How to talk like a TV writer, as explained by David Mandel of ‘Veep’

Studio 360
Veep actor Matt Walsh

The new season of HBO’s political comedy “Veep” just got underway this past weekend, which means we’re in for a fresh dose of spicy insults (“Put that world’s tallest pile of garbage on the phone right now!”) and punchy one-liners from Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and her staff (or ex-staff), as they navigate life in Washington and beyond. 

But behind the scenes, the writers of TV comedies like “Veep” banter with each other using lingo that may be less familiar. Can you use “zhuzhing” in a sentence?

Veteran TV writer David Mandel can. He’s written for classic comedies like “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and now he’s the head writer and showrunner for “Veep.”

Recently, he sat down with Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen to explain a handful of comedy-writing terms you may not have heard before, beginning with one of his own creation:

“Joke-like substance”

“In those large [writers’] rooms, things just start to seem funny that are not funny. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s like, you get the room to laugh and it goes in the script, and it’s not really a joke. But it has the rhythms of a joke. It sounds like a joke.

“Like you know, ‘Bah buh bah buh bah, all night.’ You know, that kind of sounds like a joke, it sort of smells a little bit like a joke. It’s a “joke-like substance,” but it’s not a joke. And it gets exposed eventually, but often that’s not until it’s in front of an audience, which obviously is a horrible place for it to get exposed.”


“For us, what it means is, let’s say we have a scene where it’s two characters talking. Things just sometimes start to get a little rote, a little ‘line, line, line, line’: “Hello, how are you?” ‘I’m fine.’ “That’s great.”

“That’s not how we talk. Even right here, you know, you and I talking on this interview, we’re trying to stay out of each other’s way, but occasionally we’re talking over each other. And that’s what ‘zhuzhing’ is, that’s what messing it up is. And it’s a real hallmark of “Veep” that we’re not afraid to let people talk over each other, sometimes even important information.”

“Thanksgiving dinner”

“It’s the writer who’s been very quiet, not pitching — I have a smile on my face as I’m telling you this. A writer who’s been saying nothing in the room, not pitching jokes, I guess, not pitching even stories. And then all of a sudden, you get to a moment where you’re writing about something like the Thanksgiving dinner. And you’re writing the direction, and you’re telling the writer’s assistant to write down ‘big table with a turkey and all the fixings or something.

“And now, all of a sudden, this guy comes alive. And he’s telling the writer’s assistant, “Uh, cranberries, stuffing, there’s a pumpkin pie sitting on the ledge of the window.” And he’s basically taking what nobody cares about, except maybe the production designer, adding about, you know, 11 pages of direction, to just nonsense. And that’s Thanksgiving dinner.”

“Laying pipe”

“‘Laying pipe’ is sort of laying down the narrative stuff that you need in a script that’s going to … come back later.

“It’s like, I’ve got to make sure early on that you know this guy has a sister who he is estranged from, so that sister can come back at the end of Act One. That’s laying pipe. I’m going to figure out a way — in my scene where I’m talking to the grocer, the grocer is going to say, “Do you want raspberry jam?” And I’ll go ‘Oh, no. You know, my sister who I never talk to is allergic to that.’ And so it seems like a very natural thing, but I’m laying the pipe so that later on, she can show up and you know she exists, and the plumbing all works.”

“Hanging a lantern on it”

“You know, it’s definitely very hard to lay these things in [to a half-hour comedy]. If you do it too much, then everyone’s sitting there going, ‘When’s that sister showing up?’ By the way, that is when other … sitcom people might “hang a lantern on it,” which is trying to make a point of how odd it is that you’re telling me about your sister, so it doesn’t seem like you’re laying pipe, if that makes sense.

“So that a character might go, ‘Oh wow, you never told me about that sister, and we’ve known each other for 30 years,’ or something like that. So it makes it seem OK that they didn’t know, or “Boy, that’s odd, what an odd moment.”

“Ideally, well-laid pipe would be hidden sort of underground. But occasionally if the pipe is showing, you would hang a lantern on it to make it seem like it wasn’t such a bad pipe laying job.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?