When Armando Iannucci arrived in Hollywood from England a few years ago he had a bunch of great meetings. As the creator of the high profile British political satire show, The Thick of It, Iannucci, like many foreign talents before him, had the experience of everyone telling him how much they wanted to do something with him.
In 2007, Iannucci made a deal with ABC to create a U.S. version of The Thick of It, but the show never made it past a pilot episode. Iannucci describes the experience this way “Everyone was the Vice President of something. You went into rooms that were full of 30 or 40 people saying how excited they were and how marvelous this was going to be. Then you are watching and thinking this is terrible, how did this happen?” While the show didn’t work out, the experience actually inspired Iannucci’s 2009 feature film about the Iraq War. Called In the Loop, that film featured a fictional mid-level British cabinet official who comes to Washington on what he thinks is a high level mission to discuss important issues of national security, and instead finds himself a very small fish in a very big pond. He’s brushed aside by some U.S. Government officials and seen as a tool to be manipulated by others. In the Loop won critical acclaim and landed Iannucci and his writing partners an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay.
Now Iannucci has returned to the U.S. with a new comedy called Veep, debuting on HBO April 22 and starring Julia Louis-Drefyus as fictional Vice President Selina Meyer. The show portrays Meyer and her staff struggling to stay relevant and handle the pressures of the office once described by FDR’s Vice President John Nance Garner as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” A running gag on the show is Meyer asking her assistant if The President has called (he hasn’t). By design the President is never seen on the show.
Each episode has a fluid script which Iannucci views as a starting point. Iannucci encourages edits from cast members, the writing team, constantly allowing the show to evolve. While the first episodes were being shot, the last four episodes weren’t even written. To achieve success in this model Iannucci believes assembling the right cast is essential. In addition to Louis-Dreyfus Veep’s cast features Arrested Development’s Tony Hale as the Vice President’s “body man” and Anna Chlumsky, who also appeared in In the Loop, as Meyer’s Chief of Staff.
During casting, Iannucci asked his actors to stay in character after they had read. He asked them questions and asked them to respond to unscripted situations in an effort to determine their ability to succeed in this kind of creative process. Iannucci says it was a process aimed at creating comedy that is authentic, “We try to avoid doing what would normally happen on a sitcom or a drama. We try not to bring out a surprise that helps the plot out. Often I’m taking out really funny lines, because I’m thinking in that situation they would never say that.” Working within this framework, Iannucci finds that the actors come to inhabit the characters and create some of the funniest moments that could never have been have been in a script.
In the last few years, female presidents have been seen on TV shows including Commander in Chief (Geena Davis) and 24 (Cherry Jones). As dramas, these shows tried to portray the challenges a woman might have in office in a very serious and high-minded way. In a comedy setting, Iannucci has a much freer hand. Iannucci is quick to dismiss that this Veep might be a specific person—no, it’s not Sarah Palin, whose character was dramatized in the recent film Game Change, also produced by HBO. He insists that the decision to make the character female was to avoid comparisons to previous Vice Presidents, but also “I thought it would be interesting to write for a female character without turning it into a show about a woman in politics.”
With much of his work focused on political satire of one type or another, Iannucci has developed a seasoned political perspective on British and American politics. He has real life journalistic experience, having worked for the BBC and been a columnist for The Observer. But while In the Loop and The Thick of It often provided pointed political commentary, Iannucci demurs when pressed to say if Veep has a political point to make. “We never mention the name of the party she’s in. I wanted to show that this could happen irrespective of who’s in charge. This is the construct that you become part of when you become a high profile elected politician. The show watches how that process puts strains and tensions on them. These are all complicated individuals and they’re all fallible, just like us.”
Since Veep is not a British import, but an original creation set outside Iannucci’s homeland, he and the creative team spent extensive time pouring over the intricacies of the American political system and meeting with staffers to Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden among others. Meeting these staffers Iannucci came to realize a truth that is at the core of the show, as he puts it, “The most powerful people in Washington are the ones we don’t know about.” While working hard to set Julia Louis-Dreyfus squarely in the American context, Iannucci still says, “I really don’t see a lot of differences between British politics and American politics,” But then one difference comes to mind, “If you’re a British politician, unless, you’re the Prime Minister, you don’t have a great deal of power so you spend a lot of time talking up what you’re doing and making look like a bigger thing than it actually is. American politics is such a vast empire of different bodies, that if you’re quietly ambitious and go about it, you can carve out some power for yourself without anyone knowing it.” Which is just what Vice President Meyer and members of her staff attempt to do in some cases.
In an early episode Meyer discusses filibuster reform, but we never hear her say what her actual position is. “When she talks about filibuster reform or clean jobs,” Iannucci says, “it’s just a MacGuffin,” adding that when real politicians use such rhetoric, it might be a political MacGuffin. Iannucci who among his many credits created a 1994 show called The Day Today, a parody of news shows similar to The Daily Show, is keenly aware of the important role satire plays, “If you start thinking that this can change people’s views about politics, that way madness lies,” he says, “It would be nice when people watch they and laugh and then ask is this really going on?”
Ultimately life can come to imitate art. “When we were making The Thick of It in the U.K., we’d come up with story lines and shoot them. And on several occasions, later on politicians would come up to us and say, ‘How did you find out about that? We thought no one knew.’ And we told them, ‘We didn’t, we just made it up.’”