There’s a recurring bit on “Veep” in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer, currently the president of the United States, is shown walking through crowds shaking hands. She’s engaging in the bread and butter of political life — the hand hug, the leftie grab, the head nodding, the eye contact, the rigid, winning smile.
When President Obama does it, we don’t hear what he’s saying over the clamor and chaos. But when President Meyer does it on this superbly savage satire of Washington, we hear every facile word, every dull platitude, every nonsensical utterance. “I see you,” she says to one person, as if she’s talking to an infant. “I’m going to get that Philip Roth book back to you,” she tells another. “God, I can’t even hear myself! Am I talking? It’s hard for me to hear me!”
It’s the kind of tossed-off scene that Louis-Dreyfus absolutely kills. She is a virtuoso of banalities, a genius at making shallowness and awkwardness into comic goldmines. Having earned a PhD in the art of nothing from her nine years on “Seinfeld,” she knows how to transform the trivial into the revelatory. On “Veep,” which reverses the exaltation of government that defined TV classics such as “The West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation,” her mastery of petty moments is a key element, the special sauce.
With “Veep” having just entered its fourth season on HBO, and with Louis-Dreyfus continuing to make Selina into a hysterical portrait of power for power’s sake, I’m thinking that Louis-Dreyfus is TV’s best comedy actress since . . . well, since no one. She is, to use a popular phrase in our list-obsessed culture, the best ever.
Forgive me, worshipers of the legendary Lucille Ball; I hope I haven’t made you go “Waaa.” I have profound respect for Ball, who was unforgettable as Lucy Ricardo on “I Love Lucy.” She was a sitcom trailblazer. But, given the primitive nature of TV comedy in the 1950s, her performance was built almost solely on facial contortions (thus, perhaps, the controversial “Scary Lucy” statue in her hometown?) and other elements of physical comedy. It was the kind of broad shtick that came closer to vaudeville clowning than what we now think of as scripted TV comedy.
Louis-Dreyfus certainly knows her way around physical comedy. Some of her best moments on her three best-known series, “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” and “Veep,” are rooted in body language and slapstick. She can be crude; remember her repugnant dance moves on “Seinfeld,” which turned her into an office pariah? Louis-Dreyfus came up with a collection of ugly, arrhythmic jerks that I can still picture almost 20 years after I first saw it.
And she can be subtle. At the end of season three of “Veep,” Selina has a small eye twitch, which Louis-Dreyfus makes funny over and over again; it finally helps her win a debate by distracting her opponent. Her eye-rolling exasperation and shrinking inferiority on “Old Christine,” as she faced the local Heathers — a gang of blond soccer moms — was a regular joy. Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t have an imposing presence, size-wise, but she works every part of her body in service of the jokes — picture her throwing herself into pushing Jerry away and yelling “Get out!” on “Seinfeld.”
But Louis-Dreyfus brings a contemporary sophistication to her work, even in her more farcical moments, that I find both endlessly humorous and relevant. She dives into what is funny about humiliation and embarrassment, and she doesn’t ever resolve into likability — a quality that women, in particular, were often expected to have on TV. She speaks to the sense of realism and honesty we want on TV these days, even in comedy — particularly after the “no hugging, no learning” rule that made “Seinfeld” so unlike anything before it. Her willingness to be obnoxious, superficial, and self-centered — and yet, oddly, still lovable in a way — isn’t what makes her great, of course, but it adds to her appeal and her range. Subversively, she teases out the narcissism that lurks within us all.
The pure vanity she lays bare on “Veep” is what makes the show almost more cringingly realistic than “House of Cards,” which seems to be peopled by cynical automatons involved in entirely unbelievable plots. She and most of the other power brokers on “Veep” stumble into distressing and publically untoward situations, the kinds of gaffes and “-gates” that actually haunt today’s politicians. In Sunday’s episode, for example, Selina will face attack for disliking a painting in the White House — the only painting in the building by a Native American artist. Selina isn’t only a buffoon, easily dismissed; she’s always tethered somehow to the current state of the Beltway. She’s a sitcom character for an era in which Sarah Palin might have made it into the White House.
That refusal to be agreeable is why she also may have an edge on — I feel so transgressive saying this — Mary Tyler Moore, in terms of “best evers.” Like many TV lovers, I have a strong attachment to Moore, who was in two of TV’s finest and most groundbreaking comedies, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a series that ended with a group hug. And I don’t just have an emotional attachment to Moore; her work on both shows was deeply human and expertly comic. She was both a lead reflecting successful single working women and the center of one of TV’s most endearing ensembles. Compared with her, Louis-Dreyfus is more of a Rhoda — droll, urban, and sarcastic. But still, did Moore play as many different notes as Louis-Dreyfus?
I hope it doesn’t seem as though I’m throwing Mary — or Lucy, or Bea Arthur, or Jean Stapleton — under the bus. Louis-Dreyfus probably would not be doing her amazing work right now if it weren’t for the paths they cleared — particularly Moore, who made it acceptable to reflect the reality of a single but not dating-obsessed woman on TV. They’ve all been honored by our TV awards system, and deservedly so. Louis-Dreyfus, in particular, has an impressive track record, not only starring in three successful sitcoms but winning acting Emmys for each one of them.
What I find most engaging about Louis-Dreyfus is that she always seems to be having a good time. I never feel her working for a laugh. On Sunday night, when she over-pronounces the names of the Israeli delegation, or when she bullies her codependent bag-man, Gary, into acting out, or when — thanks to HBO — she lets loose with some choice swear words, she seems to be enjoying herself enormously. It’s infectious. Her enjoyment is what made “Old Christine,” with its sometimes formulaic nature, so much better than it had any right to be.
When Tina Fey won an Emmy for lead comedic actress in 2008, she thanked Louis-Dreyfus from the stage. “When I don’t know how to quite play a scene, my husband will say, ‘Just try to act like Julia Louis-Dreyfus,’” she said. Wise advice, that.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.