'Veep's Armando Iannucci: Hail to the Chief

The man behind HBO's hit comedy waxes on the joys of working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and how to craft an insult

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Armando Ianucci veep
Lacey Terrell/HBO
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Armando Ianucci on the set of 'Veep.'
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"Someone just told me that the show seems to be getting exponentially better, which is scary," admits Veep's showrunner Armando Iannucci. Wait…why, exactly, would a high compliment like that be considered frightening? "Because by Season 10, it'd be terminally unwatchable! Viewers would see 30 seconds of an episode and then they'd expire en masse, in a state of ecstatic bliss."

To be fair, there have been moments in the first two seasons of this HBO comedy about the Beltway backstabbers, boobs and buffoons that circle the President's second-in-command (played to perfection by Rolling Stone's current half-naked cover star Julia Louis-Dreyfus) when you worried that you might die laughing. You can credit the show's cast of comedy commandos, ranging from Dreyfus and Arrested Development's Tony Hale to Office Space's mug-toting boss Gary Cole, for the unusually high hilarity rate. But a large part of the show's success can be attributed to the voice that Iannucci and his writing team have given this exploration on how our nation's capital puts the D.C. in dysfunctional: sharp, screwball-paced, hyperintelligent and mind-bogglingly profane.

Watch the 25 Best 'Veep' Insults

The half-Scottish, half-Italian writer-director has been cutting polticos down to size for a while on the other side of the pond, starting with his dig at mid-90s media hounds The Day Today and, later, crafting the political-satire-on-steroids masterpiece The Thick of It in 2005. A movie based loosely on the latter TV show, In the Loop (2009), initally bridged the gap between the Britain and the Beltway, and now that Veep has just entered its third season with all comic pistons firing — having announced her candidacy for the Oval Office, Vice-President Selina Meyer will spend the current round of episodes hitting the campaign trail — Iannucci and co. show no sign of slowing their attack on America's center of power. When Rolling Stone got him on the phone in his office in L.A., he was ready to crack wise about what was in store for the Veep crew and the moment he knew Louis-Dreyfus would make this show work.

You had Selina announce that she'd be running for the presidency at the end of Season Two. When you went back to start writing this next season, you had already set a huge hurdle to jump over.
Yes, at the end of Season Two, we had decided to paint ourselves into a corner just for the hell of it. [Laughs] The entire writing staff woke up the next morning going "What the hell did we get ourselves into?!?!" I think it's actually good to do those kinds of things, however, because it forces a show out of its comfort zone. I basically told the writers, "Let's push these characters into places that will make them uncomfortable: What would happen if a doctor told Gary he couldn't carry the big bag? What would happen to Jonah if he was kicked out of the West Wing?" Or, on the other hand, we've made Mike's life a living hell with his money problems for two seasons…so what if we married him off in the beginning of the new season and allowed him to be happy?

When you've been doing this for two seasons already, you really need to switch things up a bit; you don't want to think "Well, let's just write some more episodes that are continuations of what we've done already." It mirrors what's happening in D.C., really: The first 100 days of a presidency is different than the first two years, which is different than a second term. Same people, usually, but the transformations they go through during that time in office is astounding.

Was that part of thinking behind the campaign-trail scenario? Let's get them out of the office and on the road?
The thinking was, we've done two seasons inside Washington…so let's get her out of Washington and see what happens. She's going to Silicon Valley in a few episodes; we've got her traveling to London and Detroit soon, as well as a visit to a gun show. The first of the debates will find Selina in New Hampshire…there's lots of beyond-the-Beltway stuff coming up. This can't be a D.C. insider show anymore; she's got to meet her constituency and find out how to operate outside of the bubble. There's so much you can mine from that.

It's somewhat similar to what you and Steve Coogan did with the popular Alan Partridge character on British TV…he goes from being a celebrity with a talk show to a guy living out of hotel room with nothing, and suddenly you have a whole new comic vein to tap.
Right! That was the mindset: Partridge was a TV broadcaster, but what happens when you take that away from him? I think it help that we have a cast that know their characters inside and out by this point. When we're on set, the writers and I are constantly asking the cast, "How would your character react if we out them here, or threw this obstacle at them?" Those conversations will then fuel our writing and where we take things. 

We also decided to break the team up a bit this season…in the series premiere, we separated Selina from everybody altogether: She's on a book tour and the rest of the office is at a wedding. That's going to happen a lot this season.  The idea is always: Don't play it safe. It doesn't have to be four people in an office swearing at each other. Let them scream obscenities at other people throughout this fine nation. [Laughs

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Takes Charge on 'Veep'

Was there a point early on when you saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus play Selina and thought, "This will work. We have something here."
I can tell you the exact moment when I knew this was going to work. It was a scene we shot in the pilot where Selina has to give this speech where…I believe the technical term is "pencil-fucked." Basically, her speech is gutted of anything of substance. So we gave Julia a lot of mean-nothing phrases and said, go ahead, play around with these as much as you like. In the final cut of the episode, I think it only takes up a minute or so of screen time, but we had endless material we could have used. Julia just went with it for a long while, and then in the end, she hit upon this sort of noise that was like a long time-killing "uhhhhhh…" [Laughs] I was just doubled up with laughter watching her do it. I'm laughing just telling you about it now!

You've described the show as being "95% written, 5% improvisation." Do most of these improvisations happen during the rehearsal period?
Yeah, there's a rehearsal period where we worshop four to five episodes at a time, and we let the cast add to whatever scenarios are in the script, just to see if there's anything to be built on or enhanced. The writers are all there while we're doing this, however, so if something great gets said or done, it then gets written into the final script. There's a running joke in an upcoming episode about how to pronounce the name of a character called Craig…it becomes this sort of elongated "Craiiig." That's a great example of something that was discovered during rehearsals, and we immediately added it in.

What's the secret to crafting a really good insult?
They have to feel of the moment; you can tell when they have been written down long in advance and someone just slots one right on. You don't want a canned insult. [Pause] Lots of obscentities help as well.

Do you have a personal favorite insult from the show?
Everyone mentions "Jolly Green Jizzface" as their favorite, and it's a good one. But my favorite is probably one that Mike's wife uses to describe Jonah in the new season's first episode: "the seven-foot mouth." That just cracks me up every time I hear it. 

Tony Hale mentioned he was partial to a line in the new season where Jonah gets called "human scaffolding."
[Laughs] There's another moment when Selina describes him as a "bag of bones." You can't go wrong with a Jonah insult. All credit goes to Timothy Simons, who plays the character so well. You just relish coming up with ways to insult his character.

Does it surprise you that so many people in Washington D.C. have embraced this show? Being a "Jonah" or a "Dan" has now entered the D.C. lexicon.
It's both gratifying and frightening at the same time, because…when you have people in D.C. coming up and saying "I'm totally a Dan" or "I'm like the Mike of my office," there's a part of me that thinks: No! You shouldn't be identifying with these people. They're so broken, these characters. Don't align yourself with them.

'Veep's Tony Hale Lives to Serve

Is it harder now to satirize politics than it was, say, five or ten years ago?
It's not so much harder or easier as…things are constantly changing in politics, so the target keeps shifting. I mean, yes, you could argue that the same mistakes keep being made and the same personality types keep popping up in Washington, and only the faces change. But things transform so rapidly now…I mean, everyone has a camera on their phone now. Everyone has a blog. Everyone is now, potentially, an amateur journalist. It used to be that politicians had to be wary of two or three reporters at a major newspaper and the three main networks; now that they have to watch out for the hundred million potential muckrakers out there. It takes one Twitter post or one Tumblr post to suddenly become a story that needs shutting down. 

The signal-to-noise ratio has been upped substantially, but in the wrong direction.
Yeah! And yet, what's funny is that politicians seem to be so preoccupied with Buzzfeed said this or Politico said that that they're ignoring what is a very angry, very vengeful public who doesn't feel they're being listened to. People who actually go out and vote don't feel 

Do you feel the show taps into a sense of frustration that most people have with modern politics?
Absolutely. I mean, really, why can't we all come to some sort of civil agreement and get things done? Why can't we work together to fix social problems? Politics have become more partisan than ever, and most people think that the type of politics going on in Washington bears little to no resemblance to the politics that go in people's daily lives. I think the in-fighting on our show probably represents a lot of frustration we all feel about how politics work, or don't work.

A cast member had said that they felt the show actually humanized politicans instead of glorifying them…
I think that's right, yeah.

But one could argue that it shows the really horrible aspects of human nature that politicians exhibit, from pettiness to blind ambition and narcissism, and then plays all those things out on a grand scale. It really confirms your worst fears that at best, the country may be run by frystrated bureaucrats…and at worst, by egotistical, incompetent idiots.
Well, for that, I should apologize. I'll be tendering my resignation now. [Laughs]

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