It's a cold, gray Friday afternoon in a dark and drafty concrete warehouse at an industrial park in Columbia. Not exactly the setting in which anyone would expect to find glamour, wit or the next big thing in pop culture.
But through a series of doors built into a maze of temporary walls and stage flats, there's a group of a dozen tall director's chairs bearing Vice President of the United States seals set in two ragged rows along with a bank of TV monitors and warming lights. And in the center of the first row, sitting sideways in a black power suit coat and skirt, legs casually crossed, is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of HBO's new political satire "VEEP."
She is also, of course, one of the most widely known comedic actresses in TV history for her portrayal of Elaine Benes in "Seinfeld." And, at the moment, between takes, she's talking not only about that iconic series, but a scene in one of its most famous episodes, "The Strike," which introduced the holiday of Festivus. Talk about TV heaven.
But wait, the person she is talking to in the chair directly behind her is Frank Rich, an executive producer on the HBO series set to debut April 22. Rich is also, of course, one of the most influential cultural critics of the era for his work as a Sunday columnist for The New York Times. He is leaning forward in his chair, hanging on her every word.
And two chairs down sits Armando Iannucci, creator, executive producer and director of "VEEP." He is the Scottish-born, London-based satirist responsible for the cutting edge political comedy of "In The Loop" and "The Thick of It." There is no one in this country — even Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert — near to being in his league.
Louis-Dreyfus is talking about a scene in which Elaine goes to a sleazy off-track betting parlor for a bunch of bad reasons, and the darkly comic punch line is that the horse she bets on not only lost but "had to be shot." Vintage "Seinfeld" that reduces her and Rich to tears of laughter.
I hadn't come to the set of "VEEP" looking for a connection between Elaine Benes and Selena Meyer, the senator who suddenly finds herself vice president of the United States in "VEEP." After all, Louis-Dreyfus was the only cast member to break the "Seinfeld curse" with her Emmy-award-winning performance in the CBS sitcom "The New Adventures of Old Christine." She had certainly moved on.
But as Louis-Dreyfus finished her "Seinfeld" story, walked back into the ornate make-believe offices of Vice President Meyer on that Columbia soundstage and started sounding decidedly duplicitous and scheming in the lines she spoke, I couldn't help wondering if this high-buzz HBO series wasn't in some small way, at least, Elaine goes to Washington — with some of the smartest guys in American and British pop culture driving the limousine.
No parties here
Rich, one of the guys at the wheel, says the first thing to know about "VEEP" is what it's not about.
"In our series, you never learn what political party Selena is in," Rich says. "You never learn who the president is. So, it's not about Hillary Clinton. It's not about Sarah Palin. It's not about Obama. It's not late-night comedy jokes, many of which I love."
Instead, he says, "It's a universal view by a writer [Iannucci] with a really special and particular voice and grasp of the folly of politics and bureaucracies where people have jobs that are supposedly powerful, but often are meaningless. Or, they are so compromised that they've become meaningless and nothing important could ever happen. It's comic, and it's not preachy. But while you're laughing, you realize you're seeing these insights into politics as it's practiced in Washington and elsewhere in a democracy — or, a supposed democracy."
Or, as executive producer Christopher Godsick, puts it, "We like to think of ourselves in some ways as the antithesis of 'West Wing.' The 'West Wing' might be the way people fantasize that Washington is. And 'VEEP' might the way that people are afraid it really is."
Rich, Godsick and Louis-Dreyfus all stress Iannucci's "very special process of rehearsal and writing" as one thing that separates the series from anything else on television.
It involves a team of writers from British TV and films with whom Iannucci has worked over the years. They include Tony Roche, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated "In The Loop" script, and Simon Blackwell, who co-wrote the pilot for "VEEP."
There are a half a dozen or so others who are either sitting together in a cluster of director's chairs in front of a monitor on the soundstage in Columbia on this Friday afternoon or are said to be sitting at home in the U.K. "by the phone" in case an instant tweak or new line is needed, according to Iannucci.
"Scripts are written — it's not an improvised show," Rich says. "But Armando hires actors who are really smart and funny, and a lot of them have improvisational comedy experience. Julia herself went from Northwestern to Second City early in her career. So, he and his team write the script. But then he gets them on their feet and has the cast, after they do the written script, improvise. And they keep refining the script — it's like putting it in a spin-wash cycle — as the actors add more and more with the improvisation."
From the perspective of a director's chairs for a day, the process appears to be both painstaking and freewheeling. It involves a care for words that I have never seen on the set of any network or cable series.
"You know, I started off in radio, doing comedy on radio," Iannucci says. "And there, it's just the words. You can't do anything visually. So, every word has to count."
Since this is premium cable, some of the words cannot be printed here. And the word that begins with "f" is used a lot. But it is mostly used in creatively comic ways to capture the frustration, aggression, dark absurdity and even affection of these characters working in the limbo realm of the vice presidency.
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.
She tells them that someone is going to have to be fired as punishment since the latest mistake has gone public.
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.
"It's set in the office of the vice president, but using the conflicting dynamics in that office," Iannucci says. "The fact that she's so near power, and yet so removed from power, but yet could be in total power. It's that so near and yet so far."
In his initial meetings with HBO, Iannucci says he talked a lot about Lyndon Johnson, JFK's vice president in 1960. And the British satirist not just name-dropping — he cites chapter and verse from Robert Caro's multi-part, not-yet-finished, Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography, even making an insider's joke about it taking "3,000 pages" before Caro got Johnson into the Old Executive Office Building.
"Lyndon Johnson was like king of the Senate," he says. "But once he became vice president, people would just forget to invite him to meetings."
Iannucci says he wanted to avoid ridiculing his characters. "They're not goofy, they're not idiots. It's more the nature of the office that places them in that situation. In the end, the comedy is not about portraying these people as fools. They're just people. But why is it that the process has turned into something where whatever you do, it just comes out the wrong way? It looks bad. And then, you start with the fear of looking bad, so you're trying to cover up."
In the end, "VEEP" might not be about Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, as Rich says, but make no mistake about it, "VEEP" is all about Washington and the very real state of our nation's troubled politics today.
As part of his research into the American political process, Iannucci says, he met with workers from the "Pentagon, State Department, CIA and United Nations."
"And the more you know, the more you realize it's far worse and far more stupid than you could ever make up," he says. "And if you made up some of those situations people would accuse you of being too far-fetched. Rick Perry forgetting which branch of government he was going to close down. And then he has to go on David Letterman and make a fool of himself. … It's so belittling. Politics has become so belittling."
Echoes of the feelings that Sen. Olympia Snowe and others have expressed as they announced their retirements in recent months are impossible to miss.
"You know, everything is so ground to this kind of standoff," Iannucci says. "It's kind of a depressing dynamic, but I find it interesting. So, we find, as the series progresses, you get a sense of these characters being put through the mill really in terms of how it alters their view of politics."
And by the end of the first season's eight episodes, he says, "Selena is wondering if she stands for anything any more or what was the point of getting into politics in the first place, because of how often she's had to compromise herself and her views in order to get anything done."
Rich, who writes a column about politics and culture for New York magazine, believes "VEEP" speaks to the times in a way no columnist can.
"Rather than writing like a pundit and lecturing or hectoring about it, 'VEEP' turns it into farce, which is what it is," he says of the gridlock and partisan warfare in Washington.
"And so, for a half hour, people who are seething at the mere mention of the word 'Washington' can laugh their heads off — before they go back to seething."