Political, Pointed, and Peculiar: Armando Iannucci, Comedy Genius

Some people do one thing really well. Take Armando Iannucci. He’s a brilliant political satirist.

He’s worked long and hard to hone his craft. From 1995-1999, he presented The Saturday Night Armistice (later The Friday Night Armistice), a sketch show lampooning the previous week’s news. An Election Night Armistice special appeared on 1 May 1997 to witness Tony Blair’s triumphant General Election win. He wrote and directed the TV mockumentary Clinton: His Struggle with Dirt (1998), reflecting on the Monica Lewinsky scandal in America. In 2003, Iannucci created and presented Gash, which ran as an alternative to mainstream media coverage of the local elections. It not only mocked politics, but political satire itself, when it introduced a new satirist whose “cutting edge” stunts meant to “stick it to the man” terrifically crashed and burned.

Iannucci has been a guest on both The News Quiz and Have I Got News for You, and Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive (2005-2008) was a radio panel show featuring comedians dissecting current events.

His most well-known political satire, though, is his creation, The Thick of It, which began in 2005 with two three-episodes series. The Thick of It invited us into the chaotic, outrageous dysfunction of Whitehall, introducing us to the office of incompetent, exhausted MP Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham) and the complicated relationship between it and the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), Number 10’s enforcer/spin doctor. Newspapers made connections between fictional characters and plots and actual people and events. The blend of realism and biting humour made it a success, and it won Best Situational Comedy at the 2006 BAFTA Awards.

In 2007, as Britain faced the inevitability of moving from a Tony Blair-led government to one with Gordon Brown at the helm, there were two The Thick of It specials, digging more deeply into Tucker’s life and into the Shadow Cabinet. In 2009, it returned for Series 3, focusing on a new minister, Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front). The writing and performances kept it harsh and funny, and it continued to be nominated for and win awards.

Iannucci also wrote and directed the film In The Loop (2009), which brought British politics to Washington to deal with a potential war in the Middle East. The film met with critical success in both the UK and US, and Iannucci and his writing team were nominated for a Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) Academy Award. It furthered blurred fiction and reality to the extent that The Culture Show actually invited Alistair Campbell, who had been Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy (and the rumoured inspiration behind Malcolm Tucker) to watch and review the film. (Campbell claimed that he couldn’t see anyone he knew in any of the characters, though he then backtracked a little before ultimately emphasising that real politics is not as venal and crass as in the film.)

In 2010, Britain’s General Election led to a coalition government. The media and public were curious: would Iannucci bring back The Thick of It to reflect the new politics of the country? In 2012, we found out the answer was yes. Not only did the show return with a coalition government, Series 4 featured a public inquiry, bringing to mind the real life Leveson Inquiry, being held as the series was broadcast.

This series cemented Iannucci’s role as king of political satire. Mark Lawson wrote that “TV viewers looked from The Thick of It to British politics, and from British politics to The Thick of It but already it was impossible to say which was which,” and was told by Martha Kearney, presenter of Radio 4’s news show The World at One, that her show “was forced to make a formal decision to ration the use of clips from The Thick of It to introduce political items” (“The Thick of It: the TV Programme of 2012”, The Guardian, 21 Dec. 2012). Malcolm Tucker’s descriptive term “omnishambles” began to be used by real politicians and ended up being named Word of the Year 2012 by the Oxford English Dictionary.

But 2012 wasn’t just about British political satire. It also saw the debut of Veep, Iannucci’s series for HBO, which takes on American politics. This time we’re in the office of Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), but the biting humour amidst the realistic chaos is still there. Iannucci brought some of The Thick of It‘s crew — as well as his direction and production style — to Veep, yet it’s a definitely an American show. Already the series has racked up award nominations and wins, and the highly anticipated second season began in April. He’s done it again! the world cried.

Okay, so it’s now an established truth: Iannucci does political satire really, really well.

What sets Iannucci apart, though, what makes him — yes, I’ll say it — a comedy genius is the fact that he does many, many things really, really well.

In addition to satirising politics, Iannucci has also used humour to skewer the media and contemporary culture. In 1991-1992, he was one of the writers of On the Hour, a spoof current affairs radio programme, which eventually transferred to television in 1994 as The Day Today. While, of course, the shows covered (and parodied) politics and other news, they both brilliantly mimicked and mocked the media — from the little touches of obnoxious sound effects/graphics to more damning commentary on the exploitation of tragedies and the lack of objectivity. On Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive, he ridiculed the BBC’s (and other media’s) choice to pad out news programmes with the public’s views at the expense of actual journalism.

Similar themes were looked at in his 2006 series Time Trumpet which parodied retrospective shows, featuring memories and anecdotes from barely relevant celebrities, media types and other talking heads. The show was set in 2031 and looked back at the first decade of the 21st century. It managed to critique the politics, the media and the public in a way that genuinely encouraged the audience to think closely about how our lives and times will be remembered (and it’s not too hopeful: the future commentators seem to think that the most impressive cultural aspect of our times was the title sequence for the show Top of the Pops 2).

The Armando Iannucci Shows (2001) were a bit more introspective, probing into our own failures as human beings. In each episode, Iannucci introduces a weakness — fear of rejection, anxiety about aging, lack of connection with others — through sketches and confessional monologues. The episode on “Imagination” features a depressed woman, talking to a man we assume is her therapist. However, he actually works for a company that specializes in using computer graphics to jazz up suicide notes. Even though she wasn’t sure when she’d end her life, she’s told that it’s best to have a date in mind and is given a direct line to call when she starts feeling suicidal — so the company can speed up her order.

A thread running through all of these works is surrealism, another thing Iannucci does really well. He uses it to strengthen his criticism, but it can also balance the harsher aspects because he occasionally crosses into the simply silly. His early radio shows on Radio 1 featured “Shy Sessions”, live performances by bands too cool or shy to perform in an actual radio studio so were recorded while playing in a room down the corridor. In his 1997 book Facts and Fancies, he offered a swift guide to new germs, including ‘Small Russian Child’ that “exhausts the host by demanding attention throughout the night and then insisting on sleeping on you during the day when you should be leaving for work. Recommended cure: fast dancing.”

Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive included the first Sudoku on the radio, when eight people standing in an 81 box grid called out numbers, allowing us to work out where they were in relation to each other; the winner was the first listener to shout the correct answer in an email. Another episode used a new piece of software to reveal the performers’ innermost thoughts (examples: “I wish I hadn’t eaten that shire horse”; “Now, did I leave some milk out for Will Self?”). It’s difficult balancing common sense with nonsense, but Iannucci does it, and well, again.

While much of his work is led by his unique humour and astute commentary, Iannucci is also able to build good characters with interesting and engaging lives. While Malcolm Tucker’s colourful language and dirty tricks have impacted political society, by far his most loved (and longest lasting) character is Alan Partridge (played by Steve Coogan), who was originally created by Iannucci, Coogan and the On The Hour team. Partridge began as an inept and stereotypical sports reporter, but eventually got a new gig (first on radio, then on television), a chat show called Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge. This allowed the character to develop — we learned about his wife and children, Denise and Fernando (yes, there’s an ABBA theme) and what he likes, dislikes, and has no knowledge of as he chats to musicians, celebrities, sports stars and members of the public (all played by On The Hour alumni such as Rebecca Front and David Schneider).

Partridge is fleshed out as a character when it becomes clear to us that his booming but misguided self-confidence will not be enough to allow him to reach his lofty goals for success (it’s kind of hard for the BBC to overlook the fact that he eventually accidentally shot and killed one of his guests). The final episode of the series is a “live” Christmas special, to which Alan has invited the BBC’s Chief Commissioning Editor Tony Hayers, in a last ditch effort to secure a second series of his chat show. Unfortunately, Alan’s star guest, Roger Moore, never shows; his fancy prop bursts into flames; and when he ends up punching Hayers in the face, he is told that he will never work on television again. In that last moment, we see beyond Partridge’s obnoxious persona to his ultimate tragic defeat.

Yet that was not the end for Alan Partridge. Two years later, he returned in I’m Alan Partridge, which found him doing his best to bounce back from his professional and personal breakdown, which we see glimpses of in flashbacks. He’s now estranged from his family, living in a hotel, but trying to regain his confidence (and that elusive second chance on television). Neither ever fully returns, and by the end of I’m Alan Partridge‘s run in 2002, he had reached the giddy heights of an unpopular, early morning show on local radio.

After a one-off special in 2003, Partridge disappeared until 2010 when Coogan, Iannucci, and Rob and Neil Gibbons created and wrote Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, which was shown first online and eventually on television. The character’s fans had obviously missed him. His autobiography was published in 2011, and his one-hour special Alan Partridge: Welcome to the Places of My Life, on which Iannucci served as an executive producer, was nominated for two 2012 British Comedy Awards. A feature film, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, written by Iannucci, Coogan, Peter Baynham, and Rob and Neil Gibbons, will be released in the UK this August.

Alan Partridge is not only symbolic of Iannucci’s talent for building good characters with funny yet emotional lives, but he also illustrates another thing that Iannucci does well: collaboration. The On The Hour group included Chris Morris, who went on to make Brass Eye, Nathan Barley, and Four Lions, and who directed two episodes of Veep. Stewart Lee was also an On The Hour writer, and they worked together again on Time Trumpet and Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. Iannucci chooses wisely when working with others and seems to also be a loyal and supportive colleague. Comedian Chris Addison got his first acting job on The Thick of It, and when he created his sitcom Lab Rats, Iannucci executive produced.

Recently, Addison directed three episodes of the second season of Veep. Comedian Will Smith has been writing with Iannucci through Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive to Time Trumpet and The Thick of It (on which he also had a role), and became a writer and consulting producer on Veep. Iannucci builds relationships with actors as well — he’s worked with Rebecca Front on multiple projects — and his directing style relies on improvisation, acknowledging and incorporating the performers’ contributions.

Indeed, Armando Iannucci is really good at a lot of things, yet he seems to maintain a humble and sincere commitment to continually improving his skills. During his 2012 BAFTA Television Lecture, he remarked that his mentor Peter Bennett-Jones’ “generosity, idealism and idiosyncrasy” represented what British television is at its best (“2012 Lecture Full Transcript”, The Guardian, 11 September 2012). Iannucci seems to embody these same qualities in his own work, and his impact on comedy cannot be underestimated. When he was awarded his OBE for Services to Broadcasting this February “Armando Iannucci Receives an OBE, The Telegragh, 1 February 2013), Iannuccci described the experience as surreal, hilarious, and a bit moving, words that are equally applicable to his own comedy creations.

May he long continue to regale us with his genius.