'Veep' Creator Armando Iannucci on Giving Selina Meyer the Nuke Codes in Season Four

Armando Iannucci

In 2003, Armando Iannucci (the Scottish writer and director of In the Loop) hired Oliver to write for Gash, a weeklong radio program that coincided with local U.K. elections. For comedians who write their own material, radio in the U.K. often is a point of entry. And on Gash, Oliver proved himself a sharp cultural critic who could churn out copy quickly. "You can't write lazily on the radio," notes Iannucci. "You learn to write with focus and make each word count. And John was fantastic at that."

The new season of the Emmy-winning political comedy debuts on HBO April 12.

In his native U.K., he’s been behind some of the most celebrated and influential TV comedies of the past two decades, most notably The Day Today, Alan Partridge and The Thick of It. But since 2002, Glasgow-born Armando Iannucci has been unleashing his unique brand of political satire on the White House with HBO’s Veep, earning three back-to-back Primetime Emmys (for lead Julia Louis-Dreyfus), alongside a Screen Actors Guild award (again for Louis-Dreyfus) and a Writers Guild Award for best comedy.

With the fourth season of Veep airing April 12, Iannucci catches up with The Hollywood Reporter. Speaking in London, but on an L.A. number via HBO-issued iPhone (“No doubt it’s very expensive, it’s probably going five times around the world.”), the writer-director-producer discusses beating Sarah Palin on her own gaffs, taking the president to Tehran and why U.S. politicians are much more likely than Brits to post photos of their genitals online.

So we see now former Veep Selina Meyer as president. Has this taken us away from the original comedy premise of having a lead character working within the corridors of power without actually having any power at all?

She’s become president, but there are eight months to go before the election, and she’s behind in the polls. So she may only be president for 8 months. She really should be campaigning, but she’s president, which is a bit of an irritation. It eats into her campaigning time.

Do we see her as president throughout the season?

That would give everything away!

In the trailer you introduce House star (and fellow Brit) Hugh Laurie as a character. How did that come about?

He’s actually a huge fan of the show, and I’m a huge fan of his, so it was rather nice to work together. I heard that he was a fan, and we were looking for a new major-ish figure for a plot element and so — serendipity — we just got in touch with each other and took it from there.

With The Thick of It, you arrived at a superb finale after four seasons. Are we to assume that Veep will be carrying on longer?

That’s really up to the electorate; it’s up to how the vote goes as to what happens next really. I ask the question: Selina’s only got eight months in power until the election, surely she can’t do anything in those eight months that will result in any major crisis in her administration. Or can she? Question mark. Dot dot dot.

Would you like to keep going on as long as HBO keeps commissioning the show?

What we’ve been doing with each season is taking it, a little bit, into new territory. Season one was very much “this is the VP who has just come into office; these are the limitations." And you can explore that scenario. And then with season two, we thought “let’s take her nearer the West Wing, let’s take her closer to the president." Season three, "OK, let’s actually have her campaigning," and at the end she became president. In each season, we challenge her — and indeed ourselves — to see where we can try to push further outside our comfort zones. And I have to say, we do it again at the end of season four, although I obviously won’t tell you how. When you get to the end of season four, you’ll certainly want to see more.

Is it important to end each season on a high?

Yes, and it’s important to end it on a situation where when we come back things will have changed a bit more. In season four, the first three episodes are all set in the West Wing more or less. It’s very claustrophobic because we want to see what she’s like as president and the constraints and the opportunities that brings. But things happen within those first three episodes that will then dominate the rest of the season. We break out season four with a trip to Tehran.

Tehran? So you’re playing off actual real-life political situations?

Well, in episode two she has a state visit from the Israeli prime minister at the White House. And in episode two she gives a sort of state of the union address in which her autocue malfunctions. We shot it about four months ago, but it actually happened to Sarah Palin about four weeks ago. We write certain situations, and then after we’ve finished editing the episode or getting it ready, that situation happens in real-life. It’s rather spooky.

With Hillary Clinton about to announce that she's running for president, there will obviously be comparisons made between her and Selina. Were you careful to avoid any similarities at the start?

Absolutely. We knew she was a female politician. Some people would say, “is she going to be like Sarah Palin?” and we said “no.” And then people said, “is she going to be like Hillary Clinton?” and we said “no.” What you’ve just done there is pluck two prominent female politicians and assumed that because Selina’s a woman, she’s going to be like these women. She is her own thing. There are bits of Al Gore in her, there are bits of all sorts of other politicians in her, and there’s just herself — the roundness to the character that Julia brings to it. So we never really wrote her as a nod to anyone specific. It was more about making her a female VP because that way we’re not saying. "this is Biden or this is Cheney." If we make her female, it makes her feel fresh and new, rather than a retread of someone else you’ve seen.

In addition to Palin’s autocue, have there been any unintentional Hillary similarities, like the current email situation?

We actually did that in season one! In the end, she turns over all her emails to the authorities but absolutely floods them so people have to wade through thousands and thousands of pages. So we’ve done that. Next!

Is it more difficult to satirize U.S. politics?

Well, there are more American politicians, so the probability gets higher. There are hundreds more people who could potentially send out photos of their genitals online.

Is U.S. politics nuttier than in the U.K.?

I think it’s just bigger so therefore there’s more variety. And there are also so many levels of it. There’s the White House level, then there’s the senate level, which is very different from the congressional level. Veep is a basically a political studies course.

Have you considered doing a film for Veep like In The Loop, which was set within The Thick of It’s universe?

We’re so caught up in just getting the Veep season do that it’s not something that I’ve had a chance to stand back from and have a look at. Certainly the potential to do something is there. [Selina] can launch nuclear weapons if she wants to. So who knows?

You still live in London. Any thoughts about heading over to the U.S. full time? 

I always kind of think: “I’m 50. I’ve got kids settled at school here, and I’ve kind of made the stuff I want to make.” I’m settled in the U.K. There’s a tremendous opportunity to do stuff with HBO, and I’d love to keep working with them. But the British TV industry is fantastic. And Veep is very much like a co-production. All the writers and the directors are British, the editors are British, we cut it in the U.K.. Our editors just won the award in the U.S. for the best edited half hour of American television. So we compete with the best of them in America, and I’m very proud of the standards and the people I work with in the U.K.. If I was 20 years younger, I’d think “let’s go out to America and give it a go.” But I feel I’ve made the programs I am happy to have made and I just want to think of what are good projects to make and what’s the best way to make them.

Speaking of which, you recently revealed that you were working on a “sort of comedy about the death of Stalin.

Ha! There are various things I’m looking at, but I have no idea what the next project is going to be. I just thought on that night it might be quite funny to mention the Stalin project. That would be a film. I’m itching to do something cinematic again.