Armando Iannucci may not yet be a household name in the U.S., but things might change with today’s release of his much-buzzed-about political comedy In the Loop, a caustic, hilariously potty-mouthed satire about the backroom dealings between American and British politicians in the run-up to an unspecified war against an unspecified Arab country. The Glasgow-born writer and comedian has been a mainstay of British comedy over the past couple of decades, having produced the hit mock-news shows On the Hour and The Day Today (which have been seen by some as precursors to The Daily Show), and, more recently, the political comedy series The Thick of It. Along the way, Iannucci has found time to develop slews of other shows, publish several books, write a weekly newspaper column, and lecture at Oxford. Oh, and he broke into the U.S. State Department last year, while doing research for Loop.
So, do you have any plans to break into more government buildings when you screen In the Loop in D.C.?
I have heard that the State Department made a number of changes to their security after I did that. I mentioned the break-in in May, when we came for the Tribeca Film Festival, and it got onto the Drudge Report. So suddenly, it got picked up, and at the State Department press briefing they were asked if they’d known about it. They then carried out a complete review of their security procedures.
But the State Department break-in was really part of a rather-more-prosaic time spent just meeting lots of people in Washington, to get a feel for what they’re like. I told people: I’m not after the scandal, I’m after the dull stuff. What time of the day people come into work, what time they go home — that sort of thing. Who do they work with, what they’re like. Someone told me that a lot of Washington business is conducted at lunches and buffets and early dinners, so we went to an early dinner where Chuck Hagel was speaking. And Dennis Kucinich took us on a tour of the Senate and the House, which was great, actually.
How would you assess the difference between British and American politicians?
I find that American politicians know that they have influence, but spend a lot of their time saying little as possible, because they have this regular electoral cycle they have to go through. Whereas British politicians have very little power and influence — so when they’re standing for election, they try to give the impression that they’re doing a lot more than they actually can. They fill in for the power gap by pledging a lot more.
You once said that what distinguishes the U.K. from the U.S. is how little the British mythologize the political process.
A U.K. politician gave a speech some time ago asking why we can’t make more shows that are more like The West Wing and less like The Thick of It. To which the answer is: People wouldn’t take it seriously. They would laugh, but for all the wrong reasons. We just cannot believe that they are all gifted, intelligent, good-looking individuals with enormous intentions uncorrupted by power.
Could that be in part because the Americans have no royalty?
Your President is the Head of State, so the office has a prestige and an aura around it irrespective of who’s inhabiting it, and you have to show due deference to the office. We don’t have that. We conveniently have all the aura and prestige in this little old lady in Buckingham Palace, and no aura and no prestige attached to the inhabitants of 10 Downing Street.
So would you say maybe the British equivalent of The West Wing is something more like Elizabeth?
Yes. We can delve back into our history for the virtues that we’re telling ourselves don’t exist now. Whereas you don’t have a history past 300 years, so you delve into the institutions, the buildings, and the office for that.
In the Loop is actually not technically about the run-up to the Iraq War, but rather about an unnamed country we’re considering attacking now. Did you ever consider making the film more overtly about Iraq?
I didn’t want the film to be about what we think actually happened. It’s a fiction. If much of our fiction bears a resemblance to what actually happened, then that’s slightly terrifying. Plus, I wanted to do something that was up-to-date, rather than something that was taking place six years ago. And I also wanted to suggest, in the background, that it could all happen again.
Back in January 2006, you gave a series of lectures at Oxford on British comedy, wherein you stated: “Over the next five years, TV comedy has the chance to either reclaim the mass-appeal, large-viewing-figure slots that were previously theirs by right, or become a fragmented web of innovative, interesting but niche programs.” It’s been three and a half years. How are things now?
I’m still worried about it, actually, especially in the current economic climate, because comedy’s still quite expensive to make. It’s far cheaper to shove six people in a room, fix cameras on them, and drop spiders in. It’s harder to ask writers to come up with a story and find locations and all that. And it used to be that when a comedy show was on air, if it didn’t quite hit the mark in its first season, it would be allowed to come back for a second one, to allow it a chance to find its audience over time. Now, that’s not the case. If it doesn’t hit the mark in the first season, it’s just gone.
I think a panic is setting in slightly in the comedy-commissioning circuit in the U.K. People are reluctant to take risks — which is worrying, because comedy is built on risks. U.K. television has been going through this thing of taste and decency and not causing offense and all that. And with comedy, you cannot say your intention is not to offend, because someone is bound to be offended at some point.
I also wonder what’s going to happen in the next five years, regarding how programs are made. The idea of networks and schedules have become a lot more ambiguous. My eldest son is 16. He doesn’t sit down at such and such a channel at ten o’clock to watch a show. No, he records it, he downloads it, watches it whenever he wants.
And yet, British comedy is still a very popular brand in the U.S.
We have the same thing about America, though. We consider Seinfeld, Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Daily Show to be smart, sophisticated. I think it’s just a case where we get the best of your stuff and you get the best of our stuff. And remember, reality TV also came from the U.K.