Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler and you’re listening to OnWriting. A podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between. Today’s guest is David Mandel. Show runner of the HBO hit series Veep, which is now in its final season. We’ll be discussing his amazing career trajectory. His strong opinions on writers’ room, and our mutual obsession with Robert Caro. David, thank you so much for coming in today.
David Mandel: Oh, my gosh, thank you for having me.
Caroline Waxler: I’m so excited to talk with you. I know you are on a whirlwind trip to New York, so let’s just get to the-
David Mandel: Very whirlwindy, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, right, so you arrived Sunday.
David Mandel: Sunday, a couple of days of this, we’re having the big premier tonight. Back to LA to keep editing, and then the first episode airs Sunday night.
Caroline Waxler: Right, and that date is?
David Mandel: Oh, March 31st, although I’m sure anybody actually watches anything on a schedule anymore.
Caroline Waxler: Exactly.
David Mandel: But yes, March 31st, if that’s how you watch, yes.
Caroline Waxler: For this they way. Since this is the Writer’s Guild East. What are your favorite things about being back east? Specifically back in New York.
David Mandel: I grew up here. I grew up on 70th and West End. And while every place I think I ever loved has been gone out of business or whatever, over the last you know, 30 odd years, I still love being in the city. My childhood friends are here, so a bunch of them are going to come to the premier tonight. I love being on foot. You know, I didn’t really learn to drive till I moved to LA.
Caroline Waxler: Love that.
David Mandel: I was a New Yorker, so that’s funny. But you know, I lived here, my first jobs were here. Until very recently, I kept New York plates on my car for a really long time.
Caroline Waxler: You did.
David Mandel: At some point I guess in the last couple of years, I realized I live in LA, but I like to pretend.
Caroline Waxler: California is very serious about getting the California plates, I moved out there.
David Mandel: Yes. I used to have to lie to the police and say that the car was driven back and forth between New York, and I kind of got away with it for a while.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great. Well, so glad you’re here. Do you think you’re going to go back to the upper west? You’re going to have time for this?
David Mandel: I don’t know. I mean, for me or at least is at Lincoln Center, which is about four blocks from where I grew up. That’s going to count as upper west.
Caroline Waxler: Maybe a post from your Grace [inaudible 00:02:26]
David Mandel: Yes, exactly.
Caroline Waxler: That would awesome, I live across the street from Grace.
David Mandel: Oh, funny.
Caroline Waxler: I was excited to see that, in that it had significance for you. Tell us about your first job, how did you get into writing?
David Mandel: It’s not the most original story, nor is it the most helpful. But I always love, you know, I was always kind of a comedy nerd as a kid. I loved listening, from my mom I had her copy of like First Family. I had her old Mort Sahl albums.
Caroline Waxler: Amazing.
David Mandel: I remember memorizing, you know, Steve Martin Wild and Crazy Guy. I was really into comedy and teen movies in general. I was really into it, I don’t think I necessarily thought that this was a job. It was funny, I knew a lot about TV and movies, I read a lot of books about directors and stuff, maybe a little less so about writers. I was obsessed with Saturday Night Live, the Backstage History Book. The old big green script book, if you remember that thing from the ’70s. Way into Letterman, I used to stay up every night for Letterman. Just you know, grew up watching on New York television. The Odd Couple at 11:00 and the Honeymooners at 11:30, and sometimes MASH, and those things.
Those were all really formative, but I didn’t necessarily know. It sounds odd that you could like be a writer, do you know what I mean?
Caroline Waxler: Of course.
David Mandel: I didn’t put two and two together. I went to college, and I went to Harvard, and I was thinking I’d be a lawyer or something. I got involved with Harvard Lampoon, which obviously is a route that many people take-
Caroline Waxler: How did you get … Just for a quick brief stop.
David Mandel: Yeah, yeah, of course.
Caroline Waxler: How did you get involved with the Harvard Lampoon? That seems like such a storied place.
David Mandel: They have what’s call a comp you to join, it’s a comp, which I guess is short for competition. There are three ways to get in, which is obviously you can sell advertisement, you can be an artist, and I am neither of those things. And so I wanted to join as a writer, which requires writing three pieces of humorous material, passing through a … Then they sort of pick a group and say, “You guys advance to the next round.” Writing another three pieces, and then you know, hopefully getting on.
When I first started doing it, boy my stuff was just terrible. I mean, I think I was funny ish, as a person goes. But the idea of how to translate that into you know, a couple of pages of like a relevant piece, you know. And I definitely threw myself into it, started reading a lot of like … You know, obviously I knew Woody Allen stuff, but I started reading his short stories and tried to sort of find other humorous examples. And old National Lampoons to try and like sort of … You know, you sort of learn by reading other stuff and whatever. My stuff got better, and I eventually joined.
And then once in the Lampoon, they used to have these what they called the summer projects. Which in the past were books and magazines. Sometimes they would do like famous parodies of like USA Today, or you know, Doug Kenny and those guys did like a Bored of the Rings is a very famous one. That year, or I should say the year between I should say my junior and senior year of college, the Lampoon did it’s first TV project. Which was act the newly minted Comedy Central. There had been HA! And there had been The Comedy Channel, and they joined together to make Comedy Central.
Caroline Waxler: Yes, I remember this.
David Mandel: I think you had to pay like two dollars on your cable to get Comedy Central.
Caroline Waxler: Like ’92, ’93.
David Mandel: Yes, this would have been ’91, ’92. And we did this thing called, it was a fake 10th anniversary documentary celebrating MTV’s 10th anniversary, called MTV Give Me Back My life, a Harvard Lampoon Parody. It was terrible, I mean, it’s really awful. And I loved every second of it, and I learned so much from sort of it not being good, like I really learned like … I mean, it’s just things were generally wrong about it. Some of the way it’s shots to the performances. In out of that wrongness, I really got a sense of why and what was wrong, and at least how I wasn’t in charge, but how possibly one could fix it, and I was absolutely hooked.
When I was working there that year, there was one of the advisors to the project was a writer named Billy Kimble. Al Franken was consulting at Comedy Central back then. He was writing his Stuart Smalley book. And then the main executive was a woman named Mary Salter, who had been … And Gloria Banta, her claim to fame, or one of her claim to fame, was she was an old writer that they named Tony Banta on Taxi after Gloria Banta, it was her name.
Caroline Waxler: That’s a claim to fame, that’s huge.
David Mandel: Yeah, no, exactly. She was in that Jim Brooks kind of group. We did that, I went back for my senior year of college. And then somewhere in the late winter, I got a call, which was basically they were going to do comedy coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions. This was called Indecision ’92. It was Hosted by Al Franken, Billy Kimble was the exec producer, and they brought me in to be the writer.
Caroline Waxler: Amazing.
David Mandel: I wrote all summer with Al and Billy, and at the end of the summer Al basically said, “I want to bring you to Saturday Night Live. I want to talk to Lauren.” I next thing you sort of know, I basically started that fall at Saturday Night Live. This would have been the ’92, ’93 season, which was the election year, and that was my sort of Segway into that.
Caroline Waxler: That’s an amazing story. How long were you on SNL for?
David Mandel: I was there for three years, which at the time was a very respectable sort of length of time at SNL. Subsequently people stay longer these days. Like there’s many more lifers there, people that have stayed. I do think it has gotten a little more civilized. We were definitely … You know, you sound like an old man, “In my day at Saturday Night Live.” But we definitely were still among, we were sleeping there a couple nights a week and things like that. Whether we should or shouldn’t, that’s what we were doing. Thursday night rewrites would go till 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, and that kind of stuff. But you know, I kind of hated it, but I loved it, but I hated it.
It was incredible training because they really just do. It’s a cliché, they throw you in the deep end, but as a writer there, you are like the mini show runner of your sketch.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, interesting.
David Mandel: You, even though you know, at first you have no experience, but you are talking to the actors. You’re having discussions with the director, you’re talking to wardrobe, you’re talking to props. You’re talking to all of these people giving notes. If the thing has a little clip package or some kind of video thing, I used to go at like Friday night at 4:00 in the morning in the bowels of Thirty Rock, because they still were doing you know, tape to tape editing and whatever, and that’s where I learned to edit.
Caroline Waxler: That’s so cool.
David Mandel: All of these sort of things that I guess in a weird way that I’m still doing today, I really learned a lot of it there in a way dare I say, that I think young writers who’s first job is a sitcom be it LA or New York, and are in a room, don’t learn those skills. They rise up the ladder, and this is not a criticism it’s just a truth. And I think they rise up the ladder having not necessarily spoken with the actors much, given a director a note, talked to like these different people. By the time I got out of the show, I had a real … Out of SNL, I had a real sort of sense of that kind of stuff. It was just like I said, I sort of hated it at some point when I was there, and now I look back on it quite fondly. I definitely think a lot of as I say, my showrunner skills kind of came out of that world.
Caroline Waxler: Of course. Are there any shows today, I guess SNL, still that train writers and give them that producing experience?
David Mandel: Not as much. Look, I’m sure on individual shows, you know, people are given certain responsibilities. When you talk about the traditional, I guess what I would call the sort of room writing version of like a sitcom, which I can’t stand, and we can get to that any point you want.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, we’ll get to that, yes.
David Mandel: You know, you’re in a room and that’s your job. It’s a fine job, but I think you don’t have necessarily these other pieces of what actually is required to really make and run a sitcom I’ll simply say.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely. When did you start on Seinfeld?
David Mandel: I was at SNL, and especially my last year there I was definitely tired, and you know, definitely sort of worn out. My friends from college and my future writing partners Jeff Schaffer and Alec Berg, they got hired at Seinfeld I guess the year before I went to Seinfeld. And I used to especially in the spring time, when SNL had this really easy schedule, where we would do two episodes and then take two weeks off.
Caroline Waxler: That’s a great schedule.
David Mandel: I would go to LA during those two weeks, and I would stay with them. They lived together, I would stay with them. I was a New Yorker, I didn’t have a drivers license. They would pick me up at the airport.
Caroline Waxler: And no Uber.
David Mandel: And there was no Uber. I guess there were cabs, but it was sort of a pain. I would stay with them, and they would go, “We’re going to work.” And I’d go, “Okay, I’m coming with you.” And I would go to the Seinfeld offices, and I was sort of like a special guest at the Seinfeld offices. I would get there in the morning, and I would see everybody at breakfast. Talk a little bit of the New York Yankees and stuff. I knew a couple of the writers a little bit here and there, whatever, and got to know them well. And then I’d go with them in their office, and I’d help them with their outline of whatever they were working on.
You know, then it was lunch, and it would be sort of social, and I got to know Jerry and Larry a little bit. And then I’d go back in the office, and I would just go to work at Seinfeld for like a week. I mean, not work, work. But you know what I mean.
Caroline Waxler: Yes, hang out.
David Mandel: I was hanging out, exactly. At the end of that third year of my SNL run, I was definitely looking to head to LA at that point to do something.
Caroline Waxler: Why? What drew you to LA?
David Mandel: I mean, at that point I guess I wanted to do the next thing I guess. I think I was done with sketch. I never looked into Letterman, which I always wanted to be a Letterman writer.
Caroline Waxler: Did you?
David Mandel: And I don’t know why I never looked into it, but I always wanted to be a Letterman writer. And LA seemed like the next logical step in a sort of I guess, comedy writing career, especially at the time. There was very little non talk show SNL production in New York.
Caroline Waxler: Yes, there was so many talk shows in the ’90s.
David Mandel: Yeah, exactly. But there was just not a lot, no one was really doing sitcoms in New York at the time. And I love sitcoms, I love the form, and I did really want to try it and do it. And as my memory goes, Larry and Jerry. Larry was sort of, I think there was like a whole renegotiation, was he leaving and was he coming back? And I remember he showed up at the final episode of SNL that year, and basically was like, “Hey, I’m coming back, I’m going to do the show.” And he had definitely I think spoken or gotten a nice recommendation from Jim Downey, the long time head writer, exec producer, genius, and we could talk about that any time you want to talk about him too.
He had gotten a nice recommendation from Jim, I think about me. And basically he said, “Why don’t you send me some stuff.” And I had been quietly working on Seinfeld ideas. And then I don’t know, he went off to Europe, and then I think a couple of weeks later. I got a phone call from him basically going, “Do you want a job at Seinfeld?” I was like, “But I haven’t sent you my stuff yet.” And he went, “Nah, it’s okay.” And I was like, “All right, great.” He’s like, “Be here June 1st.” Or whatever it was, and I was like, “Okay.”
That was crazy, ’cause I had to sort of like pack up and go, and get a drivers license and all these things, which was crazy. When I got to LA, I was living for a couple of weeks at the old Mondrian hotel.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, rough.
David Mandel: Well, that wasn’t bad, but I would hire a driving lesson, where the guy would come to the hotel, I would get in the car and we would drive to the Radford lot in Studio City which is where Seinfeld was, and that would be my lesson. My lesson was driving to the Radford lot.
Caroline Waxler: How great.
David Mandel: And then he took me one day to take the test. I passed the test, and then he drove me to like an Avis and I rented like a Cabriolet convertible or whatever. No, Sebring convertible. Somewhere in there I was pitching out what became some of my first episode or whatever. I do remember there was an idea I pitched, and Larry was like, “Was that on your list?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “I would of hired you.” I was like, “Okay, good, I feel better.” That was sort of the journey to Seinfeld.
Caroline Waxler: I love that, and the journey to getting a driver’s license.
David Mandel: Yes that too, very important, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: Wow. Your work on Seinfeld included writing some of the most iconic episode.
David Mandel: Oh, thank you.
Caroline Waxler: One of them was the Bizarro episode.
David Mandel: Yes.
Caroline Waxler: Tell us about that and your connection to that.
David Mandel: The episode that will be on my grave stone. This is a bit of a pattern in my career, which is I’ve been able to work at shows I was a huge fan of to begin with. I was a huge SNL fan, I got to work at SNL. Obviously it’s not an ongoing narrative, but Seinfeld, I was a huge fan of the Seinfeld show and I got to go there. I definitely had been thinking a lot about the show, and things, which is what I do like to do. With the Bizarro Jerry episode, it was a sort of a little bit of a culmination of a couple things that I like to write about, things that I guess run through my stuff.
The big thing, I mean, the Bizarro Jerry, I’m a comic book guy, I love comic books. I collect original comic art and toys, and movie props. I always was very obsessed with sort of ’60s Superman which is where Bizarro kind of comes from. Jerry is a huge Superman as many people know. What it sort of came out of it, it was a combination of things. Was really, this sort of commentary a little bit on Elaine sort of having this other guy in her life, that actually was sort of the opposite of Jerry. That they sort of had dated, they were sort of shifting into kind of a friend zone. But he was actually legitimately helpful. He would pick her up at the airport, and do these things that these sort of Seinfeld characters wouldn’t do. Which was sort of a little bit if you think about it, a little bit of a step back and a little bit of a commentary on the show in its own way. I love that.
That’s kind of where the Bizarro part came from. And then within it, there was a whole bunch of obviously just other stuff, you know, just other stories that kind of were things that came out of my life. But that sort of core idea was something I really did like, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: I love it. Would you think about doing a Bizarro Veep episode?
David Mandel: In some ways every episode is Bizarro Veep. ‘Cause I think Veep sometimes has sort of Bizarro real politics. No, it’s you know, it’s that perfect storm of like the Seinfeld show especially dare I say in those later years, which had a little bit more of that touch of I guess I’d say absurdism. It just allowed us to kind of get away, and I remember my first draft of it didn’t I think have the final scene which was the Bizarro people actually kind of hugging, and kind of going, “Me so happy, me want to cry.” Which is something that like Bizarro would say in the comics. Jerry was just like, “We got to go for it, we got to do it.”
The fact that there’s basically a scene of not our characters on screen in this Bizarro version of the apartment, with a Bizarro version of the Seinfeld theme playing. I mean, I thought it always took a lot of courage to do it. I mean, I was thrilled to do it, but I was just like this is … I guess if you’re going to be the number one show on TV, I always sort of, one of the lessons I kind of took from that is. This is how you should flex your muscle, is to do wonderfully weird and interesting things that you find funny. And I thought that was kind of a good use of Seinfeld’s power.
Caroline Waxler: A good risk to take.
David Mandel: Yes.
Caroline Waxler: Was there anything negative that came from it?
David Mandel: No. No, I don’t think people were-
Caroline Waxler: That’s great.
David Mandel: I mean, as much as it often happens when you go for it, is people responded really well, which was wonderful, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: As a comic book fan, have you ever thought about writing a comic book?
David Mandel: I actually wrote one Marvel comic. I wrote a single one shot of but literally … Or I should say I’ve done two little things. One, one shot which was a character I had made up in the Marvel Universe, the bad guys are Hydra. They’re kind of a vague, sort of they used to be kind of Nazis, and now they’re just masked green soldiers.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s interesting.
David Mandel: Yeah, and I did a thing called … There’s a very famous character Nick Fury that Sam Jackson plays, and he’s known as Nick Fury, Agent of Shield. And I did Hank Johnson, Agent of Hydra. It was just about a one of the run of the mill guys, who is trying to work for this evil corporation, but has a wife and kids and a mortgage, and those kinds of things. It was very fun.
Caroline Waxler: That’s interesting. Will we see more of Hank?
David Mandel: I don’t know. I don’t think it sold particularly well as one shots with characters that nobody’s ever heard of do. But I got a kick out of it, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: That’s really fun. How did you end up on Curb?
David Mandel: Well, as sort of a very … I mean, I guess a very logical extensions. But it’s sort of interesting in that, I guess how we got to that. When Seinfeld ended, people might remember this if you’re at the time, this would have been ’98. The Seinfeld writers to some extent, myself included were kind of … I don’t know what the word would be, head hunted if you will.
Caroline Waxler: For sure.
David Mandel: We all signed big deals but at different companies. You know, at the time these were these big development deals, a lot of them were sort of non-assignable. You know, you couldn’t put me on a show, that kind of thing, and we all signed them in different places. It was an interesting lesson learned. Across the board, I think the total output of Seinfeld writers was barely like one and half shows. It was an interesting time, I mean, thinking number one, you have to remember that Seinfeld itself was sort of created at NBC by not by the main NBC, it was sort of developed in late night under Rick Ludwin.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, interesting.
David Mandel: ‘Cause Jerry had a holding deal, if memory serves. Because they were looking at him as a possible like tonight show guy or something. And he just wanted to do something, so they scrounged the money together and did it in this sort of in this sort of back side door kind of a thing. Larry had never taken really any … Never listened to any of the nonsensical network notes. I remember there was a thing, I was just talking about this the other day with someone. They did a thing on NBC one night, it was like Blackout Thursday. Where they called all the show creators, and were like, “We want you to have a blackout in your show.” And have it affect-
Caroline Waxler: What?
David Mandel: Yeah, so if you watch that night. Friends, Chandler gets locked in an elevator with a model. And then I don’t know what was 8:30, there was a black out. And then Seinfeld at 9:00, no black out. And then 9:30 there was a black out, and then I don’t know, maybe ER had a black out too, I don’t know. Everyone of course said yes, Larry said no. We used to call it the fastest no in Hollywood, him saying no to Blackout Thursday. But you know, they weren’t a presence, they didn’t exist, neither the network nor the studio.
Caroline Waxler: That’s fantastic.
David Mandel: It was fantastic. It probably was a rude awakening for all of us. Which was we all signed these deals and we went to these places, and then sort of people sort of lecturing us as to what was great about Seinfeld. And they clearly didn’t understand Seinfeld nor really want it or get it, and I just remember nothing went anywhere. Because they said they wanted it, but they didn’t want it. And then the other thing that happened in there, or I mean, starts to happen in there and I can’t remember the exact timing. You know, and people forget about this, but you know, one of the great things about Seinfeld, like as I said, people do forget this. When Jerry wanted to create a show and basically had to make a deal, and he went to NBC and said, “I want to do a show.” They had to say to him, “You have to go find a production company to make it, because we’re not allowed to own programing.”
Caroline Waxler: Oh, right.
David Mandel: This was the glory age of the great production companies. And then because of all of the lobbying, they got the rules changed. And you had to have the fine sign rules were changed, and now the networks were allowed to own their own shows. Now of course all of a sudden you have the networks going, “Hey production company, we’re looking at your really good show, but we also have this piece of crap that we made. I think we’re going to choose our show that we own.”
Caroline Waxler: Lovely.
David Mandel: And if you remember, comedy got really bad in particular, especially in that late ’90s, early 2000’s, it was a real drought. Until like really The Office maybe popped up and started again, I don’t know the exact dates.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely.
David Mandel: But people never want to talk about it. The reason is is that, you know, you can kind of figure out a drama. Even a terrible studio executive can kind of figure out what a drama is, but comedy’s hard. I’m sorry, it just is, I know it’s a cliché, but comedy is hard. And the more they tried to executive note the comedy, the worst it got, and it really dried up. I definitely at the time felt like a little sort of mini victim of people hiring you because of who you were, and the notion of you’re a Seinfeld writer, but then lecturing you about what comedy was.
You know, and look I was a younger writer and I wish I had had sometimes maybe the courage, which is you take the notes because you want, you know, you want your thing on. And of course in taking the notes, it’s only a disaster. Jeff Schaffer and Alec Berg and I, I want to say I’ll give credit to Alec, but with some of the concept we talk a lot about. I always like to talk about it, we call it the Piss Pie. Have you ever heard Piss Pie?
Caroline Waxler: No, but do tell.
David Mandel: Piss Pie is basically this, which is you the writer are the baker, and you make a great apple pie, and it’s delicious. And you want your apple pie in the fancy bakery. Because if you can get your pie into the bakery, you can sell a lot of pies, and it’s great.
Caroline Waxler: Delicious.
David Mandel: And you bring them the pie, and they taste it, and they’re the bakery. You know, and they go, “This is a delicious pie, we really like this. We’ve got one idea. Put a little human piss in it.” You’re like, “Excuse me?” “Just a little piss, trust us.” And you sit there and you go, “Wow, they’re the bakery, they’re selling a lot of pies. I guess we got to try that.”
Caroline Waxler: They must know.
David Mandel: You go off and you make your pie, and you piss it in and you bring it back and they taste it, and they go, “This is really good. One little note, little more piss.” Well, they’re the bakery, you go off, you make the pie, you put more piss in it, bring it back, “This is really becoming something we like, needs a little more piss.” Go off, you bring your pie back, they bite into the pie, and they go, “What the fuck is wrong with you this tastes like piss!” That was the network television experience of the late ’90s as far as I was concerned.
Caroline Waxler: It sounds horrible.
David Mandel: Well, it was a good pie. But anyway, you know, it sort of sucked. And what was so funny at the time was, you know, and I had some interesting experiences, somewhere in there I met Kevin Smith, and we did the Clerks animate series, which I like to say it was a little ahead of its time. But that was an ABC show that we sold to them when they were like in 11th place out of three.
Caroline Waxler: I can’t believe that was on ABC.
David Mandel: Well, it was a different ABC and they had nothing. You know, we should have sold it to The UPN, but that’s a whole other set of stories. And then while it was being animated, they got Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and started airing it you know, seven nights a week. We went from you know, having a Superbowl ad for the show, for the Clerks show, to them burning off two episodes in June and then canceling it. Now, it probably never should have been on ABC to begin with. There’s my output of the time period, it was just it was not fun.
And yet at the same time oddly enough, movie companies starting coming to us. Jeff, Alec and I, who were working separately, but always looking at each others stuff. Started taking on sort of side movie gigs, like rewriting and things. Just because the movie people were actually looking for you know, funny rewrites, and they were looking for lack of a better word, Seinfeld writers to make stuff funny. And so, it was this very weird thing where we wanted to be doing television, we were desperately trying to do it. TV sort of almost hated us, and yet the movie business sort of came along and started just giving us a career.
The three of us started rewriting movies and then ultimately writing movies. We did a couple of you know, big movies. We had a big spec, which was Euro Trip which we directed, and a couple of things in there. And while this was all going on, what would happen is, I think right after Euro Trip ended, we basically had no office, we had no where to work. We were always in contact with Larry, we were always kind of you know, kibitzing a little bit or he’d run stuff by us. And so, he kind of sort of was like, “Hey, would you guys ever want to you know, come and help me break stories?” And we were like, “Do you have an office?”
Caroline Waxler: The incentive.
David Mandel: And it was sort of like, “Yeah, this will be great.” It was just this idea that we would help him you know, break the season and then we would leave and then go off to our movie stuff. And it was really wonderful, because obviously we knew him well, and we would throw ideas, and he would kind of come in and we would work on stuff. And then he’d leave and we’d work on movie stuff, and he’d come back, and we would just kind of, those were our days.
We helped him break the season, and then they went into production mode, and we gave up those offices and we went off to work on another movie, it was really great. And then we came back to do it again, and I think at that point, Larry Charles who had been helping him and was sort of an in-house if you will director and what not, was leaving to go do I think Borat actually. And so we ended up kind of going, becoming the new kind of co-executive producers with Larry, and then we started directing episodes as well.
Caroline Waxler: It was a great experience.
David Mandel: We were sort of you know, show running, except it wasn’t much of a show because it was just us and Larry, so we were running each other. But that was sort of how we made the move to Curb, and just you know, he would you know, do a season when he wanted to, and it was great. We would work on movie stuff until he would say, “Let’s do more Curb.” Then we would shift gears to Curb, and then if he want to take another break or whatever, we went back to movie stuff. And it worked really well, and it was just some really fun stuff doing those episodes. Which you know, everyone always talks about, “Oh, it’s all improv.” And it is, but we work meticulously on those outlines, and they are outlines that are written in such a way that honestly you could write a script in a night out of one of these outlines if you had to. You know, we don’t.
Caroline Waxler: It sounds very detailed.
David Mandel: But they’re very detailed. And then the actual process is really a real just like it’s pure adrenaline. It’s the closest thing almost to like a live rewrite. Because the actors are improving, and your job as writer/director is really live shaping of it. It’s the kind of stuff normally that gets done elsewhere, but you’re doing it there in front of the camera between takes.
Caroline Waxler: How fun.
David Mandel: And it’s a blast in a half, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: What years were you doing that?
David Mandel: Oh dear lord. We made Euro Trip in 2003, it came out in 2004. I think we did our first Curb season after Euro Trip came out, that’s when we didn’t have an office. That would have been the season where Larry thought he was adopted and gave the kidney to Richard and I think died at the end of the season and went to heaven. We helped him write that season, or break that season. And then the seasons after that we’re the exec producers, and we’re directing episodes. I know, I have a loose straw. The season numbers I’ve lost complete track of, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: After Curb, did you work on movies and then Veep, or what was your trajectory?
David Mandel: I guess it was constantly throughout the Curb thing, it was always like a little bit of Curb, a little bit of movies, a little bit of Curb, a little bit of movies. Which is always really fun.
Caroline Waxler: A great balance.
David Mandel: Yeah, it was really enjoyable. Sort of on the back end of that, we had done another big Curb season, which was the New York season.
Caroline Waxler: How great for you?
David Mandel: The three of us had written The Dictator of Sacha Baron Cohen, and off of that, somewhere off of that, Jeff created The League. The show The League on FX with his wife.
Caroline Waxler: Yes, hilarious.
David Mandel: And then Alec and I were working on some movie stuff, and somewhere in there, and I can’t remember exactly when. HBO had done a Silicon Valley pilot that Alec was not involved it. And you know, much as HBO will do when something isn’t I guess perfectly working, they will keep working on it and at it. And so they brought Alec in to work on that with Mike Judge, and they sort of redid that, and then he went off and did that. And I always joked, I was sort of next in line. So when HBO had their next problem which was that Armando Iannucci was going to leave Veep after the fourth season, it was like, “That guy over there.”
Caroline Waxler: His ticket is up.
David Mandel: That was sort of the Segway to Veep if you will.
Caroline Waxler: Was it difficult taking over for Armando?
David Mandel: I mean, it was and it wasn’t. At the time I remember everyone going, “Do you feel the pressure? Do you feel the pressure?” I’d always worked on … I mean, I wasn’t necessarily always in charge in charge. But I had always been very much at the … I don’t know how to say this, the forefront of the show, whether I had the title or not. And I’d often work obviously almost 100% on other people’s creations, and yet you try to make them my own. Took the characters, tried to analyze them, think about what I wanted to see them do, which is how I liked to work. That’s what I did on Seinfeld.
You know, one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, was in the pool guy episode, which is the one with the 777 film. Where you have Elaine and Susan, Elaine decides, it’s pointed out to Elaine how she doesn’t really have a lot of female friends. Which she doesn’t, she was a really guy’s girl. And this was something I knew people like that, that kind of resented when you pointed out that they didn’t have female friends. I thought that would be a funny thing for Elaine, and so she embraces Susan, and all these things kind of whatever. But that all comes out of just character, just looking at what the show has done, and analyzing the character and go, “This would be an interesting thing to bring up, and then see how she responds to it.” That’s writing, I don’t know, it’s me.
I don’t know, Veep was no different. I didn’t really think much about it in terms of the pressure. I do remember when were about to shoot our first one … I should say we were about a month out, they won their first Emmy. And part of me was like, “Oh God, what have I done.” And part of me was like, “Well, at least they got one.” That if I sort of screw this whole thing up, at least they got one.
Caroline Waxler: I like that.
David Mandel: I don’t know, I didn’t worry about it. It did make me laugh though when our first season was kind of done and out, and I guess the reviews were coming in.
Caroline Waxler: Scary times, yes.
David Mandel: Look everybody loves good reviews, right?
Caroline Waxler: Of course.
David Mandel: I laugh though, when I read some of those reviews, some of them sometimes are almost so effusive that I did realize in retrospect how much they thought I was going to fail.
Caroline Waxler: Like [inaudible 00:35:05] take on it.
David Mandel: Like they sort of went the other way, that they were so prepared for it to suck, that they almost are like, “Look I think it’s good, but it’s not this good.” That made me laugh, but I did realize later, “Oh, wow, everybody thought we were going to screw it up.” I don’t know, we didn’t.
Caroline Waxler: How would you describe your style, both what you brought to Veep and then just your style throughout your career, what’s your stamp?
David Mandel: I mean, in its simplest form, I guess, all I really care about is the funny. Honestly, it’s like, what is the funniest joke possible? I mean, I just like no stone left unturned. I’ll take a joke from the craft service lady if it’s funnier than the one we have. I guess, nothing fazes me, there’s nothing offensive, there’s nothing I’m sensitive about, I just don’t care.
Is it funny? And is it just honestly … Sorry, is it fucking funny? That’s all I care about. And if I’m hiring a writer, are they funny? I don’t care about anything else, are they funny? They’re funny, great. I’m not interested in, “Well, they’re really good with the room.” No, are they funny? You know what I mean? “Oh, they’re really good with story.” Really, they’re good with story and they’re not funny? Not interested, that’s all I really care about.
And I guess you know, for me, you know, I don’t know if these are sort of signatures. The way I really learned to do sitcoms from you know, Larry and Jerry, I’ll say with no offense to Jerry, really Larry, the outlining. Outlining, outlining, outlining, it’s something to this day, you know, when I sit down for a new season of Veep. I sit down knowing what the first scene is going to be and the final scene of the season is going to be. And often because I know what the final season scene is going to be, I’m often even thinking about what the first scene of the following year is going to be, ’cause I’m trying to set that up at the same time.
We spend the first two months of really the season, of just talking through ideas, reading stuff. Having visitors come in from all different walks of Washington DC life, from both sides of the aisle we take that very seriously. We’re kind of accumulating stuff, and then at some point I start to put things into like for lack of a better word, individual boards that have been numbered. Usually 10 boards, we do it usually a 10 episode season. And then I just start putting like things into like piles. And it’s like, “Okay, this seems like an episode, and this seems like an episode, and this seems like an episode.”
At a certain point, I am bringing to HBO, here is the season. Not here’s this one and we’ll figure out the next one. And not everything is figured out, and that’s how Curb was done. And it’s not exactly how Seinfeld was done, although each individual episode was meticulously outlined. But it’s outline, outline, outline, if the outline doesn’t work, nothing’s going to work. Like I was saying before, I think you know … I think it’s funny you know, as you bounce around and you meet different writers. And you meet writers where you go, “That guy knows.” Or, “That lady knows what the story is and that person doesn’t”
It’s funny what isn’t a story, a location isn’t a story. A scene isn’t a story, a funny line isn’t a story. A story is a story. And story when it comes from character or plays the character is the best of all. And I do like to think about the characters and sort of you know, find like what would be their worst nightmare? What would make them happy? What do you think they want? What do they think they want? Those kinds of things to help generate story, which then hopefully goes into that kind of master outline if you will.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely. What was your favorite story on Veep so far?
David Mandel: Oh, boy.
Caroline Waxler: Or some of your favorites?
David Mandel: I mean, as an individual episode, I love … We did a fake documentary, which was her daughter Catherine’s film that she had been filming all season. We used it not only to sort of fill in some interesting little bits and pieces from the past. There was some old footage in it if you will, where you got to see some interesting stuff. We use it to fill in little bits and pieces from episodes, things that you didn’t know that happened after scenes you saw. But what I loved about it was, within that structure, we had the big vote for lack of a better word at the end of the episode, where she finds out she’s not going to be president. And yet because it’s Catherine filming, and at that point Catherine has fallen in love with the secret service woman Marjorie. The camera is basically of Catherine filming Marjorie, and sort of deep in the background-
Caroline Waxler: Yes, her mom.
David Mandel: Selina is losing her election and her mind. I loved that episode just in general. You know, story wise, God, I don’t know. It’s too hard to I don’t know, pick a story per say.
Caroline Waxler: But that’s a great episode. Any top jokes that either made it in or didn’t make it?
David Mandel: There’s a couple of not even great jokes. Sometimes there are things I’d like to you know, I’ve been trying … I’m a huge Robert Caro fan.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, have you read his new book?
David Mandel: I’ve not read the new, new one yet.
Caroline Waxler: It’s so good.
David Mandel: No, I heard him talk about it, but I’m excited to read it, and I will read it. I just have to finish this little show called Veep, but I will get to it. I have been wanting to do a Robert Caro joke on Veep, although I don’t believe he watches the show.
Caroline Waxler: Do you know though?
David Mandel: I don’t think he’s a big TV guy, and he shouldn’t, he needs to finish those books. He needs to finish the Lyndon Johnson books.
Caroline Waxler: Seriously.
David Mandel: I’ve been trying to jam a Robert Caro joke in, and I had one in the first episode of this season, and I ended up cutting it in the edit room.
Caroline Waxler: No.
David Mandel: Yeah, it was just about the idea that what Salina wanted most in life was what she referred to as like a tumor size biography by Robert Caro that no one would read, that was her dream. Sometimes there’s weird little jokes. I’ve been very obsessed with the fact that every two years time magazine does an article about are angels real? And we made a joke about that, that we tried to do in the past and got it in finally. It’s things like that were the ones I kind of remember. But you know, what can I say, I love it all.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great. Any hints you can tell us about this upcoming season?
David Mandel: You know, I mean, if you’ve been watching the show, obviously at the end of the last season, she decided to run again for the presidency. And she really in that moment threw away sort of … She had been trying to build a library and have sort of a legacy, she threw that in the garbage. She had finally found a certain amount of happiness with her boyfriend Ambassador Jaffar, she threw that in the garbage. In some ways, she’s kind of all in on this run. And the last time she lost she kind of went crazy, and so there’s definitely an edge to it, and you know, a sense that she feels this is truly her turn, and of course that doesn’t ever work out well. And this time she is running against Jonah, and he continues to be Jonah.
You know, one of the things that we really try to do especially … This has been a very strange season because we had written a couple of episodes and had mapped out the whole season, and we were close to starting when you know Julia was diagnosed with cancer, and we ended up shutting down. During that shut down, it gave me a chance I guess to kind of go back into, which is something I rarely ever do, normally you don’t really have the chance. But I guess I was looking for the chance because … And I don’t think this an original thought. Politics felt like it was changing a million miles a minutes. Especially dare I say if you go back and look like January, February, March of 2018. When Trump kind of hit his second year in the white house, it’s like everything got more so.
And by the way, this isn’t just about Trump. The world seemed like it was changing. I mean, the shootings became more common place, these authoritarian regimes in other countries. The immigration crisis in foreign countries and here, I mean, just all these things happening. And certainly I think a sense of like pessimism that’s sort of you know, pervading this country. But also just so much of what Veep was went out the window, and I’ve talked about this other places. But you know, we did an episode season five, my first season, where the president Tweeted. They’ve often shown this clip of like, you know, Mike running, “My God, the president has Tweeted.” And it was about a Tweet that’s kind of, she said something kind of nasty, and then it becomes a whole thing and they have to lie about it and whatever. Well, that episode looks like we made it in the 1800’s now. Do you know what I mean?
Caroline Waxler: Yes, so dated.
David Mandel: It feels so out of date, in just the strangest way you can think of. And so I guess it was a chance to not radically change what we had thought the story was, the story is the story. But definitely began to shade it a little differently and try to sort of find, what are we trying to … I guess for a lack of a better word, what are our attack points? What are we going after? What are we trying to satirize? Just like how are things different and what does this darker mood for the country mean for Veep?
That was sort of the attempt, and I think you will see it in … I think we’ve done our best to reflect modern times in world where we’re obviously not doing Trump jokes. We’re not Beto O’rourke jokes, do you know what I mean?
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
David Mandel: They don’t exist, but the different things that they represent went into this new season of Veep hopefully.
Caroline Waxler: Well, I know you were early on the Amy Klobuchar commentary.
David Mandel: Well, it’s funny again all these things, you know, we get these stories you know from a lot of people, because we bring in these people. You know, they tell us stuff and rumors and what not, and it all goes into the stew. You know, when I used to do Seinfeld and Curb, the great stories were always the real things you’d pull from your own lives.
Caroline Waxler: Of course.
David Mandel: You know, I did the man hands story, is very loosely on my now wife who grew up on a farm and had very sort of what she called, “Farmy hands.” And they’re normal size, but they’re definitely rough. As opposed to my sort of upper west side, New York prince hands that have never worked an actual day in their life, you know what I mean? I have like the hands of a beautiful 14 year old, they’re all like smooth and perfect.
Caroline Waxler: They’re gorgeous.
David Mandel: Yes, thank you, thank you. For those of you who can’t see them, they’re glowing. And that became man hands, and again, something from my own life. With Veep, sometimes you can pull stuff from your own life, but more often than not, you know, we’re looking at history, we’re looking at the past, and we’re bringing in people that work on campaigns that are telling us you know, stories, and that was a rumor and we did a joke about it. And then all of sudden people started going, “Is that what is was about.” And I said, “Look I can’t confirm it. I have no idea, it sounds insane.” But we heard the rumor and we put it in the show, I’m not going to lie about it.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great. Who came in to advise you for this season?
David Mandel: God, this season it’s so funny, ’cause again this season started two years ago.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, of course.
David Mandel: But early on in the season, Shattered had just come out. Which so Amie Parnes and John Allen, the authors came in. The Politico guys stopped by, they’re always fun to talk to. John Dean came in from the Watergate hearings, that was amazing.
Caroline Waxler: I love that, he’s so good on Twitter.
David Mandel: Yeah, he’s so good on Twitter, follow him on Twitter. Bob Shrum came in, Mitt Romney came in, I think that was two years ago, that was really interesting-
Caroline Waxler: Oh, was that after-
David Mandel: It might have been three years ago.
Caroline Waxler: Was that after he, the Trump dinner where he had the-
David Mandel: No, it was before that. This is when I guess we talked to him before all the … Trump was running, but it was before any of that stuff, so maybe that was three years ago. It was interesting to talk to him a little bit about loss. Because I remember talking to him about losing.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, fascinating.
David Mandel: What he said, and you know, it was interesting ’cause it was definitely a side of a guy you didn’t see on the campaign trail, sort of a looser guy.
Caroline Waxler: Of course.
David Mandel: Which is something I had heard said about him. I guess there was a … I shouldn’t say I guess, there was a documentary that was made about him that I remember seeing, and you remember, you watched it and went, “This is not the guy I’m seeing on the campaign trail.” We were talking about loss, which you know, it’s always a little weird to, “Hey, you lost, what’s it like?” But he was a willing participant. And one of the things he talked about was, look, obviously he’s a well to do guy. And so it’s like, it’s not like he’s wanting for anything.
Caroline Waxler: Of course.
David Mandel: But he really said, “You know, look, I have all these wonderful kids and we have all these wonderful grand kids, and that’s what we spend our time doing.” And it was so fascinating just to sit there and just think to yourself, Salina has none of that. And you sort of you know, again, he wasn’t specifically pitching a Salina idea, but in his happiness you saw how unhappy Salina would be, and so you pick up things where you can.
Caroline Waxler: I love that dichotomy in what you gleam.
David Mandel: Yeah, it’s kind of wild, yeah.
Caroline Waxler: I wanted to return to the idea of the writers’ room. You mentioned that you have some strong feelings about it.
David Mandel: Yeah, I mean, I use a writers’ room. I have writers and we have a room, and I think for punch up it is fantastic. I think taking a script and sitting around a room with really funny people, a script that just you know, needs more jokes, it’s great, and we do that all throughout our process. We do you know, sometimes Julius, sometimes I will identify things where we go, “I think we could do better here.” And so you know, often the night before a scene is being shot we’ll send out a note just going, “We’re look for stuff for here.” And I’ll get submissions. Honestly, one of the wonderful things about HBO was I was able to keep my writing staff basically throughout filming.
Caroline Waxler: For two year-
David Mandel: I’m sitting at the monitor with basically a writing staff, not during the cancer break.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, right, right.
David Mandel: But I mean when we are shooting, for all of shooting, the writers are not laid off and gone.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great.
David Mandel: The writers are there and most of the time, they are behind me. Even when I don’t want something, even when I don’t think I need something, they’re pitching me jokes, and certainly when I need something. We’re constantly trying alt lines, we’re constantly making things better. You know, doing just on set nips and tucks, and really making something better. That is what a great team of writers can do. And I don’t even mind discussing stories, because you’re having a discussion. But when it gets to that moment of if you will, group writing in a room, there is nothing worse as far as I’m concerned.
And the process if you will that I find, when I was at Seinfeld you pitched your … Again, this is how I learned. You pitched you stories for your episode, and your stories were approved one at a time. And when you had four stories, you went and did your outline. And when your outline was approved, you went and wrote your episode and it was your episode. It wasn’t everybody sitting in a room, and you’re putting in a lot of stuff, but it’s his turn over there to write that episode or vice versa.
And now someone else is being handed a writer’s assistance bunch of notes, and they’re going off to write an episode, that you or I or somebody else probably should be writing. That is one of my many problems with writers’ rooms, and I do think, and it happens even with punch up. The writers, the room often there’s like I guess I’ll say room jokes, or even worse than that, joke like substances make it into scripts. Because whether the room is tired or goofy, or whatever. Or they’re just convincing themselves that this is something, and it’s not, it’s nothing. And I find it’s why there’s so many shows that have the same rhythms, because it’s just a group of writers, often of whom have worked on a lot of different shows. Again, they’re all funny people.
A lot of the people I have working for me on Veep are guys and girls that had been working in writers’ rooms for years. It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s just that’s how they were taught to do it. And so on Veep, I’m very much working on the overall outline, different people are kind of taking responsibility for individual episodes, and usually based on their the ones giving the most towards it, they have an experience in their life. We did an overseas episode, and one of the … We did a overseas episode in Georgia. One of our writers actually Billy Kimble who had hired me all those years to go-
Caroline Waxler: Oh, I love that, that you-
David Mandel: I hired Billy and he had lived in the Ukraine. And so we had this sort of vaguely Russian themed episode, well that’s going to be Billy’s episode for all the right reasons. And then he is responsible for outlining, and I’ll work with him on the outline. And don’t get me wrong, if something’s not working, I’ll convene the group, there’s power in good ideas. But again, it’s sort of like, somebody has to be the writer. I really feel strongly, and it’s why I think there’s just such a sameness to so much of the room written television. That’s one man’s opinion, and everyone who works in a room tells me I’m crazy, but try it my way, that’s all I can say.
Caroline Waxler: I wanted to ask you, and I ask everyone this. Where do you do your best writing?
David Mandel: I’m not good. I have never been good with deadline. I need like boats burning behind me. To me, there is nothing like the adrenaline of this is due, or we’re shooting it tomorrow, or God in some cases, it’s not working, and I go, “I’m going to go over there and I’m going to fix it.” That’s I hate to say it where I do my best. For the most part I work at home, I have an office at home, and I find I’m a late night guy to begin with, even though I have you know, young kids which is hard. But when it sort of gets to be about midnight and nobody’s calling me, and no one wants to talk and whatever. That’s when I find I can do sort of my best work, and we’ll often just go straight through to the morning or something, and just keep going, you know, if I can.
Caroline Waxler: Your SNL training kicking in again.
David Mandel: I guess so, but honestly I was like that even as a high schooler too, it’s like I’ve learned no lessons.
Caroline Waxler: Well, one thing about high school, I understand you were on student government. How does that inform Veep?
David Mandel: I don’t know if it really does, but I mean, it’s you know, it’s one of those funny things where you know, I was in student government. I was a government major at Harvard. I mean, I hate to say it, but much like I said before, I was a comedy nerd. I’m somebody that reads Robert Caro books for fun, you know what I mean?
Caroline Waxler: The [inaudible 00:54:18]
David Mandel: You know, I read a couple weeks ago, I finished the Michael Beschloss book. I just read the George Washington conspiracy, during the Revolutionary war to kill by Brad Meltzer, his partner.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, I need to read that.
David Mandel: This is the kind of the stuff I write, sorry, I read. I don’t read a lot of fiction. And obviously I’m reading a lot of you know, newspapers and newsletters every morning to try and get a lot of different sides of what’s going on in DC. I think I guess I’m pre disposed I guess in that other worlds where I was a lawyer or something. I don’t know, I bet I would have been interested in being like a staffer or something like that, you know in the road not taken, or like working in DC. I think I would have liked that. It kind of all flows into my naturally sort of, I like politics, and that isn’t very handy for Veep.
Caroline Waxler: Might then inform your next job?
David Mandel: I feel like it’s got to be something different. I feel like I don’t know what it’ll be, but I feel like it’s got to not be politics for a little bit. I’ll keep it up privately, but yeah, I think we all need a break. They need a break from me, I need a break from politics.
Caroline Waxler: Well, excited to see what you do next, and thank you so much for coming in.
David Mandel: Thank you, a real pleasure, thank you.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music by Stockboy Creative. You can learn about the Writers Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org, and follow the guild on social media at @wgaeast. And if you like this podcast please subscribe and rate us, we appreciate your tuning in, write on.