From the Boston Tea Party to rock 'n roll, Americans have always taken their fun seriously. A new books reveals the spirit of joyous rebellion going back to the Pilgrims.
Armando Iannucci once harbored dreams of an academic career dedicated to studying poets like John Milton. The Scottish-Italian satirist gave up that career path for one in comedy, and he’s spent the past several years lampooning Washington’s political culture. Kojo chats with Iannucci about the humor and absurdity of daily life in Washington, and what American political culture looks like from the outside looking in.
- Armando Iannucci Creator, Executive Producer, Writer, "Veep"; Writer-Director, "In The Loop"
Video From The Interview
Armando Iannucci, creator of the HBO comedy series “Veep,” talks about why Washingtonians, particularly those involved in politics, are so welcoming to the entertainment industry. “D.C. is such an enclosed environment. They call it the ‘echo chamber.’ I think it must come as a sense of relief that someone from outside is coming to look at them,” he says.
Trailer For HBO’s “Veep”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMost of the filming for the HBO television program "Veep," which chronicles political life in Washington, D.C., is done in Baltimore, Md. Some Washingtonians may quibble that many of the buildings that viewers see on screen don't actually exist in the nation's capital. But for many of those who work in political circles, the show chronicles the cringe-worthy dynamics of American politics that are all too real, dynamics that may even look more hilarious and absurd to someone observing them from the outside in.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe show's creator Armando Iannucci grew up in a Scottish-Italian family in the United Kingdom where he once aspire to join the priesthood and did his graduate work on the poetry of John Milton. But more recently, he's found a calling in finding the comedy in daily political life, both in the United States and in Britain. He joins us in studio. Armando Iannucci is the creator and executive producer of the HBO television program "Veep."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's also -- you should know -- the creator of the British television series "The Thick of It" and the series "The Day Today," which was adapted from the radio series he created for the BBC on "The Hour." He was also the writer and director of the 2009 film "In The Loop". As much as I love your work, Armando Iannucci, I'm sorry that I earlier butchered your name.
MR. ARMANDO IANNUCCIOh, I thought you did it very well, though.
NNAMDIWell, so many people butcher my name. I should know better.
IANNUCCIWell, yes. We're members of that club, aren't we? But...
IANNUCCI...I always say, my name is Armando Iannucci. Do you want me to spell it for you? That's how I pronounce it on the phone.
NNAMDIOh, that makes much sense. The fictional satirical worlds you create on shows like "Veep" bring to life some of the real and funny, often unfortunate aspects of our politics in the U.S. You've said that 30 years ago, in Britain, when Margaret Thatcher had just been elected prime minister, satirical sitcom on the BBC called "Yes, Prime Minister" was a revelation because it gave many people their very first inkling of what actually went on at Whitehall. What did comedy bring to life at that time to people that they weren't getting before?
IANNUCCIWell, it's hard to believe, but actually in Britain, coverage of politics was very, very secretive. It was only 20, 25 years ago that we had televised coverage of the House of Commons. Prior to that, we were allowed on the radio, but we had no pictures. So on the TV news, when they would show you coverage of a debate, they would have these drawings and photographs of the people speaking.
IANNUCCIAnd therefore, it felt like this was a secret world, and something like "Yes Minister," even though it was a very traditional sitcom, shot in front of an audience with fairly wobbly sets, because it was based an awful lot on what privately insiders had been telling the writers, it felt almost like a documentary. It was their first chance to see actually what went on behind those closed doors and in those offices. And that's the politics and the comedy that I like. Actually, you know, you see these grand edifices, these very imposing buildings, but what's actually going on inside?
NNAMDIBut before that, you were contemplating a career that was considerably less funny than the one you ultimately chose, the priesthood.
IANNUCCIYes, an increasingly tragic occupation. I don't know. I mean, when you're a teenager, you become obsessed, don't you? You either go one way or the other. Maybe I became a bit of a slightly religious fanatic. It's like, you know, when you grow up and some people were into David Bowie who wants to dress and look like David Bowie. Maybe I started to dress like the Pope.
IANNUCCII could have imagined myself getting benediction from -- but it's just a phase, you know. And, you know, theology fascinates me, and, you know, people's beliefs fascinate me. What's interesting, I think, from a writer's point of view is, like, why do people think this and why do people behave this, and try to understand, even if you don't agree with it. Just try to get within someone else's mind is always good to portray.
NNAMDIFake newscasts like Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are the darlings of American political comedy. But you cut your teeth at BBC writing and absurd radio newscast called "On The Hour" that starred the actor Steve Coogan as the awkward and incompetent newscaster Alan Partridge. Let's take a listen.
MR. STEVE COOGANOnce again, Oxford and Cambridge, the undisputed grandmasters of racing boats on the Thames are in the lead as they come under the bridge there, the famed bridge that has cars on it. But where are the others? Where are the others, the other universities? They're nowhere to be seen, and I'm worried, for one. I wonder if Norwich is in the race. Who knows? Let's keep our fingers crossed that they're not too far behind. Let's hope that they've not been sunk in horrible boating disaster.
MR. STEVE COOGANThat really would be a sad day for the days of racing boats along the Thames. But -- and I think it's Oxford who are in the lead. I can't be sure. It could be Cambridge. But they are certainly in the lead. That is no doubt as they round another bend to go under another bridge. This one appears to take trains on it.
NNAMDIPartridge delivers this information in such a straight way. His character is rather oblivious to his absurdity, shades of P.G. Wodehouse, I'm thinking. What did you find so appealing about this approach to comedy?
IANNUCCIWell, that -- I mean, that's interesting. That's Steve Coogan who plays Alan Partridge...
IANNUCCI...knows nothing about sport, which he has said is a great benefit because when he plays like that radio sports commentator, asked to fill in and keep talking, which, you know, obviously is the curse of all radio broadcasters in that there's nothing else they can rely on, they've got to keep talking. It was a blessing in that he then had to just think of anything that came into his head, and we captured that kind of sense of professional desperation in his voice.
IANNUCCII like it when things sound utterly convincing and yet are completely stupid. I think that's funnier than things that are completely stupid but that tell you they're completely stupid in advance. I always like the idea of lulling people into this false sense of security that they're going to get something very straight, whereas, in fact, it's -- and it's something to do with the rhythms. You know, when you're being spontaneous, you speak in a certain way.
IANNUCCIYou know, I could carry on speaking like this but start spouting nonsense and just say the name of anything, coffee, mug, pen, WAMU 88.5 in a nonsensical sort of way. But provide I could stick to the rhythms of how interviews are conducted, it somehow appears sensible. And it's only once you start reading between it and listening carefully, you realize it's absolutely pen, paper, lead, toilet.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Armanda Iannucci. He is the creator and executive producer of the HBO television program "Veep." He joins us in studio. If you like to speak with him, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What aspects of American politics do you imagine appear to be the most absurd to outsiders observing the process from other countries or to some of us observing it from here? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. When did -- how did you react when real-life politicians began approaching you about being interviewed by Steve Coogan as Partridge? It's my understanding that Tony Blair asked to be interviewed by Partridge before becoming prime minister.
IANNUCCIThat's right. And that was one of the most bizarre moments in my life. So Steve Coogan plays this character Alan Partridge, and Tony Blair who -- this was 1997 -- tried to project himself as a sort of a man of the people, someone who understood popular culture, and Alan Partridge was a big comedy figure in the U.K. at that time.
IANNUCCISo we got the call, saying, can he be interviewed by Alan Partridge? And Steve and I wrote down a comedy routine. We turned up at the conference that Blair was speaking at, and Blair's minder, Peter Mandelson, saw Steve, and was angry. And he said someone asked for Alan Partridge. Where's Alan Partridge? And it had to be explained to him that Alan Partridge was a fictional character. He didn't get that.
NNAMDII thought that Blair asked for this because he had a sense of humor, because he wanted to...
IANNUCCINope. I think...
NNAMDIThat's what you thought, too.
IANNUCCII think somebody who works for him says, you've got a sense of humor. You've got to show you've got a sense of humor. There's this guy, Alan Partridge. All these politicians are so busy, they don't have time to watch the television and to read -- they get -- every morning, they don't read the papers. They don't read the press.
IANNUCCIThey get given a set of newspaper cuttings all about themselves, and that's what they read. So no wonder they grow up with this idea that everyone is constantly reading about them and just them, whereas what we do, of course, when we get the newspaper is we turn to the back page, we look at the sports section...
NNAMDIThen the comics.
IANNUCCI...then the comics, see what's on the television, look at the front and read a few articles that interest us. That's it. So -- but they don't understand that. So they feel the whole world is talking about them, which is when -- which is why they develop this sense of paranoia that anything they say and do is going to be observed and commented on.
NNAMDIYou last joined us on this broadcast in 2009 shortly after the release of the film "In the Loop," which is essentially about the high jinks of British minister and those around him get in, too, on a visit to the U.S. in the run-up to the war. You told The New York Times you felt that in the real-life run-up to the Iraq War, British politicians got starstruck by American politics and were lured into it. How so, and what were you trying to get across when you wrote "In the Loop?"
IANNUCCII mean, that was the thing. Blair and his team thought that we're coming out to speak to George Bush and somehow rein him in. And bizarrely, the more you talk to them and those who work with them afterwards, bizarrely, when we turned up at the White House, they were so excited about being in the Oval Office, so excited to be dealing with the president that they forgot who they were.
IANNUCCIAnd there was a recent document on the BBC -- I was going to say celebrating, not celebrate -- commemorating the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. And there was our ex-foreign secretary on the television talking about how he flew out to Washington, and he was really excited 'cause Dustin Hoffman was on the plane with him. And I'm thinking, but you're the British foreign secretary. You know, you've got to get a grip on your own status. And I think that's a very British thing, that sense of, oh, we shouldn't really be here, should we?
NNAMDIWell, is the, I guess, the American equivalent of that the canonization of British politicians here in the United States when -- what do you see when you watch Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, for example?
IANNUCCIWell, she played her very, very well, but I don't know why anyone felt that there wasn't a British actress who could play her. It's interesting. I mean, the thing I always get coming out to America is people talk about the accent. Oh, we love your accent. And there seems to be a strange idea that if people have an English accent, that somehow…
NNAMDIYou're intelligent. You're very smart.
IANNUCCI...they're a bit more intelligent. No. As I hope it's clear this afternoon, I'm not that intelligent. I'm a bit of an idiot. And I don't know why. It is that strange thing of judging people by how they look, how they behave,, and how they sound. And, in fact, the reality is something much more complex and complicated, and it's what's going on inside their head and emotionally, and that's the real truth. And the comedy I like, actually, is stuff that avoids making the easy assumption about someone and actually surprises you with a personality quirk that you never expected.
NNAMDIMany of the jokes on your shows like in "The Thick of It," or "Veep," or your films, like "In the Loop," revolve around the awkward interactions between our media and our politicians. Let's listen to a press scrum from "In the Loop" where the British minister inadvertently creates a hawkish catchphrase.
NNAMDII actually thought that was a very impressive phrase myself.
IANNUCCIThe mountain of -- well, yes, and it's then used by hawks in the U.S. State Department as a phrase to justify going to war, saying that even the British government agrees with us. So he's inadvertently, in trying to get himself out of one hole, he's dug an even bigger one.
NNAMDIBut he's a lot like Partridge in the respect that when you're forced to ad-lib, and you haven't really prepared an answer for it. There's no telling what might come out of your mouth, and that happens a lot in the interaction between politicians and media. I'm going to go to an episode of "Veep" in a second, but go ahead and talk about it.
IANNUCCIOh, no. Well, that's the bane of 21st century politics in that you can no longer prepare for like a studio interview in four hours' time because the news cycle is 24 hours. So you can step outside of a building, and already there are people, there are reporters, cameras, bloggers, tweeters, cellphones -- everything is in front of your face. So -- and that's where, I think, a lot of the problem of politics happens these days, that inability to find the space and the time to think things through.
NNAMDIHow does it compare to a recent episode of "Veep," played around with the awkwardness that many American politicians exhibit when they interact with the rest of the world? We're going to listen to a scene where the vice president, veep, was traveling abroad and was presented by the prime minister of Finland with an "Angry Birds" clock.
NNAMDIThere's so much going on there.
IANNUCCIOh, I know. You see, 'cause every phrase she utters, she's already imagining 20 conversations people are going to have with her when she gets back to the White House. Why did you say that, and why did you not say it, you know? It must drive politicians crazy, this constant trying to out-think 25 different media outlets simultaneously.
NNAMDIThere's also a bit of Tony Blair's press guy not knowing who Partridge was because obviously...
NNAMDI...she was not familiar with that part of popular culture that is "Angry Birds."
IANNUCCIExactly, exactly. And then, of course, once she realizes and realizes her mistake, it's then about how can I dig myself out of this hole and somehow come out smelling of roses? And that scene was based on true incidents that have happened in -- you know, the State Department tries to prepare politicians when they go abroad.
IANNUCCIThey try and put a lot of research into the gift that they give the politician, and then they realize that the gift is inappropriate or it was for a different person's hobbies, or that they've mistranslated. I think we all remember Hillary Clinton and the Soviet foreign minister, and she...
IANNUCCI...gave him a reset button. She said, we've gone to a lot of trouble to get the wording right. And he looked down and went, no, no, this is wrong. You got this wrong. And all she can do is smile...
IANNUCCI…because you can't, on camera, shout at someone and fire them. That obviously happened much later on.
NNAMDIHere is Claire in Alexandria, Va. Claire, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAIREHello, gentlemen, and thank you so much for taking my call. And I have two questions, and the first thing, wanting to know about your feelings about the intersection between entertainment and politics, like the old saw about D.C. is just a face for unattractive folks that wish they could be in Hollywood. And then secondly, selfishly, I would love to know when you're going to be working with Chris Morris again, whom I just love.
IANNUCCIOh, well, thank you very much, Claire. Chris Morris, who's, you know, a fantastic director and comedian in the U.K., he's actually done a -- directed a couple of episodes of "Veep" this season and last season and will be back directing more in season three. So I hope that gives you a little something to look forward to. And in terms of the relationship, yeah, the relationship between politics and entertainment is interesting.
IANNUCCIIn D.C., they -- they've been very welcoming to us. They love the idea of, for want of a better word, Hollywood coming to pay them attention even though it's a slightly unflattering portrayal. I remember when I was researching the film "In the Loop," I spent a lot of time with a very senior member of Joe Biden's team, and this was when Joe Biden was a senator. And he said, oh, this is a great job. You know, you never know who you get to meet. I mean, the other week, you know who I met?
IANNUCCII met Bradley Whitford who plays Josh in "The West Wing." And I'm thinking, but hang on, he's an actor. You are Josh. You are him all the time, 24 hours a day. Why are you obsessed by someone who is paid to be you for three or four months a year? And I think it is that, you know, D.C. is such an enclosed environment. It can get -- I mean, they call it the echo chamber. I think it must come as a sense of relief that someone from outside is coming to look at them, and they kind of forget the significance of the job that they're actually doing.
NNAMDII'm supposed to be taking a break, but every time you say something, it leads me to another point. So we'll hold a break for a while because the point you just made reminds me that in his speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last year, President Obama lashed out at New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for her suggestion that he be more like Michael Douglas in the movie "The American President."
NNAMDIHe said Douglas was president in a fantasy land created by Aaron Sorkin, the writer. If Sorkin's political world is a liberal fantasy, how would you describe the world you've created in your shows and films?
IANNUCCIIt's less of a fantasy, I have to say. It is more a reality. I don't know how liberal it is. But I'm hoping that's it's an honest exaggeration of what actually happens.
NNAMDIYeah. I like the fact that you -- we don't know what party the veep belongs to in this situation.
IANNUCCIYeah. She's fairly centrist. But you can tell with every statement she makes, she's also trying to balance it with something that won't offend the other half of her party.
NNAMDIExactly right. Now, we will have to take that short break. If you have called, stay on the line, we'll get to your calls. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. Do you think people who work in American politics are disconnected or oblivious to how their behavior appears to those observing their culture from the outside? How so? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Armando Iannucci. He is creator and executive producer of the HBO television program "Veep," creator of the British television series "The Thick of It" and the series "The Day Today," which was adapted from the radio series he created for the BBC, "On the Hour." He was also the writer and director of the 2009 film "In The Loop." A lot of people in political comedy are in the business of lampooning people in power, doing impersonations of the president, things like that.
NNAMDIBut in "Veep," your main character played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is only a step removed from massive power as vice president and is constantly struggling with how much influence she actually has. Do you find that dynamic to be such good fodder for comedy, especially since everybody in Washington tends to say, well, the vice president really has nothing to do?
IANNUCCIWell, you see the vice president is an interesting role. What you have to do is so related as to how well you get on with the president, so Dick Cheney, very powerful vice president, Dan Quayle, not so good. And it's really so amorphous. It can change overnight. Suddenly the president can think you are the best guy in town to deal with something and can give you a commission to look at.
IANNUCCIOr, as he did with Joe Biden, lead talks on financial recovery and trying to do a deal with Congress on the debt ceilings and so on. Other times, he could just think, no, I'm not going to deal with him. I'm going to go bypass him and do something. So your role rises or shrinks depending on how you get on. So that instantly is a very uncertain, very -- there's a question mark over your day.
NNAMDIWhat went into deciding to make the vice president a woman apart from the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is so good?
IANNUCCIShe is fantastic. We wrote the script for a female vice president 'cause I thought, what I don't want this is to be, you know, something where people will think, oh, this is Joe Biden, oh, this is Al Gore or this is Dick Cheney. So rather than looking back, let's look forward. The fact that Hillary Clinton did so well in the primaries, I think it was indication that, you know, within the next five, 10 years or so, I think it's inevitable there'll be a female president.
IANNUCCIAnd therefore, this issue of her being a woman is less -- feels less groundbreaking and unusual than it might have done a while back. And therefore, I thought it would give it a very contemporary feel. Now, of course, once you've written the script you then think, now, we need a very, very good comic actress. So let's go to the best one available and see if she'll do it. And it was great. I mean, we hit it off instantly.
IANNUCCII was scheduled to meet her for 30 minutes over a cup of tea, and we talked for 3 1/2 hours, just making sure the laugh and thinking of all sorts of possibilities and how Selina would behave. You know, we we're charting out her career. And the other interesting thing about the vice presidential role is you could be someone who previously did have a lot of power. I mean, if you're a distinguished senator...
NNAMDIOh, yeah, like Biden.
IANNUCCIYeah. Biden, 30 years in the Senate, head of the -- chair of the, you know, Foreign Relations Committee, a lot of power and influence. Suddenly from that, you're the number two sitting by a desk, waiting for the phone to go and having to carry out the president's instructions. And that's quite a hard transition for most people, especially in the world of politics where ego is such a sort of essential controlling mechanism. That's a big change to take on.
NNAMDIAnd that's what I see in "Veep" a lot, the irony of a promotion that's, in fact, a demotion in a way.
IANNUCCIYes, yes. Although in season two, the one that's going out at the moment, she does get a further promotion in that she starts to get real power in matters of national security and foreign affairs. But then comes a thing of, OK, when you exercise power, can you deal with the consequences? And that's what this season is all about -- how does it affect her?
NNAMDIWhat's the fun of doing this for HBO where you know you have your audience already built in?
IANNUCCIAbsolutely, yes, and you are allowed a certain freedom in, you know, the language you can use. And, you know, politics is a very...
NNAMDIAnd you did research on language, didn't you? (unintelligible).
IANNUCCII did. There is a fair amount of cursing and swearing. And I have done my swearing research. State Department, full of diplomats, very little swearing, Pentagon, full of soldiers, lots of swearing. That seems to be norm. I think Democrats swear more than Republicans. But -- and we kind of reflect that in the show, I mean, hopefully not too much.
IANNUCCIBut there's an -- but I think also with HBO, you're encouraged to loosen the format up, not stick rigidly to the sitcom -- the traditional sitcom thing of everyone ends up happily at the end and we're all reset for the next episode. In this one, we're allowed to have certain characters troubled and their troubles to percolate through the whole season.
NNAMDIArmando Iannucci is the creator and the executive producer of the HBO television program "Veep." Thank you so much for joining us. Please keep on doing what you're doing.
IANNUCCIOh, thank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Rock Creek Park celebrates its 125th anniversary next year. We speak with two local experts with books about the history, flora, and fauna that abound in Washington's "backyard."
The health benefits — both mental and physical — of friendships are myriad. But as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult to forge lasting bonds with new people. We consider the ways communication, emotions and our phase of life effect our relationships with friends.
We check in with three local soup kitchens on the eve of Thanksgiving to look at who they're serving and how their programs and clients have changed in recent years.