Emmy-Nominated TV Writer David Mandel Goes Wide On “VEEP”
David Mandel wrote the final episode of the highly-acclaimed TV series VEEP. He is a storied screenwriter who boasts writing credits on popular TV comedy shows including Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
VEEP is a political satire that cuts close to the bone. It’s a fine line between comedy and reality. But VEEP will always be a comedy first and foremost.
“Our chief goal is to make you laugh, obviously,” proclaimed Mandel. “However, anyone who thinks you can do comedy without drama is fooling themselves.” Biting political satire draws its attraction from mining and lampooning the political climate of the time. And there is no time like the present.
David Mandel claims there has been a shift in tone as the TV show has matured. “During the first five seasons VEEP was a matter of art imitating life, but in later seasons someone flipped a lever so that life was imitating art,” he added. This is especially apparent in the final season where events from the current White House landscape can be directly incorporated into VEEP episodes. That doesn’t give the TV writers a license to cut and paste news headlines into the show’s dialogue.
As an example, Mandel cites the “Oslo” episode when Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) attends a rally on immigration and a member of the crowd yells out “kill them. “Jonah responded ‘Don’t kill all of them.‘” This parallels closely with an immigration rally in Florida a few days later, where some activists yelled out, “shoot them.” The episode’s title deftly echoes the President’s immigration preferences.
Political satire is a tricky beast that cannot rely solely on ridiculing our politicians without wearing out its welcome. The truth needs to be blended with entertainment value. “The line to balance the two is always moving while cutting as close the bone as possible.” The show’s increasing aggressions follows our current leadership. “As real politics has got more savage, I wanted to make VEEP more savage too. It’s hard as you constantly try to find humorous situations in ugly subject matter such as mass shootings or disease outbreaks. It’s our duty as TV writers.”
David Mandel never loses sight of the overarching goal for VEEP to entertain its audiences. Hopefully, he can inspire them to act. “I’d like to think people think for themselves and ask what they can do about the screwed up political situation. I’m hoping there are residual actions after viewing the show.”
“We hold up a mirror and say ‘This is politics. What are we doing about it?’. That’s what the show is doing.”
Traditional political shenanigans rely on politicians saying one thing to win the vote and doing another after being elected to office, behind closed doors. “The notion of closed doors disappeared with the Trump Presidency. He contradicts himself in the same tweet.”
Altering The DNA Of VEEP
British TV writer Armando Ianucci created the show and David Mandel assumed the reins at season 5. Coming in as a fan, meant that Mandel could further explore characters and relationships. “I felt there was an opportunity to dig a little deeper into who some of these people were, especially since it was season 5 rather than season 1,” said the TV writer. “I wanted to explore their home life to see what makes them tick.” This is especially true with Selina Myer, the ruthless VEEP who’ll stop at nothing to become President.
“Certain characters tickle your fancy, so you naturally lean in toward them. You can see a real evolution in Richard Splett’s character (Sam Richardson) over the seasons as he becomes a more important presidential advisor. As the show evolved, I didn’t so much want more “Sam” but rather extend the characters we had out further.”
David Mandel graduated from the prestigious Larry David school of sitcom writing. VEEP is not written by committee in the traditional sense.
“Unlike many traditional sitcoms where there is a lot of group writing, where storylines were generated in the main room and then writers broke off to write their assigned episodes, I give writers personal responsibility for their episodes. This doesn’t mean that story issues aren’t discussed in the main TV writers’ room. It means that I’m not constantly on top of them.”
“I don’t mind punching up jokes, but the idea of a committee writing each sentence generates garbage.
The idea of composing a script as a group is insane.”
Each season would begin with big discussions about the show. “Some TV writers would offer their ideas. We’d invite specialists from real political campaigns to create authentic storylines. At some point, we’d lay out the season on a board and assign very rough concepts to individual TV writers who will develop the outline. I’d work with them on the outline and then give them the responsibility to write the draft. They carry their responsibility through to production and into the editing room.”
VEEP typically has a writing team of 10 – 12 staff writers.
It’s difficult to state how long an individual episode of VEEP takes to write. “We’d spend the first month or two of the season by mapping out the entire season with discussion and deep thinking. As the season gets mapped out, each individual episode gets various elements thrown into the episode pile. The writer would then transform this pile into an outline. This could be a solid three-week process.”‘
Peppered within the satire, there are some razor-sharp gags such as the “three-state solution to solve the Middle East crisis” or “collapsing from both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes,” which bring laugh-out-loud moments to VEEP. Mandel describes these gags as “machine gun jokes.” He enjoys the speed of the jokes in the chaotic political background.
“We don’t pander to the audience. They’ll figure it out. Sometimes they won’t get the joke until the second or third time. The audience will make it work because they’re smart enough to figure it out.”
Planning seven seasons of a successful TV series is no easy task. Every showrunner faces the inevitability of a show ending, whether by cancellation or a natural death. Mandel was asked about tracking Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) ascent (or not) to the Presidency in the final episode. “I had originally leaned toward the notion that Selina would lose the Presidency again and possibly end up as Vice President Richard. The rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe started to change my mind.” Unlikely candidates are suddenly rising to power without any diplomatic skills.
The Final Episode
There were certain storylines that reached their natural conclusions, so they weren’t included. Story ideas for the final episode were discussed throughout the course of the previous six seasons. “We had this idea of a funeral which we thought about for three plus years,” recalled Mandel.
The real way to evaluate a Presidency is through history. “She [Selina Myer] ends up being a historical footnote in some ways.”
Selina Myer is an “oddly charismatic character thank to Julia [Louis-Dreyfus]. She is a scorpion in how she grabbed power. That’s her nature that will carry through to the show’s conclusion.”
Selina Myer has many political instincts. “She’s a real street fighter. Something we’ve honed over the years.” Over the course of the final three years, we could explore her relationships between her cold mother and philandering father to garner more audience empathy and understanding. “We get a sense of why she was the way she was. This allowed Selina to figure out a few things along the way even though she surrendered them to her political ambitions. This is part of her tragedy as an anti-hero.”
Through wanting a surrogate father figure on a subconscious level, Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn), Selina acts very differently in his absence. Her embracing of Richard also made her more likable and allowed the audience to travel with her over seven seasons.
“There is always a danger in making Selina Meyer a character rather than a caricature and a show funny rather than jokey,” warned Mandel. He offset these potential problems by grounding the show in heavy political research. “We’re talking about real facts like a highway bill which made Selina a real person in a real world.”
VEEP is both a timeless TV show and a show of its time. David Mandel is cognizant of how the show will be remembered in years to come if the jokes are relevant in the current news cycle.
“In the big picture, VEEP is really a show about power. Who has it? Who wants it? What are you gonna do to get it? These aspects are timeless,” declared the showrunner.
“Originally it was cased in the idea of the Vice Presidency memorial of powerlessness. Power is close, yet so far. People can relate to this whether in politics or in their own lives.”
David Mandel was asked how emerging TV writers can improve their chances of getting noticed.
“Authenticity and specificity. Everything in VEEP came down to research down the colors in the White House halls. Even if they were specifically boring, they were memorable for their boringness. We would never talk about any bill, We would talk about a specific bill.”
“Keep remembering you’re writing comedy. Write the jokes you want to tell. Don’t be afraid to be funny.”
We finally asked the showrunner why the final episode of VEEP was given the title of the TV series. Because it captured the soul of the show.
“It was connected to Selina’s experience as VEEP and feelings of insignificance. ‘I’m gonna get this no matter what.’ The haunting of the VEEP stays her life. So much of what happened in the final episode could have been solved if she had only given Kenny the VEEP position. In the grand scheme of her life, the office of VP loomed large over her past and actions at the convention.“
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