Armando Iannucci has raised profanity and insults to an art form with three scorching and sidesplitting looks at politics
A version of this story appears in theComedy/Drama issue of EmmyWrap
First there was the British television series "The Thick of It"; then Oscar-nominated movie "In the Loop," which grew out of the series and took Iannucci and his cast of venom-spewing malcontents to Washington; then the HBO series "Veep," in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a vice president struggling to deal with an impressive title but a serious lack of clout.
Iannucci — part Scottish, part Italian, Oxford educated and a vet of acclaimed British comedies like "The Day Today" and "I’m Alan Partridge" — has a method that mixes careful scripting with improvisation, and a style of humor well-suited for a show about the halls of power.
"Veep" is sharp and uncomfortable and hilarious, a witty comedy that skewers Washington, D.C., but really takes aim at the ego, pettiness and jealousy that affect every workplace.
The 49-year-old writer, producer and director sat down for a lengthy Q&A as part of BAFTA LA’s Behind Closed Doors program at CAA headquarters in early June. Although the conversations are typically off-limits to the press, TheWrap was given exclusive access to the freewheeling session, which kicked off with Iannucci offering the deadpan observation that as a teenager he opted to stop studying for the priesthood because “priests are mostly pedophiles, and at the time I wasn’t.”
He also offered a few secrets of comedy, television and politics, which are shared here.
They kind of love show business [in Washington]. I remember meeting one of [Vice President Joe] Biden’s team, like his national security advisor, and he said, "You know who we met last week? Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh on 'The West Wing!'" And I’m thinking, but you’re him all the time.
And Obama’s aide at the time showed us around the West Wing. Great guy, again very welcoming. He said, "This is the Roosevelt Room, this would be where ["West Wing" characters] Josh and C.J. sit …" Why don’t you say, "This is where Barack Obama sits down with Putin?"
THE SECRET TO GOVERNMENT
There’s something about, when you’re in D.C., these very big, grand, imposing buildings, and yet when you go in they’re sparsely furnished, the security’s not that great, you realize they’re just offices. I thought that was the breakthrough moment: Government is just people at work.
Some of them are good at their jobs, some of them are terrible at their jobs, some of them have made a mistake and are just trying to hide it or put the blame on someone else. It’s office politics as well as big politics.
THE MODERN TOWER OF BABEL
They speak a lot in acronyms [in Washington], because they don’t have time. They’re busy, so they’re not going to say "the secretary of defense," they’re going to say "the sec-def." But different sections have their own acronyms, and there’s a great rivalry between the Pentagon and the State Department.
So whenever the Pentagon is hosting a meeting that the State Department is at, they make absolutely sure that they just speak in acronyms that the Defense Department understands. People in the State Department can’t say, "I don’t understand," because that would look bad. So they just nod, with no idea what they’re talking about.
THE TROUBLE WITH POLITICIANS
Politicians have less power than they used to; they have less influence. Googles and Facebooks, Microsofts and Apples and Cokes and fracking industries have more influence now than governments. Governments are frustrated, politicians are frustrated. People don’t just leap to attention whenever they issue an instruction. So therefore all they’re left doing is thinking of code words and labels and branding.
It’s more difficult now to scratch a politician and find out what they genuinely believe. That’s not to say that all politicians are evil. I think a good 1 percent of them are not.
THE TV REVOLUTION
You’ve now got a much more fragmented audience, large pockets of which are saying, "I don’t really have to sit and watch 'I Ate My Sister.' I want to look for something good, actually." The fascinating thing, coming to do something with HBO, is the discovery that there is this perfect commercial business plan, which is, "Hey, the better our programs are, the more money we’ll make."
That’s counter to, "It’s got to be the lowest common denominator." Suddenly, the realization that you can make a decent amount of money and get a decent audience by making things that are good—who saw that coming?
THE JOB OF A SHOWRUNNER
When I was doing "I’m Alan Partridge," the costume designer came up to me and said, "It says in the script that he meets a businessman carrying a briefcase. What kind of briefcase should he be carrying?" I said, "I really don’t know," and I forgot about it. And I was setting up another shot 20 minutes later, there’s a tap on my shoulder, I turn around and it’s the same costume person, and she had five different briefcases. And she said, "Any of these?" And without thinking, I just went, "That one," and she was really happy.
And I thought, that’s interesting — she just wanted an answer. And, actually, getting through television is all about working out, What are the decisions that don’t matter as long as you [make] a decision, and what are the really crucial decisions that you need to sit on for a night?
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TV AND RADIO
Television’s a bigger beast. You realize if you happen to write on a piece of paper, "There is an elephant," and that was a stray thought, if you haven’t crossed that out, there will be an elephant. Whereas on radio it’s just a noise, and you can put another noise on. [In television, you get] an elephant that you never really asked for.\
I’ve always believed, Never underestimate the intelligence of the audience. The thing I hate most is clever people making stupid programs because they think that’s what people want. I don’t mind stupid people making stupid programs — there’s really nothing else they can do.
But clever people who are embarrassed by the programs they’re making? You ask them, "What are you making?", and they say, "Oh, I’m making such and such for my sins, and I’m going to burn in hell.”