Related in Slate: Troy Patterson's review of Veep.
In 2009, the movie In the Loop introduced Americans to Scottish writer-producer Armando Iannucci’s caustic brand of political humor. In that film, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, the central character from Iannucci’s long-running British sitcom The Thick of It, and a group of British pols ventured into the offices and committee rooms of Washington, D.C. In his new HBO show Veep, which premieres this Sunday, Iannucci and his team of British writers focus exclusively on U.S. politics. Vice President Selina Meyer, played with an irresistible combination of hope and resignation by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is tantalizing close to power—and yet she is almost completely powerless.
Slate spoke with Iannucci about the differences between British and American humor, why he’s so hard on politicians, and what it’s like to be famous for swearing.
Slate: What were the biggest differences between making a funny TV show in the U.K. and in America? Isn’t the sense of humor very different?
Armando Iannucci: I don’t think there is that much of a difference really. If you ask British comedy writers what comedy they watch, it’ll be Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Daily Show. When you ask American comedy writers, they say Monty Python.
Slate: Your comedy is very focused on the workplace. What’s the difference between the Social Affairs and Citizenship ministry, which is the setting for The Thick of It, and the vice president’s office?
Iannucci: In the U.K, the ministry is a very low-rung, powerless, uninfluential place, whereas here you are literally a heartbeat away from the president. I wanted to have that sense of being so close and yet so far, so powerful and yet so inhibited. I thought that’s where the comedy would come from—the tantalizing frustration and the unpredictability.
Slate: Isn’t it a bit of a cheek for you guys to come from Britain and make a show about America?
Iannucci: Only inasmuch as it was a cheek for Meryl Streep to be Margaret Thatcher. You can also argue, “Do you have to be born and bred in a medieval fantasy land in order to write Game of Thrones?” Well, no, because you just take from your experience and place it in a new environment.
Slate: Can you imagine American comedy writers going to Britain? That doesn’t seem to happen very much, does it?
Iannucci: No, though there have been a couple of attempts.
Slate: Why do you think that is?
Iannucci: The money, I suppose. Being a comedy writer in the U.K. is not a path to endless riches.
Slate: Veep and Season 3 of The Thick of It, which will air on BBC America starting April 28, both focus on female politicians, but you have an all-male writing team. Isn’t that potentially problematic?