"/> Veep and The Thick of It: A Study in Transatlantic Profanity — The Airship
By Jake Flanagin

I have this problem where, if I like a book or a movie or a TV show, I need you to like it too. No seriously, it’s a pathological problem. Especially if we are friends. When I like something, I tend to really like it, and if you don’t share my enthusiasm, it gives me pause to reevaluate our relationship. I am in no way justified in this behavior. Like I said, it’s pathological. I’m merely introducing this personal reality as context for when I recount the following: a close friend and I are discussing television shows. She, like I, will go through phases of televisual addiction, usually based on HBO’s annual airing schedule. From January to March, we’re all about the girls on Girls. Come April, we’re plugging “Mother of Dragons” and “winter is coming” into everyday G-chats. Naturally, I expected the same kind of spirited exchanges when the second-season premiere of Veep rolled around. But no cigar.

“I didn’t like the first season,” she tells me one day. I am agog. “I DO NOT KNOW WHY WE FRIENDS,” I want to babble, but I keep my mouth shut, knowing full well that one of us is indeed inflicted with a strange psychosis—and it’s not her.

“Why’s that?” I ask through clenched teeth.

“It’s all the swearing. It doesn’t work for me.”

At this I am doubly agog. Agogagog, if you will. The show’s constant stream of profanity is my favorite thing about Veep. I am incapable of not snorting whatever I’m drinking out of both nostrils when Julia Louis-Dreyfus marches towards Timothy Simons, shoulders squared, and says “What are you laughing at, Jolly Green Jizz Face?” Maybe it’s the shocking confluence of such vile language coming from such a pretty little lady, but I can’t get enough.

According to this friend, the swearing in Veep isn’t as satisfying as it is in its BBC predecessor, The Thick of It, and the 2009 transatlantic political comedy, In the Loop. Both were created and written by Veep creator Armando Iannucci, who is known for his coarse, irreverent style.

“I’m just used to Peter Capaldi,” she says. Capaldi plays Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed Scottish equivalent to Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer. His colorful language is almost a cast member unto itself. And although much of it is of Capaldi’s own improvisational creation, the show sent its scripts to a “swearing consultant” who rounds out each episode’s number of f-bombs.


When I ask her to elaborate, she tells me the swearing in Veep feels “restrained” and “dishonest.” While Selina Meyer and her brood of hapless communications officers are constantly swearing, they do their best to do it behind closed doors. They’re masters of the 10-second turn-around: One second they’re screaming expletives across the room at one another, and the next they’re plying the president of a labor union or a senator from Iowa with coffee and vacant smiles:

Whereas Malcolm Tucker is far less apologetic about it:

Personally, I find each show, and their respective styles of profane delivery to be reflective of the countries they were born out of. Anyone who remembers the complete debacle that was MTV’s bastardization of BBC E4’s Skins knows that the FCC is an all too powerful tool of creative smothering this side of the Atlantic. The freedom with which British television writers can maledict, in comparison to their American counterparts, is far greater. In the UK, they have BBC E4, a national network complete with shows like Misfits, Shameless, and The Inbetweeners; all of which feature prolific swearing, sex scenes in abundance, and casual drug use.

In America, we’re only exposed to such grittiness through expensive cable packages that provide access to HBO and Showtime, channels beyond the reach of the FCC. Sure, Tina Fey can say, “bitch” at 8 p.m. on NBC now, something that Mary Tyler Moore could never do on CBS back in the 1970s, but network sex scenes consist of nothing more than flash cuts to bellybuttons and excessive clavicle kissing. ABC’s Modern Family didn’t air a kiss between the show’s beloved gay couple until the second season, and even then it was criticized as “disappointing,” unrealistic, and lapdogging to the “family values” of the FCC. And sure, I, like my fellow college-educated, coastal, urban Americans find this reality saddening, it’s ultimately an accurate reflection of the general, national disposition.

We are more prudish than the Brits. It’s a fact. Things we consider rude or crass simply don’t translate, and vice versa. While you would never dream of asking a Briton how much they pay in rent or who they voted for in the last election, these topics are entirely touchable here. Likewise, telling a human irritant to “promptly fuck off,” won’t earn you quite as much ire in Bristol as it might in Minneapolis.

If Malcolm Tucker is the televised manifestation of the British attitude towards swearing, than Selina Meyer is the same for Americans. Just because there’s less swearing on American television doesn’t mean it exists to a lesser extent in our society. It’s just repressed, hidden—much like American sexuality. Curse words are uttered under one’s breath, in the privacy of one’s own car, or typed out anonymously in the YouTube comments section. We swear around people we’re comfortable with (friends, family, even co-workers), but slap on a strained smile when in the company of a stranger, boss, or an FCC officer.

I asked my dad, who studied government at Georgetown and spent some time interning on the Hill, about the culture of profanity in Washington. Do they swear as much as they do on Veep? First I had to explain what Veep was and email him a few YouTube clips. While he, like my English friend, thought it was a tad exaggerated, he affirmed the show catches the essence of communicating in the capital. On the record, you smile stupidly, adopt an idiotic jocularity, and do your best to keep the f-bombs to a minimum.

Of course, no matter where you’re from, sometimes it just slips out: