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The Anatomy of a Veep Insult

Veep showrunner David Mandel dissects the final season's best burns.
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep (Photo: HBO)
    Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep (Photo: HBO)

    One of the constant joys of tuning into Veep every week was sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting to see how one character would torch another. Of course, that's not all the HBO show will be remembered for — it'll go down as one of the sharpest political satires to grace the small screen — but it's hard not to look back on all the wonderful jabs, comebacks, and self-owns that emerged from Selina Meyer's kooky version of D.C., and lament, No show dissed quite like this one.

    Who could forget the time Selina wiped that stupid grin off Jonah's face with "Jolly Green Jizz Face." Or when Mike rattled off that near-endless list of crude nicknames? Or how about that beautifully innocent moment in Season 6 when Gary asked if he should 69 someone? (He meant "eighty-six.") Over the course of seven seasons, Veep turned eviscerating people into an artform all its own — with a wide array of tools, to boot. Where some put-downs were pithy, others were the verbal equivalent of running a marathon. Many zingers were downright foul and depraved, but they could be punny and surprisingly wholesome, too. "Don't get me wrong. I love good cursing," David Mandel, the showrunner who took the Veep reins when creator Armando Iannucci left in 2015, explained to us. "But I also love when a put-down can be brutal without foul language. There's value in both. And I think a good episode has a mix of both."

    Following Veep's series finale, we called Mandel to discuss the most memorable insults from the final season. Read on for the stories behind each, in order of their episode appearance. (Warning: Major spoilers and NSFW language follow.)

    Photo: HBO

    "Hey, Sweatpants! You can't just walk out. This isn't a Terrence Malick movie."

    Moment: Amy addresses an attendee trying to leave one of Selina's rallies.
    Episode: 1
    Severity: Rude
    David Mandel: "I don't walk out of movies, but I think about movies I wish I'd walked out of. For me, it was The Thin Red Line. For some of the other writers, it was Tree of Life. We had a couple really good jokes in this spot. I think the original was something like, "You can't just walk out of here. This isn't a Curves class." That's where it started — connected to the sweatpants — but then it evolved into other things you'd walk out of and eventually became a Terrence Malick movie. What I love about it is there's such a fake pretension to Amy's disdain for the people of Iowa. It's not like Amy loves Terrence Malick, but she's chosen Terrence Malick to denigrate this poor woman at the rally. As if somehow Amy is smart enough to love Terrence Malick. I love the psychology behind why Amy's saying it."

    "Ma'am, Felix Wade's sexuality is the worst best-kept secret since Clyde Tolson's hysterical pregnancy." 

    Moment: Dan offers this to Selina, after the gang first meets billionaire political donor Felix Wade.
    Episode: 2
    Severity: Sado-academic
    David Mandel: "I'm not sure these are for everybody, but sometimes I love a really obscure, weird historical reference. In Episode 2, we were talking about Felix Wade being in the closet. We had some joke about FDR and his wheelchair there. It was fine, but one of the writers -- I don't remember who -- turned it into one of the biggest secrets since Clyde Tolson's [J. Edgar Hoover's deputy and rumored longtime lover] hysterical pregnancy. I admit it is a joke for nobody, but I laughed my ass off at it."

    "What do you know about new media, Mike29748@aol.com?"

    Moment: What's said when Dan hears Mike is speaking on a new-media panel for BuzzFeed.
    Episode: 2
    Severity: Surprisingly wholesome
    David Mandel: "I still have and use my AOL account. It's my name with a number that has no relation to anything. When I first signed up for AOL 25 or 30 years ago — whenever the fuck it was — I didn't understand the [address generator]. I thought I could just put in David Mandel, but then it gave me [a bunch of numbers], and I just said yes. Next thing I knew, I was stuck with it. So that's based partially on my real life. And in terms of the numbers we used, I'll tell you a dirty little secret: We used [email addresses] we were actually able to get, meaning we own the two mailboxes [Mike29748@aol.com and Mike53729@aol.com] that Mike mentions. A couple fans have emailed Mike at those addresses, and "Mike" has responded. So those are working AOL mailboxes we pre-cleared, and that's why those numbers are so specific. The hardest part in shooting for the actors was we had to keep going, "No, no, no, no, no, no. It's '53729.' You have to get the numbers right!"

    Photo: HBO

    "Dan fucked you? What, were you wearing a full-length mirror?"

    Moment: How Selina reacts when she finally learns Dan got Amy pregnant.
    Episode: 2
    Severity: Harsh
    David Mandel: "This joke is so mean to Amy, but what's wonderful about it is there's also a lot of collateral damage for Dan. Initially, there was a similar joke about, "What, were you wearing a Dan Egan Halloween mask?" But the idea of Dan staring at himself in the mirror and almost falling in love with his own image was just so strong. Then it was very enjoyable, ultimately, to have Dan sleep with [Selina later in the season] and, obviously, get fired. In this instance, Selina feels like, Of course, Dan would sleep with me. I'm in a different category than Amy. Selina would not require the full-length mirror -- that's how she feels about herself. So I don't think [this joke is] jealousy-based. It's honest-to-God just horrific shock that anyone slept with Amy."

    "It sounds like Dr. Seuss fucked Maya Angelou in the yuzz-ma-tuzz and then filled her all up with snoozily-scuzz."

    Moment: When Selina hears the success of Kemi's rally chants.
    Episode: 3
    Severity: Sam-I-Am lost appetite
    David Mandel: "Early in the season, we quickly realized these episodes were getting really big and complicated, from a shoot standpoint, and we needed to add more days. The only way we could do that was to do fewer episodes — so a few episodes could be a little longer. So earlier on, there was perhaps more of an episode where you would have had a better sense of Selina losing to Kemi. As opposed to the way it is now, which was you saw that Selina was losing to Kemi, but she turns it around with the "Man up" thing. So, early on, there was this sense of disdain for Kemi's, if you will, Obama-esque speechifying, her ability to light up a crowd. Obama was very famous for his catchphrases -- he would yell "Fired up!" And then, "Ready to go!" It was this amazing call-and-response with the audience. That was something we wanted to give Kemi, and we really wanted Selina to be dismissive of it.  

    The line was already in [Rachel Axler's script], which was, 'Dr. Seuss fucked Maya Angelou in the yuzz-ma-tuzz.' But the morning of the shoot, we had the idea of like, Could we Seussify it more? We couldn't not. So we were shooting the scene, and the writers were furiously scribbling other Seussian things behind me. I think the end one was by Dan O'Keefe. As gross as whatever that is -- the idea of this pseudo-Dr. Seuss sex talk -- it's so stupid and fun. It was a little bit of an homage to one of my favorite runs from the TV show Moonlighting. They're trying to find a Chinese man with a mole on his nose. Bruce Willis is 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 or anything else, except he's Chinese, a big clue by itself." That show is a big one for me, in terms of TV influences. I always loved and remembered that Seussian rhyming thing. So thank you Moonlighting, thank you Glenn Gordon Caron."

    Photo: HBO

    "When you're president?! I'll jam my fist up my dick hole and pull out a 40-piece set of Danish cutlery when you're president! Selina Meyer is a legitimate candidate, not a human pool skimmer last used to de-spunk a Provincetown hot tub party!"

    Moment: Uncle Jeff (Peter MacNicol) drops by to congratulate his sister on her engagement (and destroys Jonah in the process).
    Episode: 4
    Severity: Scorching
    David Mandel: "Human pool skimmer came from Lew Morton, who's been my number two since we started and a longtime friend. That was one he had been saving on his list of Funny, Tall Things to Call Jonah, and it was finally time to call its number off the bench. I would argue you don't even need the [Provincetown part]. The second you call Jonah a human pool skimmer, you're laughing. But with Uncle Jeff, I think he uses words to build up a head of steam. Sometimes, with shorter lines, he doesn't get to where he needs to get to in terms of the full Peter MacNicol force. Giving him a longer runway to take off from is more helpful. Each detail gets more intense. So by the time you get the whole thing out, the venom is really boiling. 

    As a reverse example, a couple years ago, Kevin Dunn called Jonah a 'giant barbecue fork,' and it was just that. It was very simple because Ben doesn't need all those words. It depends on who's saying [the insult], as much as anything else. So in this case, Uncle Jeff, as I said, just needed more. In the wrong hands, more words can hurt it and less words can hurt it. Then, the Danish cutlery: When he pulls it out of his dick, obviously, it just seems like funny words. But then it loops back around and it's actually what he's saying he got them off their gift registry. It's just a well-crafted joke."

    "Holy shit, Brookheimer! When you get an abortion you're supposed to leave the mangled fetus at the clinic, not staple it to the skeleton of a gay condor and run it for president."

    Moment: Furlong delivers Jonah his Secret Service agent.
    Episode: 5
    Severity: Call the cops
    David Mandel: "When Furlong walks into this scene -- you've got Amy, Jonah, Beth, and, obviously, Will with him -- he's like a machine gun and he hits everybody. One of the things here is Furlong had appeared in Episode 2, earlier in the season, and we ended up having to lose his Will bit just for time. So we had Furlong in there, and he delivered some information. But it wasn't necessarily super incredible. So by the time we got here, with Episode 5, it was like, God, we haven't seen him in forever! And the writers were like, Finally, we get Furlong back! Honestly, if I had wanted to, in the script, based on everybody throwing stuff in for Furlong, that scene could have gone on for 27 more minutes. We had so many alts and variations. I remember there was something about Just The Tip O'Neill in there. It really is Furlong unleashed. It's as close as, I will ever say, he gets to slightly verging into Don Rickles-at-the-Copacabana in, like, 1955. It was like Furlong had been in the locker room pumping himself up and then he just came out and killed."

    Photo: HBO

    "Congressman Slender Man."

    Moment: When Amy tries to convince Jonah to stay in Florida.
    Episode: 5
    Severity: *Googles Slender Man weaknesses*
    David Mandel: "Slender Man is a fine joke. It's a good, solid Jonah burn, but what makes it really work is Emily Pendergast, who played Beth. The genuine fear she registers the first time, when she says, "Don't say his name," and then the second time -- when Furlong says it -- there's no line there. She visibly shudders because now his name has been said twice. We're one step closer to his summoning. That is what makes Slender Man so great. Her fear of it. Not even Richard could have gotten afraid of that. It took this new, wonderful character to be genuinely afraid of Slender Man.  

    To me, the defining idea [for Beth's character] came out of Season 6, when Jonah dated Shawnee Tanz. Shawnee was bossy and in charge of him, and he liked it, but we thought for this new girlfriend character, ultimately, he would want to marry his mother. That was our guiding concept -- beyond all the incest jokes. He would look for somebody who would take care of him, who would think he was the bee's knees, who would think he could do no wrong. Then when we found Emily, it morphed into the idea of like, This is what it's like if 15-year-olds could get married. It was this advanced state of adolescence, in terms of the way they acted, the way they spent their money, the way they treated each other. And this was very much like a teenage girl's reaction to Slender Man. 

    I believe the scene was written with [the "Slender Man" line] in there and that that was a scene we knew Emily was going to be in. And then a lot of the rest of the episode, we just, once she was there that day, threw her in everything that followed. That happened a lot with her: She'd be written into one of the early scenes in the show. And then on the day of, we would say, 'Stick around and we'll keep putting you in.' She was just that good. So the later scenes, for example, where Jonah is bothering his Secret Service agent, she wasn't necessarily written into those. We just loved her so much."

    "You were born with three umbilical cords wrapped around your neck, Hep-C Kevin McHale."

    Moment: Furlong's attempt to head off Jonah's math nonsense at the convention.
    Episode: 7
    Severity: Banned in Massachusetts
    David Mandel: "Hep-C Kevin McHale was a pitch that one of the writers threw at me on the day. We always have, hopefully, a decent joke in the script, and then I gather alts from writers on certain lines when we're in the scene. Hep-C Kevin McHale is almost like pool skimmer. Kevin McHale, alone, is a very evocative image of a very tall, crazy white guy. No offense, Kevin McHale. And then adding Hep-C to it is a very evocative add-on. I think, originally, we had a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joke in there -- that's what got whoever it was to Hep-C Kevin McHale -- like Kareem "On My Face" Abdul-Jabbar. But when we heard Hep-C Kevin McHale, it won the day. 

    In Season 5, we did Hakeem Olaju-twat, and we had a couple other good basketball [burns on Jonah] in previous seasons. You don't want to do them every time, but like one good basketball joke a year [works]. The other thing that's really perfect about Kevin McHale, besides how he looks, is that Celtics team was so divisive. It's like people who love the Celtics and love Kevin McHale kind of dig the joke, but also people who fucking hate the Celtics, which is a lot of people, also really like the joke. It covers a lot of bases. Good to know the Celtics lost [this year]."

    Photo: HBO

    "That Nutmeg State indefinable really turns my hydrant on. The only difference is that I was the most exciting conquest of his life, and you just had the motel room closest to the ice machine.... Trust me, he will never see you as anything other than the T.G.I. Friday's hostess on Proactiv who lets him bend you over his desk while you close your eyes to avoid coming face-to-face with that framed photo of his family's trip to Aspen while he drowns your Little Mermaid back tat in a pool of jizz and admires his own reflection. ...I just hate to see smart women throw away their political careers on powerful men who only see them as the gash of least resistance."

    Moment: Selina resolves to destroy Tom James, first via his Chief of Staff (Rhea Seehorn).
    Episode: 7
    Severity: Inspiringly devastating (see also: Tiger Woods 2.0 getting in your head at the Masters)
    David Mandel: You think, sometimes, about things you've done before. For us, the working model here was Selina's takedown, in Season 5, with Penny Nickerson, the Congresswoman she was trying to get a vote from in the "Congressional Ball" episode. Selina tears her apart and talks about her district and her husband's cancer. For us, we thought if we could get into that realm, that would be great. The building blocks were always very similar. We knew Selina was going to talk about her own relationship with Tom and how Michelle was just convenient. We had variations about her being "the first one off the bus." Then, the notion of how [Tom] saw [Michelle] is very important because there's two things here: It's not just an insult; there's a real methodology to what Selina's doing, which is making this woman realize Tom's never leaving his family -- and doesn't value her -- to get her to betray Tom. That's the basis of it, whereas the Penny Nickerson thing was more just a straight threat. 

    Billy Kimball, one of the writers, had the phrase 'Nutmeg State indefinable.' There was something so classy about that, which is a very Connecticut kind of a thing. But her saying, "that Nutmeg State indefinable really turns my hydrant on," and the notion of her talking about her own wetness -- something very crude -- connected to something very avuncular really made me laugh. We tried an alt where we did something with, 'Je ne sais cock.' Don't get me wrong. Very fine joke. But it's a cock joke. There was something wonderful about the classiness of Nutmeg State indefinable that makes the crudeness that comes later funnier. I think Alex Gregory added 'gash of least resistance.' [This run] was the best of Veep, in the sense of, that's the whole writing staff throwing stuff in. Just making every word count. There's not a wasted syllable in there -- from the 'hostess' to the 'Proactiv.' Every element attacks and demeans Rhea's character, but at the same time makes it seem like it's Tom who's doing it. So it's this weird thing, where it's this horrific barrage of insults, meant to convince you to join Selina's side. I love the psychological underpinnings of it. Selina ends on, 'Aren't you a smart woman?' Who wants to say, 'No, I'm not a smart woman'?

    Rhea Seehorn goes, 'Jesus.' And Tony Hale goes, 'Wow.' Those were semi-scripted responses, but they were genuine reactions. [Regarding Gary], I think it's pure admiration. Believe me when I tell you, Gary has no idea what's coming next. When Selina comes out of the hospital room with Ben, which is basically Michael at Don Corleone's hospital bed, saying, 'I'm with you, Pa,' it's this very beautiful scene, but you realize later that when Ben says, 'You know what to do,' he's telling her, Go kill everybody. Settle the family business. So when she comes out of that room, and she takes a deep breath by the door, and turns around and goes, 'Call Governor Schnozzlestein.' You watch Tony and see he's so thrilled she got her fight back. And then he follows her, gleefully, and he's a little shocked, but he's enjoying every second of this. That's what he's playing, and it makes what comes later [with Selina's betrayal of Gary], retroactively, all the more horrific."

    Photo: HBO

    "Breaking news: I've just been told that four-time Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks has died at the age of 88."

    Moment: Mike cuts his Selina eulogy short because someone more important dies.
    Episode: 7
    Severity: Thanos wishes he thought of this
    David Mandel/Origin: The main reason for our flash forward is because it's history that judges presidents. You can't have history without jumping forward. I wanted the audience to see what becomes of her and her reputation. In the process, we started talking about the idea of a bigger, better funeral bumping her off the front page, and that would be the final word. Even though she won the presidency at the very end, she's almost treated like a veep again. In fact, the original idea for the bump off was that President Hughes, the guy she was vice president under [at the beginning of the series], would end up dying the same day, and he, because of all the good works he did in his presidency, would be the bigger story. She would be the Farrah Fawcett to his Michael Jackson.  

    Full credit to Frank Rich, who has been the exec producer since the beginning of the show. He remembered the Tom Hanks [reference in the Veep pilot], which made me crazy because I had recently rewatched all the shows, but goddammit he was the one who said, "What about Tom Hanks?" In the table read draft, [the ending] basically happens similar to the way it happens and then Mike kind of throws it away and goes, "'Let's cut live to the funeral coverage.' It got such a big laugh. It felt like, Wow, if we could get some more clips, there could be more here. 

    So we did two versions. We did a shorter version, where it happens and then Mike basically says, "Let's go to the funeral coverage in Los Angeles." So again, same joke, but I was like, You know what? I'm going to write the long version. And it was very much what you saw [on TV]. It's just me pontificating about Tom Hanks. Just knowing that Selina's dead and that no one cares anymore, and hearing Mike go, 'an American everyman comfortable both in comedy and drama,' it was just some of the funniest straight dialogue in the history of my involvement in the show. And the longer the Tom Hanks section got, the more I laughed. It is the final, perfect insult to Selina: No funeral coverage for you. We thought that would sum up her entire presidency and really show that all the things she did to Gary and everyone else truly wasn't worth it."

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    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, David Mandel, Julia Louis-Dreyfus