"‘Veep’ Creator Armando Iannucci On Dick Cheney, Being In Your Twenties In DC, And HBO Sitcoms"
In the second season of Veep, Armando Iannucci’s caustic comedy about the woman who occupies the second-highest office in the land (though if you ask Kent, the President’s chief of staff, that should make her half as tall as the president), something happened. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) got good at her job, or at least as good as a secretive President, a depressed staff, a daughter in college, and a sexually magnetic weasel of an ex-husband would let her be. And in tandem, Veep got wiser about the awkwardnesses of foreign travel, what it’s like to be climbing the Washington career ladder in your twenties, and how hard it is for people in public life to date.
I sat down with Iannucci to talk about why Selina did a Leslie Knope in her second season, what made Dick Cheney the most powerful vice president, and what makes HBO sitcoms different from their network counterparts. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to start out by asking something that had been sort of noticeable to me in the second season, which is that all of the characters seem somewhat more competent and I was wondering if you talk a little bit about that evolution of that decision.
I think there’s two things, one is, you know, we’re getting to know them and therefore, it’s all about them, doing more with them. So I think any politician, when they go into a high office, there’s a period of adjustment. All the huge mistakes that presidents make usually are within the first six months, all the embarrassing stories, and they didn’t quite get this right, and why didn’t they do that, you know, that sort of goes on. But also I felt the first season was about coming to terms with the limitations of her job and also her staff. The second season would be more about what happens when you have power and influence, what does that do to you? Because that’s what you got into politics for. Okay what happens when you get what you’ve been asking for?
It also seems like Selina’s been out on the road more. We’re going to get to see her do what she’s good at which seems to be sort of being with people even though a lot of people she seems to interact with are often awfully awkward themselves.
Well, people generally are uncomfortable with politicians but I think there’s also that sense of, you know, the frustration doesn’t go away if you think you’ve been given power. That doesn’t necessarily mean, to say, you’re going to be able to exercise it for any limits. And what she’s finding in season two is that actually the things that she does do can come back and affect her personally. Or she can put a lot of hard work into something and then find out she’s been entirely undercut by what the President wants to do, which is probably more frustrating. I was thinking of the time that, I mean, Joe Biden, a year or so ago, headed up a committee into the debt ceiling and the talks, and for six months was doing lots doing of to-ing and fro-ing, backwards and forwards and trying to hammer out a deal and then it was all resolved with just a bout of picking the phone up, ringing the Speaker and going, “Oh, why don’t we do this?”, you know? And I just felt really sorry. I just wondered what he must’ve thought about all that effort he put into those long, tedious discussions.
Well, and there was also that moment when sort of Biden came out in support of marriage equality and President Obama came out behind him. And I imagine for Selina, especially, considering how the President’s this invisible figure, how frustrating it must be to be constrained.
Yes, yes! And you know Biden has had to, you know, he opposed Obama on a surge of troops in Afghanistan but he had to go out there on the Sunday talk shows and say he supports the President. And that’s a fascinating position to be in, you know, he’s had a lot of authority and experience and won lots of elections to be put into that role…To go from that position where you can click your fingers and someone will do something to the click my fingers and someone says, “Have you cleared that with the president?” must be really frustrating.
I wonder if you feel like it’s both a demotion but it’s also sort of pure public service in that it’s this miserable self-abnegating role.
I spoke to a chief of staff of a former president and he said the thing is is that, you know, America’s very much about winning and coming first but you’re fundamentally running around with a big lapel button saying “Number Two” all the time and yet you know you could be number one. I mean Biden is thinking of running. I don’t know how seriously but you know at his age, he’s thinking of running. Oh yes, someone else told me there’s always this dynamic in the room, especially if you’ve been two candidates who have, in the primaries, were against each other. Which means that each one is thinking, “I know you think you can do this job better than me,” but it’s never said, you know? No matter how close they are, or how well they get on.
Well in a way I’ve always wondered if Dick Cheney was more powerful because he appeared to have no desire to run for futher office; that, you know, he was unconcerned about his reputation.
Exactly. He had no one to pander to, so, and he had a president who was happy to accept all his, well in the first term anyway, all of his advice. I was told that when Obama moved in they discovered that Cheney had set up an operation in the White House. They had a whole team of staff monitoring emails, anyone within the administration who emailed someone else within the administration, a copy was automatically sent to Cheney’s team so he could oversee everything. That’s an extraordinary, I mean , he was probably the most powerful vice president in recent times.
I also thought it was interesting, obviously, the president puts Selina in a lot of miserable situations but she’s also in a tough spot a lot of the time because of her family. And I thought that was a very interesting dynamic, you have her ex-husband who is sort of malevolent and then her daughter who is just her daughter.
I feel very sorry for Catherine. I suspect her daughter is going to end up more conventional than she is. You know because if you’re brought up in that house there, it must start to kind of affect you.
But I thought it was an interesting commentary on sort of what it’s like to be a working woman, certainly. Because Selina has this staff who can manage her job but only she can manage her family, only she can sit down with Andrew, only she can really deal with Catherine.
Well, yeah, it goes back to what I was saying, it’s like the closer you get to power, the more your acts of power affect you, so what I wanted to do was get closer into the West Wing, see the president, the chief of staff, get closer to the heart of power, but at the same time with each of the characters, see a little bit more inside them and what it’s doing to them, but always as how it’s connected to the story, the political story…But, but how you know relationship with family, with friends, with partners, with offspring, how that is affected by what you’re doing? You know, you realize that the political [level], especially at that level it’s all consuming.
You talked about Catherine sort of turning out more conventional than her mother, I thought of that moment in the interview when she sort of dumps him on air.
Cause she knows that’s got to happen, otherwise it’ll just be awful.
I mean do you think she’s incapable of really rebelling?
I think she thinks she’s rebelling but, in fact, I think she, in the end, if you actually chart anything that she’s done over the last two seasons, she’s always in the end worked out some deal with her mum over her kind of private life.
Do you think that Selina’s political career is important to Catherine? Do you think she’s irritated by it?
Both. I think she loathes it and rather kind of likes it as well. I think she complains about having security outside her bedroom but I think she gets a kick out of it as well.
One thing I was curious about this season, you know, I think we’re at a point where we’re comfortable with the idea of women and people of color in the White House, but the fact that Selina’s single actually seems to be the biggest risk factor. Is that sort of the biggest taboo in American politics, do you think, someone being unattached? Cause we’ve had divorced people but we haven’t had—
Divorced but then happily married. No, that’s true, I do think that’s an area that hasn’t been explored in political life. You know, there’s lots of politicians, if they’re thinking ahead, do actually plan a marriage prior to the time in office that they see themselves having. The other taboo is to say that you’re not religious, so every politician has to display some kind of religious observance. And I don’t think, I mean we’ve never really explored it so far, but I doubt that Selina would have anything that illuminating to say on spiritual life, but you know I may be wrong. So that’s interesting, yeah. And yes, I do think that would be an interesting area because that position hasn’t happened before, which doesn’t mean to say if it did happen it would be fine, it might be fine. It’s just that no one’s quite explored it before.
And the show seems to conclude that there are real practical difficulties to being unattached while in that position. I mean, again, for some reason if you got pregnant outside of a settled relationship, you know, the idea that she’s sort of sexually available becomes this problem.
Does she date? Does she date? How can she date? It’s very difficult, everything is so public. And also on the international stage, you very often at banquets and events and so on, you’ll see the prime minister or president and their wife or husband and it’s suddenly, you suddenly start looking single at these events. Yeah, something has to be thought up.
Do you think looking single is a matter of power? I mean do you think that the ability to get and keep a spouse is a you know a sort of political asset?
No, I just think she’s so politically obsessed that she hasn’t really sorted out her private life. You know she’s always demoted that as something to deal with when she has a bit of free time but she doesn’t have any free time.
And Amy is sort of the same way.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Poor Amy. She thinks she’s, she thinks she’s got a more domestic heart but I think fundamentally there’s more drive there.
Do you think that there’s a gender difference there? Or, because I think men are allowed to be political animals, you can be James Carville and be obsessed and crunch numbers all the time.
But then look who he married, you know?
Yeah, but it’s also sort of a rare marriage.
But also it’s not so much, it’s more like, I think that I found out an awful lot, which is when you go into politics in DC in your sort of early 20s there’s no money. It’s hard work, but it’s great fun and it’s great for the resumes and all that. There comes a point when you hit 29 or 30 when you have to decide: Do I wanna do this forever or do I get out now and go and make some money? That’s really what we’re looking at with Amy and people of her generation. She’s reached that point thinking, “Okay, I’ve seen what this has done to me, privately, for the past 5 or 6 years. Do I want to carry on or do I actually say no I’m stopping now and I’m gonna do, you know, get a nice job a great job or whatever,” but actually do something different. That’s the kind of point she’s reached in her life.
But Dan kind of seems to be there, too, but for somewhat different reasons. It’s not so much that he feels the pressure to be domestic but his feelings have been hurt, frankly.
But I think he’s waking up to that notion that he’s much more vulnerable than he likes to tell himself that he is. And also he’s not quite achieving in his gameplan that he wrote on the back of an envelope five years ago or something at college; he’s not quite getting to where he thought he would be and where other people thought or told him he would be.
I thought that was an astute thing to notice about DC, as a journalist one of the things that’s very interesting is that everyone seems to have gotten a job at a sort of big legacy publication, written a book and gotten married by the time they’re 30, and that’s insane.
Yeah, yeah yeah yeah.
But that sort of looking around and seeing where everyone else is and where you’re hitting the milestones, I think is very true for both men and women.
Yeah, yes, and in some respects it is a bit like having a career in Hollywood or something in that everyone’s thinking, ‘Who’s the hot one? Who’s gonna be in two years time? Who’s gonna be the front cover of this and on?’ And wondering whether your last project was actually helped your career or brought it down a bit, you know, the idea of a value being attached, a numerical value being attached to your kind of status at any particular moment in time is is that level of paranoia that I think is both in L.A. and in DC.
I think that’s true.
Status anxiety, it’s called, isn’t it?
Yes, yes exactly. Well it was very interesting, I mean Dan sort of had a bad season. He — I mean watching Amy sort of take his phone away from him and just handle the press, watching Suzanne be more like Mike.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, which is the ultimate for Dan, the ultimate insult.
Yeah, and then because Dan’s sort of hard-charging, really sort of masculine energy was what made him attractive as a hire in the first season, and that seems to be working against him now.
Yes. It’s almost like he realized you’ve also got to be human at the same time. People only like aggressive calculating people for a short period of time but in the long term, you’ve got to get along with these people, so now he’s discovered that he’s gotta have a heart as well which is something he’s not really thought about. I imagine, you know, as a kid he had this game plan up on his wall and he keeps thinking about this game plan and is just not quite getting to where he wants it.
What I also really enjoyed about this season was just how many women there are in positions of power and sort of how the moment where Selina and Mary are at Catherine’s birthday party and they’re in the bathroom and these girls start having a hysterical blowout and Mary asks her, ‘Were you ever a teenage girl?’ ‘Never.’ ‘Me neither.’ I thought that it was an interesting look at how powerful women attract because Mary’s perfectly willing to manipulate or fake the allergy attack to blow up her daughter’s birthday party but there’s this sort of ‘game recognize game’ element in that moment.
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and also it’s just — I mean I love working with fantastic comic actresses. Sally Phillips, who’s a big comic actress in the U.K., played the Finnish prime minister in the Helsinki episode because I just thought, ‘I want to see these two together.’ So I don’t really see as a, as a gentler — I just like great comic actresses. I just think there’s a different approach to the jokes. We’re not looking for like gags, it’s more a behavioral thing. It’s a subtler — I just find it great to work with.
That’s really interesting. Is it that they tend to sort of come at things obliquely? I thought one of the things that was so funny about that gift exchange was the way she keeps sort of feigning offense or misunderstanding and sort of sticking Selina in the ribs.
That was all based on instances that I heard do go on on foreign trips when you’ve got the gift wrong, you’ve mistranslated something and it’s not quite appropriate and its just a political minefield you’re treading with a very simple thing
But I mean in terms of just sort of doing that sort of comedy, do you think that there’s kind of a slyness at work there? I’m just trying to get a little more of what you’re talking about.
Well it’s more a kind of, you can’t quite get a handle on what it is that they’re doing, do you know what I mean? Which is disconcerting. If somebody outwardly said, ‘I disagree with you’ and ‘How dare you?’ then at least you know where you stand, but it’s this slightly passive aggressive ‘Oh, its not a problem’ but other people seem to think it’s a problem so you’d probably better apologize. I just find that just funnier to watch than deal with that because its very unnerving.
Veep is a show that has a lot of issues floating around the margin but all decisions seem to be made based on polling or optics or sort of timing. Do you think that — does anyone have an ideology or anything they care about?
Oh, yeah. And the thing is, I think most politicians, when they go into politics, do have a set core system of beliefs and ideology and all that. But it’s really all about what happens to you, a) when you’re in that world for a long time, and b) when you do have to compromise? Which is why, bringing back to what we were talking about with the immigration debate, and do we go for the ultimate compromise so we can get as many votes as possible, or do we stick to our kind of core set and get fewer votes but get it through, or do we risk this? You know, the strategizing that goes on that affects legislation, I find that that’s really what I want to look at really. When you actually have to make decisions, what kind of compromises do you have to make with yourself and can you live with that later?
I actually thought the shutdown debate was sort of quick. Have you ever thought about sort of structuring a season around a longer legislative fight?
I don’t know. I mean we did a bit of that in season 1 with the clean jobs and so on. But I kind of feel, you know, each season — this is one of the things I learned from HBO, which is that because they don’t do 22 episodes or anything, where if you miss one it doesn’t matter because you can catch up. Here you have to have something that drives you to the next episode so there’s always a thing that goes on. And so for this season, I thought the having more security involvement and then the hostages and then that started to get bigger and bigger and bigger and higher up, would drive this along. You know it could well be in another season that we see the passage of one particular piece of legislation, or it could be something different. I mean, I think next season of actually going out of DC an awful lot. We’ve seen DC for two seasons. Okay, let’s meet the state systems, the governorships, the lobby groups, the southern oil, and Alaskan this and boston and the people in Iowa and New Hampshire who you’re always thinking about strategically years ahead and let’s see a bit of that. Let’s go to silicon valley and see because that’s a powerful — you know, Wall Street, getting Wall Street, that’s where I want to look at the next season, actually
I wanted to go back to something you said about HBO feeling like you need to sort of drive people to every episode, because I think that HBO — and cable in general — have this reputation for telling more sort of serialized stories that can be maybe a little bit more contemplative. Given what you said, do you actually think that the episodes have to be a little more plot driven? I’m curious about that perception.
Well I only mean that there should be a sense of something pushing you forward really. You know, the conventional sitcom where you do 22 weeks, you have five or six characters and no matter what happens to them in that episode, they have to end up back where they started from. So the board is reset for next week, and then something happens and then they’re back to where they started from. Whereas what I like with the HBO method and the short run is actually you don’t feel obliged to do it that way. You can actually have someone suddenly out of a job, so then what happens? You can have suddenly, someone has completely changed their mind on something so then what happens? Someone discovers they’re pregnant so then what happens? And that just gives you that, and I think it helps the comedy as well because, in the end, it’s all about the reality of it and how the job does affect on a day to day basis, so I want to see as the season progresses how it wears them down or how it strengthens them or whatever.
Well I imagine it changes the kind of comedy that you can do with the individual characters. You can go from Dan being the sort of master of the universe to looking sadly at the lobster.
Exactly. You know, you wouldn’t want him to do that schtick about being confident every week. I think it’s funnier and it gives Reid something to chew on as an actor, this sense of gradual realization that you might not be hating it as far as you thought you would.
So it seems like the characters can be a little bit more serialized, even if you feel like you have to almost be procedural in terms of there being something for the actors to do.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I think about my secret favorite character in the show, who is Sue, and I’m just wondering if you could talk about sort of designing her a little bit. She’s so much fun. She’s so mean but so competent.
But that’s based on — a lot of people told us the diary, the scheduler, is like — and we met a few of them and they are vicious because their job is to be the gatekeeper and protect their boss’ time because all sorts of people are — one of them was saying, ‘I know which members of his family he would like to speak to and which ones he doesn’t want to speak to’ and another one said, ‘He’s great. He doesn’t bear a grudge. I do.’ So you know if someone has kind of said something bad about him two years ago, there’s no way that guy’s getting a meeting. And I really liked it and Sufe actually met up with a few of the schedulers as well, so that she could just get that vibe and, yeah, it’s all about being very good at your job but there’s just a hard shell around you really…and I think Sue is the only one in the office who has a life outside politics. I think she sees her job very much as, ‘That’s what I do. It is Selina Meyer. It could be the head of Google or it could be. I can move on to whoever.’