In the thick of the comedy writing
Armando Iannucci is firing on all cylinders, with ‘Veep’ going down a storm in the US, and new series of ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Alan Partridge’ in the pipeline. His satire has lost none of its ability to cut close to the bone on either side of the Atlantic
ARMANDO IANNUCCI has lots to talk about. There’s Veep, the HBO series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a new series of The Thick of It has just wrapped, and there is a bunch of new Alan Partridge ventures for Sky Atlantic. So no wonder he has taken to white wine before lunchtime.
A few sips in, he gets to the essence of why contemporary political life makes for such good comedic fodder. “I find it’s politicians over-reacting,” he says, “or being overly concerned about how something is reported.” With Iannucci’s The Thick Of It, and the film extension In The Loop, his presentation of politicians as glib yet weak, egotistical yet paranoid hit a rather caustic nerve on Downing Street.
With Veep, he has taken the format transatlantic. Iannucci’s ability to satirically articulate the ouroboros of politics and political PR is second to none.
He sees the weaknesses of politicians, their vulnerabilities, and cracks them open like walnuts. For politicians watching, it’s not so much close to the bone – it’s an X-ray.
“The job seems to have grown,” he says of being a politician. “It used to be in the 1940s and 1950s, politicians were known for having evenings to themselves and going home at the weekend. Now it seems to have become an all-consuming thing. So they don’t have time to read books, or read the papers, or watch television, or listen to the radio. So what they get in the morning is a selection of cuttings of stuff about them.
“Now there’s nothing more likely to make you feel paranoid if you just read about yourself. It’s like reading comments online. If you went online and read comments about yourself you’d go mad and think the whole world hated you, but that’s what they get every morning.
“So that’s their only entry point to the real world. They think it’s all about them, and people hate them, and therefore anything they do for the rest of the day is just worrying whether it will get reported the wrong way or will affect public opinion the wrong way.”
In this light, Iannucci almost appears sympathetic towards politicians, and that’s probably why ultimately his comedy writing on the topic does not necessarily mock personalities; it depicts them as hapless victims of a system, within which they are as replaceable as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, and pawns in the more vindictive world of PR.
In the new series of The Thick Of It, the setting is a coalition government, with the previous series’ stars now in opposition. Iannucci says the new format, where the seven episodes take it in turn to be about the opposition one week and the government the next, has more of a story arc, and while the episodes are still self-contained, “there’s elements within each episode that build during the series, so in the last three episodes everything comes together, incorporating all the plot lines.”
Taking a very particular type of humour to the US wasn’t without its challenges. Iannucci and the other writers hung out in Washington, were shown around government departments and the West Wing, and met former and current staffers. Cast members were encouraged to change phrases or language in the script if they seemed too British.
“[We were] meeting up with chiefs of staff and people who work for senators, in the State Department, Pentagon, the West Wing, that sort of thing, but also as we were writing the scripts, we had three or four people who were working in Washington looking at the scripts and just saying ‘well in this office, they would call it that’ or ‘actually the procedure here would be . . . ’”
Iannucci learned which departments cursed more, and how turns of phrase differ from the Pentagon to the West Wing. But there were more macro differences too.
“The vice-president has more authority and it’s a bigger stage. In the UK, we don’t have any money and therefore less influence. So you get ministers who are more controlled by Number 10 and the Treasury. They can’t be specific about stuff because that costs money, but they want to look like they’ve got stuff to do so they’re very specific about how we should behave: we should be bringing our children up like this, and we should be going to bed at that time, and reading these books.
“Whereas in America they know they have more influence, so you get a sense that there’s more power there. But they don’t want to reveal that . . . so they deal in abstracts. They talk about hope and change and freedom and progress and the American way and the American dream and stuff like that. Fundamentally they want to do ‘this’ about the environment to help ‘that’ industry, or put jobs into ‘this’ because of ‘those people’ who fund them. It’s almost like the converse of the two.”
Then there are the differences in tone. “If you get the typical American politician speak, it’s all very abstract: ‘I believe in this’, ‘together you are the people who are . . . ’
“Whereas if you analyse a typical British politician speech, it’s all about specifics: ‘We’ll make sure in three years’ time your children will be able to read this by the age of seven,’” he says, chuckling. “[British] politicians need to show that they can do things, where, in fact, that can’t really do as much because there isn’t any money.”
Despite the intricacies, Iannucci says he didn’t want it to be the case where you had to have a politics degree to figure out what was going on in the show. “I was a big fan of The West Wing and sometimes I wouldn’t know what they were talking about, but all I needed to know was Josh liked the idea, CJ didn’t like the idea, and that Bartlett was angry about something. That’s all I needed to know. And then the drama just played itself out.”
The Thick Of It’s influence was highlighted recently when Ed Miliband used the word “omnishambles”, a Malcolm Tuckerism. There’s a sense of glee about Iannucci when he starts talking about this. At the time, he joked on Twitter that the royalties from Miliband using the word would fund another series.
Then he gets slightly serious. “But sometimes you write things just because they would be a good story, but you’ve made them up, and then a politician will come up after and say: ‘How did you find that out, I thought we kept that quiet?’ I’d think, you’re not telling me that’s true?”
HBO’s hands-off approach suited Iannucci, and he has a lot of praise for the network for letting him get on with it. “You realise you’re working with people who are at the top of their game, so what they’ve got to say is worth listening to. But there was never any, ‘No, this is what we want you to do, I don’t care if you don’t agree.’ It was always, ‘It’s your shout.’”
After a recent series of web episodes, Alan Partridge’s adventures are continuing beyond television. Iannucci and Steve Coogan are currently writing a film for the character, and have secured financing. “We’re using the same approach – that we make sure we’re happy with the script first,” he says, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world, because for Iannucci, it’s all in the writing.
A-ha! It's Alan Partridge again
Sky Atlantic has taken a similar approach in its new British comedy commissions, meaning Alan Partridge is set to return after a nine-year sabbatical.
“There are influences from various people around,” Steve Coogan says at a Q and A earlier that day, talking about the roots and development of the character he has honed from a radio-sports broadcaster to an icon of comedy. Coogan points out that Richard Madeley often says things that are “too ridiculous” even for Alan Partridge. “Part of [the character] is our worst fears. Sometimes things that Alan says I think, but I edit those things, we all do.
“But sometimes there’s things people think and know that they want to say, so I do remember early on writing Partridge with Armando years ago and sometimes I say something as me and Armando would say ‘just write that down, that’s really funny, just say that as Alan’ . . . Part of the key to it is exploiting the weaknesses of my own character and utilise them.”
Iannucci thinks it’s “the right time” for Partridge to return. “We liked the idea of it being very low key, just creeping out on the internet, but making absolutely sure we were proud of it and it wasn’t a reduction in quality. We didn’t want it to feel like we were just treading water.”