'We were in the middle of shooting the fourth episode when he won,' says showrunner David Mandel
What happens when a show about a presidential administration’s general incompetence is forced to contend with suddenly similar real-world events? The answer is the new season of Veep.
Entering its sixth season this Sunday, the HBO comedy finds ex-POTUS Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) barreling head first into life as a former president after suffering a crushing loss at the end of season 5. And as showrunner David Mandel points out, Meyer’s story has taken on even greater significance in the wake of last November’s actual election. We spoke to Mandel about the show’s unavoidable Hillary Clinton parallels, lessons learned from Mitt Romney, and how Veep is adjusting to the Trump era.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how far into the future are we since the show last left off?
DAVID MANDEL: We jumped a year into the future, basically. It’s a year after the big vote where Selina lost the presidency to President Montez. We send everybody to different corners of the globe — everyone is kind of separated. And we get some hints that it hasn’t been a great year for Selina dealing with the loss.
This season, we see Selina running a semi-charitable foundation, which has become a common post-government move for a lot of politicians in real life — the Clinton Foundation being a big example. Was that an inspiration?
Absolutely. As we were diving into this notion of Selina being a former president, we did a lot of research and interviews and talked to a lot of people, including candidates who lost. One of the people we sat down with was Mitt Romney. And as we did research, the notion of a foundation or a fund — which I think President Obama is in the midst of setting up as we speak — kept coming up. But obviously the Clinton Foundation was something that we keyed in on. The idea that Selina would have a charitable foundation — one that she didn’t particularly care that much about — is one of the fun running jokes this season. She’s interested in the press of the charity, but not in the charity itself. It’s classic Selina.
So you sat down with Mitt Romney to research what happens after a major loss. What was the general overview he relayed to you?
It was interesting what he had to say. How it helped us vis-à-vis Selina was in showing us what Selina doesn’t have. At the end of the day, Mitt spoke a lot about his children and grandchildren, this large wonderful family that he has and that he loves spending time with. And he didn’t necessarily brag about this aspect, but on top of all that, he’s obviously a well-to-do gentleman as well. So he had this great family and wonderful life to go back to. The fun of that for us is what Selina doesn’t have. She doesn’t have a family that she loves; that’s not really an option for her. And when Selina’s mother died last season, she left all of her money to Selina’s daughter Catherine. To some extent, the things that cushioned Romney’s blow don’t exist for Selina, so it was very informative for that reason.
How much of the show was already written before the November election?
All of it. The notion of Selina losing and the show being about her being a former president really started two years ago, when I initially sat down with HBO and Julia about taking over the show [from series creator Armando Iannucci]. I pitched the concept that she’d lose to Montez, another woman, and ultimately the show would transform into a show about a former president of the United States, which I thought would be really interesting and different. In terms of the ins and outs of this season’s plots and specifics, most of that was figured out last spring and written, or at least outlined extensively, last June and July.
When we first sat down, Trump was the prohibitive favorite to be the Republican nominee. But him winning the election was obviously a shock to most people, including, I think, Trump. We were in the middle of shooting the fourth episode when he won, so really — despite the fact that you can’t watch our show without thinking of Hillary and her loss and how that compares to Selina’s loss, this was all preordained. But it certainly has added a nice element to the show.
You mentioned recently that you had to take out a golden shower joke that was written before Trump because it suddenly became a little too on the nose. Were there other alterations to the show that had to made in the wake of Trump’s victory?
As we were writing jokes for the back end of the season, I think we were certainly influenced by the Trump election. There wasn’t much specifically that we took out, but there are a lot of jokes this season about what Middle America wants, what working-class voters want. That was definitely influenced by what we saw in the Trump election. But thank God, there was nothing where we sat down and were like, ‘Oh no, now that he’s elected, episode 9 doesn’t work and we have to throw it in the garbage.’
Sean Spicer recently made some ill-advised comments about Hitler, which the internet very quickly turned into a Veep meme. Do these frequent gaffes from the current administration raise the stakes of how incompetent you have to make your characters?
It does raise the stakes. I think what helps us, though — because believe me, our guys are as incompetent as ever — but what helps is that we went down this path of leaving the White House. The surroundings have changed so that Mike McLintock [Selina’s former press secretary, played by Matt Walsh] can be as incompetent as ever, but he’s not being incompetent behind the official White House podium — so it doesn’t look exactly like what’s going on on television now. It gives us a little distance, a sort of angle on things. If we were still in the White House this season and Mike was still the press secretary behind the podium, and then you go watch the Sean Spicer-Hitler thing, which is real — whatever gaffe we wrote, you’re going to think they’re funnier than us. And that’s not good for a comedy show. So by getting out of that world, we opened ourselves up to some new comedy and less competition with reality, which I think will help us in the long run.
One notable shift in the new season is Dan’s transition into morning television. What was the inspiration for that?
I don’t want to give too much away, but we were obviously very influenced by George Stephanopoulos and his move into the world of media. And morning television is a very rich area of comedy, and it’s so connected — especially right now — to politics. So the idea of having one of our own joining the media opened us up to some very new funny areas. So you’ll see a lot of that world through the season.
Given that Selina has now left the presidency, a lot of people have wondered whether this season would serve as a way to start winding down the series. Is there still a path being laid for future seasons? How far does this story ultimately go?
Well, you know, we make a lot of jokes this season about her age, but in the grand scheme of things, she’s got a lot of life left in her. And in some ways, the post-presidency is an incredibly rich area. If you look at history, post-presidencies have really changed who the presidents are. Even Nixon, in a way, found a certain amount of newfound respect in his later years — at least on the foreign-policy side — simply by lasting a long time but at the same time forcing himself into situations. I think the post-presidency has opened us up to so many storylines and places Selina can go in her continuing quest for relevancy. I’m not saying there’s 10 more years of the show, but I think people will be excited that they now get to see what’s next. There’s some life there. We’ve got some ideas of how long this thing can actually go on, but at the same time, we’re excited about this new world.
Veep season 6 premieres Sunday, April 16 at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.