“Blimey,” tweeted Armando Iannucci on November 20. “Cameron says Thick is his favourite prog, and Health Sec quotes Malcolm in H of C. I feel queasy and uneasy.”
Allow me to unpack this tweet for you.
First, for the leader of the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party to declare Iannucci’s The Thick of It his favorite TV program is equivalent to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell claiming he’d rather watch The Daily Show than anything on Fox News. It’s only slightly less surprising to read that Labour MP and Cabinet Health Secretary Andrew Burnham has characterized the Conservatives’ health policies in the House of Commons as an “omnishambles.” The term is a direct pinch from Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed, serpentine political enforcer and virtual star of Iannucci’s weekly imbroglio.
Just who are these real-life politicians trying to impress with their TV taste? No wonder Britain’s preeminent political satirist feels squeamish.
Although Iannucci is best known over here for last year’s In the Loop—a feature-length-film spin-off of The Thick of It, with Peter Capaldi playing Malcolm Tucker to Mephistophelean perfection—he has spent nearly two decades mining the unholy alliance of politics and the media for humor. Born in 1963 to a Scottish mother and Neapolitan immigrant father, Iannucci survived a Jesuit education in Glasgow and later attended Oxford, where he studied English and began practicing the art of comedy. He likes to say he saw the beginning of the end of his academic career when he noticed that the opening line of Milton’s Paradise Lost (“Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree”) echoed The Flintstones theme song.
Abandoning his graduate studies, Iannucci became a producer for BBC Radio. There he began what would be a long and hyphenated series of writer-director-producer endeavors, cranking out a mixture of sketch-comedy shows and news-influenced quiz and panel programs.
But his first radio success was On the Hour, which he developed with another great British comedy hyphenate, Chris Morris. The show didn’t make jokes about the news; it lampooned the newsmagazine medium itself. And Iannucci merely upped the ante when On the Hour leapt from radio to television in 1994.
Rechristened The Day Today, this was arguably the medium’s first authentic fake news show (take that, Jon Stewart). It starred Morris as a volatile newsreader who, at the end of one episode, can be seen in silhouette tying off and shooting up. The Day Today mercilessly parodied other TV channels, including MTV, and featured segments such as “Enviromation” (“I’m Rosie May, and this is my planet”), “Speak Your Brains” (on-the-street interviews), and reports from the United States focusing exclusively on the execution of serial killers.
“I’m part of the generation that grew up on the media,” says Iannucci, whom I spoke with during his Los Angeles publicity trip for the In the Loop DVD. “There was never an attempt to say all media’s shallow and false. It’s more like, ‘I’m used to the media.’ I liked the idea of doing something where the style of the program was itself part of the joke; saying madder and madder things, and somehow being able to carry it off because you were saying it with utter conviction and exactly in the style of authority. I was just trying to think of a different way of telling jokes, basically.”
Steve Coogan played the incompetent and abrasive sports reporter Alan Partridge on The Day Today. Coogan and Iannucci spun off the character into a popular fake talk show, Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge and an equally cringey sequel, I’m Alan Partridge, in which the protagonist is demoted to a rural late-night radio slot.
If it’s not already obvious, the prolific plundering of TV formats is one of Iannucci’s trademarks. His 1998 one-off, Clinton: His Struggle With Dirt, satirized the Lewinsky debacle by means of a fake documentary made at some point in the future, with actors playing older versions of the principals. Iannucci used a similar technique in his 2006 series Time Trumpet, stitching together sound bites into surreal, Burroughs-like travesties of themselves.
“I like the notion of taking all these shots of reality you’re presented with on television and doing a completely new edit to make them be something else,” he says. “It kind of reminds you that what you’ve been told is real on television isn’t necessarily real. And there’s nothing more unreal than reality television.”
Which brings us back to The Thick of It. The first two seasons of the show aired in 2005 and 2007. A third season aired last year after a bridge of two hour-long “Christmas Specials” (that, trust me, have nothing to do with the holidays).