In “Testimony,” the ninth episode of Veep’s fourth season, fans were introduced to the “Jonad Files.” For longtime viewers of HBO’s critically-acclaimed series, the abuse taken by Jonah Ryan is one of the most reliably funny elements of the series, but the Jonad Files, or the “glossary of abuse,” served as a cherry-on-top moment. Watching Jonah become visibly agitated as the esteemed Mr. Rakes calls him “Jizzy Gillespie,” “Jack and the Giant Jackoff,” “Wadzilla,” “Tinkerballs,” and other grossly offensive nicknames was one of the great highlights of television in 2015, and that’s simply because it’s so much fun to hate Jonah Ryan.
In creating Veep, after ABC had passed on a watered down version of his original BBC series The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci spent some time in Washington, D.C. with writer Simon Blackwell speaking to people who worked on Capitol Hill and in the West Wing. They sought authenticity from people who took pride in embellishing their political self-worth, and they found that in low-level employees who took immense pride in the perk of being able to tell people that they were calling from the West Wing.
“We thought that would be a great character to have,” Iannucci tells us. “Someone who defines themselves by their place of work and then what happens when that place of work is changed, or if they’ve taken away from it or they’re given an extra responsibility and how they use it. Someone did tell us that as soon as they started working at the West Wing, they could start dating eights instead of sevens and sixes. It was like that basic sense of how they valued themselves.”
We may never know who Jonah was based on, but there is a real man out there who left a lasting impression on Iannucci and Blackwell with the way he “tried to project that he was the most important man in Washington,” Iannucci says. Hill staffers who are tall and cocky shouldn’t worry, though, because Timothy Simons doesn’t look anything like the man the show’s creator envisioned. Jonah was supposed to be short, bearded, and fat, which is why Simons was never confident that he’d get the role. However, Iannucci and Blackwell were willing to abandon an idea if the alternative worked, and Simons proved that the character could be just as effective being the butt of tall jokes instead of fat jokes.
“When you cast it and you have someone like Tim Simons, who is so hilarious and so naturally funny, then you flesh out the character,” Iannucci says. “That’s what I did with all the cast, especially. I think it was after the second season I met each one of them separately and I said, ‘Look, you live with these characters, so can I just ask you some questions as your character? What’s your worst fear? What’s your biggest nightmare? What’s your ambition?’ And these thoughts would spill out of them, which we then incorporated into the storylines.”
When it comes to ambition, Simons does have one thing in common with Jonah. In an early conversation, the actor told the show’s creator that his plan “is to run for congress in about 10 years,” according to Iannucci. That exchange actually says a lot about how well the young actor fit into this peculiar role. “He’s just amazed that no one has quite taken that seriously when he mentions it,” Iannucci laughs. “And also the fact that his mother dotes upon him and thinks he’s wonderful. We put some scenes in where you saw him with his mother and this horrible oil painting that she’s had commissioned of Jonah hanging up on the wall behind that just looks dreadful.”
The key to playing Jonah, Simons tells us, is the understanding that he always believes that he’s the smartest and most powerful man in the room. The actor latched on to that idea in his audition and he has run with it ever since. In fact, his audition scene was the first moment that he shared the screen with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer, so his introduction to Jonah was the same as the audience’s first impression – here is a man of little political worth who somehow thinks he’s better than the Vice President of the United States. But what makes Jonah so delightfully complex is that he has to believe that he’s the smartest man in the room, while we all know that it’s really the opposite. It’s a seemingly simple formula, and yet Jonah continues to evolve, becoming somehow worse and worse.