Armando Iannucci: 'You're on a highway to nowhere if you think jokes are going to stop Donald Trump'

Daniel Dylan Wray
Thursday 20 April 2017 16:46 BST
Armando Iannucci has been a driving force behind comedies such as The Day Today, The Thick Of It and Veep
Armando Iannucci has been a driving force behind comedies such as The Day Today, The Thick Of It and Veep (Getty)

Armando Iannucci's fingerprints can be found throughout a multitude of scenes that make up some of the most momentous and innovative British comedy of the past two decades or so.

He was one of the creators and writers of On The Hour, the BBC Radio comedy programme that morphed into the televised The Day Today, which, aside from being acclaimed and bitingly pioneering, also created a comedic centre-point for a cast of writers and comics who splintered off to create many of their own masterpieces, such as Chris Morris, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Steve Coogan and Graham Lineham. Iannucci often had a hand in those too, perhaps most infamously shaping the ongoing exploits of Alan Partridge, as portrayed and co-written by Coogan.

Satire has always been at the foundation to a lot of Iannucci's work and in 2005 he created political comedy nonpareil The Thick of It, a satire of British politics so brutal, rib-shatteringly funny and apparently accurate that it changed the way we view the inner workings of British politics for good. While the show’s personality may have been inimitable, its essence was not, and Iannucci tweaked The Thick of It into a feature length film, In The Loop, and further still for a US audience in Veep, the Emmy award-winning comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as vice president. Iannucci served as showrunner for the first four seasons.

On top of this, he has appeared as the antagonistic interviewer in a regular segment featured on Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, written, directed and starred in a number of his own vehicles such as The Armando Iannucci Show, Time Trumpet, The Friday Night Armistice and more. He is currently in the middle of wrapping up final mixes of a feature film The Death of Stalin, which is based on a french graphic novel of the same name about, well, the death of Joseph Stalin.

Here he reflects on current affairs, comedy, politics, the state of satire and future plans to take his comedy into space.

Do you find it harder to extract humour from things given all that’s currently going on in the world?

I think we’re still figuring out what the approach to people like Trump is because he sort of satirises himself. He takes things and then exaggerates and twists them until they become absurd, which is what most comedians would do in response to him but he does that anyway. I’m kind of glad I'm not doing Veep anymore because I think I’d just be depressed by what was really going on in Washington. I'm so happy that other people are having to come up with those jokes.

Are you able to have a sense of humour about Trump himself?

Yeah, just to keep myself sane. I enjoy tweeting insults back at him, not that he’ll ever read them or that it’s going to do anything. That's the thing, I sort of feel like you're on a highway to nothing if you think making jokes about him are going to stop him. He doesn’t like jokes so he just responds angrily, which is fine if he's just a person, but if he's also in charge of the world's biggest army. Also, there is a worry that if you turn him into a figure of fun consistently then he becomes slightly safe and contained as this little pet, a little play thing that you can all laugh at, whereas in fact you should be screaming at him.

Did you happen to listen to the “Satire Paradox” episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, which suggested satire was often unsuccessful because people at both ends think the joke is on the other side?

I didn’t. It's like Peter Cook's quote: “Those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War." When was comedy at its strongest aside from now? Probably during the Thatcher years and the Eighties where she won three general elections in a row, so it doesn't work. Especially in the UK, where we have a long history of satire, being very rude about kings in the 18th century, but then as a result we never had a revolution; we just got on with it and sort of cheered ourselves up with the fact that we have freedom of speech and that we can say anything we like.

Said podcast suggested that Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live was toothless because it made her a bit of a soft character, a cartoon version rather than a dangerous reality. Do you enjoy those sorts of shows and sketches and do you think they have any meaningful impact?

I really like Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer because it just really annoyed everyone in the White House that he was being played by a woman. The issue you have with things like SNL and so on are, because they are on the main networks, the language has to be a bit more restrained and so on. But look at the likes of John Oliver and The Daily Show and Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert: the last two are almost aggressive, and there's a journalistic sense to it. They'll go through the archives and look at what Trump has said and hold it up to what he's said elsewhere, so it's almost like Trump is saying all news is fake news and so certain high profile entertainers in America are taking upon themselves to be the new journalists in a way, in terms of how forensically they analyse Trump's arguments.

Is there anything in the UK that works as a parallel, do you think?

In the US they can do it because it's a big enough audience that they can do it on a nightly basis, whereas here I don't think we've ever had anything that can do that with such regularity because you've got to keep hammering away.

ITV recently launched The Nightly Show, what do you think of it?

I've not seen that but I can’t imagine it's cutting-edge satire. I just don't think we're a big enough population to have so many outlets that will get as big an audience on a nightly basis. I think The Last Leg is prodding away at it a little bit, and I like Peter Serafinowicz’s sassy Trump. I think we're also just still working out how to respond to someone who defies all the conventional rules.

You’ve previously expressed feelings of positivity when it comes to politics as a whole. Are you still as hopeful and optimistic?

Less so. I still always believe that you can do something about it, but I do get frustrated that nothing is being done. Like with Brexit, I kind of get annoyed that we've gone into these two camps neither of which will speak to each other. The Brexit side kind of act like they lost in that they still hurl abuse at anyone who criticises them but the remain camp act like in their head they won but it just hasn't been sorted out administratively in the final result. Neither will speak to one another and it annoys me that the Remain camp are still acting as if you can somehow change the result – you can't, that's not how democracy works.

There's a fundamental contradiction about what Brexit people want; they want free trade but controlled borders and the two don't fit. I think people who were active in the Remain camp need to be forcefully saying, 'OK, this is the deal you're going to have to do' rather than standing by saying, ‘Oh it’ll all be terrible, watch, oh it's terrible, it's amusing’. Almost wishing the country to grind to a halt. We've retreated into our own comfort zones, we block and unfollow people, and if we don't agree with someone we're offended by it or we want to non-platform them. We just don't want to deal with them, so we've lost that notion of if someone says something you don't like trying to discuss and engage to see where that goes.

How frequently are you asked, or is it suggested, that you do a The Thick of It based around Brexit?

I think every 30 minutes! But I just think: why? It'll just be more of what you're seeing. I point people to All out War by Tim Shipman, a book I've been reading, which is a 600-page account of last year behind the scenes, and it's a sort of like a very well written and very well researched episode of The Thick of It, because it's true, that's the sad thing.

Do you need to have a fondness for politics and a fundamental belief in the potential of the political system in order to create good satire? Does it need to come from a place of hope?

I think you have to have a respect for what the system is aspiring to, or else I think you have to have a passion for it. I think you have to have some core beliefs as well, even if you're prepared to challenge them yourself. I'm not really the sort of person who is like, 'Well, if we've made two jokes about Jeremy Corbyn we need to make two about Theresa May now'. I want to come from a position but I like the idea of surprising people about where you come from and what you want to look at.

Given you’ve now worked extensively in the US and UK, how does the satire framework of them both compare?

The contrast was when we went to do Veep we couldn't have a Malcolm Tucker character in the main story because she's the vice president, so even if you might not respect the person they do respect the office because the president is the head of state as well. If anyone swore like that to the vice president they would just be removed. Also, strangely enough, I found that in the UK we're more centralised authoritarian than the US. All the power resides in the prime minister and if they also have a majority they can do anything, whereas in America the power is divided up. So actually there's more checks and balances in America than there are in the UK.

Before Veep there had already been a failed attempt in the US to get The Thick of It made, if failed attempt is the correct term?

I’d certainly call it a failure. It was very dull. It was for ABC.

How come? There was some amazing people involved: Christopher Guest as a director, Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) as executive producer and so on.

I know, but it was sort of like ‘let's throw everything at it’. If you're going to take The Thick of It, then the last thing you want to do is put it on a channel that's run by the Disney organisation. It's never going to fit, no matter how much talent you have attached to it.

Veep Season 6 is now underway. How involved are you with keeping up with it since you left?

I'm still in touch. For season 5 Dave [Mandel, the new showrunner] and I discussed the season but I then said ‘you're in charge’, because everyone has to know who's in charge and I knew I was going into Death of Stalin, so I knew I couldn't do both. But I then watched it as a viewer, which was really good because it was like watching Veep but not knowing who was going to speak next and what they were going to see.

HBO asked me if I wanted to stay on as an executive but I think once you move on you move on and it's far better for everyone that they know that that's it. If I was hovering over I'd want to get involved. It also felt to me to be the right time, I'd done four seasons and just won the Emmy and then the cliffhanger of it being a tie was sort of my finale with it. Total gridlock is how I wanted to leave it, knowing that it would give them a problem to deal with for the next series.

How much of an influence has Veep had on White House discourse that you’re aware of?

I’m told in DC that in every office they allocate the Jonah, they will tell you who the Jonah is. Nobody confesses to be the Jonah but people get assigned. People will also introduce themselves as the Dan or the Amy or the Ben.

Do you enjoy that?

Yeah, it's interesting. But they love anything like that in DC. Anything showbiz looking at them they kind of love, they see it at as being more interesting than them. When we were researching it and being shown around by Obama's bodyguard, Reggie Love a very tall ex-basketball player, he was showing us around the West Wing but he was referencing the TV show as we went around, saying this is where CJ and Josh would meet and I thought 'this is really it, why do you feel you have to reference?'. Why don't you just say this is where I hang out with the President?!

I guess the flipside to life imitating art is that the war segment from The Day Today has currently been circulating online to illustrate the preposterous nature of this Gibraltar issue. Do you find that funny or just bleak?

One part of you is glad it's not being forgotten but another part of you does think, 'really?'. It's interesting though, if you look at some old episodes of Yes, Minister it's the same, it's Europe, it's factions, it's leadership challenges, it's terrorism. It's interesting how these things just keep circulating. Somebody sent me a thing from Friday Night Armistice, which I'd completely forgotten we'd done, which was us doing the Euro cafe, basically all of the Daily Mail's greatest fears about Europe in one cafe and it did sound like our attempt to take on Nigel Farage even though this was twenty-odd years before, it felt like nothing had changed.

Did you ever watch The Culture Show episode when they screened In The Loop to Alastair Campbell [who Malcolm Tucker was based on]?

No, I didn't watch it. I'm not sure I could face it. He tried to put out a story that I'd walked out of it. I got an email from someone saying 'Hey, I've had a great idea: Alastair Campbell and you in a room watching it together' and I replied 'No, I don't want to do that' and he replied saying that he had already set it up but I didn't want to do it. This then got fed back to Campbell as 'Iannucci walks out'. I haven't seen it but I know he says it's boring, “a lot less funny than I thought it would be”. I think we used that quote on a poster.

What are some of the overlooked gems in your career as far as you’re concerned?

I was always very fond of The Armando Iannucci Show. I put a lot into them and then we transmitted them the week of 9/11 so we got slightly overshadowed, and I thought it was a shame they were all buried but because of the internet and YouTube, it has taken on a fresh life. I feel maybe 15 years or so after it aired, it's kind of surfaced enough for me to feel it wasn't a complete waste of time.

That show I felt also really wonderfully captured the fragility of masculinity, exploring the essence of what is expected of men in the most conventional and stereotypical sense.

It's sort of personal politics. Even when I'm looking at actual politics it's about the human side that has been lost or forgotten about, what's the human impact. Even Alan Partridge, it's about personality, he wants a stage, he wants a public but it's that fragility as well. I always grew up feeling very uncool. I wasn't interested in fashion and couldn't understand how people could be obsessed with what they wore. Also, the idea of groups and gangs and clubs, being in or out and all that, the pressure to be part of a larger thing. Maybe it's to do with being Italian in Scotland and then Scottish in England, you don't quite know where you belong. But there then becomes a stage in which you realise everyone is the same and have that thought, which I always have, of 'I think I got away with it but I don't know why I got away with that, I thought it was shit but I'm not going to say anything' and everyone goes through that. That idea that you just can't admit that you don't know what you're doing.

Time Trumpet is another gem in your crown I feel. In 2006 it looked years into the future to see what celebrities and politicians were doing. Should you revisit the show now, who would you like to depict in the future?

Of course, 30 years from now Corbyn would still be leader of the Labour Party, wouldn't he? He'd be 100 and still refusing to leave. The party would have like 12 MPs but 25 million members and still not as many votes in an election. Erm, who else? I'm so concerned about what's happening now that the idea of projecting what it might be like in 30 years’ time is terrifying.

Is Alan Partridge pretty much left in the hands of Steve Coogan and the Gibbons Brothers now?

I spent a lot of time with them writing the film Alpha Papa and then I was out doing Veep when they were actually shooting it and there was a point when they'd send me the next day's pages they were going to shoot but there was a time difference, so I'd wake up and get these things and then discover that they'd already started shooting, so it was pointless me having a look at them. So at that point we agreed not to wait for me and to go ahead and if I'm around I'll join in; if not, then the Gibbons are great and they have a great relationship with Steve. If we're all in the same space together then we all chip in and if not it's in good hands, they've given Alan a whole new lease of life. The books are mostly them. Scissored Isle, I wasn't involved in that but they sent me it – I didn't even know it was happening to be honest – and I wrote back to them that it's the funniest Partridge I've seen in years, so clearly they don't need me at all. It had me on the floor, it was hilarious.

Would you say collaborations have been the key to the longevity of Alan? That it's not just one person behind it?

Yeah, and also the fact that we only take him out of his box once every few years. We didn't do it year after year for 20-odd years so it felt fresh. Also, he'd grown in our minds. Whenever Steve and I meet, we always speculate what Alan is up to, we have a running imaginary timeline of what he's up to in our head. Alan has aged with Steve and that way they've found new things to explore. The Alan of middle age is different to the young, thrusting Alan. Although he always was very middle-aged, I think his natural age has always been about 40, even when he was 18.

Of all the shows you've written or worked on, which have you allowed the most of your own personality into?

The Armando Iannucci Shows, I would say – that's based on personal paranoia and fear. Also The Thick of It in some sense. That arose out of... I was very opposed to [Tony] Blair and the invasion of Iraq and the fact that something like that happened despite everyone, every expert and every non-expert saying, 'This is just going to be terrible'. It made me very angry and I wanted to try and channel that anger into something and that was The Thick of It. That programme doesn't show you something personal but the emotion behind it and the anger behind it is very real.

You previously mentioned that the most human people in your political shows are often the elected MPs and it’s the people around them that are the worst. I found that interesting as, despite him being the reverse of my political leanings, my favourite character from The Thick of It is Pet...

Peter Mannion! He's everyone's favourite! He's about the most normal yet he's the Tory MP. I kind of like that because I don't want people to arrive at things with prefixed labels that therefore tell you what you must think about someone or something.

Who would you be most likely to vote for out of all the characters you’ve created in the political world?

It's more likely that Peter would be my MP than Nicola Murray or Hugh Abbot. Although who would I vote for? I still wouldn't vote for Mannion, I don't think we've seen anyone yet that I would vote for.

Who is the most vacuous and deplorable political character you've ever created?

The presenter of The Armando Iannucci Shows! Roger Furlong is horrible, isn't he? In Veep. I think he's the worst. He's like on the verge of how you'd read Lyndon Johnson would behave when he was head of the senate. He would sit on the toilet and still conduct meetings and just shout and swear and bear hug you... horrible.

What contemporary comedy are you a fan of?

I like Toast of London. I'm watching and really enjoying This Country. Fleabag was good. I've just started watching BoJack Horseman. My son persuaded me to watch Rick and Morty, which is fun. I've been watching a lot of dramas actually. I'm a big Line of Duty fan.

The cast for Death of Stalin looks incredible. Do I presume your introduction to Jeffrey Tambor was via The Larry Sanders Show as Hank?

Yes, it’s my all-time favourite show. What was lovely on set was that every now and then – because it wasn't long after Garry Shandling had died – we'd talk about it. Then he'd talk about the process of doing the show and that was great to hear. Another one of my all-time heroes is Michael Palin and he's in it too.

Is Death of Stalin a comedy?

I call it a tragi-comedy. In that, it's based on what really happened but what really happened was quite farcical but also frightening at the same time. After his death, you have these people trying to tussle as to who's going to be in charge but what they are doing has a huge impact on an enormous empire. People are rounded up and shot and you do see that. There's no attempt to hide stuff, so it's not a madcap comedy.

Can you get pretty much any project greenlit these days? And what’s next beyond that?

I can get the meetings, and I suppose as you get a bit older you understand what is a practical thing to suggest, as opposed to something that will never get off the ground. In the end, there has never been a plan. I'm going to make a film about David Copperfield next year and I'm doing something with HBO later next year - that’s set in space [which] is all I can say – as well as a couple of other film scripts.

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