The creator of The Thick of It is probably used to being ushered through the corridors of power. We, however, are not. So when we sit down with Armando Ianucci in a secluded corner of the Union’s Gladstone Room, it’s fair to say we feel a little out of place.
Benn: Were you a member of the Union when you were here?
“Well I wasn’t a member of the Union when I was an undergraduate, but I came here when they had a comedy club down in the basement in what was then called the Jazz Cellar—I don’t know if it’s still called the Jazz Cellar.”
Benn: Now it’s called ‘Purple Turtle’
“Oh of course it is”
Benn: They made that obvious leap. It is notoriously the worst club in Oxford.
“Well I remember at the time it was a terrible room to play in—very long. So that’s where Herring used to perform, and Al Murray. It was interesting.”
John: Is there a reason why you think Cambridge seems to be the dominant force in comedy now?
“Actually, I felt that even then—in my year the Cambridge Footlights were taking off with Fry and Laurie, and here [in Oxford], it was Radioactive and Rowan Atkinson and some of Monty Python. And that was it. Maybe some Beyond the Fringe—I don’t remember.”
John: Do you think satire is dead or just slightly unwell?
“I don’t think it’s is unwell but I do think that it’s going through a bit of a rethink. As I’ve said many times Trump is his own joke. He distorts what he says and turns it into laughable exaggeration. So what do you do? And it’s interesting, it seems the people who seem to be getting through are people like John Oliver who have traditional journalistic resources—they’re saying, ‘Well, let’s look at the facts’. He’s doing all the fiction stuff, so let’s look at the facts.”
John: Do you think the scrutiny, or that level of coverage has actually helped him?
“I worry that the media haven’t quite realised that it has a kind of duty if it’s under attack. It has to abandon, ‘Well we mustn’t say anything too controversial’. Obviously you’ve got to be careful but I think the media has to start from a position of ‘Okay, let’s examine the truth, and if the truth is unpalatable: well I think we need to be able to broadcast that’. And at the moment I think they’re a bit nervous.”
John: So do you think there’s anything off limits in comedy?
“No, no, well obviously that doesn’t mean you can just say anything without having thought about it. Do you know what I mean? Just insulting or offending or swearing for the sake of it, I don’t think is funny. There has to be a kind of line of either thought or argument behind it.”
John: You must think swearing is a bit funny though?
“It is a bit funny—but in context. In context it’s fucking funny.”
Benn: Yes, of course. You said that you ‘think your comedy through’, but do you write for different audiences? So let’s say you’re writing for an American audience with Veep, versus a British one?
“No, no, you’ll never write your best stuff if you’re writing what you think someone else is going to laugh at. You’re already downplaying—limiting yourself. And I always say that especially to first time writers who want to write comedy, always write what makes you laugh, not what you think will make some 45 year old programme controller laugh. That’s not a guarantee of success, but it will at least mean that you’re writing your best stuff. And when we wrote stuff like Veep we just wrote what we thought would be funny—we went out and researched it, and found the characters. So you’re writing for those voices but fundamentally you’re writing for yourself. And also it ties into the idea that, well, comedy is universal—and if you find it funny then chances are someone else will find it funny.”
Benn: And do you build a particular character around a particular actor? So was Malcolm Tucker built around Peter Capaldi?
“No, well, it’s a two-way thing. With someone like Steve [Coogan], we evolved Alan Partridge having already started with Steve as it were. For Malcolm Tucker we wrote the character but he wasn’t Scottish in the first script. You audition people, you cast people. Peter came, he was great, suddenly Malcolm’s Scottish. And so you write for Peter, you write for him—for how he channels Malcolm.”
John: And do you think the world of comedy needs Malcolm Tucker more than ever, especially now that he can travel through time and things like that?
“Yes. I think maybe you’re confusing some different genres, characters.”
John: Yes, maybe. I’m an irregular viewer. Well, what about Alan, do you think Alan speaks to anything essential in human nature? Is that why he’s proved so enduring?
“It’s so funny—everyone knows an Alan. No one admits to being Alan themselves.”
John: But some of them are Alan, there are some out there…
“Yes, exactly… it’s like in Veep. There’s this character, Jonah, who’s the least ‘pleasant’. And everyone in Washington always says they ‘know a Jonah’, but again it’s not them, but someone else.”
Benn: And have you watched anything of The Trip? How do you think Steve the actor compares to that Steve?
“Well, these are exaggerations: I mean Steve can be a bit detached if he wants to be, and Rob, well, Rob can be a bit boisterous, too. But they know—I remember Steve telling me that when they do these improvised bits where they insult each other, and they actually say extremely true things about each other, and at the end of the tape they kind of look away all embarrassed.”
John: Would you describe yourself as misanthropic?
“I kind of, bizarrely, I’m a bit of an optimist really. Maybe it’s the British comedy tradition—you know, we like people who haven’t quite succeeded or we like flawed characters. Whereas in America most of the characters seem to be successful, good looking, but a bit wacky. Here we like people with ambition…but whose ambition is never quite met.”
John: And do you find your taste in comedy has changed as you’ve grown older, written more?
“I don’t know, I still like silly stuff—I still like Toast of London, and Amy Schumer’s funny. Bojack Horseman—”
John: BoJack’s so depressing!
“I know, I know.”
John: It’s too true to life—even though he’s a horse…
“Yes, he is a horse. I tend to watch a lot of drama now. Maybe it’s because I’m doing comedy during the day that I just want to not think about joke. “
John: Do you ever feel like you can’t muster ‘the funny’?
“Yeah, yeah, if you’ve been spending all day, especially watching on screen, if you’re editing. you want something else that’s different.”
Benn: Am I right in saying you started a DPhil in Milton? How did you make the leap from that?
“Well it wasn’t a leap. I mean I never finished it, because in those three years I did a lot of comedy”
John: You might have to return to it now that satire’s dead
Benn: Would you?
“No! I did a programme on BBC2 about Paradise Lost and I got a very nice note from my supervisor saying “consider the thesis complete”. But the truth was I stopped after three years because I thought, ‘I’m not doing it, and I’m doing the Oxford Revue and one-man shows and stuff like that’ and I thought, ‘Clearly this is the direction we’re going in and we’re not going in that direction’”
Benn: So you don’t think there’s anything of Milton’s Satan in Malcolm Tucker?
“No, although for this BBC2 documentary we suddenly realised that Milton himself was Oliver Cromwell’s spin-doctor. He was called ‘secretary for tongues’, and his job was to justify the republic to the European courts—the royal courts of Europe. He had to write in French or Latin or whatever, defenses of republicanism—so he was Milton’s spin-doctor. [thumps the table] So there you go, that’s interesting isn’t it?”
John: Do you think comedians are quite weird in general, not you, but others?
“No, obviously I’m very normal—but all of the rest of them are—definitely. No, some are and some aren’t. For some, that’s just how they are. That’s their personality.”
John: Is there anything compulsive about the need to make people laugh… a substitute for love?
“Well certainly standups—who do that kind of three or four gigs a night thing, you know, and then when they’re off they’re just reciting their lines to you and how well the laugh went. You just think “Stop that—I don’t read out my overnight ratings to you, so why are you telling me which part of the audience liked which line”…
John: Are you going to vote Lib Dem in the next election?
“If pushed I’d advocate that people try and stop Theresa May’s majority going into the billions by voting for whoever’s best placed to supplant her. So in my constituency that would be a Lib Dem, in other constituencies that would be Labour…”
Benn: Do you every wish you’d written a character like Jeremy Corbyn?
“I think that would get a bit bored. In fact, I’d probably start crying.”
John: Do you ever feel any kind of nostalgia for the New Labour days?
“Well the sad thing about Blair is that take away the whole Iraq thing and it was a pretty good record, do you know what I mean? It’s a shame it wasn’t a bit more daring, but it was pretty good—the health system, the education system was in pretty good nick. And then the Iraq thing just made you completely question how politics works—that people can do that without any sort of check in balance. And how much actually did we spend on that war? How much is the state of our economy not actually partly a product of how much we must have spent on propping up a government in Iraq as well as the invasion. It’s unquantifiable.”
John: Who do you think between Malcolm and Alan Partridge is more morally upstanding?
Benn: I was going to ask who’d win in a fight…
“Well I think Alan’s been taking some martial arts lessons. So you never know. Whereas Malcolm probably thinks he doesn’t have to practice—its an instinct thing. So Alan might surprise him, might take him down, with a sort of wrestling move. I think Alan watches a lot of wrestling, and practices at home.”
Benn: So we’re obviously a newspaper, a pretty rubbish one, but a newspaper nonetheless…
“It’s one of the oldest and finest!”
Benn: … but one of your The Thick Of It episodes focuses on a kind of mock Leveson inquiry—do you think that the way in which the media presents politicians has changed?
“No I think it’s kind of getting worse. I mean look at it now, Theresa May won’t debate but she will go on The One Show with her husband—that’s the debate—that’s the standoff: her and her husband and The One Show presenters. And Jeremy Corbyn’s events are very controlled as well. So this ‘let’s ask the people’—well, you haven’t really asked us anything yet, because you’ve only invited your own members, you know. Nothing, we’ve not been allowed to ask anything, and that’s what depresses me. And yet at the same time, I’m trying to encourage young and first-time voters to register to vote. It will only get worse, the fewer and fewer of us who vote, it will only get worse—because it means there’s fewer and fewer people for politicians to be scared of you know.”
John: Which living politician do you most admire?
“Roy Hattersley! Oh, living politician. You see I always a huge fan of Charles Kennedy, who sadly died. and you know, he was one of the only party leaders right from the word go to say no to the Iraq War, to say ‘No! What are we doing! This is madness—this will all end in tears’, and he was absolutely right. All the best ones have died… Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam—what’s going on? [Suspiciously] What’s going on there?”
John: They’re all dying! When you were young you harbored ambitions of becoming a Catholic priest. Where did it all go right?
“I went to university, and found that more interesting”
John: But it could have been different!
“… Could have been very different.”
Benn: I’ve met some very funny priests [stares into the distance]
“Yeah, funny ‘ha-ha’ or …”
Benn: Well I went to Catholic boarding school…
With that, our time was up. Benn bottled his nightmares back up, and we were kindly, if forcibly, ushered out of the Union’s inner rectum—I mean sanctum.