Armando Iannucci, the heralded writer-director behind the hit British shows The Day Today and The Thick of It, brings his gift for political satire to this side of the pond with the HBO comedy Veep.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(May 3, 2013)
In the UK, television comedy is king and writer-director Armando Iannucci is a heralded royal. Beginning with the mid-‘90s mock news show The Day Today to his just-wrapped hit series The Thick of It – The Office-meets-The Larry Sanders Show, set in the middlingly nasty arena of British ministerial politics – he has made some of the country’s most acclaimed satirical comedies. For you anglophiles, he is also a key man behind Alan Partridge, the flaccidly failed TV presenter played by Steve Coogan in multiple series and specials.
Now Iannucci is finding some dominion stateside with his sophomore season of the HBO comedy Veep, starring Julia Louis Dreyfus. It’s In The Thick of It right at the top (almost) of the America’s satirically bountiful democratic government. The show features Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, a Vice President relentlessly obsessed with gaining attention for anything other than her utter incompetence. Iannucci has brought much of his writing and production team from the UK, augmented with American writers and advisors like controversial ex-New York Times political columnist Frank Rich.
Central to the show is the unique predicament of a U.S. Vice President – being next to the most powerful seat in the world with virtually no power whatsoever.
Iannucci spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web Site about what’s different, yet strangely familiar, about working for HBO, his maturing philosophy of narrative over gags, and why, if he were forced to write alone, he might just give it all up and become an office maid for a while.
Pretending not to know that you’ve been asked this question a million times, let me ask, what’s different for you about making a TV comedy in America versus the UK?
There are different American television experiences. Doing a show on HBO is different from doing a network show. Strangely enough, and thanks to HBO, this has reminded me a lot of doing something for the BBC 10 or 15 years ago in that I was left very much to get on with it. I was encouraged and protected. There was very little in the way of interference. They were very keen that I come up with a vision of what I wanted to do and, once they bought into that, they said the last thing they wanted to do was change it. So it was almost reassuringly familiar.
Photo: © 2013 HBO
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep.
From a writing standpoint, particularly pertaining to narrative, how has this differed from your work in the UK?
In terms of the story, the whole landscape is different in that, what I was doing in the UK was a story about a politician who was very low on the power structure and had no power. Whereas here, I'm doing someone who’s [a] highly public, high profile figure, [the] number two in the administration and has considerable power. So the whole dynamic is very different. So, from that point of view, transfer the same set of characters In The Thick of It and do them, and that just seemed very uninspiring, I think.
Tell me how you’ve been dealing with the narrative arc over a season, what you’ve learned about that cable arc?
One thing I have learned is that fact that HBO doesn’t do 22-part series. If you have seasons that have that amount of episodes, there’s always a feel that you can't develop too much… People will miss a week, but they can always pick up the following week and so on. They do shorter seasons, and therefore, they need something that pushes you onto the next episode. So they were very keen to encourage me to think across the whole season, to have top elements that haven't quite got resolved within an episode, but actually needed a little bit more developing or suggested a new incident in the episode after it. So that was something that I hadn’t done in the UK… Little almost tangential references in the first couple of episodes will actually come to dominate, in an unexpected way, later episodes of the season.
How do you think political satire gets at human nature in a general way, from a comedic standpoint?
It’s all to do with how you arrive at your decision and your actions, you know, what produces them, whether you’re doing something under pressure or whether you’re doing something that you genuinely believe in, and what happens when you make a mistake? Do you try and cover it up or do you own up to it? And do you learn from it? Do you exaggerate it?
We do it in such a way [that] although we go into the reality of it and get all the references accurate, I’m not expecting anyone to feel the need to have a political degree to watch the show. It’s just fun to make it about human nature.
The feeling I’ve always had about politics is that, as powerful as it all seems, when you go through the doors of these very grand buildings, you discover that they’re just people in there like you and me with suits and jackets and ties on, kind of making things up and hoping that they’re not found out. So what I like are the kind of very imposing looking figures, but then tripping up over a very silly, stupid mistake. You know, I’m just trying to strike that balance, which is always a challenge.
I know you're of Scottish and Italian decent. Do you feel the Brits, in general, have a keener sense of this absurdity that you're sort of talking about, growing up with the Royal Family…
I suppose about journalism, they’re more aggressive in questioning [politicians]. Americans are always surprised when they see interviews with our Prime Ministers or senior politicians. They’re amazed by how savage they can sometimes be. So we have more of an urge to question, in very forensic detail, anything that a politician says.
It’s also useful – even though I'm very familiar with American politics – I'm a bit of a political geek. I’ve immersed myself in the geekery of American politics for the last 30 years, but I'm coming from outside, you know? I’m coming from, you know, I haven’t grown up in a Democrat household or a Republican household or a red state or a blue state. So I’m not coming from a partisan position.
You have the objectivity to see the absurdity of things.
Or to look at how the structure works, and I hope that helps me connect with what I perceive as being the sense of frustration among the majority of the American electorate. You look at something like the gun control background checks. There was something that there was clearly very, very popular, bipartisan support for. And yet, in the end, they just couldn’t do it for one reason or another – interest groups and fears about losing seats or losing funding. That’s where you felt a whole electorate felt disenfranchised for a second.
Oh my God, yes.
So I can hone in on that kind of sense of exasperation and frustration.
You’ve brought a crew of writers from the UK for this show. So you’re working with a team that you're very comfortable with, right?
Yeah, but every season I also bring on board new people. I see it as a very collaborative exercise, and therefore, it’s always good to have people who are very seasoned in that and who we all understand each other. We know how we all work. We can more or less finish each other sentences, and at the same time, I bring in new writers because I’m always keen to see a new approach.
And when you have written on your own, in the classic sense, what’s your routine, your modus operandi?
It depends. I’m not very disciplined when I’m on my own, which is probably why I tend to write in collaboration because it just forces the issue. I’m flat on my own. I tend to do an awful lot of tidying in the room for about two or three weeks. Then when it becomes so impossibly tidy, that’s the point where my ideas start coming.
You have the cleanest office in comedy.
Yeah, absolutely… I don’t even stick up, you know, little pieces of card with marker pen ideas and stuff anymore. I’m not even doing that. I’m removing every speck of dust.
And any shred of ideas.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. In fact, you know, I’m so good at it, I could actually hire myself out as just someone who comes around and cleans your apartment.
Well, unfortunately, it seems like you're television career is going a little too well for that. But it's nice to have that.
That's always something to fall back on, isn't it?
I’ve got a friend in the UK that’s a huge fan and one vignette he sent me, just to give an idea of the absurdity involved, involves an airport customs dog who takes an errant, drug-addled trip to Bangkok. It’s a fantastic bit and typifies a lot of the stuff you’ve done in the past. Do you feel that you have gotten more narrative-driven and less absurd in general?
Well, yes, I suppose. I mean, what I do like is making stuff feel very genuine, and then when something absurd pops up in the middle of it, it takes you by surprise, because you really weren't expecting it. What I dislike is stuff that gives you lots of cues, you know, where the music tells you what you should be thinking at that point, or where the writing is telegraphing it too much in advance. I like luring people into thinking it’s going to be one thing and then something else happens.
So when you want to employ absurdity, you feel like you need kind of a base of reasonableness from which to do it?
Or accuracy and detail and reality so that the absurdity becomes more troubling, you know? It becomes more disorienting.
Do you feel like you’ve matured or changed as a comedy writer?
I’ve become more interested in the longer narrative, not just thinking about the episode, but thinking about the whole thing, trying to carry the whole season in your head. A joke is like one line or two lines. The placing of every word in that line is important so that the joke hits home. On a larger scale, it’s like the development of a little plot point here and a larger plot point there… There’s a certain effect that you know you’ll get [later in the series]. I find that interesting. But also character, you know? Dwelling more on fleshing out characters so that sometimes you don’t actually need to give them a funny, well-constructed joke to say. When you know the character so well, just a look from them is funnier than a carefully written line. I find myself actually taking lines out, lines that we were all very proud of when we were writing. Because you find that you’re working with performers who are able to give those characters such a presence and such a funny kind of air of their own, that sometimes you just don’t need the line.
So written jokes can actually encumber or interfere.
Well, occasionally they feel like they’re too destructive. They can draw your attention to the artifice when what you’re trying to do is make this feel like this is actually happening.
The last thing you want is people to think, oh, that was a good line.
Do you feel like there’s a danger for younger comedy writers in just wanting to pop off gag after gag and joke after joke?
That’s the thing… If there’s a list of three [jokes], I find in the end, I take one of those three out so that it doesn’t feel like a list of three... The funniest stuff is always the stuff that seems to flow naturally from the situation that you are shooting. That is something you learn after years as a writer, that it’s not about filling page after page with gags, but actually filling it with page after page or moments that seem funny… Those moments could all be in dialogue form, but they just have to feel like, you know, that's what that character would say at that point.