The British satirist behind the HBO hit shares improv secrets, insults and behind-the-scenes tales in the latest edition of TheWrap’s Writers’ Room series
For a guy with the most raucously fun comedy on television, Armando Iannucci is almost unsettlingly calm and collected.
Then again, he’s been making people laugh by ripping apart world leaders and social institutions for the past 25 years, so what looks like chaos is just the very carefully constructed method to his madness.
Until a few years ago, Iannucci was best known in the U.K. for his series of news satires, including “The Day Today,” a sort of weekly and surreal precursor to “The Daily Show.” That program gave birth to Alan Partridge, the dopey and shallow sports broadcaster who has now been played by Steve Coogan in countless spinoffs and films, including one critical hit that hits theaters in the U.S. on Friday.
Iannucci delved deeper into the government satire game with “The Thick of It,” a series about a scheming minister played by Peter Capaldi (the new star of “Doctor Who”). The show crossed over into a film that was a hit with critics in the U.S., “In the Loop,” and that led to “Veep,” the hilarious comedy that features Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, a hapless vice president with an even more pathetic (and conniving) staff. It has won Louis-Dreyfus two best actress Emmys in a row, as well as a statue for Tony Hale as her loyal, weirdo assistant Gary. Anna Chlumsky, Timothy Simons, Matt Walsh, Gary Cole, Reid Scott and Sufe Bradshaw also star.
The series’ third season debuts on HBO Sunday evening, and Iannucci spoke with TheWrap about his team’s writing process, recounting every whirlwind detail with the calm of a 49-year-old British man at the height of his powers.
TheWrap: “Veep” reminds me of one big tornado, but each episode is its own mini-tornado, more than most other shows. So how does the arc get planned? Do you plan out the season’s arc in detail, or worry about each individual episode first?
Armando Iannucci: I have a rough idea of where I want to end up, but we don’t write the final episodes until much later. Things emerge as we’re shooting the earlier episodes. Things emerge that we weren’t expecting or give us fresh ideas, so we always try to keep our powder dry. But fundamentally, I have a sort of grand scheme for the whole season, but it’s not overly plotted. I just know for each episode, I need to get something out of it that leads to the next episode. So, the tornadoes are really about the individual episodes; I just need something borne out of that episode that will be significant later.
You have so many balls in the air with so many characters.
I very rarely write them all down. I normally carry them all in my head, which means everyone keeps asking me what’s happening, where is this going, what will come of this? For our fourth season, I think I’m just going to flesh it out on cards.
I won’t spoil things for readers, but it’s fair to say that this season, Jonah’s (Timothy Simons) career is so up and down. How about individual arcs, are they figured out by the episode? They just go back and forth so wildly.
We thought, wouldn’t it be funny if Jonah’s career just kept ricocheting all over the place? He doesn’t settle at all. In the first couple episodes, we give ourselves things that we don’t know how they’re going to resolve, with Jonah or with someone else. Because we then tell ourselves that the rest of the season is all about working out how all those things resolved. So we deliberately push ourselves to the edge of a cliff, just to see what happens. And I think that makes things more interesting, more exciting, because it means the stakes are much higher all the time. That’s how politics works: it is one tornado after another.
There are so many great insults and obscenities in the show, where do you get them all? Do you have a bucket of dirty words you can just pluck and combine?
The best ones are the ones that fit the moment, really. So they usually come when they’re needed. Occasionally when we’re a bit bored, we sit down and write Jonah insults, but that’s just for a bit of fun, really. Other than that, they usually come as required, we don’t just spoon them in. We only do them when we feel the moment’s right, and we only know when we’re writing it.
Also read: ‘Veep’ Review: Bleak, Despairing, Hilarious
With a TV staff, you have different people writing episodes, so what’s the process like for an individual episode?
Usually I break the story with the writer and then ask him or her to go away and just write it up very, very quickly, because we’re always going to be changing things. And they come back with a 30-page document, and that’s when we still move things around and change things, and then they’ll do a new draft that’s a bit more detailed. And then on that I’ll do very detailed notes and they’ll maybe do a pass on someone else’s script, so we all swap scripts around.
And then we go into the rehearsals, we table read it and then start pulling apart a lot of the big scenes and play around with it — look for the funny moments and get the dynamic going in the room, the relationships with people. The writers are always there as we’re rehearsing so they can feed into the script, the stuff that’s coming out of the rehearsal.
What percentage of the original script is still in the final episode?
Oh I’d say there’s still about 30 percent, but the bulk of the episode is still written by that writer. They’re following through all the way to the end. That’s why I say don’t spend too long on the first draft, because it really is going to be pummeled to death. It’s really just a structure and a working document and something to discuss.
How much goes into planning an episode’s plotting versus gags and one-liners?
The plotting is the first thing we do; it has to feel natural and real. But then I make sure that it’s very funny so in a way you’re unaware of a key plot moment. You absorb it, but only as you’re absorbing the dialogue and the behavior … let’s try to make that funny now so people aren’t thinking, “Oh, that must be significant because they stopped the laughter for a bit to explain something to us.”
We don’t show the plot too much, so if something comes back in the end that we forgot about and it’s significant, it’s as much of a surprise to the viewer as it is to the character
If you need to punch something up, a scene of dry dialogue maybe, is there a way to do it quickly?
We do that, but we also have two writers on set every day as we’re shooting, and they normally get to decide the day before and go through it and they’ll tell them to shorten everything and alter some lines. That’s going on all the time, and then even as we’re filming, if we reach a part where we think, “Oh, this is going to be a bit strange,” the writers are around and we stop and we talk about how to make it funnier. And usually, that’s when the physical comedy (comes in): s we give Gary something to do with Selina that takes her eye off the plot information.
How long does it take to establish a character so you can do jokes about their personal lives and the audience really gets it?
Well again, we’re blessed with a cast who from the first day of rehearsal made the characters very human and warm and three-dimensional, so that made it easy. But a lot of the cast has to be very thick skinned because a lot of the insults are about a character’s physical appearance. So you can’t have a cast member saying, “Can you not make fun of my hair?” We always feel sorry for actors who are just in it for one episode and they turn up to read the script and it’s filled with insults about their height or hair.
There’s a great line from one episode where Mike calls and says, “We’re eating chips off each others’ belly and watching ‘The Dirty Dozen.” Does that situational stuff come in last minute?
No, I think that might well have been in the first draft, if I can remember.
Is “Veep” very improv-based?
Oh yeah. I’d say what ends up in the final cut, 90-95 percent of it is the script, (but) if you went back and looked at the drafts and see the dialogue, how we arrived at that script, there was an element of improvisation in rehearsals that helped form that final table script. But actually on the day that we’re shooting, there’s not much. I just say, dirty up the dialogue a little bit, make it a little more broken up and overlapping, just to make it feel real. And then also, sometimes things happen as we’re shooting and we’ve done the script and we just keep going, we tell them to just carry on and they’re very happy to just carry on.
Selina doesn’t really have positions beyond wanting to be in the White House. So how do you keep these characters likable even though they’re sort of awful?
Well it’s credit to the cast really, because they really inhabit these characters, they really flesh them out and make them human. And in terms of the writing, I want this show to be not that the message is “politics stink”; it’s more, “This is the pressure we put on the political process, so how would you cope if you were a politician?” You sort of sympathize with Selina, in a way, in that she’s always backed into positions that are very (difficult) to come out of positively.
The 24-hour news cycle means that she has to respond to everything instantly or it just grows and grows. So compromises are being made and edges end up being smoothed, and as a result, the lofty ambitions and principles that she went into politics for, gradually get ground down. I think as an audience, I think you think, “I’d probably do the same.”
Then there’s a guy like Dan, who is craven, but we find ourselves rooting for him. So how far is that line, do you ever worry about taking that too far?
I think we’re always aware that we have to keep it very real and very believable, and also that nothing is ever black and white. Even in comedy, it’s not that someone is completely stupid or completely evil. The comedy comes from people who are very, very human and they tend to go one way or another. So the people who are nice, there’s always the possibility that they may turn out to be awful, and the people who are nasty, there’s the possibility that they’re quite good at their job.
At the end of “Breaking Bad,” people still root for Walter White. Audiences are forgiving.
That’s true, and it’s the age-old thing: The darker the figure, the more interesting the arc. In “Paradise Lost,” Satan is the best figure, he has all the best moments. Darth Vader is the best in “Star Wars.” We find those characters much more interesting, because I think they’re a bit more complex.
You’re also behind Alan Partridge, and that character, over the past 20 years, has just gotten more and more pitiful.
And yet, inside himself, he’s gotten happier. He’s much more content with his lot. It’s only to us, outside, that we see him as a bit lost. But he’s actually met a sort of — not enlightenment, but contentment. Although you know if someone was to come and say you can come to London tomorrow and become a major television star again, he’d instantly say yes. So although he tells himself that he’s given up his ambitions, he’s like a recovering alcoholic. They always say that they’re still alcoholic, even though they haven’t touched a drop in 20 years. Alan’s like that. He’s a recovering broadcaster.
How do you keep a character fresh for 20 years?
You say 20 years, but we don’t do it very often, we do it once every four or five years so we’re not bored of it. And also every time we reach out to talk about him, times have passed, and therefore we’ve grown a bit more and so he’s grown a bit more, so we’ve got new things to say about him. When he started as a character, he was probably 35 and now he’s 55, so inevitably, his life changes. We never set out to do this, but it has been really interesting, having a character who’s grown over the decade as we’ve grown over the decade.
In general, do you carry ideas in your head for years or get them out real quick?
I write them down, I send emails to myself and that way I don’t have to worry about it, because there have been times in the past where I’ve had ideas and didn’t write them down and gotten home and couldn’t remember. So I just make sure I can remember them.
When do ideas strike?
I find it’s when I’m doing something else creative — not me personally being creative, but reading a book or watching a movie or reading a newspaper. If I focus on something that’s not the work, and something subconscious starts looking out and senses this would be a good idea or that would be a good idea. I can’t sort of sit down and just sit in silence for an hour and hope that something comes up — I usually have to focus a different part of the brain on something, and then the ideas come up.