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?
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.
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.