HBO is flat out crushing the comedy game right now and hit series Veep, currently in its fifth season, is a big reason why that’s the case. So why would you need to change anything? Well, when the creator and original showrunner Armando Iannucci, “fired” himself, you kind of have to. What do you do? Where do you go? Who would be capable of taking on that kind of challenge?
When the decision was ultimately made to the tune of comedy powerhouse David Mandel, we knew everything was going to be ok and then some. Mandel, no stranger to the genre, success, and even Julia Louis-Dreyfus herself, is clearly capable bringing a resume to the table that boasts the likes of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Saturday Night Live. And that’s just television. His other credits include Clear History, The Dictator, and Clerks the animated series.
We recently had the opportunity to pick his brain about his new role as showrunner for Veep, the future of Dave and Steve’s Video Game Explosion, and what it’s been like as a member of the triple-headed beast of comedy alongside Alec Berg (Silicon Valley) and Jeff Schaffer (The League). Here’s our interview with David Mandel:
Congrats on the new gig as showrunner for Veep! Right out of the gate were you thinking, “Season 5 in black and white, let’s do this.”
Haha, black and white, we were going to do them backwards, all sorts of stuff. You know, it’s one of those funny things, you get offered the job and it sinks in for a second. And by the way, at the time I got contacted initially I was somewhat shocked that he [Armando Iannucci] was leaving, I’m a fan. Then eventually, it sinks in, and it was really when I got the chance to sit down with Julia [Louis Dreyfus] and she started filling me in on where they were up to story wise that I was like, “Oh, it builds to this tie.” I’ve got to admit, it was that notion of, “How am I going to unravel that knot?” that got me really excited.
I didn’t want to do a cheap knock off of Armando. I wanted to keep doing the show I like. And at the same time I wanted to do what I do, which by definition probably is different. I don’t want it to sound pretentious, but it’s Veep through my lens. If I was trying to mimic Armando, I think you’d notice and it would be sh*tty.
It’s like be handed an unsolved Rubik’s Cube that’s played with right?
It would be like looking at a Rubik’s Cube and going, “Boy, they really did f*ck this one up in a GOOD way!” You know what I mean. There’s not even two colors near each other somehow. There’s like a piece missing, and in a good way!
Now, were you one who could actually solve a Rubik’s Cube when you were a kid or were you a move the stickers around to make the parents proud kid?
No, I could get two sides and if I positioned it correctly on a table I could make it appear like it was finished from far way, that was about it.
So it’s all about lighting. That’s your comedy secret, lighting?
Haha, yeah, that’s it. A buddy of mine back in the Saturday Night Live days, I think it was Steve Lookner, had come up with, right around Schindler’s List, it was something about Rubik’s List. Oh man, I can’t remember the gag, but somehow it was a twisty puzzle of Jewish survivors or something. In my mind, it was hilarious.
I can only imagine in all of your writer’s rooms and creative meetings how many obscure paths you’ve gone down and how many hysterical concepts have never seen the light of day.
Well there is certainly a lot of that stuff. Oh man, I’m half embarrassed to bring this up. In the world of Veep, she’s obviously President of the United States, and in that world the USA looks pretty much like the actual USA. We’ve referenced Presidents up through Carter. I think you hear of Ford, Carter, and Nixon but you never hear of anyone after that. So there’s this sense that after that, maybe different people have been President. Like the world is kind of the same but not exactly. You ask yourself, “What has happened and what hasn’t happened?” So we do spend a tremendous amount of time in the room talking about what’s going on upon this alternative earth. All of these odd combinations of things like who won the World Series on this alternative earth. All of these ideas very very useless, haha.
All I’m picturing now is you and your team taking a lunch break from Veep, but in the world of this alternative earth and imagining what would be going on. So much fun! Now David, you are so rooted in comedy that your credits read like a comedy juke-box. Is there one element or common thread that runs through every project you’ve ever worked on?
As the shows go, I think there are certain similarities. I think one has led to the other. I think you can draw a line. And I mean this obviously beyond Julia, who has appeared in all of them. There is this sort of one begets the other. I think there is a certain amount of verbal speed, a sort of verbal dexterity that they have in common. I think there is a thickness or a density if you will of what we can jam in. I remember back in the day on Seinfeld we were taking these 30 minute rough cuts and were smooshing them down to 21:30. And you could really feel it. When you watch Seinfeld compared to the other sitcoms of the day, it’s moving at a much more break-neck speed. There’s more stories, there’s more balls in the air. Things are just fast and flying. And dare I say, Curb [Your Enthusiasm] was much faster as well and so is Veep. The willingness to not talk down to the audience and let the audience catch up, whether that means starting stories in interesting places or moving things along, propelling things forward so you aren’t spending a lot of time going, “Wait, what happened? We should talk about this.” Even in Seinfeld when they all sat around and talked about what happened, it was so that they could plan and set up the next scene. It was always moving forward.
I’m always fond of knocking Jim Belushi’s show. There would be an episode about how Jim doesn’t take out the trash. Then they talk about how he doesn’t take out the trash. At the end of Act 1 he doesn’t take out the trash. Then in Act 2 he doesn’t take out the trash. And then finally in Act 3 he takes out the trash and his wife gives him a kiss. If we were doing the trash story, all of that would happen in the first scene and then what. So that is an example of something that Veep has in common with a lot of the stuff I’ve been lucky enough to work on.
When you become a showrunner, do you get a green jacket like you do when you win The Masters?
Yes, and I get a key to the showrunner’s lounge which is very nice. It’s in most Mariott’s. I get free appetizers. I think it’s a very funny phrase that you hear more and more now. As you look at sit-com credits, everyone is a goddamn executive producer or co-executive producer. All of sudden everyone started asking, “Who’s the showrunner?” because there are forty people with the same credit. Once upon a time it was like, “That person’s the executive producer, and he’s the showrunner.” That has all changed now because there are non-writing executive producers, the star’s manager who is an exec-producer, and this person and that person. So these days, there’s a lot of names and it’s like, “Who’s running the show?” Ultimately, we now hear the term so much now.
Not to take a hard left here but in the future, are we going to get a future version of Dave and Steve’s Video Game Explosion?
Oh man, if only! And I think this is what this interview is ultimately about, haha! Needless to say, Steve and I are in contact regularly. We still dislike Sobe. It’s funny because I’ve been talking to Steve about this. I have kids now, Steve does not. Lord knows what he’s up to. I have been however vaguely fascinated by the notion that my kids are really starting to get into video games now. I’ve been joking with Steve that we should be doing it from this perspective of me as the father of somebody that plays video games and I’m now playing video games with my kids. The games they like versus the games I like. That would be my perspective. Steve’s perspective would be that of someone that would want to date children. It would be a completely different show. So yes, Dave and Steve’s Video Game Explosion much like Curb Your Enthusiasm will return someday. Probably when America is least ready for it.
It’s the new Chinese Democracy right?
Exactly, haha, it’s going to take a while. And we’re trying to make a deal with Buckethead. I think once we have him, we’re going to be good.
You’ve worked with some amazing people including the likes of Alec Berg and Jeff Schaffer, who are responsible for Silicon Valley and The League respectively. What does working with them bring out of you that no one else can?
One of the things that people might not necessarily understand, that the average fan might not realize is, that we’ve known each other since college. We’ve been working together probably more often than not since college. And we are still working together on things, movie things. Not that we have a lot of time though. It is not lost on me that when I was sitting and watching the premieres on Sunday of Silicon Valley running into Veep and Alec running the former and of course me the latter, I did laugh at that. And I loved The League. Sadly it’s done. That case made me laugh, so unbelievable. Three shows with really amazing casts that we got to work with. The three of us just brought different things to the table. We made up for each other’s shortcomings in a very interesting way. It’s a funny thing because people were very hesitant about it, three guys, how does anything ever get done? People would say they were nervous but then would quickly be surprised about how we would be a unit. We ARE a unit when we are together. We may disagree internally, however, when we get to an answer that we are happy with we are very united.
Larry [David] always use to laugh when we were working on Curb, there would be some joke that we wanted and Larry didn’t. He would then attack us individually, “Alec, what do you think?” “Let’s put it in!” Larry would grunt. Then say, “Jeff, what do you think?” and Jeff would say, “Oh, I think it should be in.” Then he would grunt. And then he would find me and say, “All three of you are ganging up on me!” Luckily Larry always had four votes. We made up three, he had four. I’ve got to say, there was a unity of vision in terms of what we thought was funny. I’m quite proud of that. Look, Eurotrip is flawed, The Dictator is flawed, everything you make is always a little bit flawed. I’ll take a look back at our original script to Eurotrip and it makes me laugh out loud. I don’t care if people hate it. I stand behind the work. I love everything I’ve done with those guys and we’re going to do more. Once Jeff takes over Game of Thrones we’ll have taken over Sunday night completely.
You can check out the Season 5 of Veep currently airing only on HBO Sundays at 10:30pm