Veep: How the writers — and Timothy Simons — pull off those brutal Jonah insults
Watch Simons read unaired NSFW Jonah jabs
Throughout its Emmy-studded, cold-blooded run, Veep has lived by a simple mantra: If you don’t have anything nice to say… say it in the most creative and cruel way possible.
HBO’s hawkish-not-mawkish government comedy has earned laughs, raves, raised eyebrows, and spit-takes from fans and critics for the creative, merciless, and line-crossing ways in which its misguided, misanthropic characters denigrate each other. But over seven seasons of inventive invective, there was one individual who received the lion’s share of verbal strikes: Jonah Ryan. Expertly played by Timothy Simons, the self-congratulatory poser of a White House-liason-turned-pariah blogger-turned-congressman-turned-presidential-candidate tried to assert his dominance and fit in with the gang by any means necessary. (Those means included but were not limited to: sexual harassment, misogyny, shameless peacocking, and offensive, tone-deaf commentary.) Partially as karmic payback but mostly just because he was surrounded by black-souled individuals, Jonah wound up as the bullseye for stinging jokes that targeted his lack of emotional intelligence, surplus of height, and bottom-rung status.
“Jolly Green Jizzface.” “Unstable piece of human scaffolding.” “World’s biggest single-cell organism.” “Sentient enema.” “…like someone melted Play-Doh on a flagpole.” The often politically incorrect inventory of barbs jabbered at Jonah goes on and on… so here are a few more to behold: “Hepatitis J.” “Walking trisomy.” “Herman Munster’s brother who liked to molest that pudgy werewolf kid.”
Of the myriad reasons to love Veep — the piteous interplay between vainglorious Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and sycophantic Gary (Tony Hale), the unflinching portrayal of politics as nihilistic-hedonistic zero-sum game, Kent’s secret motorcycle-gang life — the relentless roasting of Jonah ranks high up there, acting as tasty sour cherry atop the s— sundae that is our government in (in)action. And given Jonah’s hideous, regressive, and willfully ignorant views on, well, everything, these insults seem to serve as just punishment for an unexamined life poorly lived.
The actor who absorbs all of these hundred-dollar cheap shots merits recognition — if not a Purple Heart of comedy — for courage under ire. “There is no sport better than Tim Simons in the history of television,” declares Reid Scott, who plays acidic-acerbic Dan, one of Jonah’s most inspired adversaries.
“He totally loves it,” Louis-Dreyfus tells EW. “And I love it. And I love that he loves it. I mean, if he didn’t, we never would have gotten where we are today, believe me.”
Testifies veteran Veep writer-producer Georgia Pritchett: “No one ever laughed harder than Tim did at the insults — and really genuinely. Otherwise we wouldn’t have continued. He loved the creativity of it, and the surprises that he got. He was absolutely amazing about it. He never complained. He always encouraged us to do more. He couldn’t be more different from his character, and that’s what made it okay. As Jonah, he was so awful, so that made you able to continue to hurl this abuse at him. But Tim, as a person, is the absolute nicest human being on Earth. So that was a strange thing to think that these two people shared the same body.”
Just to make quadruply sure that he has no problem absorbing maximum vituperation, let’s ask the man himself. “I know that a lot get lobbed my way, but it’s just the language of the show,” says Simons, who had steeled himself by watching The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci’s acclaimed British political comedy from which Veep was adapted. “There is no other form of communication on the show. It’s not like everybody else is being nice to one another, and they’re all lobbing insults at me. I remember early on realizing that these insults mean nothing to [these characters]. If you don’t want to be insulted, then you can’t work there. Nobody ever takes it personally — and I feel like nobody knows that more so than Jonah. You could shout a thousand insults at him a day, and it’s never going to cause him to waver in his belief in himself.”
While it doesn’t number a thousand insults, the companion video to this story features Simons reacting to more than a dozen insults that never made it out of the writers’ room, and it further illustrates how gracious, thoughtful, and self-deprecating the 40-year-old actor can be with a nasty burns. “Yes, I know that my body doesn’t make sense,” Simons jokes at one point. “It looks like I was put together with a bunch of parts from other people.”
That’s a colorful way to describe oneself, and it’s perfectly in line with the philosophy that Iannucci espoused about how these malicious characters should talk to/about each other. Call it: don’t just get irate, get ornate. “I remember Armando telling us we shouldn’t just swear or insult people on Veep — the language had to be baroque,” says Pritchett. “It had to be more interesting than just telling people to f— off.” (Although when it came to Jonah, Selina made that sing here and here.)
In the hunt for innovative insults, there was ample comedy to be mined from Jonah’s size. From the earliest rehearsals, Louis-Dreyfus also saw comedic gold in Mt. Simons by playing off of the juxtapositions of their statures (5’3” vs. 6’5”) and statuses (Vice President of the U.S. vs. White House grunt). “I remember very vividly thinking, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s so tall, I’m so short. We can make hay with that, pointing up at him,’’” she says. (Side note: Jumbo jokes weren’t part of the plan originally. The character was initially imagined by Iannucci as someone short and fat with a high voice, but Simons threw him for a lanky loop when he walked into the casting room.)
The writers first laid into Jonah by going after his height or his height coupled with his low intellect, tweaking tall monuments (“Leaning Tower of S—“) or reimagining classic Hollywood creatures (“Frankenstein’s monster, if his monster were made entirely of dead d—s”). “We definitely covered all the buildings quite early on, and all the poles, and scaffolding,” notes Pritchett. “So we ran out of the short, catchy ones, like ‘Jonad’ or ‘Scrotum Pole,’ or they became harder to think of. That’s when we either switched to things about his personality or got more creative with the longer, more in-depth metaphors.” (One of her favorites is this season 2 slam delivered by Amy’s boyfriend, played by Zach Woods: “Jonah, you’re not even a man. You’re like an early draft of a man where they just sketched out a giant, mangled skeleton, but they didn’t have time to add details, like pigment or self-respect.”)
It became clear in early seasons that viewers were both horrified and delighted by Jonah — as well as by all of the up-yours comeuppances he received. “From stuff online, we realized that [fans] loved to hate him, and that they couldn’t get enough of him saying awful things and people just tearing him to pieces verbally,” recalls Pritchett. In the writers’ search for the most creative takedowns, “it became fun trying to one-up each other,” she recalls. “For [season 4’s congressional] testimony episode, I remember the day we got an email from Armando saying, ‘I need as many Jonah insults as possible,’ and it was just one of the happiest writing days of our lives.’”
The insult crafting wasn’t limited to the writers’ room, though. Much of Veep’s comedic magic is conjured through a painstaking ritual of writing and rewriting before allowing the actors to rehearse and improvise the material, which is then followed by more rewriting, which continues right through filming. After several takes of a scene, the sharpshooting scribes might huddle for a minute, and then showrunner David Mandel will emerge from behind the camera to pitch alternate punchlines to the actors, so he’ll have several options in the editing room. This loose, collaborative time is when the best tragic Jonah magic often happens. “There’s the moment, and Tim knows when it’s coming,” says Mandel, who assumed the reins from Iannucci after season 4. “Obviously there’s some mean stuff built into the script, but when we do those alts where I come out and whatever I’m going to be pitching — especially if it’s from Reid Scott, who can be just so devastating with a line — it is just horrific. Tim laughs as much as anybody, but it’s horrific in a funny way.”
“Believe me when I say that that moment has never brought me anything but great joy,” affirms Simons. “The people at video village [the bank of monitors where the writers congregate to watch the filming] are incredibly funny people and a very hard audience, so you know it’s funny. Even though it might be the worst thing you’ve ever heard, I do love hearing it. And even if it’s directed at me, I do love hearing it. [Mandel] will usually come out with a couple options of ‘There’s this or there’s this,’ and he’ll read you both of them. Because it’s a collaborative thing, you can be like, ‘Well, what if we combine those two?’ Or, ‘What if it was this?’”
In the show’s earliest days, when Iannucci encouraged the actors to really let it fly, it took time for them to get used to slinging such slights and slurs. “We spent a lot of time apologizing to each other,” Scott recalls with a chuckle. “Everyone was really brave and would lean way into it, because it’s just such good fun to have these words come out of your mouth. And then as soon as the scene would be over, we would all turn to each other and be like, ‘I’m so sorry, I really don’t think you look like that. You’re totally normally shaped. There’s really nothing wrong with you.’ And then we’d all have drinks afterward and laugh about it. Everyone gets it, so you didn’t really take offense, but Tim’s character definitely bore the brunt… We’ve become so close as friends that sometimes you hurl these things and you don’t even have to apologize. You’d look at Tim, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I know, I know,’ and you just move on.”
And the fact that the show presents Simons in the worst physical light as the severe Jonah allowed the writers and actors to make peace with the hellfire that they rain down on him. In noting that “Tim is a long, gangly guy,” Mandel explains that when “we get rid of the crazy haircuts and the jackass suspenders, people are like, ‘Oh my God! Wait a second, he’s a handsome guy!’ And he is. That’s what’s so funny about it. But that tall thing ends up trumping everything else. You sort of forget that he’s intelligent and handsome.”
One thing that the writers tried hard not to forget were the solid Jonah slams that didn’t make it into the show for whatever reason. To make the most of their brutal brainstorming, they kept a running list of promising burns to save for later, which was usually sooner than they thought. During filming, Mandel would ask to look over the list to see if any of those jabs might fit the malicious moment at hand. “If we came up with three funny alts and only one made the show,: he says, “there was no way in hell those other two are going to go to waste.”
While it was wild, artistic joy for the writers to concoct these top-shelf low blows, it also became a daunting challenge to take down Jonah in new ways as the end approached, especially with the ghosts of killer insults from previous seasons looming large. (Though they did receive a burst of fresh inspiration at the start of season 6, when Jonah shaved his head bald for a brief period to milk sympathy for his testicular cancer diagnosis.) “I remember us all sitting in the writers’ room with Dave, saying terrible Jonah insults, and Dave was like, ‘Done it, done it,’ and you’d be thinking, ‘Seriously? We’ve called him a shaved Sasquatch already?’” says Pritchett. “You’re just thinking, ‘I didn’t know those two words had ever been put together before, but we’ve done it already,’ and that was a bit of a wakeup call.” (Adds Simons: “I know that [Veep writer-producer] Lew Morton kept track of tall jokes, and at one point he was like, ‘You know, I think I have one tall joke left.’ That last one got crossed off in our last episode.”)
There were several factors that prompted Mandel and Louis-Dreyfus to end Veep after seven seasons — a desire to exit the building with the audience wanting more; the impossible task of topping a Trump regime mired in gaffes, scandals, absurdities, etc. — and a key one involved creative exhaustion. “If you want to really talk about ‘Why did we end Veep?’ we just ran out of things to call Jonah,” semi-jokes Mandel. “We still had a couple left, but you get to that point where you start to go, ‘Well, what about if we call him King Kong’s taint?’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, not only have we done a King Kong joke over here, but we’ve done taint over here. Gluing them together doesn’t make it any better.’” That said, they valiantly managed to stick it to him all the way to the surely bitter end. (As you can read in this preview of a scene from the series finale, he takes heavy fire from two adversaries simultaneously.) “We did begin to think, ‘Oh, no, have we run out?’” says Pritchett. “We feared the worst, but we always found more hideous depths to sink to. We all surprised ourselves with how abhorrent we could be, when pushed.”
Which does raise a question or three: On a show that doesn’t just push the envelope, it defiles it, how do the writers know if an insult has gone too far? Is there a line? If so, where is it? “I guess if Tim had burst into tears, we would have pulled back,” quips Mandel. “I’m not sure we ever thought there was a line. Honestly, it was always just: If we were laughing, it was good.”
No matter how contemptible or uproarious the insults were, Simons was a pro at maintaining his composure during filming. “I have a pretty good poker face,” he notes. (Indeed, when EW visited the set last winter, he held up admirably against that double shot of abuse from Uncle Jeff and Selina, even as spittle angrily rocketed off the mouths of Peter MacNicol and Louis-Dreyfus and onto him. “That’s just part of the job at this point,” he matter-of-factly mentioned during a break in filming.
But Veep’s whack-a-Jonah comedy wasn’t just one-sided; Simons carved out unique humor in the character’s response to the abuse. Or lack of it, actually. Simons deftly played Jonah as if he wields his larger-than-warranted ego as his Captain America shield. When mocked, Jonah would tell himself that everyone else was just envious of his talents and was trying to knock him down, so none of these insults registered. “Something that always worked is to blow right by it, as if they had said ‘Please,’” explains Simons. Another go-to move was to become indignant and fixate on the wrong part of the insult. “Ben [Kevin Dunn] calls him a plus-size homonculus and then Jonah says, ‘What is that?’” says Simons. “And Kent [Gary Cole] says something like, ‘It’s an ancient golem made entirely of petrified semen.’ And Jonah doesn’t care that he’s been called a homonculus. He’s just like, ‘How do you guys both know that???’ That’s the thing that he’s more concerned about. Or he gets mad about the plus-size part.”
Attacks on Jonah not only came in all shapes and sizes, they came from all walks of life: co-workers, superiors, even strangers. Did Simons have a favorite aural assassin? “Any scenes that involve Reid insulting me were really fun, just because I’ve always loved the two-man rivalry between our characters,” he answers. “And Furlong [Dan Bakkedahl] is always really fun to get insulted by, just because he’s so vicious and he’s so vitriolic.” (Ah, yes: In the April 28 episode, Furlong referred to Jonah as both “the mangled fetus stapled to the skeleton of a gay condor” and “Congressman Slenderman.”)
And which Ryan rips over the years rank among his most loved? Simons was especially tickled by “Benedict Cum-in-his-own-hand” and “12 Years a Slave to Jerking Off,” which were part of that extensive list of insults that was rattled off clinically in front of Jonah at the congressional hearing. “He realizes that all of these have the possibility of getting out and adding more fodder for people to use, and he tries to circumvent it by saying that his college friends called him Tall McCartney,” says Simons. “He thinks that’s possible: ‘Oh yeah, this might work.’ Of course, it’s not going to work, but I love that he tried.”
Simons is also partial to the season 1 scene in which Dan thinks that Amy [Anna Chlumsky] is purchasing a pregnancy test for herself when she’s actually buying it for Selina. “Oh s—, is that Jonah’s kid?” asks Dan. “They’re going to be pulling that kid out of you in shifts.” (It should be noted that Simons’ wife was pregnant when that episode aired. “I don’t necessarily know that my wife liked that one,” notes Simons, “only because it might have pointed towards her actual physical future.”) But his all-time favorite insult may surprise you a bit, because it’s as tame as it is artful: “Cloud botherer.” “A lot of them have to do with being tall and a lot of them are very harsh, and that one is a gentler one,” he explains. “He’s a very tall nuisance.”
This very tall nuisance — with his buffoonish bravado, unwavering self-belief, and anti-math, anti-intellectual platform (nope, no real-world parallels to be drawn here) — continues to defeat all odds and ascend that D.C. ladder, each step representing another measure of revenge against his many haters. Here’s another way to illustrate the bulletproof nature and culturally resonance of Jonah Ryan right now. “The worst digs in the world that the finest comedy writers have crafted to tear him down do nothing to him,” quips Mandel. “That’s how convinced he is of his own success and superiority. And perhaps there is something truly wrong with America, because maybe he’s not wrong.”
Will he be right enough to reach that final goal — the Oval Office — by season’s end? Simons leaves you with this hint about the last-ever episode of Veep: “One thing I really like about our finale is it might remind people that even though you’ve come to love these characters, they aren’t good people,” says Simons. “One thing I’ve never wanted for Jonah is for him to ever be redeemed. I want people to feel bad for him, I want people to empathize with him or have sympathy for something he’s going through, and find a human connection with him. But I also want them to pay for ever having that reaction.”
With payday set to arrive on Sunday and the series finale now set in stone, Mandel kindly shared with EW that coveted list of unused Jonah insults that would otherwise be gathering dust next to a file labeled “Selina’s long-overdue, heartfelt thank-you note to Gary.” After recruiting Simons to appear on camera, we handed him this pile of bile and watched what happened next. Don’t be a pointless giant — watch the video above to see Simons hilariously and gamely face down one final round of insults.
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