With the Veep series finale, producer David Mandel and the show’s writing staff teamed with its legendary ensemble cast to land the series in a pitch-perfect way that managed to speak to Selina Meyer’s blinding quest for ambition without ignoring the damage done to her flickering humanity. Best of all, it simply felt like a really good episode of Veep, not an overstuffed and out of character send off.
We’ll all have a lot of things to remember and fixate on for a while thanks to the artful execution (and what’s sure to be the show’s enduring legacy) of the Veep finale, but one moment, in particular, stands out: that very loud barrage of insults that were aimed at the face of (poor) Timothy Simons as he played the “tall stack of failed pancakes” that was Jonah Ryan in the midst of a vicious verbal beatdown one final time. Here’s the scene in question, courtesy of HBO.
Jonah insults almost always qualify as a kind of crude poetry, but when combining a fed-up Selina Meyer six and a half feet from her ultimate goal and a wound-up Uncle Jeff ready to snarl Jonah into submission, well, the whole thing was a song whose construction we needed to know more about. And thanks to the participation of Mandel, Simons, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Peter MacNicol, we have a fuller picture of how that moment came to be, its deeper value to the series finale, and a few other tidbits from Mandel and the cast in this micro-oral history.
That aforementioned beautiful music of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Peter MacNicol screaming obscenities at Timothy Simons didn’t happen in an instant. While no one is quite sure how it all fit together, the importance of getting it right and allowing the audience to hear those specific (and especially mean) insults was crystal clear from the start.
David Mandel: There wasn’t a lot of adding or subtracting or playing with it. It was interesting in the sense of, it was a lot harder than it looked, I guess is what I’m saying.
Timothy Simons: We don’t ever bat anything out in one or two takes. You always end up opening it up, you know, probably at least ten times. Like them screaming at the same time, that is hard to do to keep focused on a wordy monologue like that. Also, Peter McNichol is screaming and also I’m trying to jump in to defend myself. That is a really challenging thing for both Peter and Julia to have done.
Peter MacNicol: It was so clear what we were supposed to do. Tim is like 7 foot 3 and Julia and I are considerably not that, so we had to scale him like two tree vipers attacking a bird’s nest and we are doing that with our volume. That’s all we’ve got to work with, flying up at him. The trick in doing that is to turn my innate volume down from its usual deafening [level] to booming, so we can hear Julia. I’ve never had anything like that, two actors shouting at full volume. I’m sure by take three I had already burst hundreds of capillaries in my eyes. It was such full-on rage.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I sort of, in a way, wanted to modulate my voice so that certain phrases coming out of Peter, as uncle Jeff, would be heard. “Pile of failure shaped like a rapist,” or, “I’ll hit you with my car like I did when you were in kindergarten.” You know, stuff like that, and I was concerned about being too loud and also I think Peter may have felt the same way that we sort of both wanted to modulate. But, to be honest, I don’t think we ultimately did in the takes that we used. We are both screaming at the same volume. We really couldn’t hear anybody. So, it was like, I had to rat-a-tat-tat, through machine gun fire at Jonah while at the same time had to have an ear open to Peter.
Simons: The stakes were so high. You couldn’t have anyone speaking in anything that was less than heightened emotion. There was nowhere left to go. A little insult, a little snide comment wouldn’t work because everything in that last episode is life or death.
Mandel: It’s one of those things where we tried to control it, but there was no control over it. I can’t explain it, there were takes where somehow you couldn’t hear a fucking thing. The way they were just talking over each other, they killed what both were saying. And then there was a take or two, where whatever nanosecond of time where he was doing something slightly different, or she was doing something slightly different, it just allowed certain phrases and words to pop through. Certain phrases, so that the way you heard “shaped like a rapist,” and Tim going, “I’m not shaped like a rapist.” And then her talking about the syndrome they name after him when they cut him open and figure out what the fuck he is.
Simons: I think that is the worst insult that has ever been handed to [Jonah].
Dreyfus: I was so pleased to be in the same scene, because [Peter and I] hadn’t worked together. So, it was such a delight to have the opportunity to do that together, and that was very on purpose. Dave [Mandel] and I talked about getting these two characters together in a scene. In a very volatile scene. I’m a massive Peter MacNicol fan, always have been, and what’s quite remarkable is that Peter MacNicol, not only does he have just perfect comic timing, but he is so not like Uncle Jeff.
MacNicol: I’m very meek and retiring. I never use foul language, just never. No. And these words aren’t just foul, they’re ornate and complicatedly foul.
Simons: With Peter, it is always just trying to keep a straight face because he is so goddamn funny. Peter is fantastic, but when Julia gets locked in on a monologue, like that, yes they are funny, but she is intimidating when she does it.
No one can deny the power of words like “cockless cockroach,” but Selina’s rage had to be satiated by something more jarring: a slap to the forehead that effectively snapped Jonah out of his hubris overdose and helped keep the actors engaged in the moment.
Mandel: The slap — a lot of the great Veep physicality — came out as we rehearsed and worked the scene. It was written into the script. I believe it was Julia that thought the slap could both be a slap and get his attention at the same time.
Dreyfus: I felt like the slapping of him in the head was a nice, sort of, pedal to the metal, as they say, for the assault that ensued.
MacNicol: He was looking at her and I was just kind of peripherally aware of her so I could somewhat time my outburst. But, I wasn’t looking at her face, I’m sure it was more feverish than mine because her rage culminated in actual physical violence. That was an extraordinary thing that she thumped him across the forehead. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that and I don’t know how she faked it. I don’t think she did fake it. [Laughs]
Simons: Julia was really hitting me in the head. She pulled it a little bit, but she was actually making contact. Honestly, in the heat of the moment, you are not going to break if somebody just knocks you upside your head a little bit.
Dreyfus: Well, I didn’t want to actually hurt him, in fact. So, I did sort of hold back, although, there were a couple takes in which I really did hit him pretty hard, I think.
Mandel: We did it a couple of times, but that is the one where she really whacked him. In the other takes, you could feel her trying not to hurt him and they weren’t as funny. The thing the slap ends up doing is really upping the ante. He is being yelled at by Uncle Jeff and just as he starts to fight back against Uncle Jeff, there’s Selina and the SLAP. You laugh at the slap and it helps underline how funny the two of them yelling at him is. It almost gives you a place to laugh at it all.
Dreyfus: I could have whacked him harder, but you know, I am, behind all of this, a human being who cares for Tim Simons [Laughs].
The Last Word
Over and done in a little more than a minute, the confrontation between Selina, Uncle Jeff, and Jonah nevertheless looms large in the finale and helps to put the finishing touches on the portrait of Selina as a flawed and fierce titan.
Mandel: The thing I like to always remember about Selina is that she is a real street fighter and had an innate, almost Lyndon Johnson-like ability to either figure out what you want or how to attack your weakness.
Dreyfus: She took no prisoners. As a political animal, she was very laser-focused on getting what she thought she wanted. Even though she was her own worst enemy. So, I think the language of the series from the beginning to end supported that, you know. She was somebody who was very rageful, very bitter. She started out like that and it only grew as the series developed over the years. She had a tantrum in the pilot episode. That was sort of Selina light, at that point, by comparison.
Simons: When he was offered the Vice Presidency, Jonah has that moment where he says something like, “No! That is not acceptable.” I feel like, to me, that was a discovery in the moment of the scene in that this is probably the first time that he has ever not just taken the easiest thing. That was the first time that he has ever had a very easy confidence. He has always been flustered, he has always been able to yell. But at that moment, he was like, “no, I’m doing great. I don’t need you” in a way that he has always needed these other people for validation. I think he really does, in that moment, believe that he is going to be President and to accept anything less is unacceptable. The moment he reverts… he has been there a million times. It’s almost like a toddler. You think of a toddler’s reaction to getting the second most powerful position in the entire world. It’s pretty funny.
Mandel: Despite her many years of not being President, she still rose up from Congress to the Senate to the Veep’s office. And when she is yelling at people, you can see how that happened.