One scene that took almost two hours to film involved an angry Vice President Meyer summoning three of her aides into her office after another of their gaffes.
One of the three, Dan Egan (Reid Scott), a exceptionally handsome young male aide who is stuck on his good looks, tries to curry Meyer's favor to save his job, she cuts him off, saying, "Suck-up is not going to fix expletive-up this time, you George Clooney expletive-face."
In all, they did six takes of the scene with six different improvisations on the "George Clooney" line. Each earned smiles and chuckles from the cast and crew gathered around the monitors.
But after the sixth, Iannucci came over to the team of writers and asked if they had "any alternatives to the Clooney" adjectives. They had eight on a list that Roche whipped out and read aloud. Iannucci liked the final one, which had Meyer dropping the Clooney reference altogether and calling the young aide a "star-spangled expletive face."
Louis-Dreyfus went out for the next take, did a bit of her own improvisation on the front end of the scene and then slammed it home with the "star-spangled" insult to her pretty-boy assistant.
There was laughter up and down the rows of director's chairs.
"That felt good," Louis-Dreyfus said, walking off the set with a bounce as she headed over to a monitor to see a playback.
"When it's going good," Louis-Dreyfus later says of the way in which "VEEP" is made, "I feel as if we're all in a spaceship together and we are rocketing along. I mean, it sort of feels like a musical performance where all the players are improvising. It's like a jazz ensemble, and you're all doing your thing, and it works together, and you're feeling each other out."
But it's not all feeling, she adds.
"It's intuition on top of experience," she says after a moment of thought. "I mean, obviously that scene was scripted, but there's a lot of improvisation around it. And a lot of improvisation goes into the making of a script with Armando in the first place. But you have to do your homework to get that point where the improvisation can happen."
"No matter how much you write stuff, no matter how much you rehearse it, until you're on the set and watching on the camera, you can't really decide if it feels real or not," Iannucci says.
"I mean, sometimes we take lines out because we're thinking, 'Actually, in that situation, it would be unrealistic to expect that person to come up with that smart line,' " he explains. "If they're frightened of losing their job or something, they might want to say nothing rather than come up with a funny line. So, when you sort of run it, it's almost like you're doing a live stage performance or something."
It also helps to have a worthy ensemble with which to work, and Louis-Dreyfus has a good one with Tony Hale as her body man, Mike McClintock as her veteran press secretary and Anna Chlumsky as her chief of staff.
"Being on this show, it's like you're working with the dream team," says Hale, who worked on another pretty good TV series, "Arrested Development" for Fox. "Armando Iannucci and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — that is just such a gift to be part of this. And they've managed to get everybody on the same page. A trust has developed on this set that makes it a safe, creative environment in which to bounce off of each other."
In the series, the press secretary and chief of staff are mainly trying to survive as Meyer struggles to find her way in her new job only a "heartbeat away," as the political ads say. Hale, as the always-at-her-side right-hand man, has a more complicated relationship with the vice president.
"She's pretty much my life," Hale says. "The character I play, Gary, doesn't have much of a life. I think, he might have a cat or two. My work is my life, and she is my life. And I will do anything in my power to get her anything she wants."
That might sound one-dimensional, but that's not the way the Gary came across on the set. In Iannucci's hands, the characters are real people, with good and bad motives, often in direct conflict.