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WALTER ISAACSON, CONTRIBUTOR: Frank, welcome to the show. And congratulations on “Succession” which is getting renewed on HBO for next season.
FRANK RICH, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, “VEEP” AND “SUCCESSION”: Well, thanks a lot, Walter. It’s great to be talking with you again.
ISAACSON: All these years of looking at the intersection of theater and politics, I loved your memoir “Ghost Light” which is about growing up in Washington, loving power, theater, politics, that, you know, confluence. And that’s what we’re kind of seeing in these T.V. shows you’re now doing like “Veep” and “Succession.”
RICH: It’s interesting. I haven’t quite — yes, it’s sort of happenstance but you’re right. I mean I think in the case of “Veep”, it really conveyed my feelings about Washington, growing up there, being an outsider because my family wasn’t in politics but living in the city. And yes, so it’s great to sort of distill it. “Veep” reflects Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s ideas about D.C. We grew up not far from each other. And then “Succession”, yes, it’s about media power. It’s also about family to a great extent which I also understand and families that can be difficult. But yes, it’s sort of amazing to me that I’ve been able to play out some of my passions in the world of fiction, not just journalism.
ISAACSON: But you’re also playing out some of the experiences that we keep having. And the amazing thing about “Veep” is every new episode is something we’ve been dealing with. In fact, I want to show a clip, if we can.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SELINA MEYER: OK, Leon, I’m not sure about this part where I say “I want to be president for all Americans.” I mean, do I? You know, all of them?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How about real Americans?
MEYER: Oh, yes, that’s good. And then we can figure out what I mean later.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ma’am, I don’t have a copy of the speech.
MEYER: OK, I don’t know what she’s saying so here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ma’am, the voters need to know clearly and definitively why you want to be president in your own words.
MEYER: If you want me to use my own god damn words, then write me something to say, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, ma’am.
MEYER: Oh, and take out the stuff about immigration because I feel it’s a little too issuey.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ISAACSON: How do you adapt something that is happening in the real world and get it into a show like that so quickly?
RICH: Well, the concept of the show from the beginning from Armando Iannucci created and continued by the later showrunner Dave Mandel is we never mention a political party, we never mention any living politician. We only mentioned one later than Bragen. And yet, there are certain truths about power in Washington, about the cynicism of politicians and the people around them as they grasp for power that just hold up. And, you know, I feel — it’s weird. We’ve had the situation where we’ve created actual storylines that then come true in real life. But that wasn’t our intention.
ISAACSON: What happens when something that is absurd that you’re doing on the show comes true in real life? And how do you keep up with the absurdity we’re living?
RICH: We’re in the can. We have to air what we have but we did try in the final season which just aired to make it a little bit darker, make the humor even darker than it was to recognize at least unofficially, you know, the culture has changed under Trump. And so — but we never mentioned Trump or Obama or anybody. But that ratcheted up so much we had to also ratchet our humor and stories up to capture this moment.
ISAACSON: You say it tells us a little bit about power and how it operates. What do you mean by that?
RICH: I mean that power can become an end to itself. And you look at a character like Julia’s character, Selina Meyer, she has no fixed ideology. She — as you’ve seen, contemptuous of her constituents. She doesn’t care about her family. She has no friends but she wants to hold on to that power because she loves power, unfortunately. You may disagree but I suspect that’s more often than not the case with politicians regardless of party or their beliefs ostensible convictions. We had a moment in the pilot of eight years ago that we didn’t use that to me sort of symbolize the whole show which is that a potential hire in her office is waiting for his appointment and he gets to a battle with a receptionist about who is going to use the outlet to plug-in whose Blackberry. And that was to me the ultimate Washington, even fighting over the power of where you can recharge your phone.
ISAACSON: How did “Veep” the show evolve based politics evolving during the period it was on?
RICH: Not that much until Trump. I would say that “Veep” started with a solid basis of a handful of six, seven, eight characters and that was always the root of the show. And Armando Iannucci who created it is among other things a Dickens scholar. He has a film version of David Copperfield that’s imminent. And to me, his character is so sharp and there’s such — have such strong human traits, often despicable one. But you look at characters like Selina or Jonah or Gary, Selina’s bag man. And I feel that character is the basis of it and then politics was in a way secondary. Keep in mind, the creator was British. He was looking at it from a distance, which I think really worked. It was not inside baseball at all. He was looking at the absurdity of it which happens to be a talent of his. He did the recent movie “The Death of Stalin” which you may have seen which was blatantly about that kind of politician. And so we’re aware of current events but it’s not “Saturday Night Live”. It’s not that kind of satire.
ISAACSON: One thing about your T.V. show is they seem, to me, to combine sort of politics in our current light but also Shakespearean drama. And especially with “Succession” which reminds me not just of the Rupert Murdoch family but of King Lear’s family.
RICH: Well, I think there’s very much in there. I think it’s very much a tribute to a writer named Jesse Armstrong, a British writer who created “Succession”, also worked briefly on “Veep” and definitely has that in his bones. So we have a number of play writes. We have British and American play writes on the writing staff. And so I think that’s there. I don’t think the show would work without it. I think a satire of a Murdoch or something red stone or any media mogul you want only takes you so far. And in the end, I think it’s the — I don’t want to be pompous or pretentious about but it’s a King Lear thing of a father with his adult children trying to please him to get power from him is what makes the show work.
ISAACSON: Let’s show a clip from that and you can help explain the underpinning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What have you had your entire life that I didn’t give you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I’m not getting into it. I’m doing this thing. OK? I don’t owe you anything.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I blame myself. I spoiled you and now [bleep] and I’m sorry. I’m sorry but you’re nothing. Maybe you should write a book or collect sports cars or something. But for the world, nah, I’m sorry. You’re not made for it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ISAACSON: So tell me about the show. It’s entering its second season.
RICH: It is. We’re just finishing up shooting the second season which goes on in August. But, you know, look, I’m the producer of the show but I have to say that writing is a way — that writing holds up between a father and son, even if you don’t know what their profession is or what their business life is. And one of the tricks of the show is we want to tell the business story but never let the business story take over because it really is about these people.
ISAACSON: But it is very connected to the Murdoch family saga.
RICH: Right. To a certain extent but if you went in the writers’ room which is in — who puts the show together in Brixton in London, you would see Robert Maxwell files. You would see DisneyWar by Jim Stewart. You would see of, course, Murdoch’s stuff, Murdoch material but also Sumner and Shari Redstone. All of these is such grits for us.
ISAACSON: These are great media moguls. They’re powerful media.
RICH: Right. And often, we’re — had their families involved in the business in some way or another or had struggled but, you know. So something like the Katzenberg struggle over Disney turns up in very different form but it’s all sort of mashed up. You take nonfiction materials but then you fictionalize it heavily and draw what is in your heart and mind. Not just what is in the facts of yesterday’s news.
ISAACSON: But there’s a political undercurrent to “Succession” of somebody who is manipulating our political system.
RICH: Absolutely. That is basically right wing. And there’s some of Murdoch in that but there’s no Roger. And we don’t, again, we don’t talk about contemporary politicians.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You haven’t been yourself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RICH: He has a political agenda but it’s quite cynical. And, you know, he believes some of it but not necessarily all of it. And kind of, again, this is like the Murdochs. Although we were there ahead of them having their public disputes. There’s some dissension, a little bit of political dissension, among the siblings from their father’s political point of view.
ISAACSON: Do you think Murdoch is cynical?
RICH: Yes, I do. And I think that that’s one thing we played within the show. In the end, it’s more about power and money than it is about necessarily conviction. We had some convictions and I’m sure Murdoch does, too. But I think that central core is what is in it for me? What can I get? And this is, you know, the part of Murdoch that would allow him to have a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and Conservatives. And that makes him more interesting. If these characters, including Logan Roy, are fictional character, were just right-wing eye logs, I don’t think that’s very interesting drama. If what happens around the edges of that is more ambiguous that makes people interesting.
ISAACSON: What fascinates you about Rupert Murdoch and the whole “Fox News” empire?
RICH: Well, Murdoch, you know, I think is an incredible success story. I mean it’s just amazing. He’s been unstoppable. I’m less interested in the cable news part of it. I mean I feel — “Fox News” is, in some ways, an overstated story. And I don’t really believe that Americans are brainwashed by “Fox News”. Because I feel the people who watch “Fox News” pretty much like I would add, the people who watch “MSNBC”, are there because they already believe in what the slant of the network is and want their beliefs validated. But that Murdoch was able to come to, first to England, and then here to America and create this empire with a lot of odds against him is a great story. Whatever you think of him, it required a kind of ruthlessness, intelligence, and cleverness. And you don’t really know what his beliefs are but he has this drive that is compelling to watch.
ISAACSON: You’ve had many careers in a way. Famously, as a theater critic at the “New York Times”, political and culture columnist at “New York Magazine”. What do you think of the state of journalism these days and what’s caused it to become so fractured and vulcanized?
RICH: I’m not sure if I know what you mean by the vulcanization. Do you mean —
ISAACSON: We become more polarized as a society (CROSSTALK) —
RICH: I don’t think that’s —
ISAACSON: — feeds into it.
RICH: Yes, I don’t think that’s the press’s fault. I think that — “Chicago Tribune” was a very conservative paper. The “New York Mirror” was a right-wing paper. The “Herald Tribune” was a Republican paper. “The Times” was a Liberal Democratic paper, more or less. That whole — that hasn’t changed. The names have changed. Some of the politics have switched. I don’t think — I think that’s always been there and I don’t think it’s caused by the press. I think that’s just the way it is. There’s always been a partisan press in this country. I think the vulcanization is more from our politics. And if I had to say sadly, tragically, the single biggest factor, the two single biggest factors are race and class. And I think it’s the bottom of all of it. Class and somewhat race, the case of this populist rebellion but, you know, look at the story of race in this country. It’s tragic. It’s unending. It’s going on tremendously in the Trump era. We had a terrific, in my view, African-American president. We all thought, oh, we turned a corner. Not we all but a lot of people did including briefly me. And it turns out no, this original scent of this country underlines all the visions. And when you look at something like Charlottesville, that’s the problem. It’s not the press. You look at that melee and the forces that work there as a microcosm or a template for what is going on elsewhere in this country. And not just in this country. It’s very upsetting, it seems intractable.
ISAACSON: In your T.V. shows, “Veep” and “Succession” and then your columns in “New York Magazine”, to what extent can you and are you trying to push ideas that you think will nudge the country into a better place?
RICH: Well, I think anyone who writes — certainly you’re a classic example wants to do that. And that’s true also working in fiction and in television. Of course, you want to advance those ideas. And I certainly spent a lot of time, particularly as columnists as trying and you have to keep trying but you have to recognize reality. A perfect example is gun control. How many people do we know, including myself countless, you know, pieces of gun laws in this country? But it doesn’t — it hasn’t had an effect even the actual mass murders have had marginal effects so far and actually changing the laws. And so you have to be humble about it. You have to do it. But in the end, it’s going to have to happen in the political arena. And if I had to say, if I had a great hope for the end of this story, not the end end but a situation, it really is with younger people. I really do feel — I think — I know there’s a lot of people who are sort of contentious with millennials, I don’t really feel that. I feel the young people I know, some of them by now adult but children are very committed to changing this, very committed to being part of — in the arena. Not necessarily running for office but voting, trying to deal with issues like race, climate change, guns. I feel it very strongly. Not in the way they’re doing it. Not in the way my generation did. They’re maybe doing it in a better way but that’s what gives me hope about that.
ISAACSON: Frank, thank you so much.
RICH: Thank you, Walter. Appreciate it.
About This Episode EXPAND
Ash Carter, Mavis Staples, and Frank Rich join the program.LEARN MORE