WASHINGTON — It’s no wonder that in Washington, D.C., a place where political (and self-) obsession is the norm, HBO’s show Veep is a hit. The series, which follows fictional Vice President Selina Meyers (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff, is so true to life, its creator Armando Iannucci said people in D.C. are constantly telling him which characters they identify with. And when Louis-Dreyfus went to visit the real Vice President Joe Biden, a staffer introduced himself as “the Dan of the office” — meaning Dan Egan, Meyer’s overly ambitious deputy communications director.
“Everyone here knows a Jonah,” Iannucci said in an interview with BuzzFeed, referencing Jonah Ryan, the annoying White House liaison who can tell you every time the president has so much as looked at him. “Gradually over a number of years, a picture built up of the type of people who are around senior political figures. You get to meet a certain type of chief of staff and communications director. It’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it.”
Biden has even said he’s a fan of the show, but Iannucci says he doesn’t pay much attention to the VP’s real-life (and often mockable) antics. Instead, he says he’s fascinated by how people use the office and why in Washington, nothing seems to get done.
Iannucci is also responsible for the successful British show The Thick of It — a satire of British government. BuzzFeed sat down for an interview with Iannucci in Washington on Wednesday to chat about the difference between British and U.S politics, dysfunction on Capitol Hill, and what he’s reading to keep up with the news. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
How much inspiration do you get from the current events, and dysfunction, in Washington?
Armando Iannucci: We wrote the series and recorded it some time ago, and it’s sort of strangely mirroring what’s going on. So we’ve got debt discussions, and breakdowns, and shutdowns, and now we’re absorbed with a spy scandal. I’m a bit of a political geek anyway, so you tend to write how you think the rhythms of an administration will go. They’ll make mistakes in the first year, gain some ground in the second year, and start enacting legislation in the third year, run for reelection, get reelected, and it starts to go south. Any president’s second term ends up being quite messy. It never goes quite according to plan. So that’s what I had in my head anyway, and the reality is really mirroring that.
Does having Joe Biden as the real vice president make what you do easier?
AI: It helps having him be out there because it helps remind people of the office. There was the old-fashioned view of the vice president that they didn’t do much — like the [Walter] Mondales or the [Dan] Quayles — and actually that role has changed a lot. Al Gore was so close to Clinton; Dick Cheney was very powerful. What’s funny about that office is it’s entirely dependent on how close you are to the president, because the president decides what your role will be. If you get on with the president, that’s great; if you fall out with the president, power can go away.
We’re not out to say this is a particular historic figure like Joe Biden, so I’m not monitoring his moves. What does intrigue me is what kind of day he has — so I look at his diary, his daily engagement. Some days it can be a whole list of things, other days it just says “meeting with advisors,” which sort of suggests sitting in a room watching the television.
What’s interesting about him is he’s been using his Senate experience to keep the channels open between the White House and Congress. Selina does that quite well, but the rug is pulled out from under her by the president. We wanted to show in the second season she has a bit more clout and power and influence. I remember reading about the previous debt-ceiling crisis and Biden had been tasked by Obama to head up a group, and they’d been having endless meetings — and yet the deal that was done was eventually between the president and the speaker. So all that dull, tedious work Biden had done was suddenly gone. Obama said, I have a better idea, so forget it.
What do you read to keep up with what’s happening in D.C.?
AI: I read Playbook and have all the apps for the Hill and Politico and Washington Post. When I’m in the U.S., I get The New York Times every day. I watch a lot of Fox and just try and listen and see what people are talking about. I also do a lot of reading — not just contemporary stuff, but stuff from the ’60s onward. I like reading about Lyndon Johnson because he was such a powerful figure in the Senate, and then he was sitting in the office waiting for the call and then became the most powerful guy in the world.
Sometimes if there’s a big issue where there’s lot of support, like immigration or gun control, just watching the dynamic play out in the House or Senate: Should we try and get a huge majority to force the House to pass it, or are we going to water it down so much that no one likes it? So rather than read everything, I tend to pick a topic and watch them in great detail.
Your show, The Thick of It, was about British politics. Does Britain or the U.S. have politicians easier to mock?
AI: They are so different: In Britain we can interrogate our prime minister more aggressively, and the media is much more combative in the U.K. It’s a terrible life being a politician in the U.K. I’m amazed by the number of political comebacks in the U.S. — Mark Sanford is a congressman now, Anthony Weiner is running for mayor.
People might be out of office, but they still can have power in D.C. at think tanks or lobbying groups. It’s the same 500 people who still talk to each other. In the U.K., where you are out of power, you are out of power. You have five minutes in the sun and then you are done. You don’t come back.
What do you really think about D.C.?
AI: It reminds me a lot of L.A., and any one industry town is going to be like that. Hollywood is like, “Have you seen today’s Variety? Have you seen the figures?” It reminds me a lot of that. When we were filming In the Loop, which is based in D.C., I said to the British actors, just think back to the first time you went to L.A. and how everyone was so happy to see you and all the meetings you had, and then you went home and you weren’t sure anyone listened to what you had to say.