If you've ever laughed at Alan Partridge, or The Thick of It, or In the Loop, you should be pleased that chastity's a bit of a challenge. "The poverty I could sort of cope with, actually," says Armando Iannucci, "but the chastity and obedience... I think I just decided that it was a ridiculous career path". Well, thank God for that. Thank God that the man who nearly became a Catholic priest opted instead for the career path of ridicule. For Armando Iannucci, son of a Neapolitan-Glaswegian patrone of a pizza factory – a man whose name, in fact, sounds like a flavour of ice cream – bestrides the world of British comedy like a colossus. He is comedy's God, political satire's messiah.
For a colossus he is, it's true, quite small. He is short and balding, with a big nose, sticky-out ears and dark, glittering eyes. And for a God, he uses the "f-word" really rather a lot. But perhaps he's been influenced by his characters. Malcolm Tucker, the bulgy-eyed, throbbing-veined cluster bomb of invective who exploded on the screen in The Thick of It, and then again in In the Loop, scatters expletives as liberally as the saliva that spurts out of his extremely foul mouth. He scatters them with rhythmic, Rabelaisian, lethal relish. As ruthless spin doctor to a weak-willed prime minister, he is TV's Mr Angry, heir to Basil Fawlty, but with bigger fish to fry than Manuel's pet rat. He has a government to run, for God's sake. A country, and then a war. And he is surrounded by idiotic, obstructive, mindless morons who are getting in his way.
If his creator is less foul-mouthed and less bulgy-eyed, that doesn't make him any less angry. It takes anger to produce satire. Or at least it takes anger to produce satire as biting as In the Loop. Iannucci has been casting a cool, quizzical gaze on the vagaries of our culture since abandoning a PhD on Paradise Lost. Milton would, I think, have approved. He knew, more than anyone, that the devil has all the best tunes. Since his first days in radio, and then telly, Iannucci has been listening out for those tunes, and noting them down. And here, in the besweatered figure of an Alan Partridge, or of a flak-jacketed anchorman in The Day Today, or the bewildered face of a government minister in The Thick of It, they are: the tunes that make the music of a society. Or perhaps its muzak.
The tunes in his journalism – now collected in a book, The Audacity of Hype – vary from the mildly annoying to the janglingly discordant, from Orwell Newspeak ("greenfield opportunities","innovation at the forefront of our strategy") and a fictional Tory manifesto ("the sound of salsa music to be played in small businesses at beginning and end of day"), to a blistering guide to torture ("put on music and scented candles") and a memo from the White House on "Why we must go to war with Iraq by 6pm tonight". Its tonal range, in other words, extends from gentle teasing to serious alarm and absolute, scorching, white-knuckled rage. The white-knuckled rage is about the war in Iraq. It's the one bit of the book that isn't funny at all, and it's what pervades In the Loop.
Which, pretty much everyone has agreed, is very funny indeed. Pretty much everyone, that is, except Alastair Campbell. "I was too bored to be offended," he wrote, in a piece in The Observer, when the film came out. John Prescott, however, wasn't. "About three weeks ago, it came out in America," says Iannucci, who's sprawled on a sofa in the office of the company that distributes In the Loop, "and they put us up in this nice hotel. I was in the lobby and coming out of the lift was John Prescott. And he went, 'Oh, I watched it on the plane, on the way over. That's Alastair, that is!'" Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar, agreed. "They sat Peter Capaldi [who plays Tucker] next to Campbell at a Channel 4 thing," says Iannucci, "and Fiona kept saying, 'It's just like him, you know'."
The bigger question, of course, is not whether Malcolm Tucker is a dead ringer for Alastair Campbell, but whether the hilarious, horrific, hotch-potch of events in the film, which surrounds the lurch of the American and British governments to a war in an unnamed country for no reason other than a whim couched as political expediency, bears much relation to events in "real life". And the consensus appears to be, even from the ones who were involved – especially from the ones who were involved – that it does. "There was a screening in DC," says Iannucci, "and a lot of the Washington insiders came to it, plus some people from the Senate. They laughed all the way through it. But at the end, when we did the questions and answers, it got quite emotional, because they said 'yes, it is exactly like that. And that's how the war started.' "
The war, it's clear, is the thing that has made Iannucci angrier than anything else he's ever written about, and which makes the comedy in the film deadly serious. But Iannucci, for all his wild forays into the surreal, is fundamentally serious. The boy who was educated in Glasgow by Jesuits, and thought of joining them, and who spent several years studying religious poetry, and was reading Hansard from the age of 14, and who was listening to Sibelius when his peers were screaming to the Sex Pistols, and who nearly became a civil servant at the Treasury has, it's clear, a "moral compass" at least as solid (and much less flashed about) than our own dear prime minister's. So where does it come from?
Iannucci wriggles. "I don't know," he says. "I mean, I've always been someone who reads a lot and, you know, been kind of interested. The thing is, I don't find it unusual, it's just how I am. I always grew up feeling a little bit, kind of geeky, and not fashion-conscious. I wore terrible clothes. But as I grew up, I always felt this sort of pressure of which trends to adopt, which look to go for. I was never really into that. So maybe as a result of that I've become a little more attuned to hearing those noises."
Today, it has to be said, he's looking rather smart. "I am," he agrees, "because I was having a photograph taken. Recently I've had to think about it, because we were doing premieres and stuff. I rang the costume woman who does The Thick of It and we went shopping and I bought my first designer suit. Armani. It cost a fortune!" He was, he says, at "some swanky penthouse glass-rooftop-Manhattan-skyline apartment full of beautiful young things" when "someone with a camera and a microphone" actually asked him what he was wearing. "I said 'Armani' and she went 'very nice!' and I was, like, 'Crikey'."
Crikey indeed. If Iannucci, who has been lauded round the world for In the Loop (his first film after many years of telly), and who gets invited to private screenings by Bruce Springsteen, and is now being wooed by Hollywood, is having a taste of the limos and the parties that the BBC can't quite stretch to, I doubt very much that that "crikey" will be dimmed. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his three children and the speech-therapist wife he met at Oxford. His friends are friends from college or his early years in comedy. "Parties!" he says, and those beady eyes say it all. "I just want to be with three or four people, you know, go for a meal." And if Hollywood is calling, Iannucci is clear that it will be on his terms. "I want to concentrate on doing my own projects. I want to be based in the UK."
While his head might appear to float in a cloud of surrealism, his feet are very firmly on the ground. They can't really not be when what you do is comedy, because comedy, perhaps more than any other artform, is about instant failure or success. "If it's not funny," he says, "it's been a waste of time. There isn't a noise that you make during drama that says 'I really like this drama'. Whereas with comedy, it's instant. And you can't argue, you can't say, 'no, you're all wrong'."
Iannucci knows whereof he speaks. His opera, Skin Deep, about plastic surgery, was greeted with bewilderment, and his Channel 4 series, The Armando Iannucci Show, in which he himself performed, was, as he puts it, "more or less slated". "It can be quite stressful" he says, "not knowing what the reaction's going to be. But I've kind of reached the point where I don't want to read all the reviews because otherwise you'll go mad. Also, I'm aware that for each new project, there's a level of expectation. I'm sure with the next film people are going to expect more political satire with lots of swearing."
They can expect it, but they won't get it. What they'll get instead is "a slapstick, really visual, physical comedy" in the vein of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. In the meantime, thank goodness, they'll get another series (this time promoted from BBC4 to BBC2) of The Thick of It. The minister replacing Chris Langham (who left the series after serving a prison sentence for downloading child porn) will be a woman, played by Rebecca Front. "We see the process of the pressure she's put under to turn into another politician," explains Iannucci, "but also how we out there start picking on her family life, her relationship with her husband, her kids, what school they go to, and what the public glare does to someone at the centre of that."
It will, in other words, be another clear-eyed look at our political culture and the hypocrisy and hysteria that surrounds it. "The thing is," says Iannucci, "I don't despise politicians. Who'd want that job? Because you can't move or breathe without the press and the public just going 'fuck off, we hate you, but by the way can you just work 24 hours a day to make all our lives better?"
Iannucci, like all successful satirists, has identified the problem. What he doesn't have, of course, is the answer. "That," he says, "is the great privilege. You don't have to produce a document at the end, saying 'and that is my five point plan' ". When pressed, he says that politicians would be saner if they had more time off. He also says that Tony Blair should be prosecuted for manslaughter. And Cameron? The man he describes in his book as "the new patio of politics" and "a bum-faced southern ponce with a tiny washer for a mouth"? "I don't really think," says Iannucci, with a shrug, "that there'll be much difference."
Well, I know who I'd vote for. Armani Armando. Brilliant, serious, proper, moral, thoughtful, perceptive, wise. But in the Frankenstein Through the Looking Glass political culture we've created, the best brains will, alas, remain on the outside. The best we can hope for, it seems, is laughter in the dark.
'In the Loop' is out on DVD/Blu-ray on 24 August. 'The Audacity of Hype' is published on 4 SeptemberReuse content