Armando Iannucci at Göteborg: “Trump is his own satirist”
by Vladan Petkovic
- The Veep and The Thick of It creator was the keynote speaker at Göteborg's TV Drama Vision
Scottish writer and creator of the seminal TV series Veep and The Thick of It Armando Iannucci, who is in Göteborg to present his film The Death of Stalin [+see also:
film profile], was invited to give the keynote speech for the festival's TV Drama Vision event, entitled "A Satirical Eye". He was introduced by Andrea Reuter, co-editor and moderator of TV Drama Vision.
Iannucci started by remarking that his film had just been banned in Russia, "for artistic reasons. It had a licence and it was set to go to cinemas, and two days before, the Culture Minister had a private screening with some 'friends and artists', and they wrote a petition saying it had no artistic merit whatsoever," he elaborated.
He also indicated that the ban might have been related to the upcoming presidential elections in Russia, and that the film may have been seen as interfering in this event. "I think Putin would be the first to say that to interfere in another country's elections is a bad thing," joked Iannucci, which inevitably brought the discussion around to Donald Trump. "He is his own satirist; that's the problem," said the writer. "He's his own comedian, and he lives in the world that only exists in his head. And everything that exists in his head is a great idea and is true […] And if we disagree, as far as he's concerned, we're either idiots or unpatriotic.
"I'm not comparing Trump to Stalin, but he does use Stalinist language [...] Stalin used this phrase, 'enemies of the people'. If you disagree with him or the Party, you are an enemy of the people. So he criminalised opposition and dissent. Trump used this phrase several times in his tweets, saying that the media are the real enemies of the people. When Khrushchev took over from Stalin, he actually banned the phrase because it was so Stalinist. So a phrase that was all about restrictions on freedom of speech was itself banned."
Steering the conversation back around to satire, Reuter asked what role it might play in today's politically turbulent world. "No role whatsoever," Iannucci replied. "It's a route to insanity to think that just by telling jokes or satirising, you're going to change people's views and opinions and voting beliefs. Peter Cook had this phrase about how wonderful the comedy was in the cabaret in Weimar Germany in the 1930s and how it did so much to prevent the rise of Hitler. It just doesn't work.
"The great rise of stand-up in the 1980s in the UK took place during the rule of Margaret Thatcher. And she then won three elections. I sometimes worry it's actually a release, like a safety valve. The way to change people's minds is to go and argue with them, campaign, make speeches, knock on doors, engage. This is what worries me today – that people don't engage with opposite points of view. We are so tempted by social media to stay within our own comfort zone, and anyone who disagrees with us, we can unfollow or block. We've reached the stage where, if you disagree with me, I'm saying that the fact that you disagree with me means that you are wrong – and not only that, but I find it offensive, and I would like you to leave now."
Reuter next asked what we can do, as creators. "When satire is good, it helps crystalise opinions that may be swirling around that you haven't articulated yourself. That's where it might help; it might give you a useful image. But I don't think of myself as a satirist – I don't wake up and think, ‘Who am I going to satirise today?’ I'm primarily there to write stuff that I hope makes other people laugh, as entertainment. It doesn't belittle any topic by making a comedy out of it, but neither should we see entertainment as a lesser form. Drama is entertainment, really. It has other effects, it can be moving, it can be political, but fundamentally, it is there to engage people creatively.
"Sometimes, in the stuff I write, like Veep or The Thick of It, I like to leave it open to the audience to decide for themselves whether they would act the same way in the same position. It's about trying to show people how certain individuals arrive at certain actions and conclusions. I'm very against saying, ‘These are the good guys, and these are the bad guys.’ I much prefer to portray people as who we are, which is human beings […] The mess of being human is what I like to show, rather than saying, ‘My God, this is awful; why don't we go and do something about it?’ I feel it's up to the audience to decide."
After a conversation about character development in Veep, Iannucci spoke about what he is working on next, after the already-announced adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. "All I can tell you is that it is set in the world of space tourism in about 30-40 years’ time, and it's going to be called Avenue 5. It's basically about people who have nothing in common apart from being in space, and they’re trying to work out how to get on with each other. We'll be shooting the pilot by the end of the year."
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