During Wintersession, Veep’s David Mandel ’92 returns to his alma mater (where he learned his craft despite skipping classes) to share the craft of comedy writing and paths to Hollywood.
By Vicki Xu ‘23
David Mandel ’92 has a storied career in the entertainment industry. Most recently the showrunner for Veep, he was previously the executive producer and director for Curb Your Enthusiasm and a producer for EuroTrip, and has written for Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live. By his own account, he has his alma mater to thank for a great chunk of his journey in comedy.
“I more or less did only two things at Harvard — going to classes, which I didn’t do,” he says. “I was also in the Harvard Lampoon, which was all I did with my time.”
While Mandel was a comedy fan — he’d listened to albums, read about comedy, knew the history of Saturday Night Live — he hadn’t done any actual writing before joining the publication as a staff writer in his junior year. But once on staff, he realized comedy-writing was a job that could be done full-time. That following summer, Mandel worked at Comedy Central as a production assistant as part of a Lampoon project.
“That’s when I sort of realized I want to do this for the rest of my life, writing comedy,” he says.
And he had a great launchpad into the industry, which he entered at a serendipitous time. With the race for presidency in full swing, Mandel returned to Comedy Central after graduating to work on InDecision 92, a comedic coverage of the 1992 presidential campaigns that included the Democratic and Republican national conventions. “The political conventions are kind of boring and fill a lot of time each night, and the nice thing is that you can generate all sorts of comedy,” he says. “It can be a lot of things — silly, on point. It was really fun to know, ‘Oh, we have to fill two hours tonight.’ There was something very liberating about that.”
He later transitioned to writing for Saturday Night Live and over the years had positions at the aforementioned productions including Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Veep. Fitting for a government concentrator, political satire features strongly throughout his career; Saturday Night Live and Veep merge his education with his humor.
“As I’ve written over the years, you sort of rise up to a level where people know you and know what you can do,” he says of his success. For Veep in specific, the previous showrunner Armando Iannucci had just left, and from previous productions Mandel knew Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and HBO programming director Casey Bloys, who thought he was the right man for the job. And so he accepted the opportunity.
On showrunning in general, he comments, “You’re sort of in charge of every aspect of it, you’re writing on every script even when you’re not the specific writer, you’re directing every episode even when you’re not the director. You’re really doing everything. … There’s no excuses. If the show is good, I like to think it’s on me. If it’s bad, it’s my fault also. That’s the beauty of showrunning, you get your shot.”
However, the entertainment industry isn’t always entertaining. “The day in and day out is boring, maddening, and as much work as working in an insurance company. The end product is fun, doing it isn’t always. … When you’re at SNL, and it’s 3 in the morning, and you’re sleeping on a couch — sure, it’s neat, but it’s also not.”
Mandel will be joining the Office for the Arts for a January Arts and Media Seminar held during Wintersession 2020, teaching comedy writing on January 23-24. (The class is packed and has a waiting list.) “I’m excited that people are interested,” he says of the class and jokes, “I hope I can sort of point them on their journey and maybe hopefully convince them to give up and go on Wall Street.”