While making Veep, the Armando Iannucci-penned sitcom about an American vice-president, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus developed a code to indicate when the dialogue was too British.
“She says ‘haw, haw, haw’,” says Iannucci, affecting a snooty English accent. “We also have a shorthand for things being very American, which is ‘wa nyah wa wa’.” He says this in a sort of whining, faux-redneck drawl. It’s very funny.
Armando Iannucci is in a strange position. A Scottish writer based in London, he has created the only programme directly lampooning the executive branch of US government.
He has a uniquely successful track record in satire, from Radio 4's spoof news show On the Hour and its televised offshoot, The Day Today, to the fake chat-shows of Alan Partridge (recently an unlikely film star) and the profane political sitcom The Thick of It. But it was the Oscar-nominated film In the Loop that brought him to the attention of the US and led to a hit show on HBO. A second series of Veep is about to air on Sky Atlantic; a third is currently in production.
"I was understandably nervous about the reaction [to Veep]. I don't think there's ever been a comedy set in the West Wing, and I was also acutely aware that we were Brits telling Americans what we thought of their country. So we worked hard at making sure we got it right."
Overall he thinks being an outsider has helped him. “I’ve been an Italian in Scotland, a Scot in England and a Brit abroad,” he says. “I’ve grown up standing back. I can see what’s enjoyable but also what’s silly about each culture. I’ve got one of my fearful feet in. I think it has been a good thing, especially in the States.”
Iannucci has always been aware of politics. His father wrote for an anti-fascist newspaper in Italy before coming to Glasgow in 1950 and marrying Armando's Italian-Scottish mother. "But it wasn't a particularly political household," he says. "If anything, that experience, watching his country being led by Mussolini and getting in league with Hitler, made him more cynical about politics. Even under free elections you can still vote in the Nazis," he laughs.
When did he decide he wanted to write? "The question is, really: when did I start wanting to do funny things? I was about 12 or 13 and would write jokes and do impressions and listen avidly to radio comedy. I wanted to make funny things. I started at Radio Scotland and went to Radio 4 to do comedy. I love radio comedy. I was very lucky that within a year I had On the Hour going to television with The Day Today. It all happened very quickly."
On the Hour and The Day Today were ground-breaking, prescient satires modelled on news broadcasts that launched many stellar comedy careers. "I was new to London and had heard Chris Morris doing a news parody on Radio London and got in touch with him," he says. "Some of the others I knew, like Rebecca Front, and others I knew by reputation, like Steve Coogan. It wasn't a pre-existing group who had known each other at university or drama school. And we never really had a political manifesto. It wasn't: let's expose journalism for what it is. It was more: let's think of a new way to tell jokes, and we all thought the more serious and convincing it sounded, the funnier it would be."
Iannucci followed this with the Alan Partridge programmes; the current affairs magazine show The Saturday Night Armistice, which he hosted; The Armando Iannucci Shows, a surreal gem featuring Iannucci as a baffled Everyman; and the hugely popular The Thick of It, starring Peter Capaldi as a creatively foulmouthed spin doctor.
While his comedy peers created their own production companies, Iannucci stayed in-house at the BBC. “I had my own unit for three or four years. I had been tempted [to start a production company], but I felt I’d spend too much time looking at office space and discussing VAT and having to lay people off. I feel that in the time available to me I wanted to be creating projects and not be distracted by other stuff.”
He remembers the 1990s as a great era for the station, a period when “the first time the BBC saw anything [I wrote] was when I handed the tapes over. That doesn’t happen today. They trusted me and gave me the space, so I felt a responsibility to deliver and not to mess them around. That’s how it feels working with HBO. They offer notes and suggestions, but if you disagree they say: it’s your show. ”
A rigorous approach
He takes a painstakingly journalistic approach to his research ("We look into all the dull stuff. What time does a minister go home? Who answers the phone if the editor of the Daily Mail rings?").
He feels that the facts are usually more absurd than anything he could make up. He is continuously disconcerted by how young politicians are. “Politics is dominated by people who’ve done nothing but politics. They become junior advisers or special advisers and then they became MPs and then party leaders. In Washington you get 24-year-olds with actual power. An ambitious young person left alone at a desk in a corner can acquire a power base. I met a 24-year-old who was sent out to Iraq to help draw up the constitution after the invasion. He hasn’t bought or sold a house but he’s telling a country how to run itself. That’s bizarre.”
He thinks the success of Veep is partly due to its accuracy. "Washington seems to have confessed that it's all true. Julia had lunch with Joe Biden and the staff introduced themselves as 'Hi, I'm the Dan of the office' and 'I'm the Sue of the office'."
Does it worry him that cast members are having lunch with politicians? “It does slightly, because in the UK I’m used to being at arm’s length. In the US there’s a bit more deference. It’s nice that we’re being noticed but you don’t want to get too friendly with them because it looks like you’re in collusion. I took a tour of the West Wing, and the guy described it in terms of the television show. ‘This would be the room where CJ would sit down with Josh to look at the day’s events’.”
The youth vote
Iannucci feels that young people, in particular, are disengaging from politics in the US and elsewhere. Is he concerned that his work fuels this trend by depicting politicians as vain and incompetent?
“Oh, you mean [that we’re] advocating that government doesn’t work?” He pauses for a moment. “I think we also show what happens when you don’t have government, what happens to people who are poor or sick or need education. It’s not an argument about whether government works. It’s a discussion about whether the people who are in government are all that good, or whether the pressures we put them under are fair. We expect our politicians to be cleaner-than-clean, and not have any money, and not go on holiday, and to have an answer for everything and be able to articulate it on front of any microphone. It’s an almost impossible pressure.”
And he's not sure satire has any effect. "I don't know if comedy can be used to change anything," he says. "I don't think The Thick of It has improved or destroyed politics. It's weird when politicians start using phrases or indeed policies invented by an actor improvising on The Thick of It. And if people use The Thick of It to avoid looking like they're on The Thick of It that's good. But I don't know how uppermost that is on their list of priorities."
The second series of Veep begins on Sky Atlantic tonight