Armando Iannucci on how satirists should tackle strongmen—and what makes a line funny

The mastermind behind the shows that have defined British comedy for a generation, including Alan Partridge and The Thick of It, speaks to Sameer Rahim
October 6, 2017
Listen: Rahim chats to Prospect Editor Tom Clark in our monthly podcast, Headspace

Over the past 25 years, Armando Iannucci has been at the heart of some of our sharpest comedies. As a writer and director, Iannucci has created defining satirical works: portraying the small-mindedness of a certain kind of Englishman (Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge); the media’s self-importance (The Day Today); and the mendacity of politicians (The Thick of It, Veep.) You can measure his influence by how often clips from his shows pop up on social media, illustrating, say, a celebrity faux pas—check out #AccidentalPartridge—or an interviewer’s attempts to stir conflict, see The Day Today sketch “War!” Whenever a politician makes a gaffe—Theresa May’s croaky conference speech, Boris Johnson stuck on a zip wire—it has become a cliché to compare it to The Thick of It.

Iannucci has caught the absurdity of the political class so wonderfully that you might think he is relishing the current chaos. But speaking to him at a west London café over tea and a homemade Jammie Dodger—a very Partridge-like touch—he seems unnerved. “People keep telling me, why don’t you do a Brexit Thick of It, but I think it would make me have a heart attack. The absurdity of what’s going on now is real, that’s why it’s frightening rather than funny.” Iannucci is a comedian with a deadly serious streak: he regularly appears on Question Time, and took to Twitter to urge young people to vote in the last election. On Brexit, he suggests a cross-party group of MPs should lead the negotiations. “If this is the biggest thing to affect Britain since the Second World War,” he says, “why don’t we have a coalition of ministers dealing with it, rather than Liam Fox who basically wants us to marry America, or Boris, God knows what he wants, or David Davis who just chuckles and says it’ll be fine.”

For his new film, Iannucci has swapped the machinations of democracy for the depredations of totalitarianism. The Death of Stalin recreates the dark farce that played out when the dictator died in 1953 and his apparatchiks jostled for the succession. It’s Iannucci’s most mature work—more a drama with jokes than a straight comedy, and one which has disturbing resonances in the new global age of the strongman. The dramatic stakes are high. Imagine if Thick of It enforcer Malcolm Tucker didn’t just threaten to kill people, but actually had them shot.

“I knew it was taking me out of my comfort zone,” says Iannucci, “and I wanted to take the audience out of their comfort zone as well.” One minute you’re laughing with Head of Security Lavrentiy Beria (played by Simon Russell Beale) joshing with his comrades; the next he’s having a prisoner tortured. It’s deliberately unsettling. “Comedy comes from the terror,” he says. By their nature dictatorships lend themselves to mockery. “A lot of Russian literature is full of that absurdist comedy,” he adds. Russians coped with Stalin’s 29-year reign by joking about it. Iannucci tells me there were secret Stalin joke books. “You’ve got to laugh, because the alternative is to scream.”

EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO MERCHANDISING Mandatory Credit: Photo by Brian J. Ritchie/Hotsauce/REX/Shutterstock (1458094bz) Steve Coogan [Alan Partridge] 'The Jonathan Ross Show' TV Programme, London, Britain - 01 Oct 2011 Jonathan Ross got very close to one EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO MERCHANDISING Mandatory Credit: Photo by Brian J. Ritchie/Hotsauce/REX/Shutterstock (1458094bz) Steve Coogan [Alan Partridge] 'The Jonathan Ross Show' TV Programme, London, Britain - 01 Oct 2011 Jonathan Ross got very close to one


As well as terror there is also incompetence. Stalin’s weak deputy Georgy Malenkov is deluded enough to believe he can remain in charge even as his powerful rivals are circling. Malenkov, in a brilliant bit of casting, is played by Jeffrey Tambor, whom Iannucci first saw as insecure talk-show sidekick Hank Kingsley in the 1990s sitcom The Larry Sanders Show. “There’s an element of Hank in Malenkov. The number two who’s safe and unthreatening—who thinks he can do it, but clearly he can’t.”

Fear of being found out is a running theme in his work. “It’s that universal thing,” says Iannucci, “that one day they’ll find us out and say, what are you doing here?” My favourite sketch from his 2001 series The Armando Iannucci Shows has a character like Iannucci (and played by him) discovering that other people are being witty at a dinner party only because they are being fed lines on bits of paper hidden in their pies. The same surreal insecurity afflicts the politicians in The Thick of It, and Selina Meyer, the fictional US vice-president in the Emmy-winning Veep. It’s what allows the audience to empathise as well as giggle, giving the comedy depth.

Far from being cynical about politicians, as Iannucci is often accused of being, he wants us to identify with them. Even Beria, a rapist and killer, shows flickers of humanity. His rival Nikita Khruschev is played by a clownish Steve Buscemi, keeping his New York accent. (None of the actors puts on a Russian voice: General Zukhov is played by Jason Isaacs as a bolshie northerner.) But by the end Khruschev and the other supposed good guys, “turn into a pack of animals,” in Iannucci’s words. So there is a careful moral calibration. “They clearly had to do things to rise to the top,” he tells me, “and so clearly something’s compromised within them.”

Some are compromised all the way through. The lauding of Malcolm Tucker as a spin-doctoring mastermind masks the fact that he is not only a bully, but also bad at his job. “It’s when Malcolm comes in that things start going badly,” says Iannucci. I spoke to Rebecca Front, who met Iannucci at Oxford and played hapless minister Nicola Murray in The Thick of It: “He’s very moral. I genuinely think he’s a force for good in the world.”

At Oxford he spent three years researching (but not finishing) a PhD on Paradise Lost. He has compared spin-doctors to Satan, who, Iannucci says, “twists language, making a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” Iannucci, a serious man who doesn’t like to take himself too seriously, says he knew he had to swap the ivory tower for the comedy studio when he realised the opening of Milton’s poem could be sung to the theme tune of The Flintstones: “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree…”

Iannucci is a classic insider-outsider. A critic of entitlement who went to a private school and Oxford; an absurdist who earnestly defended the BBC in his 2015 MacTaggart Lecture; a satirist happy to accept an OBE. The playwright Patrick Marber, who also knew him at Oxford and worked with him on Alan Partridge and The Day Today, told me he is “in a long proud tradition of those who piss on the establishment from inside the tent.”

His wish to belong, and yet not belong, has its roots in his upbringing. Iannucci was born in Glasgow in 1963, the son of an Italian father and a Scottish mother with Italian parents. His father, also called Armando, wrote anti-Mussolini articles in Italy before he migrated to Scotland. He never lost his “very thick Neapolitan accent,” says Iannucci, and worked as a joiner and shop-fitter, and in a pizza factory. He died when Armando junior was 17. Iannucci’s grandfather on his mother’s side was interned during the Second World War. Glasgow’s Italian community never lost “that slight air of separation,” he says. “You’d go to a ceilidh or something, a very Scottish thing, and think this is a bit weird; then you’d go to a big Italian wedding and think, this is a bit weird.” He’s ended up working with a number of actors of Italian descent—the Americans James Gandolfini and Steve Buscemi, and Glasgow’s Peter Capaldi. (Iannucci senior even did some work for the Capaldis.) “It’s bizarre,” he told me, “it’s not like I say, get me some actors with Italian surnames.” There aren’t any in Alan Partridge, though. “No. They’re all from Norwich.”

Iannucci attended a Jesuit school before going to Glasgow University, and then Oxford, where he was, according to Marber, “very quiet and very clever.” There he met his wife Rachael, with whom he now has three grown-up children. He is an unabashed family man: one reason he gave up Veep after its fourth series was because he was spending too much time away from his home in Hertfordshire. Though as Marber told me, “he’s not a monk. He likes a bit of glamour and fun now and then.”

Iannucci has always been a team player, and a list of the people he’s worked with reads like a Who’s Who of comedic talent: Steve Coogan as Partridge, Chris Morris of the wildly subversive media satire Brass Eye and terrorism comedy Four Lions, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep. One reason he can handle big personalities is because he keeps his own carefully in check. Not that he lacks confidence: rather, as Front told me, “he’s collaborative, but also knows what he wants and what he believes will work best.”

After Oxford he became a radio producer at the BBC and worked with Coogan and Morris on the Radio 4 precursor of The Day Today, called On the Hour. “What was nice,” Iannucci says, “was that we weren’t all from the same revue troupe,” in contrast to so many Footlights acts over the years. “There were so many different traditions.” Coogan was an impressionist for Spitting Image; Morris a local radio DJ; Front a comic actor.

“He likes to have round him people who aren’t always from the Oxbridge deadpool,” I was told by David Quantick, who worked for the NME when he was spotted by Iannucci in the 1990s and is still one of his main writing partners, most recently on Veep. Quantick offered a glimpse into the Iannucci workshop: “He’d have an idea for a series… then all the writers would meet up; they’d be a wall chart with a rough series arc. We’d all chip in freely, and then the episodes would be given to a pair of writers. While you’re writing your episode, you’d be doing a second draft of someone else’s, and polishing a third script.” It sounded very disciplined. “Armando’s an insanely hard worker, and he expects you to be on time and do the work, not arse about, and so on. He’s a successful producer, director and mover-and-shaker who comes over as someone who’s sort of fallen into success.”

Iannucci attributes his work ethic to the influence of the publicity-shy and more obviously strange Chris Morris. From him he learned that every phrase needed to fall exactly right. Just fine wasn’t good enough. “Actually, is it fine?” Morris would say. “Shall we just go back and look at it again? Can you make that better?”
“Iannucci is a successful producer, director and mover-and- shaker who comes over as someone who’s sort of fallen into success”
Iannucci and Morris share a contempt for bullshit. One of their most memorable projects was the four-page “Absolute Atrocity Special” published in the Observer, six months after 9/11. (Sample line: “Bush cheers American nation by launching Operation Death Unto Allah. Concern from coalition partners that this might constitute some sort of gaffe.”) Yet again Iannucci was ahead of his time, and showing perhaps a surprisingly anti-establishment fervour for someone who has voted Liberal Democrat. “Everyone had gone so bonkers… That was our way of trying to capture some of the craziness out there,” he says now. For many it was a relief reading in public the kind of jokes being made in private. “I’ve told you about the Stalin jokes,” Iannucci reminds me. Not everyone found it so amusing: Observer editor Roger Alton was sent excrement in the post.

Morris is known as a provocateur but Iannucci’s mild manner shouldn’t disguise his own taste for extremity. According to Quantick, “Armando gives the appearance of being more whimsical, but he’s kind of like an iron fist in a whimsical glove. Whereas Chris gives the appearance of being more frightening, but is probably the nicer.” Iannucci deflects the description characteristically. “I wonder what a whimsical glove looks like?”

Classical music is another Iannucci passion. In his new book, Hear Me Out, he enthuses about Mahler and Bruckner (though not Mozart or Mendelssohn.) Rhythm is central to his comedy: the weight of a line, where to put the funniest word—“usually it’s at the very end.” His lines have an irresistible quotable quality. When Alan Partridge gives a bravery award to a woman who has lost her hand, he says she tried to save it by packing it in “Soleros, Magnums, Mini Milks and a Feast.” Those particular ice-creams had to be in that particular order. Iannucci nods. “Those are the things you have the longest conversations over—is it too silly to have a Fruit Pastille?”

The day we meet, Iannucci has been working on a new series of Alan Partridge for the BBC with Coogan and the show’s new writers, Rob and Neil Gibbons. The Alan rhythm was stuck in his head. After the second series of I’m Alan Partridge, Iannucci had to take a break because he couldn’t stand being in the same room as his co-creation. “Alan doesn’t stop talking… You go home thinking shut the fuck up or I’ll kill you.”

Partridge is a classic English comedy character, the cousin of Basil Fawlty and David Brent. Clueless about how he comes across, but recognisable, pitiable and even tragic. The key to Partridge is that he’s never embarrassed. “He’s not thin-skinned,” says Iannucci. “Over the years he’s got more relaxed.” In the 1990s he described himself as a “homo-sceptic,” (albeit with a thing for ladyboys) but now he’s more liberal. “It’s usually two or three years at the very least in between Alan projects. In our heads whenever we meet we kind of speculate as to what he’s been up to.” A bit like a Richard Linklater film? “Yes, Alan has been growing at the same rate Steve has been growing and I’ve been growing… as we grow into middle age we can start feeding our obsessions into Alan.” How long can Alan go on for? “At some point, in our eighties, if we get that long, we’ll have to have Alan die, I suppose. God knows what that will be like.” Whatever happens, he will probably go down talking.

Iannucci’s two comedic worlds overlapped in 1996 when Alan Partridge met Tony Blair. Peter Mandelson got word to Iannucci that he wanted his character to interview Blair at Labour conference. When the comedians arrived, Mandelson asked when the chat show host was coming. Although Mandelson protests that he never actually mistook mushy peas for guacamole in a Hartlepool chip shop, apparently he was unaware that Alan Partridge was fictional. Iannucci recalls they had written a sketch for Blair and were getting a little nervous when he only saw it a few minutes before going on stage. “He picked up [the script] and went, ‘yep, yep, yep, so I say this, then I say that, yep.’ And we were thinking, oh my God, this is going to be a disaster. But he did it absolutely note perfect.” That got him properly worried about Blair. Who knew where such a consummate actor could lead the country? Into war in Iraq, it turned out, something that made Iannucci “really angry.” There would be no more cosy sketches with politicians.

A few days before we met, ex-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had appeared at the Emmys, in a cringe-inducing sequence that normalised him and by extension Trump. Iannucci didn’t approve. But if laughing with Trump isn’t an option, how do we laugh at him? When Iannucci was poking fun at John Major on The Friday Night Armistice, there was an implied sense of the PM’s normality to mess up. But Trump can’t be made weirder. “The comedians who do it best,” he says, “are the ones who’ve become journalists: John Oliver, Bill Maher, Samantha Bee… they’re presenting the facts and the comedy’s coming from whether the facts do or do not stick together.” It’s important Trump is not regarded as a “silly clown” because then he becomes “safe.”

Everyone around him must know he’s crazy, I say. “It takes us back to the Stalin thing of why didn’t they do something.” For Trump’s court, it’s like, “well, if no one else will, I won’t.”

Politics has exhausted Iannucci. His next two projects are a film adaptation of David Copperfield (Dickens is one of his heroes) and an HBO sitcom set in space, called Avenue 5. Whatever else he does, though, his comedy legacy is secure. Before it became normal with social media and YouTube, Iannucci was “mashing up, re-cutting, re-editing” politician’s speeches, putting in exaggerated effects. “We were doing all that when you had to actually physically get the tape, copy it, then cut it physically…” He sounded almost nostalgic—and perhaps a touch regretful that the piss-taking techniques he helped to popularise have been appropriated by peddlers of fake news.

The Iannucci puzzle is that he is both very straight and really quite strange. As Marber told me, he has an “incredible high intelligence combined with the vulgar and the silly.” That tension powers the best of his work, the intelligence giving moral force to the silliness, and the silliness leavening the outrage. That doubleness is ingrained in his personality. Even though he was academically gifted, he says, he “was absolutely obsessed with the fact that I was an idiot.” Like the politicians in his shows, he has never quite believed his own success. Still, he tells me, looking both amused and rueful, “there comes a point, usually when you’re older, when you go, I wish I hadn’t angsted all along. I would’ve enjoyed the ride all along.” But it’s exactly that angst—along with his super-sensitive ear for what makes something funny—which gives his work its disconcerting brilliance.