Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "VEEP." (Bill Gray, Handout photo )
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.