US CABLE: Armando Iannucci, recently awarded an OBE for services to UK broadcasting, tells Nico Franks about the differences he found working for US cable after 20 years at the BBC.
Pick any decent UK comedy from the past 15 years and there’s a pretty good chance Armando Iannucci’s influence runs through it.
Writer, producer, performer and director Iannucci is something of a Godfather-like figure in British comedy today. Included in his legacy of hits is the Alan Partridge franchise, pioneering current affairs spoof The Day Today and The Thick of It, an unflinching and expletive-peppered satire of working in UK government.
The latter made waves, even entering the real-life political lexicon of Westminster. It has also been Iannucci’s ticket to both big-screen success and a primetime spot on a US cable channel, one with a track record for airing comedies a cut above the rest.
With a name better suited to a Milanese fashion designer, Iannucci is in fact a Scot, born and raised in Glasgow by a Scottish mother and Italian father. Initially renowned for his surreal sense of humour, Iannucci has more recently become the UK’s go-to guy for volatile political satire.
Iannucci has wanted to create a political comedy set in the White House ever since watching The West Wing, he admits. His first attempt to ‘crack America’ was in 2007, with ABC’s planned remake of The Thick of It, the aforementioned show he created for UK broadcaster BBC4 in 2005.
However, somewhere in LA, there’s a skip filled to the brim with proposals for US remakes of successful UK comedies, and alas, the first attempt at a US version of The Thick of It didn’t get past the pilot stage.
Undeterred, Iannucci went on to make a big-screen adaptation of the BBC series called In the Loop, which saw UK and US politics collide via the Pentagon. It featured a wealth of talent from both sides of the pond, including Iannucci’s long-time collaborator Steve Coogan (I’m Alan Partridge) and The Sopranos star James Gandolfini.
The success of the film revived Iannucci’s prospects in the US and it wasn’t long before HBO ordered Iannucci to come up with another pilot. This was Veep, a series set in the office of the US vice president, as played by Seinfeld’s Julia Louis Dreyfus.
The comedy is mined from the lead character’s struggle to come to terms with forever being number two in a country that prides itself on always being number one. “Being number two all day long is kind of humiliating and soul-destroying but nobody can laugh in your face as you might be president one day. It’s that blend of simultaneous hope and frustration that are its key ingredients,” Iannucci explains.
Veep premiered stateside on HBO four months ago and has already been renewed for a second season. The series rapidly improved after taking a few episodes to find its feet, with US viewers clearly enjoying the cast’s talent for delivering acerbic one-liners at speed.
The first episode on HBO was watched by 1.4 million people at 22.00 and 1.7 million in its midnight slot, the highest ratings since the finale of Entourage in September 2011. The final episode on HBO drew 1.1 million viewers in total.
Was Iannucci ever hesitant about another attempt at writing for a US audience? “It’s not important where a comedy comes from now,” he says assuredly. “I’ve never seen comedy as writing for a particular audience. I write what I think I would like to watch.”
The writer also asserts he was never worried about overnight figures, an attitude sure to send shivers down cable advertisers’ spines, as much as they did back at the BBC.
“It’s always a leap of faith when you make something. As long as you’ve made the show to the best of your ability and it’s the one you wanted to make, that’s more important to me than how many people watched it and what they thought of it,” says Iannucci, stoically.
Nevertheless, audiences have responded positively to the show, something Iannucci puts down to HBO’s lack of interference during production. The cable channel “doesn’t do audience testing,” he says, and was happy to leave creative control with Iannucci, much like his experience when writing for the BBC 10 years ago.
Iannucci points to a renewed interest in satire, believing both UK and US audiences share his frustration with being “disconnected from the political dialogue we’re meant to be having” with politicians. “People feel the dialogue that should be happening isn’t happening, so they’re frustrated.” Satire provides a way to have those conversations, he states.
The main difference between working in the US and the UK, Iannucci believes, is mostly in the budgets channels are able to offer. But the Scotsman was careful not to get carried away.
“Reproducing the president’s office, going to more locations with more extras involved, Veep did require more money than The Thick of It because it was on a bigger scale,” he says, almost guiltily. “The challenge was to keep the comedy intimate, for the audience to see private moments behind the door with the VP and her staff. We wanted to keep it grungy and untidy.”
Next up for Iannucci is the return of The Thick of It later this year on the BBC, a broadcaster he clearly still has a soft spot for, despite the bright lights of Hollywood. The second season also attracted copro finance from Hulu, marking the US video-on-demand site’s first foray into international coproduction.
However, the BBC no longer holds the vice-like grip on UK comedy that it did a few years ago, since BSkyB began pumping its millions into developing home-grown talent. Sky Atlantic acquired Veep as part of its output deal with HBO and even poached Iannucci’s Alan Partridge from the BBC.
“There was a point when, for better or worse, the BBC was the only show in town for comedy. I love the BBC to bits but that’s an unhealthy situation because it means all of British comedy is subject to the judgement of one or two people. Then in the past 12 months, with Sky putting a lot of money into British production, and Channel 4 realising you can get ratings through comedy, and even ITV re-entering comedy, it’s gone through an amazing growth spurt. It’ll raise the BBC’s game. The BBC knows it can’t expect everyone to come knocking on their door first anymore,” he says.
Regardless, Iannucci is now in a position where a great many doors are opening up for him, on both sides of the Atlantic.