Armando Iannucci on HBO's 'Avenue 5' and How the Space Comedy Compares to 'Veep'

The Hugh Laurie and Josh Gad starrer follows the captain and crew of a luxury space cruise ship to Saturn that leaves its passengers stranded in the cosmos following technical difficulties. It marks the 'Veep' creator's return to the premium cable network.
Alex Bailey/HBO

Almost five years after creating awards darling Veep — and departing after its fourth season — Armando Iannucci is back with another HBO comedy, this time set in space.

Avenue 5  takes place in 2060 and follows the captain and crew of a luxury space cruise ship to Saturn that faces technical difficulties, leaving its passengers stranded in the cosmos for much longer than anticipated. Hugh Laurie, in a small Veep reunion, stars as Capt. Ryan Clark, along with Josh Gad as the ship's rich tech-bro owner, Herman Judd, and Zach Woods, Suzy Nakamura, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Lenora Chichlow to round out the cast.  

After a few years away from TV — writing and directing The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield in the meantime — Iannucci spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about moving beyond politics, mocking moguls and playing with Laurie's accents. 

How did you come up with the idea of a space cruise? 

I've always been a sci-fi fan, and I was thinking after Veep that I didn't want to do more politics because I did that in The Thick of It beforehand, and I just thought I didn't want to do more of the same. I was thinking of sci-fi as a potential thing and I wanted to look at the madness of crowds, group dynamics, how people behave. The last three or four years, things have gotten slightly toxic on social media, and people are shouting at each other and getting into their own group and not wanting to be with other groups — just a sense of all of this is going on, there's just this impending doom that people are going, "Why aren't we sorting this out?" So that was the starting point. I thought, "Well, why don't we look at if we put a massive crowd in an enclosed environment and put some people who look like they know what they're doing at the center of it, what could possibly go wrong?"

And why set it 40 years in the future? 

It just gives us enough to allow for the fact that there is space tourism without turning it into "We can all fly, we've got hover boots"; not much changes in 40 years. So it's just saying actually the world isn't going to be completely different in 40 years' time — aspects of it will be, radically, but you can't quite tell what those aspects are going to be. 

Why did you want to re-team with Hugh on this, what makes you two work so well together?

We had a great time on Veep, and Hugh has always been a great comedy hero of mine. When I was talking to HBO about the next show, I knew I wanted to have Hugh at the center of it, and Hugh and I chatted about it very early on. And this idea of in House, he plays the expert, the kind of the person who knows it all, and yet in the U.K. he's also funny and kind of slightly awkward. [Avenue 5 is] combining the two: the person who's there to look like they know what they're doing but inside is going, "Please, somebody tell me, because I'm kind of in a hell at the moment and I don't know what to do."

Hugh's character goes in and out of his British accent depending on what's happening. Why was that something you wanted to incorporate? And was that in the script or just improvised?

No, no, that was all part of it. It was him talking about "should I do it as American or should I do as British people who know me as American?" And then we just arrived at "How about you start like this?" In the trailers we've kept the Britishness a secret, really, so the trailers look like it's a show about this suave, almost like a Star Trek type. It's only as the episodes go on that you start peeling away the kind of the falsehoods and the shaft.

The 26-second delay is a consistent bit in the show — were you actually waiting that whole time to deliver lines on set? Was that awkward or hard to get used to?

We did it for real in a way to just stress that — you see people going [sigh]. It made for very long takes, though. It's really down to the laws of physics; I mean, you genuinely can't make it go any faster, and someone like Judd, he thinks you can just throw money at the problem. 

Speaking of Herman Judd, did you take any cues from Elon Musk and Richard Branson when creating the character? 

He's the sort of person who's had some success in business and therefore think any idea they have is a work of genius and they'll be commercially successful, and then you realize, no, you've got one hit. The operate on the idea that no rules apply to them and if they say something, it should happen. I mean, it was a bit like when Trump was first in the White House — he couldn't understand when he said, "Can we do this?" And they went, "No, actually that's against the law. You can't do that. You don't do that, Congress does that —We'll have to ask them." He was so used to running his own company. 

Did you use any other space shows or movies as inspiration for this? 

Oz, I watched Oz — anything with group dynamics in a confined space. And the reboot of Battlestar Galactica is one of my favorite sci-fis, actually.

How did you create these very specific types of people and relationships on the cruise? 

I did my research. I went to Virgin Galactic and SpaceX and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and spoke to the people there — not just taking in the science but also just taking in their personalities and trying to absorb that and the people that worked there. Then going around to some cruise liners as well, and that idea of the luxury travel — your big hotels, that sense that you get served all this food but you really don't want to know what goes on in the kitchens.

How do you see this show as a comparison and follow-up to Veep?

This is about power dynamics and group dynamics; Veep I suppose was people just trying to get through the day, so it was frantic — it was bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, whereas this and all the cameras and coverage, this is more about people trying to get through three years, so it can't be bang, bang, bang. We've deliberately not gone for the Veep style of dialogue in terms of rat-a-tat-tat and insult this and insult that. These people have got to get on — this is a lot of people biting their lip who actually would love to insult other people, but just keeping it down because they want to be alive.

What did you think about the Veep finale

I had a vague idea of where it was going, but it was great and I loved the flash-forward ending and the Tom Hanks moment that just takes us right back to the very first episode, because in the first episode when they're having a crisis, Mike [played by Matt Walsh] says, "What if Tom Hanks dies?" And they said, "Mike, you're basing your entire strategy on the hope that Tom Hanks dies, is that your one suggestion?" So it took us right back to that first episode, and I was very grateful for Dave [Mandel] and his team for doing that callback.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.