“Someone has just flown two planes into my career.”
This is the type of joke that’s pretty much taboo in today’s world, and there’s not much explanation needed for why. 9/11, regardless of how much time has passed, just isn’t funny. It never will be. So why is that when universally hated Jonah Ryan, played by Timothy Simons on HBO’s Veep, utters the above sentence, it’s the funniest line in a half hour full of hilarious quotes?
Because Veep is the funniest show on TV right now. That’s a truth we hold to be self-evident, but just to recap: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is amazing as Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female Vice President, and her supporting cast is altogether even better as various members of her staff and the White House. Jonah “Jonad” Ryan is the recipient of the show’s best insults, and fires back with plenty of gems himself. In general, just about every character on the show is in some form a despicable, shallow human being, which the writers highlight in the most cringe-inducing ways possible.
In the Season 3 two-part finale, Selina’s world comes crashing down after being caught on tape calling her presidential campaign donors “cheap idiots.” This in itself is hilarious, but what follows immediately is the news that she will be sworn in as President because the current president has to resign and take care of his mentally ill wife (no one cares). This fall and rise are framed around a conversation with a Syrian couple that struggled mightily to gain entry into the U.S. First, Selina projects her sadness onto theirs, and then, after the good news, she returns to their sadness and can barely conceal her wide smile.
Louis-Dreyfus’s smile and this situation are the core of Veep, Selina doesn’t give a shit about the real people she represents in the White House, and the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate how out of touch she is with real struggles and issues. All she cares about is that she’s “gonna be the fucking president,” and it’s so funny to watch because it seems unfathomable that someone wielding so much power could be standing on a foundation of titanium-reinforced superficiality. When she learns that she’ll become president, her bumbling staff is elated, none more so than Dan (played by Reid Scott). He treats it as a personal victory, and the stupid grin emanating from his face is absolutely terrifying in its lust for power. This reactions are all presented in a way that suggests they aren’t as farcical as they seem.
On paper, all of this seems wildly overindulgent and exactly the kind of nonsense American TV viewers would (and should) blast. The reason it’s not a total disaster is because that overindulgence is firing on all cylinders for 30 minutes straight every week—there are more golden one-liners on a single page of a Veep script than the entire combined runs of the Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory to date.
The comedy works because the writers know exactly what they’re doing, taking the worst about D.C. politics and slapping you in the face with it repeatedly. On top of that, all the actors play their deplorable parts with such an endearing, gleeful grace that it’s impossible not to join in the fun that they’re clearly having. Such a big deal is made about the smallest things like squeaky shoes and what crates are made out of that it makes you laugh at the idiocy of it all while simultaneously realizing this stuff ACTUALLY happens every day in our nation’s capital.
There’s no more defining moment of both Veep and U.S. politics in general when the honeymoon phase of Selina’s ascent into the presidency abruptly ends. She inadvertently pisses off Iran over a name mixup, Mike’s jokes as the White House Press Secretary go completely dry, and the rest of Selina’s team squabbles over who gets which office. It’s a classic The Graduate moment—so much emphasis is placed on the chase to the top that when the holy grail is finally achieved, all it takes is one exhale to deflate everything that came before it. Selina’s now POTUS. In 2016, the real America will have its own new POTUS.
One of these situations will end up cartoonlishly hilarious, and the other will end up cartoonishly hilarious too. Try to guess which is which.