HBO’s Veep is arguably one of the most clever takes on D.C.’s behind-the-scenes screw-ups on TV, but the show is staying apolitical in the era of Trump.
“We’re not Saturday Night Live,” said showrunner David Mandel. “If we try to make a joke about what Trump did yesterday on Veep, by the time it’s aired in May, it would seem like the oldest, stalest joke in the world.”
Mandel and executive producer and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus were joined by castmembers Anna Chlumsky, Gary Cole, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons and Sam Richardson at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, on Monday, offering a preview of the show’s upcoming sixth season in a panel hosted by NBC’s Chuck Todd.
Louis-Dreyfus pointed out that staying far away from Trump jokes makes sense for a show that hasn’t featured real-life celebrities or journalists, doesn’t have any references to real political history beyond Ronald Reagan, and doesn’t identify political parties.
“The premise for our show is an alternate political universe,” she said. “When we go to Washington and talk to people from both sides of the aisle, whoever we’re talking to thinks we’re making fun of the other party.”
Fans of the show, and real-life politicians and D.C. staffers, also love to point out the similarities and differences between characters and their real-life counterparts.
Walsh, who plays frazzled White House Press Secretary Mike McClintock and has met with former press secretaries like Jay Carney, Dee Dee Myers and Mike McCurry, gets a kick out of the comparisons he sees on Twitter to his character and current Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
“Day one, my feed was filled with, ‘Oh my god, this guy [Spicer] is worse than McClintock. And it’s nonstop,” he said.
Added Cole, “The weirdest experience was, we all went to the Correspondents’ Dinner, so we came face to face with versions of the characters, and they were quick to tell us who they were on the show.”
Politicians and other D.C. operatives also occasionally suggest storylines to the Veep team that are based on their work in Washington.
“When they tell you the story they think would be really funny, it’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard, but while they’re telling it to you, they either use a phrase or tell you another story as the lead in that’s actually hilarious, and we write it down and use it,” Mandel said.
Chlumsky said that being on the show has made her feel more empathetic to real-life political staffers. “If there’s a gaffe, I automatically think of the staff that was dealing with that gaffe, instead of being mad at the person who said the mean thing on some show,” she said. “It made me sympathize with everyone who’s like our characters—of course, this year’s different.”
Todd and the cast also discussed the show’s cynical nature.
“We’re not making a show like The West Wing, which was aspirational,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “But after spending time in Washington and meeting people in branches of government, there are so many people who are very good, trying desperately against all odds to do the right thing. I hope the show isn’t so cynical that it takes away all feelings of that.”
“A lot of those people are dead,” Mandel joked.
Todd asked why there’s more of an appetite for cynical political shows, like House of Cards, Scandal and Veep, today, versus ‘90s shows and movies like The West Wing and The American President, which depicted presidents as heroic.
“We’re a more cynical nation now, but it’s also cyclical,” Mandel explained. “Like in Vietnam films, you can’t get to Platoon without Rambo. Initially, you have the praising and glorification. He’s not just a president, he’s a history scholar, he’d do it for free, and then, you start to tear it down a bit.”
Season 6 of Veep will explore Selina Meyer’s post-presidential life and draw on some of the experiences of past presidents, including Jimmy Carter’s philanthropy, Bill Clinton’s foundation and Barack Obama’s recent book deal.
“Don’t be surprised if Selina signs a book deal, although, not for quite so much money,” Mandel said.
Added Louis-Dreyfus, “As we’ve done from one season to the next, we’ve found a way to blow up the premise yet again. We did it after Season 3 when Selina became president, then we did it when she lost, and we’ve done it again, which has been an incredibly exciting opportunity, creatively.”
The cast all agreed that being on the show does not make them want to go into politics, and when asked what the hardest part of doing the show is, many of them said that it’s not breaking character during the show’s funniest scenes.
As Hale put it, “Julia said to me once, ‘You know you’re not watching the show, you’re in the show.’”