With the exception of perhaps Donald Trump, no person on television is at the receiving end of more insults than Timothy Simons.
For six seasons now, Simons has played the unrivaled egotist Jonah Ryan on Veep, the almost endearingly lecherous former hanger-on who has somehow failed upward to be America’s most unlikely congressman. (Or maybe, in one of Veep’s more vicious indictments of American politics, the most likely.)
The “Jonah burns” have evolved into a bit of a phenom among fans, who curate lists and create mash-up videos celebrating the most vicious of them. And as such, Simons, even though he’s certainly aware of the line between actor and character he plays, has found himself on the receiving end of being called:
“Jolly Green Jizzface,” “Frankenstein’s monster, if his monster was made entirely of dead dicks,” an “unstable piece of human scaffolding,” “the guy with the police sketch face of a rapist,” and—a personal favorite—a “seven-foot-seven goony-looking Lithuanian who’s going to drop dead of Marfan syndrome.”
It’s only every once in a while, Simons says, that one of these insults will hit at one of his real-life insecurities and bruise his ego.
“I remember there was one about my hips,” he laughs, recovering from a battle with a Heinz ketchup bottle over lunch last week in New York City.
“You just looked down!” he screams, noticing our instinctive glance down. “I was a really fucking weird looking middle schooler. Not that I’m saying I’m not weird looking now, but I was a weird looking middle schooler. It was like I was put together with parts of different bodies all sewn together. I would outgrow clothes immediately.”
His parents accommodated by buying him different styles of jeans, but one pair that “accentuated a kind of hippyness” looked too much like women’s jeans for Simons to escape the brutal wrath of pre-teens.
“It’s a thing I’ve carried with me my entire life,” he says. “Once they came in with a line about weird hips, it’s the one that hit the middle school button. Oh, I’m a grown man with my own family and I’m still dealing with the ramifications of those jokes.”
Don’t be confused, though. Simons relishes the Jonah burns, generally speaking. Over the course of an hour-long conversation, he even proved rather adept at roasting himself. (“When the beard came off and I had a shaved head, I just looked like a six-foot-five penis,” he says, recalling his initial reaction to the bald look he had to adopt to play Jonah’s cancer storyline at the beginning of this season.)
The 38-year-old actor broke out in the comedy world when he was cast on Veep in 2012 despite having few major credits to his name outside of playing Abraham Lincoln in a Geico commercial.
His character has since become integral in Veep’s satirical exposing of Washington’s revolting personalities and their incompetence, especially, as star Julia Louis-Dreyfus has said, as the show has morphed from a political farce to, in today’s climate, seeming more like a “sobering documentary.”
In the current season, Simon’s Jonah Ryan is now wielding a semblance of power as congressman, with deep-pocketed donors appealing to him for legislation on things like ending Daylight Savings Time. Jonah, who is chronically late, genuinely opposes it. The donor’s real motive, however, is in how ending Daylight Savings Time will lead to an increase in private prison revenue.
And so with this season of Veep at a midpoint, and airing in the midst of a dizzying political climate that makes its dingbat cast of characters seem calm and dignified, we had a sprawling conversation with Simons about how the Age of Trump changes how his show is perceived, what it was like filming after Election Night, and why Jonah might actually be the most realistic political character on the show.
How do you stand on the issue of Daylight Savings Time?
(Laughs) I should be more prepared for this question. I think this is the first time somebody’s asked me my personal opinion on it. It has recently come to light—my mom has been sending me a lot of information about it—that people in New England are trying to do away with Daylight Savings Time. They’re trying to band together as a tristate power, like Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine, to create Atlantic time.
Wait, is that real?
She just sent me a letter to the editor in the paper this morning. It was a person writing in about the barbecue grill lobby and about how they’ve put thousands of dollars behind getting rid of Daylight Savings Time because it benefits the grill industry. Like, more people grill if it stays light later.
What was your reaction when you found out that Jonah would actually be elected into office and this guy who was such a loser henchman would not be an elected official?
On our show, it’s always funnier when people lose. It’s always funnier when Selina loses. But I think it might the opposite with him, where I think it might be funnier when he wins. And as alarming or unrealistic as it seems for Jonah to win a congressional race, like, Ted Cruz is in the Senate. And Paul Ryan is in the House of Representatives. These are universally disliked people who are charmless who have somehow managed to be elected, and in Ted Cruz’s case, get a certain sort of power in Congress. So it seems unreasonable, but just comparing it to those people it kind of makes sense that he would succeed.
The show was filming during the election. Do you think it changed things at all, given that the assumption was that Hillary was going to win and the reality that Trump won?
Remember when they were like “the Trump presidency is going to be so great for artists?” Like that’s the dumbest fucking thing. I will gladly take back any joke I get to tell about a Trump presidency for it to just not be happening. But they probably had to be very aware and were probably planning for how to separate the stories from Hillary being president and Selina’s story. How to intentionally move those away from one another in the plan for Hillary becoming president.
It’s a show that everyone is constantly trying to parse real-world political allegories from. What is it like to go to set after Trump is elected and act on Veep?
We were filming episode three on Election Night, and then we were going to have a hiatus for like a week and a half or so, which I think they ended up extending for a couple of days so that they could have the philosophical conversation of “how does this affect it?” What does this do for comedy? I remember going into the writer’s room a couple days later, I think on Thursday after the election. It was just a funeral in there. It was strange to even think about jokes. It was strange to even think about politics being funny at all.
How much do you think Selina is like Trump?
[Current showrunner] Dave Mandel brought up a great point. Even though we don’t have a Trump character on the show, Selina has Trump elements to her. She does put herself up as a champion of the people and a champion of the working man, but she would never want to spend time with a working person and would find them filthy and if they touched hands she would immediately ask for hand sanitizer.
What is it like, because you’re on this show, to be an actor constantly asked to speak on politics? I’m always asking actors about it and I’m curious what it’s like on the other side of the table.
Can I ask you a question? Have people been more or less willing to talk about since he’s been elected?
Both. Sometimes they want nothing more to monologue about it, and in other cases they refuse. And maybe that’s because they know that it just becomes “Celebrity Goes Off on Trump.”
I dunno. I think I don’t have any experience. I’ve only ever been in a position where somebody had been asking me about politics in a situation like this. I guess I don’t mind necessarily being asked questions about it, because I think it has a different level of importance right now.
I can’t imagine sitting down with an actor and talking about Trump and them not going on a tirade. It’s not a particularly controversial conversation.
That’s the whole thing. The whole idea was that you avoid controversy, but it is the least controversial thing to say.
Shocking: An actor on Veep doesn’t like Trump.
Exactly. It’s like if I sat here and praised him, then that would maybe move a needle. Whenever I do talk about it, I don’t think of myself as “actor talks about politics.” But I do think a member of the Simons family who grew up in Maine and had a life and has friends and a family thinks this way about X, Y, and Z. I haven’t reframed my feelings on these things just because I’m now on this show. I don’t know. It’s fun to swear at him. It’s fun. Maybe that’s it.
I’ve seen Veep panel conversations and read interviews that you’ve done, and you’re always asked about your favorite Jonah burn. Is it a question that ever gets tired? What do you make of that phenomenon of the Jonah burn obsession?
I don’t really get tired of it. When people ask me, what usually happens is I feel bad because I’ve forgotten the ones I really like so I end up going to Jolly Green Jizzface or one that sticks out. I feel like the obsession with them comes from that feeling you have when you’re in an argument with somebody and 20 minutes later, you think “ah that was the perfect thing to say and I have it now but I didn’t have it then.” It scratches the surface on that itch. You’re watching people say the best thing in the perfect moment, and maybe that’s why people are so fascinated by it.
Aside from Trump, you’re the most insulted person on TV.
I might be! And in the same way, even horrible people think Trump is horrible, and even—and there is no redeemable character on our show. Maybe Richard is the closest one you can get. But even then he has no ability to see the world outside the rose-colored glasses he wears. It’s not necessarily irredeemable but all of those awful people still think Jonah’s awful and that’s pretty special.