For Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing U.S. Vice President Selina Meyer in HBO's new sitcom Veep feels like a homecoming. "I'm familiar with the culture of Washington because I grew up there," says the graduate of the tony D.C. private school Holton-Arms. "[First Daughter] Susan Ford and her Secret Service went to my high school, and Amy Carter went to my sister's. So I know that area."
An SNL/Seinfeld/New Adventures of Old Christine alum, she's got a master's degree in comedy, as does British creator Armando Iannucci, known for politically incorrect satires like 2009's Oscar-nominated In the Loop. "We're very simpatico in terms of what makes us laugh," says Louis-Dreyfus.
Not that some jokes weren't initially lost in translation. "Englishisms would creep into the script — 'It would be awfully keen if...'" she recalls. "I'd always ask the cast to point those out," says Iannucci. "They'd emphasize it by putting on terrible Cockney accents."
The tone of Veep's humor feels veddy British as well — it's a spiky spoof in the spirit of Ricky Gervais' The Office. "Everyone loved The West Wing because it showed the romantic side of politics," says Reid Scott (My Boys), who plays the staff's resident snake in the grass. "Veep shows the other side." Adds Louis-Dreyfus, "A lot of people in Washington try to do the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons. It's just a mess. We're talking about that mess."
Still, Veep keeps it nonpartisan by never revealing Selina's political party — or giving us a glimpse of the president. (One running gag has Selina asking every week, "Did the president call?" only to be told, "No.") "I wanted to show how politics works in D.C., irrespective of who's in power," says Iannucci. "Selina could just as easily be a No. 2 to a Romney as to an Obama."
And it's that No. 2 position that leads to much of Veep's comedy. "The reality is, a driven politician does not desire the role of vice president," says Louis-Dreyfus, who interviewed some real-life veeps but refuses to name names "because I'd really like to be able to keep talking to these people." Adds Iannucci, "One ex-vice presidential senior staffer told me that all vice presidents know people are very respectful to their faces, because they could go on to be the next president, but quietly laugh as soon as they leave the room."
Shooting the eight-episode first season near the Capitol in Baltimore gave Louis-Dreyfus and Co. access to real-life political insiders, who often visited the highly realistic set. "We had people come by who work in the vice president's office in the [Eisenhower] Building, and they said it was like they hadn't left work," she says.
But those politicos don't show up on camera; unlike HBO's previous political parody K Street, you won't see James Carville and Mary Matalin popping in for cameos. "We didn't want to blur reality at all," says Louis-Dreyfus. "We shot at the Meet the Press set and we refer to David Gregory, but then it turns out he's sick and one of his second stringers comes in, who's an actor we hired."
Despite the actors' frequent on-camera insults (among Iannucci's many colorful put-downs is "f--ktard"), the cast got along famously off set. "I cannot say enough about JLD," raves Scott. "She's like the big sister who, when we're wrapping at 2am on a Friday, says, 'Come on over to my apartment and drink some wine and play ukulele and hang out." Agrees Tony Hale (Arrested Development), who plays the VP's "body man": "She knows how to work in an ensemble. Comedy is all about bouncing off each other."
For her part, Louis-Dreyfus couldn't be having a better time. "I love making comedy," she concludes. "It sounds very Pollyanaish, but to go to work and do things that are funny and laugh at people is just hilarious. It's a great way to live." She's won our vote!
Veep airs Sundays at 10/9c on HBO.