‘Veep’ EP David Mandel and ‘Silicon Valley’ EP Alec Berg on Comedy Lessons From ‘Seinfeld’

David Mandel Veep Alec Berg Silicon
Michael Lewis for Variety

Comedy showrunners David Mandel (“Veep”) and Alec Berg (“Silicon Valley”) have been friends since their days working on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And though they’re both competing in the same race, they’re quick to say the trophy doesn’t matter — pointing out that “Seinfeld” only won once (before their time) — Berg teases his friend, “which is easy for you to say, because you’re going to win!”

David, how much pressure did you feel going into this season’s Emmy race, having taken over the showrunning reins from Armando Iannucci?

David Mandel: I think I probably went into it kind of hoping, at best, that people didn’t hate us too much. Just the whole it’s never as good when the other guy leaves kind of a thing. I assumed the show could get nominated. I assumed Julia (Louis-Dreyfus) will always get nominated, no matter how bad I screwed it up.

Alec Berg: I actually remember, vividly, thinking at last year’s Emmys when “Veep” won, yeah, “Dave is screwed.”

Mandel: I tried to see the bright side of it, “Oh, they won.” The tension is released, no one will care if they never win another one again. Then I thought to myself, “Oh, f–k.”

Michael Lewis for Variety

And Alec, did you feel any pressure living up to the buzz of the first season?

Berg: It’s always nice to get nominated, but you know I’m sort of philosophical about that. Our show’s not important. It’s not a show that is changing people’s views about the world, so it’s great to be nominated. I don’t know that we’ll ever win. We were just down at Comic-Con, and the experience of walking around with the guys in my show now versus when we first started — it’s just amazing.

Mandel: It was really cool that Thomas (Middleditch) got nominated.

Berg: Both of our editors got nominated, which makes me happy. Our production design, our casting people, those are the ones that got me super excited. The fact that now, every once in a while, we’re on one of these “Who will win, who should win” list we’re getting mentions, it’s all great. It’s immensely humbling. I’m ecstatic that it just means we get to keep doing the show.

Talk about the evolution of comedy since your days on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Those were episodic shows; both of your shows are heavily serialized. How have you seen comedy change over the course of your careers?

Mandel: I think a lot of it goes back to “Seinfeld,” because it was episodic, but that’s where I think a lot of serialization started. Even though it was very episodic, as the seasons went on, it did start to have mini-arcs. Obviously, “Seinfeld” gives birth to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Curb” takes it a few steps further, and that spawns “The Office” and those single cameras kind of thing. I think you can draw that sort of family tree right down.

Berg: I think the other thing that’s interesting is with premium, VOD, the HBOs and Showtimes of the world. I think there’s so many more shows and so many more places you can watch them now that, oddly, I think there’s really more of a premium on quality than there’s ever been. Whereas it used to be everybody wants to be the show that’s on at 9:30 after a hit because that’s where your show will work. There are no time slots anymore. We lose, I think, 85% of our lead-in from “Game of Thrones.”

Mandel: I would also argue, as crazy as it sounds though, I would say the notion of comedically doing exactly what you want and trying to make the funniest show possible goes back to Larry and Jerry on “Seinfeld” and it accidentally became a giant network hit, but really it shouldn’t have. I do think people have taken inspiration, conceptually, from guys who were just simply trying to make a funny show, which, as crazy as it sounds even perhaps to a Variety readership, is not the goal of most network comedies.

That doesn’t sound like you’ve had good experiences at networks. You’re both now making comedies at HBO. How does that compare?

Mandel: The larger issue, forgetting about language, the only goals here from HBO was just to tell the story the way I wanted to and make it funny. Having dipped my toe back into the network pilot world a couple of years ago, those just so weren’t the goals. It just seemed like the comedy was an afterthought and that my opinion as the writer, despite them paying and hiring me to be the writer, was they’ve paid and hired me so they could tell me what it should be, and they could write different jokes, and pitch non-jokes in lieu of jokes.

Berg: We always used to joke that it is this weird thing of like, if you’re going to have your appendix out, you find the best surgeon. You do your research, you ask people, you decide who’s the best surgeon, and then you f–king go to sleep and you let them do their work. You don’t get up in the middle of the operation and go, “Hey, it’s my appendix, so let me get in there. I just have some thoughts.”

Mandel: The network model is broken. I had an experience where we were trying to hire a casting person and I brought up a name, and they literally said, “Oh, we’re using them on something we’re doing for premium cable. We can’t use them.” The sentence alone is basically you’re saying you can use them on premium cable where the stuff is good, but you can’t use them here because, what, they have too much taste?

Berg: A friend of ours was doing a show, and he wanted a certain director. The network balked at hiring that director and the reason that they gave is that they felt that the writer, producer, and director had worked together before and they were too close.

Mandel: So they wouldn’t be able to sow discontent and play them off each other! (Laughs.) Alec, I believe you’re the originator of Piss Pie? This is a long-time theory that I think we have believed in for a very long time, along with Jeff Schaeffer, our former third cohort. I will turn the floor over to Alec.

Berg: If writers are bakers, we will come up with a recipe. You say, “Okay, I have a recipe for this pie. I think if you manufacture this pie and put it out there, I think people will like it.” The networks go, “You know, our experience is, we make a lot of different pies. If you put a little bit of piss in that pie, just a little bit, not enough to compromise your ideals. We think people will like it more.” You go, “Well, they’re not going to sell it to everyone unless we put a little piss in it.” Then they taste it and they go, “You know what would make this pie even better? A little bit more piss.” And you go, “All right, fine, we’ll put a little more piss in.” Then eventually there’s so much piss in the pie, and then they taste it next to a bunch of other pies and they go, “You know what? This pie kind of tastes like piss. We don’t even really want it.”

Mandel: This is the main point is, at HBO, they never ask you to piss in the pie.

So what kind of notes do you get?

Berg: It’s interesting, because I didn’t really know any of the HBO people from “Curb,” because Larry built this umbrella over the show where the HBO guy would show up for the first few days on set. And after the third or fourth day you’d look over and he just wasn’t there anymore because Larry just wasn’t interested in discussing the show with anybody. My guard was up so much when I started working on “Silicon Valley” because if you ask most TV people, they’d say, “Oh, you’re working on a show over there? How are the notes?” Meaning, how much do they f–k with what you’re trying to do? Notes, almost uniformly, have a bad connotation. Like, how much piss do they put in your pie? When I got to HBO, all of their notes were measured, thought out. Most of them come in the form of questions, like, “I don’t understand why he wants that,” or, “We’re confused why she would say that,” and you can’t argue that note. It got to the point very quickly where they completely flipped me. I’d have an outline and I’d think, “God, I don’t know if it’s right to send to HBO.” Then finally I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to send it to them.” I value their opinions to the point where if we’re stuck on something I’ll actually call them and go, “Hey, we’re debating something. What do you think?” It’s such a refreshing change.

Mandel: I can truly say, I have taken notes. They have raised points that have had me re-look at things and go, “They’re right,” and I’ve changed things because of it. There are other things that they have brought up where I have been able to say to them, “No, no. Let me explain why I’m thinking this,” and they’re cool with that, too. So it also works the other way, which is, that when you do feel strongly about something, or feel that you’re right about something, or trying to, perhaps, it’s not coming through, but this is what we’re trying to do. To have them go, “We get that, go for it.” That’s the other side, too. These are new experiences, certainly, for me and having, again, been recently, ever so slightly in network land.

Both of your shows are pretty intensely packed with research. How did you strike that balance with still bringing the laughs?

Berg: For us, I have to keep clinging to my ignorance about the tech business because it gets harder and harder to do the show, the more we know about the in the weeds tech stuff, because it gets harder and harder for me to believe that the guys in the show wouldn’t know certain things. I feel like, well if I know how ratchets in a funding round work, they would have to know it. Whereas season one, we didn’t know anything.

You never want two people in a room talking about something they both know, because that just feels very expository, so you always try and find somebody in the room who’s like, “Wait, I don’t understand. What?” So somebody can explain it to them, and in effect be explaining it to the audience. We have to do a lot of that. My wife and I used to watch “CSI” all the time, and we came up with a drinking game. If you watch “CSI,” and if somebody’s logical response to a line would be, “I know, I work here,” then you drink. We always try and avoid that situation.

Mandel: It’s hard for us, especially in a year where politics is everywhere. I think maybe a non-election year might be a little easier. We went into this season with a tremendous amount of people clamoring with the same sort of questions of like, “Are you doing a Trump character? Is she Hillary?” We try and get distance from some things because we’re not “Saturday Night Live,” we’re not trying to do the parody of the week. There’s never going to be a billionaire guy running kind of a thing, but at the same time we try and find inspiration in these things, so what is Trump? What can we strip away from him? Let’s strip away the billionaire part from him, but let’s leave the loudmouth, know-nothing aspect of it, and we ended up running Jonah for Congress. In a weird way, he is Trump. He’s not Trump, but he is Trump. Basically an idiot who yells at people, with no right to be in office winning elections. We kind of find our way into it, but at the same time we’ll be very aware that we don’t want to just be doing direct satire.

Michael Lewis for Variety

How much freedom do you give your casts to improv, and how much do you want them to stick to the scripts?

Berg: When we first started I was coming off of “Curb,” and Mike Judge had not done anything that was improvy. I think he was a little bit more concerned about it because when people say improv they’re used to people making up whatever. Our guys, they’re incredibly nimble improvisers but I think they understand writing enough to understand where they have to stay on script and where there are these kind of pockets in a scene where we can riff and improv and where we have to dovetail back into the writing. From the jump, they’ve been amazing.

Somebody pointed out something that I thought was really interesting. They said when they read interviews with our cast, the cast always say that they almost never improv. And when they read interviews with the writer/producers, the writer/producers say the cast improv a lot. That’s the right balance, I think. Usually it’s the other way around.

Mandel: In 2004 we made a little teen comedy with a lot of nudity in it called “Euro Trip” that Jeff, Alec and I wrote together. We were coming off “Curb” then too which obviously had the structure and the improv. As we went into it and did a lot of talking about it, we landed on a certain goal which I’ve carried forth which is the notion of get the script. Get what you wrote so you know you have that. Once you have that, the sky is the limit. For me that’s been my guiding principle. That doesn’t mean, though, that we will rehearse a scene not on the day and often just playing with it in rehearsals often make changes into the script. Those things then become, as far as I’m concerned, the script. On a shoot day I want to get this even though again I’ve probably got similar areas marked where the responses to this question could be a thousand different improv lines or even alt lines. It’s always more than one for fun. Whether it’s the actors throwing stuff in or even just the writers sitting there going, “We can do better than whatever this spot is,” that’s how we get there.

Berg: Some of it for us is also about it’s what kind of coverage you’re in. If you’re shooting one guy but not the other guy it’s very hard to get any good improv going because you don’t have the other person’s side of it to use in the edit. There’s certain times where just coverage-wise we’re able, every once and a while, to cross shoot.

Mandel: For us, as long as we have some kind of a wide (shot) because that’s one thing I’ve learned this year of how much our show almost works better in these wide shots. Where I feel like a lot of shows cut in for the joke, we almost pull out for the joke. In that wide (shot) you get away with a lot of editorial jump cuts meaning if people weren’t in the right exact place that’s okay if we’re getting a nice riff going where both people are talking and we can get that improv in.

What have you learned over the course of doing the show? What’s surprised you?

Mandel: I have a season of “Veep” under my belt now, and I feel very confident that I know what “Veep” is. I thought I knew what “Veep” was going in last year, and then it took me a while to actually learn what “Veep” was. Now I feel like I know what it is but that doesn’t mean that the ideas are any better. I at least can go, “That’s not it. Or I think that’s something, maybe let’s try and do this to it.” I feel more confident and yet I am no more confident.

Berg: It’s surprising. We’ve only shot 28 episodes of this show and yet on a daily basis it’s like, “What about this? That’s too much like that other thing we did.” There is a freedom to season 1 that gets more and more fleeting as you’ve done more. At a certain point if you’re “The Simpsons” I’m sure you just make this decision, “Well we’ve literally done everything so we have to just start doing things over again.” We’re in that uncanny valley where it’s like we’ve done enough shows that everything has been done in a weird way already. We haven’t done enough shows to warrant being out of ideas yet.

Mandel: I felt like for me, and just even as a viewer before I worked there, the sheer number of other shows that are in and around the Oval Office….Where even if we’re not doing the exact same story as “Scandal” does, you still have things where the president’s daughter had a relationship and is now with one of her Secret Service agents. Obviously we played it differently, we played it for comedy but I know for a fact that that storyline exists on “Scandal,” it exists on “House of Cards.”

Berg: Do you find that in a weird way that almost works to your advantage because there’s a trope and you can subvert that trope a little bit?

Mandel: Sometimes. Before you figure exactly out what it’s going to be it just sounds like something that you shouldn’t necessarily be doing or it makes people even a little nervous of like that sounds very close to something they did on “House of Cards.” We’re doing it completely differently but it still conceptually bothers me. We did a big episode this year where someone’s mom died and I think they did something on “House of Cards.” We couldn’t have known they were doing it. It’s like years ago when we were on “Seinfeld,” we worked for a very long time on some storyline where Frank Costanza was going to take medical marijuana for his cataracts. Then someone told us, the Cybill show had either done it or was doing it. Even though ours would have been completely different and there’s no way it would’ve been similar, so we chucked it in the garbage basically.

Berg: I remember an amazing day (on “Seinfeld”) where we were talking about some idea and Jerry said, “I feel like that was on the Dick Van Dyke show.” They called Carl Reiner and he said, “Yeah, it was season 3, episode 19.” He just rattled off exactly what the story was which was shocking, the fact he just had it all in his head like that. Then what was even more shocking was Jerry said, “Thank you very much,” and hung up and said, “Okay, we can’t do it.” “Seinfeld” is basically where we learned to write half-hour. That commitment to originality and the idea that you would throw away a story because somebody had done it 40 years earlier in a slightly similar way was awe-inspiring.

Mandel: I feel like we learned our ethics there. That’s where Larry taught us to outline structure, structure, structure, structure. We learned a lot about a lot of what we think about comedy or at least it helped us refine these thoughts. Again it’s not like we took away the presidency from her just because of those reasons, but it made it very exciting to think about getting a fresh bite at the apple of these post presidential ideas and the newness of it. When she was vice president, you accept a certain amount of her team are idiots. They f–k things up. When she was president, you did start to go a little bit, don’t you fire some of these people?