TV

‘Veep’ Creator Armando Iannucci And Timothy Simons Explain Why It’s So Much Fun To Hate Jonah Ryan

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.”

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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.

“The biggest change is that there has been growth with him,” Simons says, looking back at all four seasons. “When he started, he was working on the President’s campaign, that was his first job out of school and he sort of succeeded at a few things and stayed on because of his connections with his uncle Jeff. When he was in the White House, he was very much a rookie in that world, he had no idea what was going on, and he dressed and acted poorly, with no sense of decorum and with no sense of the integrity of the office. Over the seasons, although he is still a pretty abhorred person and he is absolutely a sexual harasser, I think he’s gotten to be a savvier political animal.”

Despite his worst characteristics, Jonah has failed upward and continues to find success. He dresses better, is an expert of food, tech, and even hip-hop, and above all else he kisses the most ass, and so, as Iannucci points out, it’s Jonah who sees himself as a senior player while Reid Scott’s Dan Egan is failing to live up to the potential he had when he weaseled his way into Selina’s staff in the very first episode. And that’s what sets Veep apart from the traditional sitcom (well, in addition to the vulgar hilarity): We’re watching these characters react to their situations and change accordingly, as opposed to standing still and remaining frozen in time.

Jonah’s greatest achievement through four seasons has been his emergence as the biggest a-hole on a show full of a-holes. Dan, Mike, Kent, Amy, Ben, Sue, Gary… even Selina, the Vice President and now President of the United States – they all have their terrible traits, but don’t hold a candle to Jonah’s awfulness. However, even while Iannucci admits that Jonah is the worst of the worst, he’s also the show’s greatest survivor.

“Other characters around him have been fired, have breakdowns, have had health issues, have walked away, and, strangely enough, it’s bizarrely all gone according to plan,” he laughs. “Because he is working for the president, he’s one of her team. It maybe says something about Washington politics that someone like Jonah, just by shear relentlessness of believing in himself, the belief does then come true. If you hang around long enough, if you persist intensely enough, it will come true.”

As such, with success comes jealousy, hatred, and the Jonad Files. The tradition of insulting Jonah has been so fun for the cast and writers, that making up nicknames even comes naturally to the actors now. Simons recalls that around the beginning of the third season, Scott referred to his character’s nemesis as “Hepatitis J” and that one stuck. As for the rest of the nicknames listed in “Testimony” and used throughout the show, there’s no real culprit behind them all. They just sort of pile up on their own.

“It’s kind of uncharitable to figure out where they actually come from,” Simons says. “As for the actual Jonad Files, part of me that thinks they just had a backlog of really horrible Jonah nicknames that they hadn’t been able to use and they’re like, ‘Well fuck, what can we do with these?’ And they’re a huge fan of list jokes, Simon Blackwell admittedly, his favorite thing is a list joke. After the London episode, all the things wrong with Reid Scott when he’s in the hospital bed, that was a Simon Blackwell thing. He just loves giant lists of awful stuff. So, I think that was just the writers having 30 really good nicknames and not knowing what to do with them and then having a Jonad File.”

Needless to say, there’s an art to insulting Jonah. Iannucci won’t let his writers simply throw any insult at the character for the sake of being mean. “They’ve got be really clever and the word play has to be exactly right,” he explains, adding that sometimes the names would come up in writing sessions and sometimes they’d simply have a spare moment on set and use the glossary of abuse as a fun exercise. In preparing for “Testimony,” though, Iannucci had to actually set a deadline for Jonah nicknames.

“I was putting the final draft of the script together before we went in to shoot it, sitting around with all the writers saying, ‘Okay, you’ve got 24 hours before I close the book on Jonah,’” he remembers. “And overnight, because I was in Baltimore and a lot of the writers were in London, I’d wake up the next morning and there would just be these piles of Jonah nicknames that I had to wade through. But it’s good fun. It’s slightly therapeutic.”

Simons has two favorites: the very clever “Cloud Botherer,” which he admits always makes him laugh, and “Tall McCartney,” the name that Jonah uses during the hearing to stave off further humiliation. “It’s just so simple and it doesn’t involve swearing,” the actor explains, “and I think that Tall McCartney is just ridiculous, that all these nicknames are now going to start getting used and he just tries so hard to get one out that is complimentary, and he tries to get Tall McCartney going, I just love that. He’s just such an asshole that he thinks that’s actually going to get traction.”

Iannucci also has some specific favorites, although he says they tend to change. “Benedict Cum-in-his-own-hand is always good,” he laughs. “Spewbacca… Guyscraper.”

Where does Jonah rank when it comes to television’s current greatest a-holes? That’s a debate that could crown any number of characters, from Jimmy on You’re the Worst and the entire gang on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Jacqueline on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Bertram Gilfoyle on Silicon Valley (and many, many more). Iannucci believes that Jonah is such a huge a-hole, that he puts him in the same company as actual politicians, including a current presidential frontrunner: “It’s an honor to be considered on the same list as Donald Trump. Even though he doesn’t know that that list is of assholes.”

Unlike his character, Simons is a humble man and recognizes his place in the great pantheon of TV dicks. “There are a lot of amazing assholes on television,” he says. “It’s fun to play someone who is incredibly self-confident for no reason. And there are so many great assholes on television. I think the one thing that unites all of them, depending on what their brand of asshole-dem is, is that you somehow are sympathetic to them and you see all of their failings, and even if they’re not trying really hard to not be an asshole, you still root for them a little bit. Like Bevers on Broad City is a terribly disgusting, inconsiderate asshole roommate, but very sweet. And Will Forte as Phil Miller on Last Man on Earth is just an unbelievable character that is so incredibly funny and is selfish at every single moment at his life. But you still, somehow, root for him and he’s still, somehow, likable. As far as rankings go, I wouldn’t be the one to do that, but it is really fun. There are a lot of really good assholes on TV.”

What Simons tries to do with Jonah is give him some normal, identifiable traits so that viewers can at least empathize with this otherwise unlikable guy. Will we ever root for Jonah the same way that we root for other a-holes? Iannucci can’t give us any details or teasers, because after four seasons, he has left the show to focus on new projects. Fans might be wondering how Iannucci’s departure will affect not only Jonah, but all of the characters. David Mandel has taken over as showrunner and Iannucci has complete faith in the former Seinfeld writer and Curb Your Enthusiasm director.

“David is a very experienced writer and I chatted with him before we did this sort of handover, and his instincts are very sound,” Iannucci explains. “Julia and the rest of the cast have a way of working now where they all understand each other and they all connect with each other. I don’t think I would have done my job properly if the viewer detected any change in season four or season five because we were very careful to make sure that we all agreed what we wanted to do with it and where it should be going and so on. I mean, I haven’t been involved with it at all because I went straight into some other things, but I’m sure it’s in very good hands.”

Simons won’t reveal Jonah’s fate in season five, but he assures us that his character will still be failing upward and getting under everyone’s skin because of it.

“Going into every season, there’s always that thing of like, ‘Here’s what you can tell people: You are a character on the television show Veep and your character’s name is Jonah.’ One of the first things that happens is a really great power dynamic shift with Jonah that is really fun,” Simons says. “And then I think there is an aspect of him trying to claw his way back to prominence, which has happened before. One of the great things about him is that no matter what happens to him, getting fired, losing out on millions of dollars from Ryantology, getting molested — all of these things, he still wakes up the next day and looks in the mirror and says, ‘You’re still on top. You’re going to get back to it.’ Nothing gets him down, he will never stop trying to get ahead. This season I guess just shells a bunch more shit on him and then he attempts to climb out. Like he always does.”

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