An ode to Julia Louis-Dreyfus
My summer started with tragedy. It was May 12 to be exact, mere days after the flurry of finals and packing and goodbyes came to an end. I had one more goodbye to give, one I had been dreading for years yet simultaneously counting down the days to. May 12 — the day that “Veep” ended.
Since 2012, I have been enamored with “Veep.” It was a show I started watching with my mother — before I realized it might be too raunchy for a tween — and one that I caught up with in my freshman year of college. It might just be one of the greatest shows of all time. In all of its humor, its topics and its beautifully developed and truly awful characters, “Veep” is the near-perfect TV show. I could fill pages with what the best quips are, the best missed jokes or most underappreciated character, but there is one aspect of the show that solidifies its title as best comedy, that carries the weight of “Veep” on their skirt suit-clad back. I mean, of course, the venomous Selina Meyer — commonly known as Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Summer 2019 was the summer of JLD. Following the conclusion of “Veep,” I went anywhere to get my fix. I watched and read all interviews or profiles of Louis-Dreyfus and the “Veep” cast, the best being an in-depth look at the shooting of the finale episode by Jen Chaney at Vulture. When I couldn’t find more interviews, I watched Louis-Dreyfus accept her many, well-deserved awards. In one speech, she brings up Tony Hale, who played Selina Meyer’s obsessive right-hand man Gary on “Veep.” Hale and Dreyfus say in character as she accepts the award, Hale whispering in her ear the people to thank much like Gary whispered in Selina Meyer’s ear the names and facts of ambassadors she was forced to meet with.
Even with these interviews and speeches, without “Veep” I had nothing to I looked forward to watching. There was a brief, glorious detour to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s incredible “Fleabag,” but after those two magnificent six-episode seasons, I was back in my “Veep” gloom. And so, I did what any other desperate, lost person would do: I rewatched “Seinfeld.”
It’s a standard line to say that women can’t be funny. It’s pretty much the central conflict of Amazon’s incredible period series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Women can be pretty, helpful, maybe even smart if you don’t listen too closely. But one thing they can never be? Funny. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been shattering this sexist misconception since 1989, when she was cast in “Seinfeld” because NBC executives demanded that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David add a woman to the central cast. Thank you, NBC executives, for being just a smidge more progressive than Seinfeld and David, because this contractual condition introduced the world to Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, and she’s been unstoppable ever since.
“Seinfeld” was always a constant in my life — it’s my dad’s favorite show and the syndicated program I would watch every day when I was home sick from school. Some people really hate the show. Some people really love it. I’ve felt both ways towards the show, but my love for Elaine Benes is unstoppable. She’s neurotic, edgy, troublesome and has an enviable head of hair. Her often failed trysts with New York City’s men are addictive to watch unravel, and her tendency to shove her friends as a reaction to intense emotion is near-poetic. In “Seinfeld,” Dreyfus was a master of physical comedy. Her shoves and “the Elaine dance” because so iconic and well-known that “Broad City” stars Abbi Jacobsoen and Ilana Glazer composed a contemporary dance to honor them at Dreyfus’s Mark Twain Award ceremony.
Watching “Seinfeld” as a successor to “Veep” leads to the realization that Elaine Benes and Selina Meyer aren’t really all that different. That doesn’t mean Dreyfus lacks depth and mobility with the characters she plays — quite the contrary. Elaine is an oddball New Yorker in a show about nothing. Selina is the president of the United States in a show about everything. But through Dreyfus the two epochal characters are one — in their stiff, awkward moments of physical comedy, in their inability to ever escape the incompetence of the men around them, in their misadventures and missteps. Elaine and Selina aren’t just funny women, they are women who are funny in the exact way women shouldn’t be: Improper, immoral, foulmouthed and graceless.