A Conversation With Armando Iannucci
The creator of Veep on fear, comedy, and the myopia of the powerful.
Iannucci: It’s not deliberate. We’re about to shoot the next series of The Thick of It. I’m bringing some new writers in, and our first female writer is joining us. When I thought, I want it to be a female minister or a female vice president, I didn’t think, therefore it has to be a show about being a woman in politics. I wanted to ignore that. I just like working with funny women.
Slate: I suppose it gives you something extra to work with. You’ve got all the issues that a male politician faces and then some others.
Photograph by Bill Gray/HBO.
Iannucci: There’s the extra pressure on a woman politician, which is: What are you wearing, how much do you spend on your hair, and, if you have any kids, are you a good enough mum? We don’t apply those criteria to male politicians. We don’t say, “How much did you spend on that jacket?”
Slate: In the world you create, politicians are OK when they’re being fed lines by PR men or spin doctors, but they’re pretty useless when they’re left to their own devices. Isn’t that a writer’s fantasy?
Iannucci: Are they useless? I think they show their real character when they’re left to their own devices. It’s frustrating that they can’t say what they really want to say or that they’re misinterpreted. In many ways, I sympathize with them, because we as a public, and we as a media, put extraordinary pressure on them to get it right all the time—not to make any mistakes and not to step out of line.
Another part of the problem is that politicians are so busy they haven’t got time to read. They don’t read a newspaper the way that you and I would. They get presented with a pile of clippings that are all about them, so they get used to this notion that everyone is reading just about them. That’s where the level of paranoia comes in. Or they’re working with PR people whose job is to worry about what is said, so they therefore think that everything that is said is somehow something to worry about.
Slate: But in your shows, when people say something out of line, often in a moment of tiredness or weakness, they are punished horribly for it.
Iannucci: Yes, and I’m not saying that it’s right that they’re punished. It’s more that I want you as a viewer to think: If I were in that situation, what would I do? You’d probably do the same thing.
Slate: The prevailing mood in the workplace of your shows seems to be one of desperation. The characters are worried about getting a bollocking from Malcolm Tucker, or they’re worried about losing their job, or they’re just trying to get through the day without being fired.
Iannucci: Or without being discovered.
Slate: Is that how you see the workplace?
Iannucci: It’s just how I see myself, really. I’ve always had the belief that one day I’ll be found out. That people will say, “No, that’s terrible, what are you doing? We’ve always been suspicious that you were no good.”
Slate: So it’s not about politics or the media?
Iannucci: No, it’s just about me.
Slate: You seem to build up long-term relationships with actors. What was it like looking for a new, American team?
Iannucci: Casting is a lengthy process of workshopping with people—not just asking them to read the script, but me engaging with them, asking them to stay in character and saying, “Look, I’m not expecting you to come up with lots of funny stuff. We’ve got writers. It’s more are you comfortable with this person, and are you comfortable going off the page?” In that process you gravitate toward the ones who are very comfortable with that. By the time you’ve arrived at the cast, you feel you know them quite well. Then they get to know each other. The cast all came over to London and spent two weeks working with the writers on all the episodes so that we writers know physically what they’re like and verbally how they speak so that we can then write with their voice.
Slate: I hear that your scripts are twice as long as the norm.
Iannucci: Only in that we shoot very fast, because I want it to feel frenetic, and until we’ve shot it, I don’t know what the key moment is. On the page it might feel like this big number, this big set piece, whereas on the screen it’s that little moment behind the door, so I want to keep all those options open. We’re making a 27-minute show, but the first cuts tend to be 45 or 50 minutes.
Slate: How do you feel about being so associated with rococo swearing?
Iannucci: It’s bizarre. I’m not really a swearer. When I started doing The Thick of It, I thought, it has to be authentic. The more I investigated what it was like in the Blair government, the more I realized that it was a very macho, very sweary environment, and therefore the show had to reflect that. But we can’t be saying the same swear words again and again and again, so we have to dress them up in language that becomes interesting.
Slate: Do people come up to you with their latest invented swear words?
Iannucci: Not to me, but Peter Capaldi, who plays Malcolm Tucker, says that people come up to him and say, “Could you tell me to fuck off?” And Peter says he doesn’t know what to do, because he genuinely does want them to fuck off, and yet by saying, “Fuck off,” he’s making them happy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.