The Carsey-Wolf Center’s Script to Screen series brought an unearthly amount of amount of laughter to the Pollock Theater last Saturday afternoon as the comedy legends of the hit HBO show “VEEP” came to share their incredible and contagious comedic energy.
Among the panel were Emmy-award-winning actress/producer Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Seinfeld”), Emmy-award-winning actor Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”) and Emmy-award-winning executive producer, writer, director and showrunner David Mandel, whose work includes everything from “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” to Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It goes without saying that the sheer magnitude of talent onstage was overwhelming.
“VEEP” star Louis-Dreyfus took notice of the audience’s excitement and laughter, remarking that the “VEEP” crew doesn’t always “have the delicious opportunity to get response from an audience,” which is something she and her cast “crave.”
A screening of two episodes from season five of the show was followed by a Q&A session that had each of the three talented guests sharing insight into the inner workings of the masterfully crafted and politically charged award-winning show. Their chemistry dominated the theater, proving true the afternoon’s main ringing theme: collaboration crafts the best comedy.
Louis-Dreyfus took the audience back to her being sold on the idea alone before there was even a script.
“What appealed to me was the actual, very seemingly simple concept, which was a female vice president who’s profoundly unhappy.” She had done plenty of network television before and was ready to “shake it up” with a move to cable, and HBO provided a more than welcoming home. At HBO, “VEEP” is able to have freedom in the creative process that other networks would restrict.
“With Dave at the helm, scripts are very well formed by the time we come to set,” said Louis-Dreyfus, beginning to describe the hectic creative process of “VEEP.” But once the scripts arrive, the scenes and dialogue often change and evolve on the day of shooting. The crew constantly works to, as Mandel puts it, “thicken the broth,” working through the scenes to find the right dialogue, delivery and pace to ultimately arrive at a polished scene and rhythm. This on-the-go molding applies to the general feel of the show as well.
“Messiness is our bread and butter,” explained Mandel, describing the way in which the show strives for a grounding in reality. Nothing is perfectly enunciated or said, and every movement is far from perfectly performed. It’s what Louis-Dreyfus refers to as “jujjing” (the spelling of which I could never figure out), which is the practice of making a scene feel more real by appearing more messy.
For Mandel, when “you have the outline right, the jokes can change,” but the overall story stays intact. While the specifics and details are often improvised and fleshed out in the moment, the production remains united in crafting these scenes from the writing to the acting all the way down to the editing, which Louis-Dreyfus and Mandel often work on themselves.
Just like with the unity of the production crew, the producers are equally adamant about keeping their audience together, being careful not to alienate any demographic based on political opinion. When confronted about the show’s role in addressing the overwhelmingly controversial presidency, Louis-Dreyfus stepped in to clarify the show’s authorial intent on such a divided political environment.
“Our show is not, in fact, a parody; our show is a comedy about political culture,” stated Louis-Dreyfus.
She pointed out that the show has never actually referenced a real political candidate since Ronald Reagan.
“In our universe, the “VEEP” universe, the world shifted after Reagan,” and ever since then fictional candidates have stood in for real-life political parties Louis-Dreyfus continued. While she went on to note that parody shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” do “fabulous jobs” of parody, she reiterated that their objective at “VEEP” has never been to explicitly parody a real-life politician. The show is also careful to avoid identifying the political party of any character, and as a result, both Republicans and Democrats seem to “dig” the show. In fact, Louis-Dreyfus claimed to have met both conservative Republicans who believed “VEEP” was making fun of the Democrats and, inversely, liberal Democrats who believed “VEEP” was mocking conservative Republicans.
So while the show is based in politics, it isn’t a clear political advocate for any particular viewpoint. Mandel further clarified that “VEEP” is ultimately a show about “wanting power” instead of some bold political analysis. However, Mandel still had a few quips to rattle off about the current political landscape, expressing his sympathy with the Trump Administration.
When thinking through the stupidest thing a president could do for his own fictional Selina Meyer, or when brainstorming what the worst press conference should look like on his show, Mandel has to concede: He simply cannot compete with the Trump Administration. And while he has a “hard enough time doing 10 episodes,” he can’t even begin to imagine how hard the real-life White House must work to get through 100 real-world episodes of their own political nightmare.
Overall, while those at “VEEP” may work to keep their real-world critiques absent from the show, in order to maintain an undivided audience, the real world political landscape is almost inevitably blending together with the best in comedy.
“Script to Screen: VEEP” ended with an uproarious applause as the theater said goodbye to what may be the most impressive trio of comedians to have graced Pollock thus far. We can only hope that if they return, President Meyer will by then have done far worse than our own commander in chief.