David Mandel on making 'Veep' in the Trump era -- and the 'golden shower' joke he had to cut (Guest column)
Long before Donald Trump's stunning election victory, David Mandel had a meeting with Julia Louis-Dreyfus about taking over as showrunner on Veep. The fourth season was ending on an election tie, and the star of the HBO comedy, who plays the first female veep and president, Selina Meyer, wanted to know what direction Mandel would take the show if he were to take the reins from departing creator Armando Iannucci. Mandel's answer was to have Selina lose the election and exit the White House, a defeat that came to fruition on the fifth season finale. Now, looking back as the sixth season is set to premiere on Sunday, Mandel explains why that was the best decision he could have ever unknowingly made for his political satire.
On election night, we were shooting the third episode of the upcoming sixth season, which will see Selina supervising an election in the Republic of Georgia. We were in a room with voting booths and people ostensibly celebrating democracy — while Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina, of course, was delivering lines about how horrible she finds democracy. It was hilarious — except not that hilarious, because Donald Trump was winning in the polls. We were sitting by the monitor, watching these results come in, and poor Julia, Tony Hale and Matt Walsh had to go out there and be "funny." It was surreal. I've never heard the Veep set so quiet.
The next day, I didn't rush back to the office at 9 a.m. I slept in, digested things and slowly made my way back. There was a 24-hour period when I thought, "Do people want to laugh at this stuff anymore? Is politics funny?" It was a baby freak-out, and some of it was just depression. It was less about how we were going to do it and more, "Will anyone care? Will people want to laugh?"
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Everyone was depressed. We were alternating between watching all news and turning off all news, not wanting to hear anything more. But at some point, the next script was due. So we started to think about the season that we'd put together: We had written a season that wasn't about Trump, and it still wasn't about Trump. We didn't look at the episodes and go, "We need to throw them all in the garbage." But Selina not being in the White House gave us a tremendous amount of wiggle room. I don't know what I would have done if we were doing a regular season of Veep where Selina was still president. Luckily, we took this strange left turn into "former president," instead of having to do a paler version of the Trump experience.
We're not doing scenes on a daily basis where you would say, "Trump did it funnier last night." If we're doing Mike McLintock [Matt Walsh] press conferences, and Sean Spicer is doing his, what are we really bringing to the table? In some ways, they're funnier; in some ways, they're stupider. So much of Veep is often just sitting around thinking: "What's the dumbest thing that could happen?" They're doing stuff that we couldn't invent if we tried. The only thing we did have to change — it sounds like a bad joke, but it's true — was a "golden shower" joke in one of the episodes where someone is yelling at Jonah [Timothy Simons] about a golden shower. We hadn't filmed it yet, and we realized, "Oh, we need to change that" [because of the Trump-Russia dossier]. Who knew we would literally have to change a Veep golden showers joke because of the real president of the United States of America? It doesn't get any weirder than that.
Ninety-seven percent of the season actually had been figured out the previous June, during my first meetings with Julia when she was recruiting me to work on the show. Trump was beginning to lock up the nomination, but it still seemed crazy that he might get it, and everyone still assumed Hillary [Clinton] was going to win. I know it's hard for people to digest this, but Selina losing and then doing a season about her being an ex-president has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It never did and it never will. Obviously, we'll take advantage of it. But none of these things were put in place because of that.
We'd talked a bit about Jonah being the Trump-like character last year; Jonah was only running for Congress, but there was the hair-trigger temper, a certain incompetence, an anger at the world and yet a cockiness. But as I've thought so much more about Trump in the last year, there's nobody more Trumpy than Selina. In some ways, she has been Trumpy for six seasons. So much of the show is her barging into things headfirst, saying the wrong thing, screwing up, getting caught, lying about it. If that's not Trump, I don't know what is. Everyone keeps asking, "Well, how has Trump changed things?" Trump, in a weird way, is sort of doing us. We're not doing him.
The sixth season of Veep premieres Sunday, April 16, at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.