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.
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.