The legendary political satirist shares his wisdom on writing and directing comedies.
Armando Iannucci has made strides as a writer and director in the political comedy sphere. Having worked on shows such as The Thick of It and Veep and made films including In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, Iannucci has become a true comedy legend of our time.
In recent years, he has been giving back, sharing advice to help guide a new generation of political satirists toward success. We’ve collected some of his tips over the years and hope they can be helpful to you whether you’re a writer, director, or comedian.
Leave Your Ego at the Door
Writing is not always a solo job. If you’re a TV writer especially, you’ll have to work with a team, and the best way to adapt to that environment, according to Iannucci, is to keep your ego in check. He told Prolifiko in 2017:
“To be a good team writer, you have to be a team player. So no ego. You have to be non-proprietorial about your writing. The way we work is, each writer will have an episode to take charge of, I’ll bat back and forward with that writer on the storyline, and ask them to go away and produce a script very quickly.”
Consider the Medium
When tackling a film adaptation that you really admire, it can be tempting to replicate the original piece exactly. However, Iannucci advises focusing on creating your own work, even if that means changing up some things about the original. He told Senses in 2018:
“I think you have to be confident. I think sometimes adaptations fail if they’re too reverential to the original. If they’re just trying to replicate the original on screen. And you know, film is a whole new medium, and therefore, you have to think in that whole new medium. You have to think about the music and the color and the movement and the performance. And I think you’ll actually get an inferior work if you’re too reverential, if the process is just about taking this page, and turning it into that scene. And taking that page and turning it into that scene. We’re doing another adaptation at the moment. I am about to shoot in the summer, a film adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel ‘David Copperfield,’ and again, I’m trying to be as authentic as possible to the book. But at the same time I’m having to change stories really to make it work as a film, you know with a beginning, middle, and an end because you know Dickens wrote very episodically. He published in monthly installments.”
At the end of the day, the only way to get experience writing is to write. Iannucci told the Royal Television Society in 2015:
“I’d say keep writing. There’s no excuse now. You can write a blog, you can write a funny fake diary, you can make a short film. Because the more you write, the better you’ll get.
Believe in Your Own Sense of Humor
Getting a first draft finished can be a challenge, and even after it’s done, it will probably never be perfect. As Iannucci told BAFTA Guru in 2012, though, believing in your work and continuing to persevere is necessary:
“Endless patience. Commitment. Not being scared of the blank page, or the blank word file. And belief really; you’ve got to believe that what you’re writing is funny. Don’t try and write what you think someone else finds funny, but which you don’t find. Don’t sell yourself short.”
He also shared a similar sentiment in his interview with the Royal Television Society in 2015:
“Always write for what makes you laugh and not what you think will make a commissioning editor laugh or a network director laugh. I think if you always try and write comedy that’s not your comedy, but someone else’s, then you won’t write as good or as funny a comedy.”
With today’s technology, the world feels closer than ever. Iannuci advises making the most of that to get your work out there and accomplish your goals. In a BAFTA lecture from 2012, he said:
“Whereas 20 years ago people were saying to me, ‘How do I start? How do I get into comedy?’ and I would say to them, ‘Well, you’ll have to go along to a radio production, go to a writers’ meeting of ‘Weekending’ and see if you can write for that,’ or ‘Have you got a script?’. Nowadays, people are giving me CDs and DVDs and web links, and the ability to create off your own bat means that actually there’s now no excuse, if you want to become a member of the creative industry within television, there is now nothing stopping you in terms of going out and being able to enact your ideas. Now, obviously, some things take a little bit of money, and need a little bit of support and financial backing. But the ability to grab people, especially if what you make is good, I think is now greater.”
Don’t Try to Change Votes
Having a voice as a political comedian can be a powerful thing, but don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking that your responsibility stretches farther than it actually does. In an interview with Oxford Union in 2017, Iannucci suggested making your work reflexive rather than persuasive.
“I also do think you’re then in danger of thinking that by doing political comedy, you’re somehow going to change things, and I don’t think you are. You would go mad very quickly if you think that’s what you can do by telling jokes, or doing even something like ‘The Thick of It,’ that you can somehow change how people think or how people vote. And it just doesn’t work like that. I think at best all you can do is illustrate something that maybe people haven’t seen before.
“You know ‘Yes Minister,’ when it first started, although it was really like a traditional sitcom, it was also a documentary because no one knew how politics worked behind those closed doors, and there weren’t even TV cameras or microphones in the houses of parliament. So ‘Yes Minister’ was the first showing on television of what actually went on behind closed doors. And then when the writer said yes and politicians have actually briefed us on storylines, you know, pass true things onto us, and I think that’s all you can do really.
“All you can do is hope to reflect something of what’s genuinely going on, or of how politicians are genuinely thinking, or of how they may manipulate arguments and logic. But I don’t think you can ever change how people will vote through comedy. I think that’s mad if you think you can do that, really.”
Watch the full interview here:
What We Learned
Whether you’re a TV writer or a movie director, in order to be successful, you have to believe in what you do and the work you share with the world. If you’re a comedian especially, you have to focus on what makes you laugh. Chances are, if you don’t think your work is funny, no one else will think it is either. Take charge of your work and be confident in your abilities.
There’s great power in writing comedy rooted in politics for TV or film, but don’t burden yourself with thinking that you can transform the entire world with one joke or one episode. Instead, focus on reflecting real life as accurately as possible, and let your audience come to their own conclusions.