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20 March 2010

The NS interview: Armando Iannucci

“Satire is a black-and-white programme with Dudley Moore”

By Sophie Elmhirst

How was it, being nominated for an Oscar?
It was nice. Everyone gets together and it’s a bit chaotic. And you end up squashing Meryl Streep’s toe.

How did your film, In the Loop, fare in the US?
It seemed to go well. You know, packed cinemas, people laughing, people going back to see it again. I couldn’t believe it.

Do Americans get British comedy?
There’s a familiarity with it – I met people in the US who knew The League of Gentlemen and Peep Show. In LA, as I was going through customs with my Oscars certificate, the customs guy went: “Hey, you been at the Oscars?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “What was the film?” I said, “In the Loop.” And he said: “I saw that! Aw, funny film. I’m a screenwriter.”

Which US comedies do you like?
The best ones are things like The Daily Show, which is very sharp.

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Is comedy the best political analysis?
A lot of Americans get their journalism from The Daily Show. But then, Jon Stewart does a journalistic service, underneath the comedy. Going through hours of senators’ speeches to find the inconsistencies and the contradictions is an act of journalism.

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Has journalism lost the patience for that?
We’ve stopped thinking, “Shall we look at the last four months and see if there’s been a pattern?” Everything has to be fresh – there’s a need to fill blog space, Twitter and podcasts.

Do you feel a responsibility, as a comedian, to examine the bigger picture?
I slightly resent that that’s what we have to do – it should be someone else’s job. With In the Loop, I felt an objective analysis hadn’t happened before the invasion [of Iraq]. Then, after the fact, quite respectable newspapers were apologising for getting it wrong.

What makes comedians good political analysts?
Comedy is all about exaggeration and distortion and so on, but you are trained to look for inconsistencies and absurdities.

Which absurdities have you noticed recently?
I watched Andrew Rawnsley talking about his book, and John Prescott was having a go at him for claiming there was bullying going on. I was thinking, “You punched a guy!” It just felt silly.

Is it still possible to take politicians seriously?
I don’t know. I often think we expect too much of our politicians. We expect them to run defence, hospitals, schools, the cabinet, the party, 24 hours a day. We don’t like it if they sound incoherent or look tired. We don’t want them to claim for anything on expenses, we don’t like them getting any money, we hate it when they go on holiday. Actually, we’re being absurd. There is no way you can operate in that world, with that level of expectation, without failing.

Do we treat them unfairly?
Barack Obama’s an interesting example. He took a month and a half to decide what to do about Afghanistan, and got really criticised. I just thought: “No, hang on, he’s being criticised for thinking.” Because obviously the gut reaction that George Bush used really worked.

How do you feel about David Cameron?
He’s sub-Blair, really. Tony Blair manipulated the media, but he had two or three core beliefs. I don’t know what Cameron’s beliefs are, other than: “I’d like to win the next election, please.” And: “I’d like to do it the way Blair did it.”

What about the Tories more generally?
Beyond one or two who appear human, that army of old Tory orcs is still there, complaining about the public on trains. It worries me.

Do you think of yourself as a satirist?
Satire, for me, is a black-and-white programme with Dudley Moore in it. As a kid, that’s what I really liked. My favourite comedies are ones like The Great Dictator, or Doctor Strangelove, which take on serious subjects. I’m happy for people to say: “You’re a satirist.” I just hate the idea of it as a profession, as if you’re hauled in for your satirical take on stuff.

Are you tired of making comedy about politics?
The next thing I want to do is quite childish and slapsticky – lots of falling over.

How do you feel about the way the BBC is run?
They need to give more responsibility back to producers, to think about taking risks. Viewers don’t want comedy to be overly cautious.

Do you vote?
Yes.

Is there anything you regret?
I regret not taking a year out. I spent about ten years being totally conventional as a result.

Is there a plan?
No, most things just evolved.

Are we all doomed?
No, I’m still an optimist, really.

Read a longer version of this interview.

 

Defining moments

1963 Born in Glasgow
1986 Receives MA in English from Oxford; abandons further study for Radio Scotland
1992 Wins a Writers’ Guild award jointly with Chris Morris for radio’s On the Hour
1994 On the Hour becomes The Day Today – the first of numerous TV credits
2005 Appointed Oxford visiting professor of broadcast media. The Thick of It airs
2010 The Thick of It‘s film spin-off, In the Loop, nominated for Best Screenplay Oscar