Podcast Episode 138: Armando Iannucci, Political Comedy In The Age Of Trump
'Veep' creator aims comic assault on Russian politics in 'The Death of Stalin'
Welcome back to another edition of listener supported PBS than I'm a junkie podcast Beth Accomando. First became aware of Armando Iannucci when I saw the film in the loop and was introduced to the character of Malcolm Tucker. You don't get me fucking right are going to come over to him when a lot of flirtation can pump it full of sewage into your pocket and Drummonds has played by Peter Capaldi. Malcolm grabbed me from his first moment on screen. I was thrilled to discover that the character originated on a TV show called Think of it where I could find more of Malcolm's rants and tirades In the old days just sit on the middle like a fucking Cornish's pasti hanging a steaming Enfield's all around the tell a fuckin Lunda. It wasn't just Capaldi is brilliant seething delivery but the incredibly clever sharp writing of Nucci that completely riveted me. Not only were Malcom's lines insanely good but so too were the lines given to the other characters in reaction to him. Here's one of my all time favorite lines describing Malcolm. I don't know which is worse watching him slowly rumble towards like prostate cancer I'm appearing suddenly out of nowhere like a severe stroke. Comedy is perhaps the most difficult thing to pull off. Anyone can make you cry but not anyone can make you laugh. And even fewer can make you laugh at things you feel are absolutely wrong to make jokes about. But Iannucci can take a scene he wrote for Steve Coogan as the title character of the movie Alan Partridge. In this scene his talk show radio host character ends up being the Go-Between during a hostage crisis. You got him you've got a broken section. What do you want. You know I want a helicopter that's just an example. He walks out Upton is actually quite angry. He's honking my Irish goose. Jim I just not a radio Rochow I'm trying to post a sh. Do I. JERRY BAXTER hostage we all know that an armed gunman holding hostages and threatening to kill them is not funny but Iannucci knows that we can laugh at a narcissistic jerk trying to turn that tragedy into a personal showcase for his own egotistical gains. Iannucci cut his teeth on British comedy shows in the mid nineties with the day today and knowing me knowing you. With Alan Partridge both featuring actor writer Steve Coogan he then scored well with think of it a BBC series in the mid 2000s. He made the jump to feature films by writing the screenplay for the thick of it spin off movie in the loop in 2009 and the screenplay for the Alan Partridge movie in 2013. But in 2012 he jumped the pond and created veep for HBO where he launched a comic assault on American politics. Politics. Is about. People Politics is about people. I've met some people real people and I've got to tell you a lot of them. Miriam. Intriguing about. The way. My principles and Carquest taught me to. Try and catch a b. I'm genuinely sorry that my arrival here has caused you to become so self-conscious and gain a little weight. I don't. I. Mean. I. Hope years Nigella I'm not here to spy. I work at the White House so I can just walk in and say I'm from the White House. What are you doing. Did the president call that. Iannucci let the show when Donald Trump was elected president because he basically felt that his comedy could no longer compete with the absurdities of the real world. Now for his feature writing and directing debut he turns to Russian politics the 1950s for the death of Stalin based on a French graphic novel. Here's the trailer to give you a taste of the style of comedy. Good. That. Our general secretary is lying in a puddle of dignity. I want to make a speech at my father's funeral. No problem. Yes. But practically. When I said no problem what I meant was no problem. The death of Stalin looks to the day Stalin died in the chaos that struck his inner circle as everyone jockeyed for position and power. The film recalls the comedy of Monty Python but with a wit and style that's distinctly new cheese. There's probably more historical accuracy in his comedy than most Hollywood movies strive for in their historical biopics. And that's part of what's funny as you can tell from the trailer. There's no attempt at Russian accents. And again that only works in the comedies favor for you Nucci making fun of those in power. Never gets old and you can always find something to laugh at. I'm thrilled to have gotten a chance to speak with this comic genius about the art and craft of creating satire so without any further ado here's my interview with the great Armando Iannucci. We began talking about how he went from contemplating becoming a Catholic priest and working on a Ph.D. about Milton to ending up in comedy. It's always like I'm slightly mixed up. I really do that you're right. At one point think about you know when I was about 14. But that didn't last very long. The idea of picking up five of poverty chastity and obedience. In the end I worked hard. I couldn't really stick to any of those but you know religion is something that fascinates me. Different religions and the religious ideal. And I think it's it's an important aspect of who we are not to be sneered at so it still fascinates me which is why Paradise Lost. I tried to write a Ph.D. about it and you know it's all about the fall of the angels and Satan Satan is amazing. It is that thing of light the villain is always the most interesting bit. Satan is the Darth Vader in Paradise Lost. But while I was writing it I was doing lots of comedy University and writing more more performing. And that's when I realized I really wanted to go into comedy really. Now your particular brand of comedy is very satirical and political what draws you to that particular brand of comedy. I think it's hard to know is it the drama a drama in politics specially sort of national politics at the head of the government. There's a drama there there's something very Shakespearean about that kind of the rise and fall and the rise again and also the fact that these are human beings and they're very vulnerable and frail and fallible and yet the decisions they make you know have consequences for millions of people that fascinates me. And strangely there's a comedy there in the fact that ultimately it's like the Wizard of Oz you know from the outside all these government departments in Washington. Luke absolutely terrifying and it looks like everyone inside knows exactly what they're going to do and what they want to do. But when you go away you realize it's a warren of rooms when nobody quite knows what's happening and where everyone is much much younger than you imagine. They're all about 12. They've all got degrees in Terrorism Studies from Georgetown University and the age of 22 are in charge of you know the national economic policy. And it's just frightening but it's also absurd which which is where the comedy comes from. No offense but when you're malicious don't screw with your head don't control your first point there the offense we're afraid I'm going to have to take it a second points. I'm 22 but I don't. It's my birthday in nine days so. Make you feel more comfortable with your weight. Don't get sarcastic with me. But it's that the kind of 1814 I've offered. Do you feel we're at a time where journalism is failing us in a certain way. We need to turn to comedians like John Oliver or Bill Maher to get will be used to from pointed editorials. You know I couldn't do what I normally do. Like in Veep I couldn't do that right now because I think no fictional version of what's happening now is as absurd as what is happening now because Trump is his own. He's an entertainer. And with his tweets he's deliberately exact he's saturating for a fact which is what comedians don't. So he is his own sort of comedian and I think he calls the news fake news. So I think why people like John Oliver and Samantha Bee and so on do what they do is if Trump is the comedian who's calling the news fake then it's up to the comedians to become a journalist and to say OK well let's just present some facts about this and then this and this. And just by laying out the facts it becomes funny. It's a strange topsy turvy situation we're in at the moment. What do you see that comedy you might be able to do when tackling politics that journalism can. I mean how do how can comedy do you think reach an audience in a different way and strike a chord with people in a way that strikes a chord. Because I think comedy only works if it feels honest and is believable. You know if a comedian comes up with a kind of line of attack it only really works if if you say something slightly similar but just never articulate it as well or as funny. And I think that's where it does I think. I think comedians when when they're really code allow you another way of looking at something and it might it might encourage you to think again about it or it might just encourage you to ask yourself what do you think. So it at least helps you engage with the idea again. A lot of people had been going off politics and not interested in not voting not participating because they thought wow what difference does it make. You know this it's you know it's all the same to me. Whoever gets in I think then what people realized over the last couple of years in the election and also in the UK in the Brexit. You know if you don't vote then actually things do change considerably. And I think that's what comedians do. If they're good if they're intelligent if they work hard at it and they at least get you to engage with these ideas again you know I think you're on a hiding something if you if you have a committee who's trying to change how you will vote because that's up to you. But but at the very least they're bringing the facts to you and bringing the issues to you then I think that's a good thing really. You seem to like dark comedy and things that make us gasp what we're laughing at. And I realized this when I was watching the Alan Partridge film on an airplane and was laughing at things that seemed wholly inappropriate because the story has to do with a hostage situation and guns and people being shot you making us laugh hysterically at this. There's nothing wrong with laughing you know in the film The Death of style and we did a lot research in Moscow and we found out that in the 1950s under Stalin people used to circulate joke books about Stalin jokes about Stalin and about death and about torture in prison and you could be shot if you had one of these joke books about you. And yet people felt the need to write them down and to circulate them to make fun of you know making a joke about someone is your way of trying to deal with it. People talk about how at funerals. It's very common that people feel the need to suppress a laugh because it's so solemn and so sad that something something triggers inside your nervousness. And you know it is in the end it can't be explained. Why is that. You know I mentioned earlier why we were all really you know this that a religious site to people and that's part of who human beings are. But also you know human beings are the only animal that tells jokes. We we have this need to kind of make each other laugh and to make the world feel a little bit more ridiculous. Maybe it's a way of of trying to make reality feel a bit a little bit more palatable. I don't know but it's something that that can be explained. But I know the fact that we tell jokes in any circumstance about any subject I think is a good thing because it shows that we you know we're still it's it's part of our spirit really. They give it satirised British politics and Veep tackled American politics and now you're tackling Russian politics and the death of Stalin. Is there any difference in the tone of the comedy when you're tackling different countries have this different tone and also saying the past is set in 1953 and it's set. I mean the stakes are much higher. You know in the thick of it veep if somebody made a mistake you know it's embarrassing. But in the death of Stalin somebody makes a mistake. They are killed. You know the stakes are much higher. And that transforms the comedy completely because it's no longer a comedy about just trying to you know get through the day it's a comedy about anxiety and craziness. People just behave crazily when they're terrified. You know the film opens with a scene in a concert hall. It's a live concert going out and radio Moscow. Radio Moscow director Andrea what is it. 17 minutes. Yes of course I can bring back in 17 minutes. Yeah. Yes I'm writing it down. Wang. 5. Sorry was out of nine is it in fine or another five as in high HIV's. Hello. Hello. Heidi. Who was. Secretary of the general secretary of the general secretary to secretary of the Jim Stalin Stalin rings up during the performance it says I'd love a recording of this and they don't realize that they haven't been taping it. It was going out live but they were preserving it on record. And you were just taking your seats again please that would be fantastic. Thank you sir. Thank you. Well it seems like you see don't worry. Nobody's going to kill us. I promise you. This is just a musical emergency. Take your seats. And they're absolutely petrified that they might get killed because they've no money to furnish Stalin with a recording. So he runs out locked the doors and tells the audience they're going to stay and we're going to do it again for Stalin. At which point the conductor so petrified he he faints and knocks himself unconscious so they don't have a conductor. So they then have to score Voskuhl for another conductor. Saying whatever you have to say to them. Just follow said Radio Moscow requests your presence immediately please. Moscow's finest conductor so. We must hurry and who comes in and in his pajamas and conductor. That's all true story. It's absolutely true. And said it seemed kind of condensed for all the themes of paranoia and panic and craziness that was going on in that kind of fire. In that time in that country. And that's what the comedy is all about it's about people how people behave when when the world is crazy and you do also in this one make us laugh wall. Horrific things are happening. Yes but the first thing I said when we shot the film when we started filming was like we have to be very respectful to what happened to the people of the Soviet Union. A lot of them were imprisoned or killed or exiled. And you know we don't play the laughs that we show that for real. The last really what's going on in the Kremlin it's the politicians it's they it's Stalin's inner circle desperately trying to see who would be the next leader and trying to survive. And it's that crazy behavior that you then see played out for real outside. But so there's two things going on in the field all the way through which is comedy and drama simultaneously. Because I want the audience to feel to laugh. Yeah but also to feel anxious about what's going to happen next. These are replaceable. Fools who think of the people. As acting general secretary must step up. I must have missed this place when he's on the floor what you just said is irreplaceable irreplaceable third place as in assembling the central committee of course. I was testing you get used to that sort of challenge. So what next boss would you wish you'd get a doctor. I knew I was highly committed treason. Yes I do. I didn't. You know they were plotting plotting to poison you. You collected the evidence I did. I did. Are you still testing. Strangely enough there's no parallel between comedy and horror. It's interesting get out is really great film and it's interesting that it's written and directed by someone who is so well versed in comedy because horror is all about anticipation in the same way that comedy is you know setting the Joker up. And what's the punchline going to be and surprising people and suddenly in horror it's you know what's going to happen next. And when are you going to get the next surprise. It's funny because I was just talking to some film editors about the parallels between editing for comedy and editing for horror and how there's similarities in that. All right that's interesting. Yeah yeah absolutely. It's certainly something that I kind of dawned on me as I was making the film I was thinking actually the scenes of terror I'm going to shoot them the same way I would shoot a comedy item Rennie because it's the same dynamic. What led you to making death of Stalin. Because it's actually based on a French comic book yeah French comic book but I was thinking about doing something about dictator anyway. I just had this inkling that you know the world today in democracies something strange is happening you know people are getting elected and then changing their constitutions so that they can stay in power. And you know democracies are under a lot of strain at the moment so I was thinking about that anyway and then send the comic book and I write it. And I thought well this is the story. But more than that it's true. I don't even have to come up with a fiction here. This is true. These events happened and that for me was the powerful thing about it. They opened with the concept. And so yeah it just was an instant thing. And Zoraida I knew I wanted to make the film. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. And you had to be really funny but also you know leave you anxious as well. Before you it on this one. Kid imitators don't. Leave. The. Rest. Well in your particular brand of comedy requires such precision like one note off in the wrong direction and that all goes awry. But then that's where the ethic comes in. And I had you know five months in the edit because I wanted to make sure that every moment worked and that the balance we got the right balance between the comedy and the tragedy that the both of them self complemented each other and that involves you know going through and taking some funny bits out because sometimes the joke spoils the scene because it's a joke. Other times it took some graphic violence because I felt that way too much at that point in the film. You know once you see that you won't laugh in the next scene. So it's about getting the right balance so that every at every point in the film the comedy is leading to the tragedy which is leading to more comedy which is leading to the tragedy and so on. You know so that's that's where you kind of work that out. I understand you shot this before Trump came to office. But do you see it as reflecting him his presidency. Well he does a bit. You know I mean Trump within two days of being president tweeted that CNN and NBC were enemies of the people. And what you didn't realize was enemies of the people. There is a phrase used by Stalin. In fact it was banned when Khrushchev took over from Stalin. He banned that phrase because it was associated with Stalin and his to do with you know criminalizing your opponents calling them unpatriotic or enemies of the people are treacherous. So there are parallels when when he got the cameras in to run the cabinet and each member of the Cabinet had to say how great he was and how he thank God that Trump had given him this job in Trump's cabinet. And so and that felt very that felt like a stollen committee meeting. What did you think it is about comedy that makes it so powerful in the sense that politicians and governments really do fear it. It's unpredictable. I think that's what it is. That's why the film has been banned in Russia because it's a comedy about the Kremlin. Whereas other films that have been very serious films about the Kremlin. It's unpredictable. You can't control how people will laugh and that makes people that makes politicians very nervous politicians who can't take a joke or are always the ones to fear. I think I want to ask you about the choices you made in the sense of you make no attempt to have the actors use Russian accents and there's a lot because which Russian accent. You know there are hundreds of them. It's a huge huge country. Then the Soviet Union was more than Russia Stalin was from Georgia. He spoke Georgian. Khrushchev was Ukraine so. So I knew I didn't want that. And also I thought it would make things feel very very artificial. Suddenly people are speaking not in their first language but in a second language strangely enough. So but get that. So it was speak speaking English. But to get that sense of it being a massive country have lots of different English accent. So the Scottish there's London there's American west coast New York Irish you know. It's that that was the thinking. Well does it also heighten the comedy in a sense by making it more universal in a certain sense and saying like this happens everywhere. Well yeah. I mean somebody saw the film at Sundance came up after rain and she was in tears and she said because this just happened in my country she was from Zimbabwe and Mugabe had just stood down and she said the exact same story has just happened. And it is universal. It is it's not just from. I did want people to think this is a story about somewhere far far away and a long time ago. I wanted people to be aware that this is happening now and can happen again. In your influences in terms of comedy are there filmmakers or films that have influenced you. Well I looked again at Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator which is you know which he made in 1941 about Hitler which has great moments of comedy as well as very serious scenes set in the Jewish ghetto. And then just generally I'm a huge Robert Altman fan in terms of his naturalism and him things he makes he makes things funny and yet believable and true mash is one of my all time great movies. I always find them very real you know very honest in talking about your casting of Steve Buscemi as crew chef that's just genius. Or you think Khrushchev was regarded as the clown. He made Stalin laugh and Stalin used to make him get drunk and dance for him and all sorts of things. And yet he becomes the one he's the only one brave enough to kind of mount the coup to kind of take over. So he has to move in 90 minutes from being close to being the next dictator. And Steve has this you know warmth and friendliness and funniness but then he can be terrifying as well. He can play the terrifying character the cold character. That's why I thought that he would. He would do a great show. You mentioned that the opening scene with the concert not being recorded was a real thing that happened. Are there any other things in this story that you feel were so absurd that you couldn't believe they actually happened. I don't think the concert actually in real life that got through three conductors because the second conductor turned up and he was drunk. So they had to get conductor in but I thought if I put three conductors in the beginning people would believe it and then we found this story that the silly Stalin son who was overpromoted in the air force was in charge of the Air Force hockey team ice hockey team and he insisted that they fly to a tournament even though there was an ice storm coming and people warned him not to and he insisted and the plane crashed and he lost the entire team. But rather than tell his father he just got friends and friends afraid to make up the team. And they were terrible. True story and that's in the film. Hungary has done the best. The first is the plane crash plane crash there was a plane crash another plane shows playing a song and the song. Does not stop. I mean this stuff. Is just so unbelievable and yet true because people were just terrified and just didn't know what to do. And that's when people behave really oddly when the terrified Do you see a progression in your work in terms of how your comedy has changed from the time you're doing shows on television to where it's come now. Well I suppose I'm kind of more interested in story really rather than just lots of sketches or caricature. I suppose that's what interests me and I just like working with interesting actors really and really trying to get the best out of them it's the directing side. The I've become more home with and comfortable with. So I love the idea of just sitting down. There was a time we wrote this scene in the death of and very late on in the day for Michael Palin and we didn't have time to rehearse in advance so we had a rehearsal on the day. And it was a fun day and it was a quiet day. And it's just myself and Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Bale and Michael Palin spending and rehearsing a scene and then everyone else comes in and we shoot it. And it was just lovely. It was just one of my lovely memories of of of the shoot plenty of light this is what we do. You know we we come up with stuff for these actors and then we try and make it work as best we can and try and make it come alive with your particular style of comedy is everything very tightly scripted or are you open to changes or improvisations. Always open to changes in what we do is we work very very hard on the script so that the script has gone through you know many many drafts. So it's very tightly written. But then the idea is on say to make it look like it hasn't been written that's all that's that's part of the technique of how we perform it. So I encourage actors to slightly loosen that up as long as they get all the beats and they get all the references and there are certain key phrases that have to be said in a certain way but other than that I encouraged them especially if this time at the end of the day to play around with it as wow. And to overlap the dialogue and his POV you know what I picked up from watching Rob ALTMAN What is that. So it's the 80s Yeah it's a lot of hard work into getting it written and then in the shoot it's all about not making it feel good. Well I want to thank you very much for taking some time and for making these brilliant comedies that I know right. Thank you very much. Lot. Thank you. Bye bye. That was Armando Iannucci the writer and director of the new film The death of Stalin which opens this month. You can also check out his television and cable series thick of it and Veep. If you enjoyed this podcast please leave a review on iTunes or simply tell a friend to take a listen. It's your personal recommendation that helps the most in building a bigger audience for the podcast. And if you're feeling particularly generous. You can also make a tax deductible donation to support cinema junkie by going to Cape GVs dot org slash feed the junkie. Coming up on future cinema junkie episodes I'll be talking with the Hemlock Society about Right to Die films. And with the executive director of the new comic con museum so till our next film fix on Beth Accomando your residence cinema junkie.
Iannucci quit "Veep" essentially because his fictional comedy about American politics couldn't compete with the real world absurdities of the Trump administration. Maybe that's why his new political comedy turns to Russian politics of the 1950s for "The Death of Stalin."
I first became aware of Iannucci when I saw the film "In the Loop" in 2009 and was introduced to the character of Malcolm Tucker. As played by Peter Capaldi, Malcolm grabbed me from his first moment onscreen and I was thrilled to discover that the character originated in a TV show called "Thick of It" where I could find more of his rants and tirades. Here are just a few of his NSFW lines. (Warning: As Malcolm himself says, he uses a lot of violent sexual imagery, so you have been warned.)
It was not just Capadli’s brilliant, seething delivery but the incredibly clever, sharp writing of Iannucci that completely riveted me. Not only were Malcolm’s lines insanely good (from "marzipan dildo" to "omnishambles" to "Shitehead Revisited") but so too were the lines given to other characters in reaction to him. Here is one of my all-time favorites describing Malcolm.
"I don't know which is worse; watching him slowly rumble towards you like prostate cancer, or him appearing suddenly out of nowhere like a severe stroke." (From Season 2, Episode 3)
Comedy is perhaps the most difficult thing to successfully pull off. Anyone can make you cry but not anyone can make you laugh and even fewer can make you laugh at things you feel are absolutely wrong to make jokes about. Take Steve Coogan as the title character of the movie "Alan Partridge" where his radio talk show host character ends up being the go-between in during a hostage crisis.
We all know that an armed gunman holding hostages and threatening to kill them is not funny, but Iannucci knows that we can laugh at a narcissistic jerk trying to turn that tragedy into a personal showcase for his own egotistical gains.
Iannucci cut his teeth on British comedy shows in the mid-1990s with "The Day Today" and "Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge," both featuring actor-writer Steve Coogan. He scored well with "Thick of It," a BBC series in the mid-2000s, and made the jump to feature films by writing the screenplay for the "Thick of It" spin-off movie "In the Loop" in 2009. In 2012 he jumped the Pond and created "Veep" for HBO where he launched a comic assault on American politics.
For his feature writing and directing debut, he turns to Russian politics of the past with "The Death of Stalin" based on a French graphic novel.
The Death of Stalin looks to the day Stalin died and the chaos that struck his inner circle as everyone jockeyed for position and power. The film recalls the comedy of Monty Python but with a wit and style that is distinctly Iannucci’s.
For Iannucci, making fun of those in power never gets old and you can always find something to laugh at. I am thrilled to have gotten a chance to speak with this comic genius about the art and craft of creating satire.