You may have heard about HBO's new show Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as the Vice President of the United States. One of the executive producers is DC native Frank Rich, writer for New York Magazine and former Op-Ed columnist and theater critic for The New York Times. He recently answered a few questions from Curbed about how he got involved with Veep and certain childhood memories of fine dining at the Kennedy-Warren on Connecticut Avenue.
Some people might not know that you grew up in the neighborhood of Somerset just across the border in Maryland. We're on the cusp of pre-election frenzy here, do you have any memories of living through election years as a kid in DC?
I have a memory of going door-to-door with my Mom in Somerset as a young kid during the 1956 campaign -- I still have an "All the Way with Adlai" button from then. But by 1960, we had moved into the city, and DC, incredibly, still couldn't vote in presidential elections. (To this day, my father, now 91 and living in Northwest, has been a staunch advocate for all aspects of Washington home rule and an activist in DC Vote.) But I followed the primaries and convention vicariously on TV, and the rise of JFK, as well as his assassination -- at least from the perspective of a kid at John Eaton Elementary and then Deal Junior High during that period. (I write about some of this in my memoir "Ghost Light.") I was at Wilson High by the '64 campaign but even at the time its landslide result seemed a foregone conclusion.
In your memoir, you mention your grandparents taking you to dinner at the Kennedy-Warren, which is a building that has had many political residents in its history. Did you ever see anyone famous?
My grandparents did take us to Sunday dinners sometimes at the elegant Kennedy-Warren restaurant. And I am fairly certain that my great uncle Melvin Rich was a structural engineer involved, long before that, in its construction. But my two sets of grandparents lived first, respectively, at the Quebec House off Connecticut and the Decatur House (I think I have the name right) on 16th St before moving to apartment houses next door to each other further uptown on Connecticut Avenue, the Albemarle and Brandywine. I have fond and vivid memories of all of it and particularly remember stepping out of Decatur House with my family at a very young age to see some sort of parade headlined by Fidel Castro, in what may have been his first official visit to DC.
In terms of Veep, how did you get involved in the project and what was it that attracted you to show?
I have been a creative consultant at HBO since 2008 working on various projects. It was HBO's hope to find a smart fictional show about DC at some point, and it was a natural that I work on it should it happen, given my own writing about politics. The moment I saw an early screening of "In the Loop," Armando Iannucci's hilarious movie about the runup to the Iraq war, in which he took on Washington insanity as brilliantly as he has British government insanity (in his hit UK series "Thick of It"), it was clear he was the artist who had to do it. Once he conceived "Veep" as a proposal for HBO, in late summer 2010, I got involved as well.
Usually projects evolve somewhat between conception and realization. What are some of the early ideas for Veep that ended up being eliminated or altered in some way?
Surprisingly little. Armando imagines a whole world from the start, and there have been remarkably few changes from the original concept to the finished project. Of course each individual episode went through many refinements in the writing of many drafts, a fascinatingly improvisational rehearsal process, and in the shooting and cutting. Also casting inevitably has an impact. To take one obvious example: the character of the obnoxious White House liaison is called Jonah, and it was thought he'd be somewhat whale-like in appearance. But then along came the wonderfully gifted Tim Simons -- tall and spindly -- and Jonah's look (and some of the jokes surrounding him) changed accordingly.
What about your perspective as a theater critic has both helped you and hindered you as producer of a TV show? Are there some ways the two worlds differ from each other that we wouldn't normally think about.
They are very different mediums, to be sure. But I have to say that in my work in television I don't think of the differences consciously that much. Certain fundamentals always apply, starting with the quality of the writing and acting. My most formative experience in show business -- it shaped my work as a critic but also my work at HBO -- was as a teenage ticket taker at the National Theater in Washington, when it was an active pre-Broadway tryout house in the 1960s. I would watch shows over and over again (and be paid $4 a performance for it!) standing at the back of the house during their DC gestation periods, and watch how writers, directors and actors would work on them and keep making changes to improve them before they went to New York. So, for instance, watching Neil Simon and Mike Nichols constantly refine the original production of "The Odd Couple" when it was still in process taught me a ton about not only looking at the theater but looking at a comedy like VEEP at every stage of development.
Watch the trailer for Veep here: