Ringing in reality

Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Veep's showrunner David Mandel and his writers have had to tweak their jokes for the political satire as ongoing US politics become too close for comfort

It is a peculiar moment for political comedy in the United States, where comedians have been both energised and flummoxed by the presidency of Mr Donald Trump.

The makers of the acclaimed political satire Veep and other television comedies have admitted as much, with Veep creator Armando Iannucci pointing out last year that lampooning politics is much harder now because truth is stranger than fiction.

But the cast and producers of the show - which has twice won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series and returns for its sixth season on April 17 - say it will refrain from commenting on current affairs, at least for now.

Instead, it will stick with the misadventures of its fictional former American President Selina Meyer to poke fun at the timeless themes of opportunism, narcissism and shocking incompetence in the corridors of power.

One of the things about us not being Democratic or Republican on the show is you can be on either side... you can come to the show and laugh at Washington or at people in general, and put your politics aside for at least 28 minutes.

WRITER-PRODUCER DAVID MANDEL on Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as fictional former American President Selina Meyer

Still, the actors and showrunner David Mandel cannot resist taking a few digs at the Trump administration while chatting with The Straits Times and other press in Austin, Texas, recently.

Mandel says he and the writers have had to tweak a few jokes because US politics has become so bizarre and outrageous, it occasionally outpaces their imaginations.

For instance, there was an episode last season where Meyer - played by nine-time Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who won five of her Emmys for the role - gets in trouble for accidentally tweeting something inappropriate.

"This seemed really interesting and new - and, of course, now it's not," says Mandel of Mr Trump's infamous Twitter outbursts.

"We also had some kind of pee joke, saying a person had been hired to pee on someone - and, in light of the whole Russia thing, we changed it," he adds, alluding to the unverified report that the Russian government possesses a tape showing Mr Trump watching prostitutes urinate.

"It was a joke unto itself and not a Trump joke, but you can see how it could seem like a Trump joke," says the 46-year-old, who worked on the venerated sitcoms Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present).

Louis-Dreyfus, 56, remarks that it says something about the "elegance of the office" today that such a line could be misconstrued.

Another issue for the series is the fact that the Trump administration's growing catalogue of missteps lowers the bar by which bungling characters such as Mike McClintock - Meyer's clueless White House Press Secretary - are judged.

For instance, "we always worried about McClintock being too stupid to do his job and, now, he seems like a genius", says Mandel, referring to Trump spokesman Sean Spicer's much-ridiculed handling of the press.

Matt Walsh, the 52-year-old who plays McClintock, says: "From the day Trump took office and Spicer became his spokesman, my Twitter feed has been filled with people saying, 'This guy is worse than Mike McClintock.'

"There were things they wrote for Mike where I was, like, 'He wouldn't mess it up that bad' - we'd have that conversation on the show all the time. And, lo and behold, somebody came along in reality and was worse."

This, he points out, "always happens with our show".

Indeed, Veep has been oddly prescient when it comes to predicting certain political snafus - for example, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had appeared to copy one of Meyer's meaningless slogans last year, promising his electorate both "continuity and change".

Timothy Simons, who plays the ambitious but dim-witted Jonah Ryan - the aide-turned-politician who somehow gets elected to Congress - believes this is merely a by-product of the astuteness of Veep's writing staff.

"The writers go in and try and figure out what is the dumbest thing that a politician can do that hasn't happened yet and, invariably in between filming it and it coming out, it then actually happens," says the 38-year-old.

"So then everybody thinks we've stolen it from that person's idiocy, but really, it was because we were giving them credit and thinking, 'Well, nobody would do anything that dumb.'"

Although Mr Trump's electoral win shocked the show's largely liberal-leaning cast and crew, they claim that their approach to skewering political hypocrisy remains unchanged, although some of Veep's zingers may seem more pointed, given the tendencies of this White House.

Mandel says: "A guy who talked about 'draining the swamp' appointing a bunch of Goldman Sachs guys... I'm not saying we're specifically doing that as a joke, but it's a very Veep-like joke to go, 'I don't want any people from Wall Street', and then hire Wall Street people."

And while Mr Trump is a Republican, all politicians are fair game, he adds, noting that the series has always been willing to make fun of politicos "on both sides of the aisle" and that this is why it has never identified the party affiliation of Meyer and other characters.

"There's always been a separation (from the real world) because we're an alternate universe and that was very much deliberate because we're not a parody," says the writer- producer, who reveals that the writers have consulted both Democrats and Republicans, including former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Whatever their political views, members of the Veep team see their job as being, primarily, to entertain and even, perhaps, offer a distraction from the bleakness and uncertainty of American politics today.

Mandel says: "One of the things about us not being Democratic or Republican on the show is you can be on either side, you can have your opinions, but you can come to the show and laugh at Washington or at people in general, and put your politics aside for at least 28 minutes.

"Which is why we take great pride in the fact that someone like Romney would come and speak with us."

Louis-Dreyfus agrees. "It's an anxious time on both sides of the aisle", she says, and "hopefully, people will find (the show) sort of a tonic in these difficult times".

As many Americans lose sleep over what Mr Trump will mean for everything from healthcare policy to climate change, laughing at fictional politicians may be more crucial than ever, she believes.

"I think comedy is always vital, particularly in the worst of times, which I think we're sort of in the middle of right now."

•Veep Season 6 debuts in Singapore on April 17 at 10.30am, with an encore at 10.30pm, on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601). It is also on HBO On Demand and HBO on StarHub Go.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Ringing in reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe