LOS ANGELES – The news conference with Julia-Louis Dreyfus was turning into a joke, and not the good kind.
TV’s most acclaimed comic actress was supposed to be fielding questions about the last season of “Veep” via satellite from Austria, where she was filming the feature film “Downhill” with Will Ferrell. But as members of the media peppered her with questions from a hotel ballroom, too many seemed more interested in being entertained than asking about the sitcom’s enormous success.
One wanted her reaction to a suggested series with her “Seinfeld” co-star Jason Alexander starring as former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Another pressed her to launch into a routine on the 2020 election. A third, who may have overindulged on HBO’s complimentary coffee, wanted a report on how Austrians reacted when running into her.
“Tell me, tell me the funny stories,” he begged.
I’ve been guilty of wanting the same. Back when she was promoting “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” a friend and I ran into her at a CBS cocktail party and asked if she was really as bad a dancer as her Elaine Benes character from “Seinfeld.”
No, she replied, as music thumped in the background. I’m actually pretty good.
Prove it, I said.
She wisely declined.
“She’s hilarious,” “Veep” showrunner David Mandel said in the lobby after the news conference. “Who else could be sitting wherever the heck she is, on a three-second delay, and be getting laughs at her laughs? Yes, the show has had the daringness to expose politics in a different way, but the legacy will be her performance. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.”
‘Anything for a laugh’
It took Louis-Dreyfus a while to ascend to her throne atop the world of comedy.
During her 1982-85 stint on “Saturday Night Live,” she got less screen time than the band’s trumpet section. She was hampered by youth (she was only 21 when she started) and the writers’ inability to write strong material for women. But her biggest obstacle was adapting to the show’s sketch format. Two-minute bursts just weren’t her strong suit.
She was cast on “Seinfeld” in 1990 only after NBC insisted that creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David add a woman to the mix. It may be the most brilliant network note of all time. As Elaine Benes, she showed that the girls could be just as petty, pushy and putrid as the boys.
“The New Adventures of Old Christine,” which ran on CBS from 2006-10, showed off the actor’s vulnerable side. Benes would have shoved hapless Christine Campbell across the living room for worrying so much. Meanwhile, Louis-Dreyfus’ over-the-top reactions to the most mundane tasks, such as chewing on a bagel, confirmed her status as TV’s most inventive physical comic. “I’ll do anything for a laugh,” she told me at the time. “If it means throwing myself against a wall or whatever it is, I’m happy to do that.”
Selina Meyer from “Veep” isn’t nearly as animated as those past characters, at least not with her body. Verbally, though, the former (and future?) president is as nimble as an Olympic gymnast, bending, flipping and spinning every obscenity-jammed line of fast-paced dialogue.
Like Campbell, she’s capable of sweating the small stuff — but only when it feeds her enormous ego.
In a recent episode, Meyer took a moment from her latest presidential campaign to draw up plans for her funeral.
“I want to be buried like Princess Di — but classy,” she said.
Juggling comedy with chemo
What makes this season’s final seven “Veep” episodes all the more extraordinary is that she taped them immediately after being treated for breast cancer. She received the diagnosis the day after she won her 11th Emmy. The show went into hiatus while Louis-Dreyfus, 58, recovered. She’s in remission.
“One of the horrible things about cancer is that the very medicine that cures you is horrific and almost kills you,” Mandel said. “We kept doing table reads in between chemo sessions to kind of give her something to look forward to. She’d be so frail you couldn’t hug her. For the first time in her life, she actually looked her age.”
The decision to end “Veep” after seven seasons — the finale airs next month — came before Louis-Dreyfus’ health scare, but the cruel coincidence made saying goodbye even more bittersweet.
“I was so overcome with joy and grief,” she said in one of the few solemn moments of the news conference. “I mean, I’m an emotional person anyway, but it really caught me by surprise. I think that’s because this show has been my baby for eight years now and I’m fiercely protective and proud of it. We’ve been through a lot as a group with illness and losing people. It’s been an enormous, huge journey, but ultimately one that has been extremely powerful for us. It’s not lost on me that this is not something that comes along with frequency.”
Whether she strikes gold again remains to seen. Either way, she’ll forever hold the office of comedy’s commander-in-chief.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @nealjustin
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