“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).
From the beginning, The Thick of It was a hyper-caffeinated, richly written, and semi-improvised caricature of British politics. A party in permanent crisis mode, assisted by a cynical cadre of civil servants, asserts its policies and tries to maintain its dominance while writhing under the constant gaze of the press. Malcolm Tucker constantly recalibrates the variables in this equation, solving them on the fly for each new problem or policy, and basically bullying his way through every moment of the never-ending news cycle.
This mercurial, potty-mouthed wraith is said to be based loosely on Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy. In any case, Tucker shuttles between the 300-year-old Downing Street offices of the (unseen) Prime Minister and the less venerable Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, appearing as suddenly and unexpectedly as a vengeful ghost.
Tucker’s rules of engagement with the press are laid out in the show’s first episode. In a typical bit of arm-twisting, he forces the inept yet diligent social affairs minister, Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham), to endorse a policy he had first proposed, then rejected—on camera, no less. Abbott asks Tucker an eminently reasonable question: Won’t the press eviscerate him?
“Fuck them,” Tucker replies. He then follows up with a kind of spinmeister’s credo:
Look, this is what they run with. I tell them that you said it. They believe that you said it. They don’t really believe you said it. They know that you never said it . . . . But it’s in their interests to say that you said it because if they don’t say that you said it, they’re not going to get what you say tomorrow or the next day when I decide to tell them what it is you’re saying.
Within the economy of information linking government and press, Tucker (whom Abbott considers a “bad Gandalf” in his mastery of the darker political arts) knows it’s a seller’s market. And even with twenty-four hours a day to fill up with news, there’s little impetus to make sense of it. (Jon Stewart made this point in a recent Daily Show segment mocking just how often cable news anchors use the phrase, “We’ll have to leave it there”—as though their outlets didn’t have all day, every day, to check the unsubstantiated facts that pepper on-air debates.) According to Iannucci, the government and press’s dysfunctional arrangement is rooted in sheer terror.
“Politicians so live in fear of being caught saying the wrong thing,” he says, “that they spend half their time trying to control what it is they say, when they say it, and how they say it—and the rest trying to take back or reinterpret what they’ve said. I felt this reached its height during the presidential primaries when Hillary Clinton said she ‘misspoke’ over the claim she had had to crouch under sniper fire in Bosnia, and they found out she was actually walking around and kissing a little girl. You can’t satirize that because it’s funny enough as it is.”
In many ways, The Thick of It is the surly, unruly, and deeply cynical offspring of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, which walked us through the corridors of power with soft lighting, smooth camerawork, and the finely honed wit of classic screwball comedies. The Thick of It, on the other hand, is shot with two handheld cameras, which barely manage to keep up with a multilayered flurry of insult-driven banter. The constant cutting gives the show a sped-up quality, as though time itself is being sold down the river.
“I want to feel like we’re sort of eavesdropping on reality,” Iannucci says of this quick-and-dirty style. “We’re seeing something we shouldn’t really be seeing. Or we’re getting the first slightly unedited rushes of a tape that was only made for private viewing. I want to get that slightly raw, manic, unpolished sense of nervousness.” He puts his actors in much the same position by shoving them in front of the cameras before they’re completely familiar with the script, hoping to catch “that slightly panicked look in their eye, which is genuine.”
Panic and paranoia are the overriding tropes of The Thick of It. The first two seasons focused mainly on the ongoing struggle of the newly installed Abbott to keep his position, especially during the cabinet reshuffling that dominated the second season. And one of the holiday specials brilliantly captured a long night of endless spin as politicians, advisers, and enforcers jostle for position during the search for a new prime ministerial candidate. (We also see the increasing anxiety of the Daily Mail editor as he tries to make sense of the madly conflicting reports he’s getting from his inside sources.)
Iannucci’s Jesuit education has stuck with him: he always writes from a sturdy moral foundation. The same can hardly be said of his favorite subjects, the government and the press, whose yin-and-yang rapport causes them to either parasitically feed off one another or butt heads. No one comes off well in this over-amped version of civic power. Politicians attempt to control the media, which in turn suck up to them for “exclusives” and insider information. At the same time, the press sits in prim judgment of politicians, often narrowing its focus to trivial lifestyle or behavioral issues (see Bill Clinton).
But in the end, we really have no one to blame but ourselves. As Iannucci said on The South Bank Show in 2006: “We’re responsible because we buy the papers and we like a juicy scandal.” He admits the American press is less aggressively adversarial toward politicians and celebrities than its British counterpart. That may explain why even a kinder, gentler American spinoff of The Thick of It was rejected by ABC after the pilot was filmed.
Meanwhile, the most recent season of the show seems to defy whatever boundaries Iannucci had established earlier. Tucker punches the senior adviser to Nicola Murray, the new minister of social affairs and citizenship, in the nose during the heat of yet another brutal triage session. And Murray herself (played to frumpy perfection by Rebecca Front) breaks down in tears in front of Tucker when her daughter’s school headmaster is dragged into the political fray and forced to resign. Murray questions the point of all the ceaseless tactical maneuvering practiced by the government, its opposition, and the press.
“It’s a fucking war,” Tucker rationalizes. “Now you can’t change a thing unless you win the war.”
“Does it never occur to you that your poisonous male obsession with conflict is making people despise politics?” Murray replies.
While the poisonous male obsession with conflict takes center stage in In the Loop, the press plays a somewhat smaller role. Yet it’s by no means removed from the equation. In fact, Iannucci claims that his frustration with the tyranny of the infinite news cycle prior to the invasion of Iraq inspired the film. Like all news consumers, he had the sense of being bombarded with too much information and far less analysis. It was exactly this feast-and-famine scenario that transformed The Daily Show into one of the country’s most trusted news sources, even if Stewart’s analysis was packaged as entertainment.
In the Loop walks the audience through the preamble to a U.S.-manufactured war in the Middle East. Britain is drawn in when a mediocre minister deviates from the official line by first stammering that war is “unforeseeable” (thereby suggesting its possibility) and then suggesting his country might have to “climb the mountain of conflict” down the line. “You sound like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews!” screams Tucker, frantically and unsuccessfully stuffing the genie back in the bottle.
Too broad? Too unlikely? Iannucci has found the truth to be no less unlikely, and almost immune to parody. Having filmed a sequence about a secret senate committee that everyone wants to join after its existence is leaked to the press, he discovered that such an incident had actually taken place.
“We make things up and put them in the program,” he explains. “Then politicians come up afterward and say, ‘How did you find that out? We thought we’d kept it quiet.’”
The terror of exposure that fuels day-to-day politics in Iannucci’s work is only becoming more pervasive. “You just have to turn over, and somebody’s blogging about it,” he says. “And what’s said on the blog, even though it’s only read by a hundred people, becomes massively important. It gives politicians even more outlets to be paranoid about. Seeing something written down somehow lends it an air of authority.”
On the other hand, blog posts appear downright epic next to the tsunami of one-liners that is Twitter, the most naturally comedic medium to come down the pike to date. When Tucker punches the adviser in The Thick of It, a civilian leaks word of the fight via Twitter. And Iannucci later used the same medium to thank appreciative fans of the episode.
No surprise, then, that social media will dominate at least two of Iannucci’s upcoming projects. These include an HBO script set in the world of Internet startup companies and a second film.
“I’m really keen to do a slapstick visual physical comedy,” he says. “Something very mundane happens in someone’s glass office, but it’s spotted by someone outside and turns into a whole embarrassing situation that gets out of control. You can’t do anything now without somebody catching it on their phone and putting it on YouTube or whatever. There’s a lot of comic potential there for terrible things to happen to people.”Richard Gehr writes for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. His latest book is I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker's Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists (New Harvest).