Ahead of the show's last stand at the Emmys, we called Mandel and got to talking about the pop-culture influences that, in ways obvious and not-so-obvious, contributed to Veep's great success.

    Moonlighting

    “I was a huge Moonlighting fan, especially of those first couple seasons. When I think back, one of the things that's always been an influence on me, is the speed of the show. There was nothing like it at the time. Bruce Willis talked a million miles a minute, and it didn't matter. For the audience, you had to keep up. That was part of the fun. It was almost like you couldn't laugh because you'd miss some of what he was saying. I love that sense of speed, and I love that part of Veep. I feel like we pushed it and gave the audience credit, knowing that they'll figure out a way to keep up. Along with that speed was — even though Moonlighting was a very dramatic show with dramatic underpinnings — the wonderful wordplay, which was certainly boundary-pushing, and a little risqué for the time. Obviously they couldn't curse the way we can on HBO. But I remember it coming up very specifically for me, when we were doing a scene in Episode 3 of the last season: Selina, at the beginning of the show, is watching Kemi at a rally, who's got a call-and-response, Obama-kind-of-thing going on. Selina starts with, 'It sounds like Dr. Seuss fucked Maya Angelou in the yuzz-ma-tuzz.' And I remember there's a moment in one of the Moonlighting episodes, where they're trying to find a Chinese man with a mole on his nose — they end up at a boxing ring, and they're trying to get past a bouncer. Basically, they get into this very Seussian rhythm, like, 'Did I bother to disclose, this man that we're seeking, with a mole on his nose, I'm not sure of his clothes.' And when we had Maya Angelou, with yuzz-ma-tuzz, I just remember turning to the writers and going, 'I know there's more Seuss to be had here.' So we ended up with, 'It sounds like Dr. Seuss fucked Maya Angelou in the yuzz-ma-tuzz and then filled her all up with snoozily-scuzz.' It's gross, obviously, but I just love the pleasure of the Seussian rhythms. That moment was a real salute to Moonlighting.”

    Where it shows up: Season 7, Episode 3, "Pledge"

    St. Elsewhere

    St. Elsewhere was another huge touchstone for me. It was constantly format-blending and doing little stuff in the background, which is something I love, and it had a real dark gallows humor — it was a hospital dealing with death. Also, there was such a willingness to recall things from three or four seasons previous. Like, they had a character on that show — he was in the psych ward — named John Doe. He had full amnesia, didn't know who he was, was constantly trying to find himself. Episodes would go by, and he would be gone for a year or two at a time, and then he'd pop back up, impersonating a doctor — just the courage to respect the audience to do a multi-year recall like that. It's a different joke, but when we hit upon the Tom Hanks death ending [in the series finale], we were recalling a joke from the [series premiere] — literally a seven-season, eight-year recall. I felt, hopefully, that the St. Elsewhere guys would be smiling at that a little bit. I'm also reminded of when we did — in the first episode of this last season — the multiple school shootings. That felt like something they would do — a real willingness to go dark. I loved that about that show. I think people forget St. Elsewhere was not super popular at its time, but it had this amazing cast —that's where people first, I think, took note of guys like Denzel Washington. I think when people look back at the Veep cast, they're similarly gonna go, Wow, all those people were on Veep!”

    "There is a 'lost' episode of St. Elsewhere — from the final season — that I read about in Rolling Stone when the show was ending. In it, they jumped into the future. Many of the current characters are dead, some are just old, and the children on the show are now grown up. I guess they never shot it for production reasons, but I always loved that idea of jumping into the future, and definitely thought about that when we were working on the finale. Also, if anyone has a copy of that script of the episode, I would kill to read it!"

    Where it shows up: Season 7, Episodes 1 ("Iowa") and 7 ("Veep")

    NewsRadio

    “I'm a huge fan of NewsRadio — Lew Morton, my number two, was a long-time NewsRadio staffer. Oddly enough, I almost worked there myself a few million years ago. I was very, very close and was very much looking forward to going there when I got my Seinfeld offer — so (Newsradio head writer) Paul Simms is very kind to still talk to me. Flat out, Stephen Root's performance on that show is why we made him Gary's dad when, in Season 6, we went back to Gary's home town. Obviously, they're very different characters, but [Root's] such a skilled guy; we wanted to hint at this strange relationship between Gary's father and some of the young men working for him. It's one of those things where you want it to be funny, but you want it to be real. So his casting [process] was, 'Jimmy James? Yeah? We can get him? Wonderful.' It was that simple.”

    Where it shows up: Season 6, Episode 8, "Judge"

    The West Wing

    “Often the straight drama versions give rise to the comedy versions. So since The West Wing taught people this lovely, idealized version of politics, it allowed Veep to happen. I wasn't involved with it when the show was created by Armando, but for so much of at least the American viewing audience, Veep was kind of like the anti-West Wing. It was that much funnier because you'd lived through The West Wing! As a huge fan of The West Wing, I would go back and look at an episode that tackled a similar issue to see, How did they do it? What can I make fun of that they did seriously? That was the beautiful thing about The West Wing. Especially in the season when they ran Matthew Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, against Alan Alda. They did Iowa and they did caucuses and debates and built to their own version of a convention — so I rewatched that for inspiration. I should also note that I got a chance to go on the podcast The West Wing Weekly, which is co-hosted by Josh Malina from The West Wing, with Gary Cole [Veep's Kent Davison]. He and I did it together because Gary was also Bingo Bob on The West Wing. That alone [Cole's acting in both universes] is a connection you can never forget."

    Where it shows up: Seasons 5-7

    The Manchurian Candidate and Hillary Clinton

    “Since I was looking at conventions, I also checked out both versions of The Manchurian Candidate. This was a little more of just seeing how realistic conventions could look, how they were presented in the past — what they showed, what they didn't show. And let me be incredibly frank: I went back and watched a lot of Hillary's convention. We ended up designing our convention stage using Hillary's colors and shapes so that there are a couple wide shots where we're burning our stage into a very wide shot from her convention. Her convention was something I wanted to see, especially for the moments when Furlong is giving the counts and the rules. I was very curious to see how it looked, not just in other TV shows and movies, but also in the real thing.”

    Where it shows up: Season 7

    Shattered

    "We all read this behind-the-scenes [account] of the Hillary campaign, written by Jon Allen and Amie Parnes — they actually later came in and became friends of the show. If you look, especially at the first episode of the final season, with Amy doing the autopsy report on the previous campaign that Selina throws in the garbage, that was all very Shattered-inspired: Hillary deciding to run again, post-Obama loss.”

    Where it shows up: Season 7, Episode 1, "Iowa"

    The Best Man

    “There's a wonderful, semi-forgotten movie with Henry Fonda called The Best Man, about guys running for president — these flawed candidates who have info on each other. It's a bit of a political morality tale. A little bit like The West Wing, as in it showed us, our characters don't have any morals, but let's see what people with morals might do so we can go the other way. It very much captured the hotels and the secret meetings and the bowels of the convention. It itself was probably informed by the '60s conventions and the stories of Kennedy and LBJ running up and down the stairs to each other's hotel rooms for the offer of the vice presidency, and some of that stair stuff was in there for Ben's heart attack. In an earlier draft of the outline for that episode, Selina and Tom were actually going to have a secret meeting in the bowels of the convention. And then that meeting, for reasons that made much more sense, ended up being the scene over Ben's body in the hospital, which was more effective and more interesting there than in the bowels of the convention. But [The Best Man] led to [that meeting scene] existing in the first place, and then I was able to move it to an even better place. This is a very roundabout way of saying things sort of influence other things even if you don't necessarily see the influence in the end.”

    Where it shows up: Season 7, Episode 7

    The Godfather movies and The Freshman

    “For Ben's hospital bed, I definitely took a peek [at The Godfather] again: Michael with the don, in the hospital, when he swears his allegiance. And then, of course, the biggie is the 'Gary as Fredo' moment. Obviously, I think of The Godfather Part II for that, but I am constantly also reminded of The Freshman, where Matthew Broderick is in the film class, taught by Paul Benedict, who is teaching The Godfather Part II, showing the scene of Michael kissing him in Cuba and the whole, 'I knew it was you.' I don't know why; it always puts a smile on my face. I guess it somehow reminded me that [that betrayal] could be part of a comedy, even though it's very dark. So I'm always reminded of both those movies, in terms of, What's the thing you just couldn't believe Michael would do? To protect the family, he kills the family. It starts to make wonderful sense. For Selina, we were trying to find, As much as you think she's a bad person — but you still kind of love her — what could we have her do that might actually make you think differently about Selina Meyer? The answer was, She's got to kill Fredo."

    Where it shows up: Season 7, Episode 7, "Veep"

    The Daily 202 and All the President's Men

    “One of the coolest things we ever got to do, when I first took over Veep, was we — me and all the new writers and Julia — took a field trip to Washington, D.C., and we went to the Washington Post offices to sit in on morning meetings. There's a newsletter called The Daily 202 that a reporter named James Hohmann does every morning. I've been subscribing to that and using it for Veep since I took over the show. So that was really cool — but when we got to the [Post's bullpen] we were making a lot of All the President's Men jokes [like, “That's a non-denial denial,” and Jason Robards', “Run that baby!”]. And then obviously we did the episode, 'C**tgate,' which was very All the President's Men-y. In that, we had Leon talking about Watergate, so there was a little bit there. But the big moment was in the beginning of Season 7, when Jonah has been doing terribly, and he's going around to all the candidates, trying to trade his endorsement for a Cabinet post. So he goes to Selina, who walks out on him. He goes to Kemi, who throws him out. Then we cut, in the middle of the night, to this clandestine Deep Throat garage scene: It's him and Buddy — two idiots meeting in a parking garage, because clearly they've both seen All the President's Men — and they both have it backward: They're both there to give their endorsement to the other guy. So of course nothing happens.”

    Where it shows up: Season 5, Episode 6, "C**tgate"; Season 7, Episode 4, "South Carolina"

    Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

    “During my first season on the show, when we introduced our version of the James Baker fixer character in 'The Eagle,' the opportunity to be in a room with [Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman actor] Martin Mull [was amazing]. I have very distant memories of the show as a child, almost like watching it and not getting it was a comedy. I didn't understand what it was referencing. Years later, in my late teens, as I was exploring comedy, I realized, Oh, this was a parody! That's why I didn't understand it as a kid. Obviously, Veep is a different creature than Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but there was that sort of straightness. And nobody does odd straightness better than Martin Mull. So bringing him in from that show was just a wonderful, wonderful thing.”

    Where it shows up: Season 5

    David Letterman

    “At the end of Season 6, when Selina's book comes out, she ends up going on The Tonight Show. Another huge influence on me, and obviously on that specific episode, was while we were calling it The Tonight Show, it was very much our version of David Letterman. To myself and the writers — don't get me wrong, we appreciated Carson — but for any comedy writer my age, it was Letterman, Letterman, Letterman. So I'll say two things: One, [her appearance is] very Letterman-esque — the whole thing with the children reading bad reviews of her book is a very Letterman desk piece. And Dave Letterman is a huge Veep fan. We actually reached out to him about possibly playing the role, which [having cameos or people playing themselves] is something we'd never done before. But just the idea that in the Veep universe, he took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson. Ultimately — and [Letterman] was probably right, it probably would have been distracting — he didn't do it. Instead, Adam Scott played the role, and Adam Scott is clearly as big a Letterman fan as myself and the other writers because he, undirected, knew exactly how to do that kind of prime NBC Letterman snark. It was really wonderful, and he was kind of a little bit of an asshole to Selina in a really funny way. Then, the story in Season 7 about Keith Quinn being hired and then the team realizing it's the wrong Keith Quinn is actually taken from a story back in the day about David Letterman hiring a writer from The Tonight Show and not getting the right guy.”

    Where it shows up: Season 6, Episode 9, "A Woman First"; Season 7

    Robert Caro

    “Another influence in my writers' room —I 'd like to say more so than any other writers' room in television, but you never know — was Robert Caro. We're all fans, especially of his Lyndon Johnson series. There was a lot of talk about Lyndon Johnson as being very bold, very egotistical and yet, psychologically, very fragile and worried about people liking him. I can't sit here and say there was any specific thing [that carried over from the book to our series], just the overall Johnson story — his rise from a vice presidency, which people thought had neutered him, to, obviously through an assassination, the presidency. And I will say this is true of all of Caro's books — the Johnson books and The Power Broker — we talked a lot about the discussion of power. We used it as a jumping-off point for, What is Selina prepared to do?”

    Where it shows up: Seasons 5-7

    Bonus: Teen Wolf

    “At some point in the writers' room, we watched a lot of [the original] Teen Wolf. The only thing any of us can remember — writer Jennifer Crittenden reminded me — was we were watching it because showrunner Jay Tarses, the creator of Molly Dodd and Buffalo Bill, plays the basketball coach. I don't really know why we were watching it, but for some reason it felt very important at the time. Nothing from Teen Wolf, as far as I know, made it into the show — probably just as well. However, it was a great comfort to us. I'm sure we were watching it in lieu of working on something that was probably, at that point, already running late.”

    Where it shows up: “Procrastination, thy name is Teen Wolf.”

    Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and concision.

    Sean Fitz-Gerald is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Thrillist, Vulture, Los Angeles Magazine, The Denver Post, and Variety. Follow him @srkfitzgerald.

    TOPICS: Veep, HBO, Late Night with David Letterman, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Moonlighting, NewsRadio, St. Elsewhere, The West Wing, David Letterman, David Mandel, Hillary Clinton, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Martin Mull, Robert Caro, Timothy Simons, TV Writers