What the In the Loop director taught Sacha Baron Cohen. And Ricky Gervais. And Stephen Colbert.
Read Dana Stevens' review of In the Loop.
The Day Today casts a long shadow. Morris' character owed much to the pugnacious BBC Newsnight institution Jeremy Paxman, though American viewers might imagine him as Colbert in the form of an Oxbridge-toned cyborg. And Sacha Baron Cohen was surely taking notes when Morris asked British pop star Kim Wilde for her take on London's new policy of booting homeless people as you would an illegally parked car or when he grilled MP Paul Boeteng about the social impact of fictitious hip-hop artist Herman the Tosser.
The show also marked the first television appearances of On the Hour sports correspondent Alan Partridge. ("If you were alive in England in the nineties," as John Lahr wrote in a New Yorker profile of Steve Coogan in 2007, "… Alan Partridge was one of the cultural icons by which you measured time, a Malvolio of media personalities.") Coogan created the character at Iannucci's prompting; part of the joke, as Iannucci later explained to Lahr, was that Partridge knew little about his area of expertise, so even something as straightforward as a soccer goal would inspire commentary like "Twat! That was liquid football!" Knowing Me, Knowing You (1994-95) used Partridge's ineptitude to expose the creaking mechanics of the talk-show format (a flustered Alan might blurt out to his guest, "Do the anecdote," and upon delivery, reply, "That wasn't very good"), and I'm Alan Partridge (1997, 2002) watched his disgraced retreat from television to a graveyard radio shift and a sad room in a motor lodge. Smug yet aggrieved, socially retarded, prodigiously stupid, morbidly entitled, and fairly palpitating with self-loathing, Alan Partridge provided the DNA for Ricky Gervais' David Brent and, by extension, Steve Carell's Michael Scott. (In his British Film Institute monograph on The Office, Ben Walters notes that co-writer Stephen Merchant would often call out to Gervais during filming, "Too Partridge! You've gone too Partridge!")
Yet Iannucci and Coogan didn't allow their creature to become wholly repellent; one can always glimpse a shade of a grasping, panicked human being amid the walking catastrophe that is Alan Partridge. Indeed, all of Iannucci's work has a subterranean compassion—a virtue that contributes to his superb grasp of pacing.The ritual humiliations of Partridge would be fleetingly interrupted for a semi-triumphant ABBA medley or the nerdy, private joy of playing air bass. And The Thick of It catches the viewer off-guard when it arranges for Malcolm Tucker, of all people, to rescue an aging political adviser from a nervous breakdown-in-progress.
It's typical of Iannucci's control as a writer-creator that, just as Partridge never became a monster, Tucker is not quite a villain—he's nasty and terrifying and acid-tongued, yes, but he's not a hypocrite, and he has a certain sulfurous integrity. While his colleagues tie themselves into knots of guilt, vanity, and self-delusion (at one point, Simon Foster dares to ask out loud, "Is the really brave thing actually doing what you don't believe?"), Tucker has no such burdens, because his own self-interest is perfectly aligned with advancing his party's agenda, whatever that may be. In his review of In the Loop, British film critic Jonathan Romney describes Tucker as "Mephistophelean," which is fantastically apt: The devil first appeared to Faust as a friar and there is something of the mendicant about the gaunt and seemingly sleepless Tucker, monomaniacally devoted to his cause. Perhaps it's yet another exemplum of the complexity and sharp surprise of Armando Iannucci's comedy that the closest we can find to a morally consistent character also happens to be the one shouting, "Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock."
Photograph of Armando Iannucci by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival.