By Josh Roberts
You might not know the name Armando Iannucci, but the chances are you will have seen at least one of the hit TV shows (such as I’m Alan Partridge and The Thick Of It) or his Oscar nominated film In The Loop. He’s won three BAFTAs, two Sony Radio Awards, three British Comedy Awards as well as a host of other awards, and last week I got to meet the man The Telegraph recently named “the undisputed King of British comedy”.
We start by talking about his childhood. Born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and an Italian father, Iannucci’s childhood was spent “learning my favourite comedians’ material, people like Billy Connolly, and regurgitating it at school”. Aged seventeen he headed south to study English at Oxford and it was here that he begun to cut his comedy teeth – “I still worked hard, but comedy became an increasingly important thing in my life”.
With his degree in the bag and three years research (“a blessing in itself”) into a PhD completed, Iannucci needed to sort out a career. He flirted with lots of jobs: there was the one at the treasury which he quit “because I think they realised that I couldn’t and wouldn’t and couldn’t take it seriously”, not to mention his nearly joining the Catholic Priesthood. But ultimately he knew he had to take “a giant leap of faith into the unsecure and untested”, and venture into the world of professional comedy.
After several months grafting away in stand-up and various other slots, he got his ‘big break. “Someone told me that Radio Scotland were recruiting young presenters in an attempt to get rid of their old, fuddy-duddy image so I sent them some tapes of my material and got a job on a music show”. Far from the stand-up and satirical path that he was aiming for, his time at the BBC had two great advantages. “Firstly, my mother was made-up because she could tell her friends that I worked for the respectable BBC”, he says, “more importantly I got to see the production process in its entirety”.
Now he had a foot in the proverbial door, and when a job in BBC London’s light entertainment department came-up he was first in line. Things began to snowball. He first hit it big with On the Hour which, presented by Chris Morris (recent writer and director of jihad-satire Four Lions), was a satirical take on the emerging 24 hour news culture with faux-headlines like “More oxygen needed, says France” and “Anorak Tuesday under threat according to Prime Minister”. On the Hour was quickly transferred into a television format, The Day Today, which in-turn gave rise to the whugely successful and multi-award winning I’m Alan Partridge starring Steve Coogan.
Now widely lauded as the creator of the docu-soap-satire format (think The Office and Peep Show) Iannucci set-about creating his next big hit: a political-satire based on Tony Blair’s government called The Thick of It, in which a very sweary Head of Communications (somewhat reminiscent of Alastair Cambell) played by Peter Capaldi tries to whip a failing government department into shape. The success of The Thick of It meant that Iannucci was able to create a big screen version, In the Loop, which starred among others Steve Coogan and James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) and for which he received an Oscar nomination.
“I was very lucky”, he remarks when I ask if breaking through is harder today, “people take less risk now, it’s like there is a much greater emphasis on what you’ve already done”. That said, the current comedy environment does have its advantages. “It is much easier to get things made. When I started-out you had to move to London; now with the internet and blogs it’s much easier to get stuff out there. No one hands me a paper script these days, it’s always USB pens, dongles or links”. Perhaps more subtly, he feels that the current climate improves the quality of people’s writing – “it’s so easy to get things read these days that there’s no excuse for not writing lots, and when you write lots you improve”.
Iannucci’s own writing style and process is “mostly collaborative”, and indeed almost all of TV’s big comedies seem to be written in groups with the Damon Beesely/Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners) and Jesse Armstrong/Sam Bain (The Peep Show) partnerships currently leading the way.
A typical writing session begins with making tea (“which can take up to an hour”) and then moves on to a kind of comedic brainstorm with whoever else is working on the show. “Writing with other people is better for many reasons”, he says, “but above all the ideas arrive quicker and you get something that neither of you would have got individually”. That said, writing collaboratively does have its downsides, most notably that “if you’re not disciplined, you can end up with thirty minutes of garbage. You have to be ruthless”.
His literary economy is probably the most defining feature of his writing, a hangover from his time on radio. It wastes no time getting to the point. “On radio every word is important and you can tell if something is too long. You need to hit the gag. I can look at a script now and say ‘that will take three minutes to say, it should take one’. In fact the easiest way to tell if someone is new to writing is to look at how many words they use”.
If Iannucci’s writing process is broadly similar to others, the filming process is extremely different. He tends to shoot things very quickly and is careful to allow the actors enough space to “do their own thing”. This is particularly true of In the Loop and The Thick of It which is first filmed with the script and then re-shot allowing the actors to improvise if and when they see fit. Putting it all together in the editing suite leads to a finished piece of which “85 percent is as it is in the script and the rest is improvised”. This improvisational aspect of filming is of paramount importantance for Iannucci, because “it dirties the script and makes it feel real, it makes it feel like conversation”, he says adding, “it’s funny really, because a huge amount of effort goes into making the script perfect, and then even more effort goes into making it look unscripted”.
The huge success of In the Loop (both at the Sundance Film Festival and the Oscars) has meant that Iannucci can pick freely between television work and film work. The obvious choice would seem to be more films. Not so. “I’m really only interested in making things that I’m glad to have made. I enjoy the project”. That said, film does have its advantages, perhaps most importantly the character and narrative liberty that comes with writing a longer feature. “With TV you have to leave the characters at the end of an episode where they were at the start”, he says, “in film you can bring-in and dispose of characters whenever you want to”.
Given that a show can take over two years to bring to fruition, I’m interested to know what he hopes to achieve after it aires. One thing is for sure – it’s not fame. Indeed, aside from his quietly received The Armando Iannucci Shows, Iannucci has yet to put himself in front of the camera, and as a result has so far largely avoided boarding the fame train.
This seems to be partly a conscious decision to avoid the trappings of being famous, and partly a desire to remain in control of his shows. “I know that my shows and films will be remembered for the people that are in them, but I can’t be objective about something if I’m in it”, he says. And what of the fame? “Of course it’s nice when someone comes up to and shakes your hand, but I can’t see the fun in not being able to take the tube or getting stared at the whole time”. Not wanting the fame that comes with actually being on TV is quite understandable, but Iannucci’s reaction to receiving recognition from the industry itself (in the form of BAFTAs, Sony Awards, Comedy Awards and Oscars) is surprisingly blasé. “I see awards as being of fairly short-term importance”, he ponders, “they’re great in the sense that they tend to shunt you up the queue and you get more meetings. But a crap project won’t get made, Oscar nomination or no Oscar nomination”.
For a man who has made his career in satirising quite high-brown subject like politics and the media, his own tastes in TV are slightly perplexing. “There are so many great things on TV at the moment”, he says excitedly, “I’m a big fan of The Inbetweeners which, despite the crudeness of the topics, is extremely well structured and written. In terms of American stuff, Eastbound & Down (on HBO) is probably my favourite because Will Ferrell is so brilliant”.
Taking The Inbetweeners as an example I’m keen to know whether Iannucci agrees with those people who say that modern comedy, operating under the guise of being “edgy”, has simply become about trying to be as rude as possible. Surprisingly enough, he disagrees. “The word edgy implies that a joke is on the edge, I honestly don’t see there being any edges, so the idea of edgy comedy is a bit of an illusion”. Surely though, particularly with his aforementioned character Malcolm Tucker (who opens meetings by saying “What’s the story in Bally-fucking-mory”), he must occasionally worry about offending people? “No, I really don’t. Of course we don’t set out to offend people, but if something is funny then it is funny”.
With this in mind, I ask what the future holds for Iannucci, what he plans to laugh at next. “We start filming a new pilot for HBO in February which is set in the Vice President office of the White House and then there’s another more slap-stick film which we’ve finished the script for”. This is exciting stuff, but not as exciting about the much-rumoured prospect of a full-length Alan Partridge feature. “Ah, yes”, he says, “we’ve got the skeleton of a script and that will hopefully happen”.
And it is on this wonderful news that our interview comes to an end. Iannucci is one of the most interesting and exciting people I have ever met and I urge those of you who’ve yet to experience the spine-tingling, pant-wetting hilarity of I’m Alan Partridge or The Thick of It to do so as soon as possible.