Armando Iannucci talks political satire and new HBO series ‘Veep’
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In the middle of a publicity blitz for “Veep,” the new HBO comedy series premiering Sunday that stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a frustrated vice president, Armando Iannucci is holed up at the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Iannucci, the show’s Scottish creator, takes a swig from a water bottle emblazoned with Donald Trump’s distinctive orange scowl.
“I’m drinking from his face,” he jokes, pausing to stifle a sneeze with the crook of his arm.
The luxury hotel is an incongruous habitat for someone as habitually modest as Iannucci, who tends to apologize before tweeting anything even vaguely self-promotional, not to mention someone who’s made a career mocking the egomaniacal, the petty and the power-hungry.
Stateside, the 48-year-old Iannucci is best known for “In The Loop,” his artfully profane black comedy about the run-up to an ill-advised war in the Middle East, released to critical acclaim — and an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay — in 2009. Yet, over the last two decades he’s established himself as one of Britain’s preeminent humorists. He first made waves in Britain in 1991 with “The Day Today,” a satirical news program, and followed that with “Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge,” starring comedian Steve Coogan as the dense and self-important host of a fake TV show.
Then there was “The Thick Of It,” Iannucci’s excruciatingly funny British series about a group of manic, image-conscious London bureaucrats, which was later spun off into “In the Loop.” In a typical episode, a beleaguered government minister accidentally sends a crude email to an 8-year-old girl, then forces his press secretary to take the blame. (The third season of “The Thick of It” debuts on BBC America on April 28, and the show’s fourth season is currently in production in Britain.)
“Veep” is not Iannucci’s first foray into American television. A watered-down American adaptation of “The Thick Of It,” developed by “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz, floundered at ABC several years back. The experience provided Iannucci with a difficult but vital lesson about maintaining creative control of his work.
“I was a little peripheral figure in that whole thing,” he says. “There’s 15,000 vice presidents of marketing chipping in. Obviously, you can make good television that way, but it’s not how I want to make my stuff.”
In contrast, Ianucci says HBO executives allowed him to create a show that retains the acid wit and blistering vulgarity of “The Thick of It.” It surely helps that the network has long been home to the brand of cringe comedy pioneered by Iannucci; after all, without “Alan Partridge,” there would probably be no “Ali G” or “Extras.”
One might think that capturing the absurdities of American politics would present a particular challenge for someone who’s never lived in the country, but that’s not the case, according to “Veep” executive producer and New York magazine columnist Frank Rich. “Armando needed no help, from me or anyone else, when it came to Washington,’ Rich says. ‘His take is all the more accurate because he’s an outsider. He sees it much more clearly.”
Iannucci’s jaundiced perspective is also informed by extensive reading about American political history. In a rare feat, he’s consumed all three of Robert Caro’s hefty books on Lyndon Johnson, and is particularly fascinated with the late president’s career trajectory. “Once he becomes VP, he’s sort of sitting in his office waiting for a phone call,” Iannucci says. “That’s what makes the vice presidency interesting from a comedy point of view. It’s all there, and yet it’s not.”
Indeed, despite the obvious temptation to compare Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus’s character in “Veep,” to Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton, she may in fact have more in common with LBJ. Not only does she display a marked fondness for colorful colloquialisms, but, as a once well-respected senator, Selina bristles at the indignity of her new job.
As for her party affiliation, “Veep” is purposely vague. “I don’t want it to be about a particular brand of politics, it’s more about the process,” Iannucci says.
Actual policy is almost an afterthought; what matters most is saving face. Selina and her ambitious young staffers spend almost no time debating the merits of her green jobs initiative, yet they deliberate endlessly over what flavor of frozen yogurt she should get during a photo-op. (Jamaican rum is deemed “unexpected, funky, kind of sexual.”) It’s a view of contemporary politics that’s at once deeply cynical and curiously bipartisan.
Iannucci sees a potent “visual metaphor” in the contrast between the stately exteriors of Washington’s buildings and the shabby warren of offices inside them. “American power feels like it knows what it’s doing, and actually when you lift the lid up, it’s loads of people running around going, ‘I don’t quite know what I’m doing,’ ” he says.
If there’s a theme running through Iannucci’s career, it’s his preoccupation with language. Before he got into comedy, Iannucci studied English literature at Oxford University, and pursued (but did not complete) a doctorate on the poetry of John Milton. He recently wrote the libretto for “Skin Deep,” an opera about plastic surgery, and, as an enthusiastic admirer of Charles Dickens, Iannucci produced and presented an hourlong documentary about the great Victorian writer for the BBC last year.
He claims all these worthy projects are merely “displacement activities” to keep him from completing his novel, “Tongue International,” about a for-profit language.
“I still get an email from my editor every 18 months going, ‘Any news?’ ” Iannucci says. At least he’s got a prime-time excuse.
-- Meredith Blake
Photos, from top: Armando Ianucci and Julia Louis Dreyfus after the ‘Veep’ screening in New York; Ianucci in New York. Credits: Michael Loccisano / Getty Images; Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times