An American version of The Thick of It had been in works as far back as 2006, six years before Veep finally came to fruition. But the show that its creator Armando Iannucci originally proposed to networks was very different to the one that eventually got made. According to him the pilot that was initially produced was terrible (“as useless as a marzipan dildo”), and featured none of the swearing and improvisation that made The Thick of It such an enormous success.
Fortunately the same couldn’t be said of the first season of Veep, which featured plenty of swearing and improvisation, as well as everything else that made its British counterpart so brilliant. Yet judging from the first few episodes of the second season, the series is just getting started.
“Season one was about getting into office: she’s just coming to terms with being vice president,” explains Armando. “Traditionally that’s where politicians make all of their mistakes. Whereas season one was very much, ‘Has the president called? I want something to do,’ season two was very much, ‘Okay, let’s see what happens when that wish is granted.’”
Having already aired in the US, season two of Veep has already received much critical acclaim, with two of its stars, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale, winning Emmys for their performances in the show.
“It was like being the popular kid at school, which I’ve never been before,” says writer and producer Tony Roche, speaking of his experiences at the Emmys.
“It was wonderful, because we really weren’t expecting it,” says Simon Blackwell. “And then [Julia and Tony] did a very good speech where they were Salina and Gary on stage. They came up with that. It was nice because you suddenly realised that people were watching it.”
In the midst of the government shutdown in the US, Armando speaks of one upcoming episode in which Salina’s government have to deal with the same situation.
“As with The Thick of It, we try and do an intelligent estimate of the things that are happening or the things that might happen,” he says. “We want it to resonate with what’s going on. In America they’ve come so close to a shut down before—it happens almost every year.”
There are usually some big ideas I want to cover in the general season, some specific moments that I would like to have happen to people, and then we meet and talk over them just to see what other little strands emerge.”
Simon explains the writing process further: “We will write a very quick draft and get it up on its feet as quickly as possible. We’ll see where it goes, and then there’s some improvisation involved, which will be incorporated into the script, and we do that as much as possible. The script goes around electronically; there’s not a writer’s room, in that American sense.”
“Eighty to ninety-five per cent of it is as written,” says Armando,“ just to shatter that myth that the entire thing is improvised, as some American press thought. It’s a very organic, very evolved process.”
Of all the characters introduced in season one, few were as hilarious and as memorable as Jonah, the White House liaison and self-proclaimed “go-to guy for all things White House”. How did that character come about?
“Jonah wasn’t going to be in the show,” says Simon,” and then we had lunch with this guy who just got into the White House with Obama and was so pleased to be in that position. So he was talking about how he’s only twenty-six and he can tell these forty-five-year-old guys what to do. Every other sentence he’d talk about the west wing. That’s why whenever Jonah answers his phone he says, “Hello, Jonah West Wing.”
Have there been any politicians who have asked to be in the show?
“Yes, but I’m always dubious of getting too close,” says Armando. “Occasionally we get requests from high-profile politicians asking whether they can be in it, and my answer is always no, because it’s a parallel world. We’re not saying who the parties are. It would look too cosy.”
After letting slip that there will be an episode in season three in which Salina and her team go to London, I’m curious to know whether the characters from Veep will be meeting up with their British counter-parts from The Thick of It.
“I think the world of the Thick of It has been put in a box,” says Armando. “But there is an episode set in London. If the first two seasons are about D.C. season three is very much about America outside D.C.. There’s also a visit to silicone valley in episode three. So it’s all about being away from D.C.”
With the recent Anthony Weiner scandal are Armando, Simon and Tony worried that politics are becoming too broad to send up?
“Anthony Weiner texting his junk, as they say,” says Armando, “and calling himself Carlos Danger — it’s such madcap comedy.”
“Yeah, it’s not really our show,” says Simon.
Tony nods. “I think if one of us suggested a character called Anthony Weiner we might be asked to leave the room.”
Armando speaks lastly of what he believes are contentious issues, and how he chooses to address such issues on the show. “We’ve just done an episode on abortion, which is a very heated debate. I just wanted to make it clear in our writing that it wasn’t about a particular view it was about how that debate was conducted in such a feverish atmosphere in America that even if you just mention a word fifty per cent of the room are going to be hostile to you and fifty per cent are going to think of you as a super hero.
“We haven’t yet done the gun control debate, but for me the thing is how there can be such an overwhelming urge for change and yet at the last moment because of pressure on one of two people there is no change and nothing is done. I find that intriguing, but I also think there is potential for comedy there.”
From the 16th October Season Two of Veep will air on Wednesdays at 10.35pm on Sky Atlantic.