Armando Iannucci lampoons American politics in new series Veep
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It is one of the strangest jobs in politics. As vice-president of the United States, you are famously just a heartbeat away from becoming the most powerful person on the planet. Yet the job is often seen as pointless, boring and, in a strange way, slightly demeaning.
Perfect territory then for the deviser of <em>The Thick of It</em>, the satire that so gloriously nailed the paranoias, insecurities and petty jealousies of Westminster life. And the bizarre experience of being a number two to the world's most important number one is the chosen setting for Armando Iannucci's latest foray into lampooning the political world.
"Being vice-president is so near and yet so far. It is a comic situation to be in," Iannucci said<em> </em>last week as America geared up for the hotly anticipated first episode of <em>Veep</em>, starring former <em>Seinfeld</em> star Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice-President Selina Meyer.
That dilemma is summed up with typically black humour in one clip from the series, which is showing on cable channel HBO. A White House aide approaches Meyer and informs her that the president has "severe chest pains" and she needs to come to the west wing of the White House.
"I... am... so... sorry," Meyer struggles to say as emotions of glee, hysteria, delight and fear do battle for control of her face.
To his fans, this is familiar Iannucci territory. After all, this is the man who spun <em>The Thick of It</em> into the acclaimed film <em>In the Loop</em>, which hilariously but darkly explored the runup to the Iraq war on both sides of the Atlantic and was nominated for an Oscar.
<em>In the Loop</em> was partly set in the US, but <em>Veep</em> is Iannucci's full-blown attempt to take on American politics. He is entering a different world to the comparatively small-scale affairs of British politics and Whitehall; he is swapping Downing Street for the White House and scandals such as "pastygate" for the bigger politics of the world's superpower. Yet he is not intimidated.
After spending weeks meeting Washington insiders, including a tour of the White House courtesy of Barack Obama's personal aide, Reggie Love, Iannucci was pleased to see that life around the Oval Office offers the same fertile ground as <em>The Thick of It</em>. "I am constantly surprised by how cluttered and dirty the offices were. I remember seeing a desk in the west wing that could maybe have fitted two chairs, but instead there were five chairs and five computer monitors all squeezed around it," he said.
That drawing back of the curtain of power and glamour to reveal an interior world of petty interests and human-sized practical problems seems to be there in <em>Veep</em>. Louis-Dreyfus's Meyer is a very human creation, a middling senator thrust into a position she seems entirely unsure of, surrounded by staff who mix idiocy, cynicism and ambition in equal quantities. It is politics reduced to a series of human errors and emotions, no matter that the stakes can be high. In one scene a stressed-out Meyer is about to give an important speech when she turns to an aide and tells him: "I am a political leper and an emotional timebomb. So, here's an idea. Let's put me on stage."
The early buzz has been warm. "A black humour vision of politics at its bleakest, in which both sides have been co-opted by money and special interests and are reduced to posturing, subterfuge, grandstanding and photo ops. Naturally, it's hilarious," wrote the <em>New York Times</em> magazine.
As with most good comedy, it is firmly rooted in reality. Aside from Iannucci's research in Washington, Louis-Dreyfus prepared for her role by speaking to former vice-presidents.
The show has Washington insiders with experience of vice-presidential politics admitting that it is a ripe subject for comedy. John Nance Garner, who was vice-president to Franklin Roosevelt, famously once said his job was "not worth a bucket of warm piss", and that still strikes a chord with many observers.
"Al Gore used to say that line, but he would say 'warm spit', not piss," said Larry Haas, who worked in Gore's office when he was vice-president to Bill Clinton.
Many vice-presidents have fought tough primary battles against the man – not yet a woman – who occupies the top job. Thus there may be unsettled grudges galore. A vice-president's role is also notoriously undefined. Many vice-presidents have seemed to do little but watch the paint dry. Others, such as Dick Cheney, have wielded enormous power. It all depends on the personal relationship with the boss.
And, of course, there is the problem that, while one probably should not wish for something bad to happen to a president, or constantly look forward to them finishing their second term and getting out of the way, a vice-president's political career often depends on just that. "Ordinarily they are just eyeing the top job," said Haas.
Some of those tensions are explored in <em>Veep</em>. Every vice-president knows that they serve entirely at the pleasure of the person in the Oval Office. Tasks are given or taken away. Advice is given or ignored. Orders have to be obeyed and dissent is not tolerated. They may, theoretically, be heirs to the throne, but day-to-day life can be piled with indignities.
At another point in <em>Veep,</em> Meyer is handed a speech that has been gone over by the president's staff, who pencilled through huge swaths of it. "This has been pencil-fucked completely!" complains Meyer to a communications staffer. "Yes. Front and back. Very little romance," the aide matter-of-factly replies.
Such scenes, deploying Iannucci's trademark swearing and a portrayal of personal fights behind public politics, will be familiar to the legions of <em>The Thick of It</em> fans and admirers of <em>In The Loop</em>. But in America it might be wandering into unfamiliar terrain.
Popular cultural depictions of presidential politics in America are common. But the best known tend to be like the liberal drama <em>West Wing, </em> or the the Hollywood movie <em>Independence Day</em>, in which a<em> </em>fighter-pilot president blasts aliens out of the sky .
Though in <em>Veep</em> the president is never mentioned by name – or by party – Iannucci is still giving Americans a warts-and-all depiction of life in the White House that they will not be entirely used to.
But he believes that American viewers are cynical enough about their politics and their national leaders to embrace it. Or at least get the joke.
"They do feel detached from the process. They feel American politics are not speaking to them. I mean, I am not saying it has reached a nihilistic nothing-ever-happens kind of thing. But I am trying to reflect that flip side," he said.
<strong>The Day Today</strong>
Iannucci produced this parody news show, a visual recasting of the hit radio programme On the Hour. Hosted by Chris Morris, the show gave birth to sportscaster Alan Partridge, played by Steve Coogan.
<strong>The Thick of It</strong>
First broadcast in 2005, this modern update of Yes Minister took a cynical look at a decidedly Blairite government minister and the characters around him. Its most famous creation was the foul-mouthed "enforcer", Malcolm Tucker.
This six-season show went out in 2006 on BBC2 and featured actors playing elderly versions of contemporary celebrities looking back at their lives from the year 2031.
<strong>In the Loop</strong>
This film took characters from The Thick of It and brought them across
the Atlantic in a dark, comic exploration of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. Nominated for an Oscar in 2010.