SXSW 2017: How ‘Veep’ Is Keeping Pace with Trump’s America

On their similarities to the Trump staff, creative vulgarity, "policing the regular fucks," and what to expect in season six.

AUSTIN, TX: The sixth-season trailer for Veep, unveiled at yesterday’s SXSW panel discussion with the show’s cast and showrunner, opens with a strikingly prescient image: a losing female presidential candidate putting on her best face, admitting that “The loss hurt,” but insisting, through gritted teeth, that “This year has been fun. Really fun!.” For the HBO political satire, which has pointedly not trafficked in explicit reference to contemporary events or even party lines, it seems more than a little analogous, but showrunner David Mandel insists it’s just coincidence.

“All of the season was basically written and put together last June – way before he won and Hillary lost,” Mandel told moderator Chuck Todd. “Had it gone the other way, this is basically what we were going to do. There is the occasional joke, but we’re not Saturday Night Live. And if we try to make a joke about what Trump did yesterday on Veep, by the time it aired in May, it would seem like the oldest, stalest joke in the world. So for us, tragedy – Trump – plus time equals comedy.”

But the similarities between the hilariously incompetent Meyer support staff and the, um, slightly less hilarious Trump people are sort of remarkable. Chief among them is fumble-fuck press secretary Matt McLintock, played by Matt Walsh. “Matt,” Todd noted, “a lotta people are gonna look at you now and think Spicer.”

“I’ve gotten that,” Walsh replied. “From day one, my Twitter feed was filled with, Oh my God, this guy’s worse than McLintock. It has not stopped.”

But this is nothing new for the show, which has long been a favorite of politicos (at least those with a sense of humor) for its spot-on portraiture of the pettiness and buck-passing of Washington. “I think it was season four, we all went as a group to the Correspondents Dinner,” co-star Gary Cole recalled. “And so we were always coming face-to-face with versions of all of the characters. And they were quick to tell us who they were, on the show. Most of the time we didn’t agree with their choices.”

That kind of recognition gets them access to politicians and staff with real stories to tell – things they insist are hilarious and they should totally use. “Usually when a real politician is telling us something, when they tell you the thing that would really be funny, it’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard,” Mandel said. “But, while they’re telling it to you, they either use a phrase or tell you some other story as the lead-in to what they think is funny, that’s actually hilarious and we write it down and use it.”

Mandel didn’t get into specific plot lines in the forthcoming sixth season (though he teased some of the evergreen, unsexy topics they’d dip into: “Daylight Saving and the privatization of prison – See you there!”). But star Julia Louis-Dreyfus said she likes how the new episodes fall into the season-to-season patterns of the series. “In the grand tradition of this show from one season to the next, we have found a way to blow up the premise, yet again. We did it after season three when Selina became president, we did it when she lost, and then we’ve sort of done it again — which has been an incredibly exciting opportunity creatively.”

“And we still call it Veep!” Mandel added triumphantly.

Tony Hale, who plays Selina’s boundary-free body man Gary, did have one tidbit: “One exciting plot point for Gary for season six is since she’s not President anymore, I get her a lot more to myself,” which prompted an immediate “Bleh!” from Louis-Dreyfus.

Over the course of its run, Veep has become the standout among HBO’s very strong comedy slate. Todd wondered, could it be funny on a broadcast network? “No,” Louis-Dreyfus replied, immediately. “No. No.”

“This is not just sucking up to HBO?” Todd asked.

“No, this is definitely sucking up to HBO,” she replied with a grin.

There’s one big reason: because no comedy, not even Girls, takes better advantage of pay cable’s lack of content restrictions. “I always imagine the writers’ room to be a kind of clever vulgarity contest, to see who can outmatch the other,” Cole said. “So just the language alone is really key to who the people are. You wouldn’t be able to touch on it.”

But it’s not just a matter of throwing in copious four-letter words. “Julia’s actually really good at this, about policing the ‘regular fucks.’” Mandel explained. “Meaning, in a given scene, it’s very easy – because it’s HBO – to say that fucking guy or this fucking this or that fucking that. And it’s like, let’s take those out, because we don’t need them, because we have a truly exquisite profanity later.”

Not that their salty scripts don’t cost them. As co-star Tim Simons (Jonah) noted, “I remember Dave saying this last year, I think he wanted to win an Emmy for writing, and it didn’t happen because the episode name was ‘Cuntgate’? And they would’ve had to read that at the Emmys.”

But aside from all those concerns, Louis-Dreyfus said, “I think this show is very specific to HBO. It was nurtured by HBO to begin with and really allowed to thrive, and we are sort of left alone creatively. That never would have happened on a network.”

Simons agreed. “I think also if it were in the broadcast world, there would be an attempt, at some point, to redeem these people – to try and play the soft music and talk about their history and how hard it was, and be like, Oh wow I really like this person, and they just called them a goatfucker. But they are beyond redemption and I think it’s better that way.”

So how long can this thing go? “Oh, easily another 15, 20 years,” Louis-Dreyfus deadpanned. (“I just have a lotta gambling debt,” Simons piped in. “I’ll take anything.”)

“All we want it to be is great,” Mandel explained. “If we could, if HBO would let us, we’d shoot one scene a day. We’d shoot it for 15 hours, and just do a million takes of it, just to try and get every ounce we could out of it. That’s, I think, what drives us. And if we don’t like something, we will tear it apart. And if we like something, we’ll add more to it. And then we’ll get to the edit room and take a 50-minute show and take every moment and breath out of it to get it down to 28 and half without losing any of what we loved about it, so that it is just non-stop concentrated greatness. That’s all we want, and when the show isn’t that, I hope we have the sense to end it. But as long as it is that, and at least for the moment I feel like it is that, I mean, this is just about the greatest thing you could do in the world.”

“Veep” returns to HBO on April 16. Photos credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire