Don’t Play It for Laughs: A Q&A With Armando Iannucci

Don’t Play It for Laughs: A Q&A With Armando Iannucci

Don’t Play It for Laughs: A Q&A With Armando Iannucci

The filmmaker on his latest film The Death of Stalin, his own politics, and how satirists ought to respond to President Trump.


Before Trump, it was routine to hear that the best depiction of politics in Washington was not The West Wing or House of Cards—it was Veep, the HBO comedy series created by the British satirist Armando Iannucci. In the former two shows, Washington is either populated by fast-talking know-it-alls or sociopathic Richard IIIs. In Veep—as in The Thick of It (2005–12) and In the Loop (2009), Iannucci’s earlier political satires—the reality is at once more banal and more ridiculous. In Iannucci’s world, insider politics is full of hapless public officials desperate not to cross their party’s leaders. It’s a critique of power that, Iannucci says, has its roots in the run-up to the Iraq War.

And since the 2016 election, the realms of comedy and journalism have blended in unexpected ways. One such instance is Iannucci’s latest film, The Death of Stalin, which has received major critical praise. Masha Gessen called it “perhaps the most accurate picture of life under Soviet terror that anyone has ever committed to film.” That’s especially revelatory when you consider just how funny the movie is. During our conversation, Iannucci described how the comedy of his latest film relates to that of Veep and The Thick of It: “It’s the comedy of anxiety and fear, rather than of fallibility.” He also talked about his own politics, and how satirists ought to respond to President Trump, a politician who manages to anticipate any possible satire of himself—and then exceed it.

—Joseph Hogan

Armando Iannucci: Hit me with some absolutely original questions!

Joseph Hogan: Oh God. All right—here’s an original take. The Death of Stalin is funny. But it’s also—and this is no surprise, given the subject—quite dark. It’s darker than anything you’ve made. What was difficult about bringing together the terror and absurdity of Stalinism? How did you get people laughing?

AI: It’s funny—I realized you could only make a satire of something so dark well after the event. Initially, I was thinking about doing something on a fictional contemporary dictator. But from the moment I read the graphic novel The Death of Stalin, which is darker and less overtly comedic, I instantly thought, well this is the story. I read it, and it was funny and yet horrific and crazy and absurd and horrifying. And I was thinking, But this is all true. And the fact that it was true made me feel confident in it. The key, I realized, was to play out everything that happened. Don’t try to play it for laughs. Play it like, literally, your life depended on it.

In rehearsal, we worked out the essentials about tone. Everyone could see that scenes became funnier the more seriously we took them. Both the horror and the comedy derived from the same thing: the facts. The facts of what happened.

JH: Your other political satires—The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep—are about the present. What made you want to take a step back and satirize the past? Did any themes of Stalinism resonate with our own moment?

AI: Stalin gave birth to 1984 and Animal Farm and Darkness at Noon. Those are seminal works about totalitarianism. And yet, it’s not something Western cinema has looked at. We tend to go earlier, to the Second World War and the Nazis; the Nazis are bigger box office than Stalin. Or we might go a bit later and do spying and espionage if we do Russia.

It’s strange that we don’t look at Stalinism, even though it’s the thing that’s given rise to our take on big government. It felt to me like we should take another look at Stalinism. Plus, again, I don’t think you could do a fictional take on what’s happening right now for a number of years. You need a certain allowance of time. I remember that quote from Mao; I think it’s apocryphal, but it works. Somebody asked him what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were. He said, “It’s too early to say.”

We’re only one year into a four, possibly an eight-year Trump presidency. Look how far we’ve come in that one year. Try to project forward: It will be completely different than now.

JH: So much of your work is about power—how it shapes people. In Veep and The Thick of It, power often makes people close to it obsequious. In The Death of Stalin, it makes everyone terrified. There’s the subplot in which employees of a music hall are forced to hold an audience captive and bribe an orchestra to re-perform a Mozart concerto because Stalin wants a recording.

AI: Yes! The big difference is that, in Veep, if someone gets something wrong, there’s a day and a half of embarrassing headlines. Someone somewhere might lose their job. But in The Death of Stalin, you could be killed. It’s not about getting through the day. It’s about survival. It’s the comedy of anxiety and fear, rather than of fallibility. The jokes feel different; the notes are slightly louder, but there are fewer of them.

JH: I think one critic, Jackson Kim Murphy, put it well: In your film, a careerist move is a survivalist one.

AI: It’s like The Godfather. When you watch it again, it’s kind of funny. “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”—it’s a recurring gag. Shooting someone in a car and and then making sure to leave the gun and “take the cannoli”—that’s funny. It has to do with that fact that, well, it happened all the time. Shooting a guy is on par with a box of cannoli.

The comedy is about turning torture and death into a form of bureaucracy and accountancy.

JH: In the Loop, your satire of the run-up to the Iraq War, was probably the first time American viewers really got a sense of your work. Would you say your vision as a political satirist was formed by the Iraq War?

AI: Absolutely. It was the reason I did The Thick of It. I just wanted to know, how in a democracy like ours, in the UK, a prime minster could take a country to war against its will—against the will of those around him, those advising him, against the will of security forces, every expert, and the people. And yet somehow the media could fall in line and not really question it, or question it in merely a polite way. I wanted to find out how that happened.

JH: In the Loop has that great scene where a general calculates how many casualties the Iraq War will claim on some toy a child would use to learn to count. And in one of the first episodes of The Thick of It, a low-level politician has to come up with a new policy to pitch on his way to a speech because one of his party’s enforcers just nixed the old one. In your work, policy-makers are mostly hapless fools who are trying not to get in trouble with those who are in power.

AI: I wouldn’t say they’re “fools.” It’s just that, in the system they’re in, there’s no time to make considered decisions. You’re getting through the 24-hour cycle, and you’re expected to come up with something…. It’s far too much for one person to do. And the other thing: Politicians surround themselves with young advisers, just out of college with terrorism studies degrees.

JH: These critiques are valid, but they’re also kind of nonpartisan. Would you say your satire is in fact informed by a political project? Would you say you’re, for instance, on the left?

AI: I’ve always described myself as a woolly left-of-center liberal. But I don’t want to make comedy that tells people how to vote. I think that’s pointless and it doesn’t work. If that’s what I wanted to do, I should just write an op-ed, or campaign, or lobby, or sign a petition, or go knock on doors, or make a speech. If I wanted to change how people thought, I’d be very overt about it.

Part of the problem is that we don’t actually engage with people with different views than our own. In my work, I would quite like to draw people in from all sides.

JH: It’s interesting you describe yourself as a kind of centrist liberal. In Veep, Selina Meyer runs on the clichés of vanilla centrism. Her campaign slogan is “continuity with change.” Every speech she gives is full of platitudes.

AI: I think that’s part of the problem of the last 15 years, and why we’ve seen so much instability in elections. Politicians have focused on the middle—it’s the middle 150,000 who will swing the election in three states—and just assume that everyone else will vote the way they’re supposed to. What that’s meant has been 15 years of politicians becoming blander, and more members of the electorate on the left and right have felt taken for granted. So you’re not just getting Trump, but Bernie Sanders. You’re not just getting Nigel Farage, but Jeremy Corbyn.

JH: Part of what makes Veep, The Thick of It, and In the Loop brilliant is that they satirize politicians who at least maintained the facade of seriousness and professionalism. Have you figured out how to approach Trump, someone who satirizes himself?

AI: That is the issue. You shouldn’t really. I think it’s far better that people like John Oliver don’t try to do a fictional version of Trump. They just look at the facts and lay them out. Fact, in this case, is stranger than fiction. Trump is his own satirist. So comedians become journalists in response.

JH: In 2016, John Oliver dared Trump to run. Everyone thought Trump’s nomination would produce just an avalanche of great satire. Then Trump won. Jokes don’t faze him or shame the people who voted for him or who benefit from having him in the presidency. So what do you, as a satirist, do now?

AI: It takes time before you can come up with an approach. When I was doing The Thick of It, I was doing it every three or four years, because I needed time to work out what the next series would be about. I think people are still, after one year, just picking off what’s been happening week to week. The bigger picture will take time.

I partly agree: Trump’s doing the work of satire for you. Comedy is taking something that sounds true and exaggerating it, finding the contradictions in it, twisting its logic. But that’s what he already does. He contradicts his previous tweet; he willfully exaggerates; he goads people into responding to him. So it’s about finding the cheat codes for Trump. And that’s going to take a while I think.

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