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Armando Iannucci: Putin Is A 'Sad Figure' Who Is Fed 'Facts That Aren't Facts'

Director Armando Iannucci says comedy is sometimes the only outlet one has to make some kind of sense of what seems absurd.
Director Armando Iannucci says comedy is sometimes the only outlet one has to make some kind of sense of what seems absurd.

A writer and director for TV and film, Armando Iannucci is known for his biting political satire, most popularly with the hit shows, Veep and The Thick Of It and its spin-off film, In The Loop. His 2017 black comedy, The Death Of Stalin, which lampoons the power struggles, intrigues, and backstabbing following the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1953, was banned by the Russian Culture Ministry.

Iannucci recently traveled to Tbilisi to take part in the three-day ZEG festival, billed as a gathering of storytellers. During his stay in the Georgian capital, Iannucci sat down for an interview with RFE/RL Georgian Service's Vazha Tavberidze.

Iannucci says today's Russia is much like the one portrayed in The Death Of Stalin, with those around Russian President Vladimir Putin eager to please and avoiding uncomfortable truths, much like the sycophants who surrounded the Soviet dictator. If he were to cast someone as Putin, Iannucci says, it would be a 12-year-old "in a suit."

RFE/RL: Let me bring the big guns out straightaway: The Death Of Stalin. Are you looking forward to making a sequel to that? You know, with the current dictator-in-charge?

Iannucci: To make The Death Of Putin, which I imagined is what you're referring to, we'll have to think events would have to take a certain course that hasn't occurred yet. I think a lot of my career is spent on responding to the death of truth, really -- that's the thing that concerns me. Putin partly being responsible, that kind of whole assault on language, the fact that, even in Russia, if you call it a war, you can be arrested because it's not a war. It's a "special military operation" that will all be done in weeks, and what are you worrying about? You know, even if you hold up a card with nothing written on it, you can be taken to prison, because that's seen as a sign of opposition.

 'Veep' Director Iannucci Says Putin May Be Left Only With 'His Shadow'
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RFE/RL: Assuming the stars align, and yes, in whatever reality it will be, if there will be a Death Of Putin kind of movie, is it hard to imagine similarly farcical, absurd scenes at Putin's funeral? You would need to change the setting, costumes, but would I be right to suspect that most of dialogue wouldn't look out of place?

Iannucci: There are already rumors of the fact that people can only tell Putin what he wants to hear. So, they, the military, presented him with this case in advance that the war would be a very quick thing, that the people in Ukraine would rise up…. And that's what happens when you spread fear and terror, which is what The Death of Stalin is about, really.

This individual was terrorizing everyone around him [and] it caused his own death -- he collapsed [after] a stroke in the middle of the night -- but people were too scared to open the door to see if he was OK. People were too scared to ring for a doctor before they'd consulted the entire committee. They were scared of which doctor to call, so this was someone who instilled terror throughout, and that's what caused his own death.

I think that's the situation that Putin is facing, and that he's now being fed these "facts" that are not facts, [but] are just made up. They're just the most positive things people can tell him without being arrested. And so he lives in this bubble he's created himself which is a bubble of unreality; it will get them in the end.

RFE/RL: On the subject of what you can tell Putin, and also what you can say about Putin, he, like most of the world's dictators, is notoriously allergic to comedy and humor. What do you think is the reason for that?

Iannucci: When we were researching The Death of Stalin, people who grew up under Stalin told us there were joke books; jokes about [secret police chief Lavrenty] Beria, and Stalin, and the gulags, and the shootings. And you could be arrested and shot if you were heard telling these jokes, but people said, "But we needed to tell jokes, because the situation was so absurd." You can either laugh at it or you can scream. And sometimes comedy is the only outlet you have to make some kind of sense of what seems absurd.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

But also, they said, you know, "He could lock me up, he could take my business away, he could take my family away, but I can still make a joke about him and then he hasn't shut my mind down." And that's why autocrats and dictators hate jokes and are suspicious of all art [because] they don't have control over the response. If you make a joke, even if it's in bad taste, if you laugh, it's something you can't help. It's a sort of visceral bodily response. And that's what they don't like. They don't like the fact that they can't control how you would respond to a joke.

RFE/RL: With that in mind, in the modern world, not only in Russia, how important is the right to mock and ridicule?

Iannucci: It's so important because, you know, if you cannot take a joke against yourself there is something wrong. There is paranoia and fear that does not stand up to mild ridicule. You know, all throughout Donald Trump's presidency, he would be tweeting after Saturday Night Live about how terrible it was. The impression of him was awful, the humor was bad. You know, they don't say, "I don't want you to make a joke about me." What they'll say is, "I'm so good at comedy, that I can tell you the jokes you're making about me are not very good and not very funny." So that's how they get around it. But it's this prickliness. It's when they show their first vulnerability, when they don't like a joke being told about themselves, then the armor is cracked.

RFE/RL: And then you can, you know, slay the dragon.

Iannucci: Yeah. I don't know about slay. [Laughs]

RFE/RL: Well, at least, poke in there.

Iannucci: Yes.

RFE/RL: When and if you were to satirize Putin in one of your upcoming works, what would be the soft spot you would go for? What would be his Achilles' heel?

Iannucci: It's his isolation, I think…. I mean, the iconic symbol is that massive, long table that he meets people at, 12-foot long, you know, bigger than the Sistine Chapel. There's that. And I imagine him in a world where people, everyday people, are further and further away from him. And all he's got left is himself and his shadow. And then maybe he's scared of his shadow and his reflection. And they're gradually reduced as well. He looks like a very lonely figure, really.

RFE/RL: In his mind, the great tsars usually are.

Iannucci: Yes. And that's his perpetual complaint, isn't it, that the West is laughing at Russia, the world is laughing. They're not laughing now. It's this very human, I think, very vulnerable sense of vulnerability of being attacked.

RFE/RL: Insecurity?

Iannucci: There's an insecurity that can only be processed by these very macho [statements like], "We've got missiles, we've got even worse things we can do." You know, the threats. That's the sign of a bully. That's how a bully acts. But he's a bully on the world stage.

RFE/RL: On the subject of bullying and also the subject of demanding respect and not getting it, you created one of the most irreverent and foul-mouthed characters ever to grace our screens, and that's Malcolm Tucker (a British political operative in The Thick Of It and In The Loop). What would Malcolm say to Putin if he had a chance?

Iannucci: Oh, heavens, I think he wouldn't say anything, he would just go for [the] legs and try to rugby-tackle him to the ground…. We created [Tucker] as an indication of what is wrong with politics in the U.K.; he's a bully, as well. He wouldn't exist now in British politics, he'd be reported. And quite rightly. He'd have to go and have to be taught to practice mindfulness, and whatever. I'd love to hear a mindfulness tape narrated by Malcolm: How To Get You More Stressed Out. But yes, I think it would be pure physical violence.

RFE/RL: On this subject of, you know, mockery or humor, how do you cure a country where humor has become a health hazard?

Iannucci: That's an interesting question. I don't think it's my job to do that…. I'm taking part in the ZEG festival here in Tbilisi, which is about storytelling and the story. It's important that we tell these stories, whether it's as a journalist [telling] the stories of the facts that are happening, or as a writer telling stories of what is happening…. [It's] affecting freedom and democracy and freedom of speech and personal safety and you have to fight back, but it's individual fights. It's not like you can have an army of writers. But, at least, especially against the threat of AI (artificial intelligence), [where] the threat is that it will then generate so much online that is fake. The best way we can fight against that is by doing what we do, by telling jokes, by telling stories, because the AI cannot replicate [that]. It still can't come up with a really good joke, you know. I've tried it, [and] they've not been very good. Because what we do is we originate; the AI doesn't originate, it feeds off what's already there.

RFE/RL: It lacks the original spark of creation.

Iannucci: Yes. So, what we have to do is remember that we're better than it because we can originate new ideas and originate new stories, new dramas, new worlds, new arguments. You know, that's our job, not to hand our job over to a computer.

RFE/RL: We discussed in the beginning a possible sequel, somewhat jokingly, but I think it's fair to assume that when it's all over and the war is over, there will be films made, right?

Iannucci: Yes.

RFE/RL: They won't waste that opportunity. Be it from the Russian side as well, etc. Let me go full-on tabloid here, and ask you this: Whether you're at the helm or not, if you were the casting director and you had the choice, who would you choose to portray Putin? No restraints on funds etc., among the living actors, I suppose.

Iannucci: I suppose I would cast a 12-year-old child.

RFE/RL: Just a 12-year-old child? A very spoiled one?

Iannucci: No, a 12-year-old but in a suit and doing the whole thing. And we would see all the military and all the people address him as if he was a 60- or 70-year-old.

RFE/RL: You might want to copyright that, you know, that's fantastic. But we've dedicated too much time to Putin. I want to ask you about the phenomenon of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy: how a comic who started with telling jokes became basically the flagbearer of truth in the world. What's the phenomenon?

Iannucci: He also was an astute businessman, you know, [with the] production company that he ran. Just because you write jokes doesn't mean to say you're an idiot, you can be competent. And also, you know, the humor he was doing was very much analyzing the political process. So, he's someone who's very astutely aware of how power politics works, and, also, it's about how you get a message across, how you tell your story, you know, every joke is a little story. It's that creative engagement with the world, really.

RFE/RL: In Russia, and I'm pretty sure also in Britain, if you call somebody a clown -- respectable profession that it might be -- it has a negative connotation.

Iannucci: Yes.

RFE/RL: And that was what Russians would incessantly call him during his presidency. Before the war; for quite a while after the war [started], as well. Now, not so much. What's this transformation, metamorphosis from clown into a court jester kind of figure that speaks truth to the world. How does it come about?

Iannucci: I suppose what he's doing is very brave and honorable, but I'm also sure the performer in him is aware enough of what he signifies, and therefore how important it is, how effective it is, that he shows that he's there. He's able to use social media, using his ability to convey this idea of a leader who didn't run away, who's always there, where the worst is happening, is always on top of it, but he's going out around the world…and drumming up support.

RFE/RL: He is not afraid of humor, instead embracing it.

Iannucci: Yes, yes. So that's an interesting thing. But I've always maintained that to treat a subject comically is not to belittle that subject, [but to] really allow a surprising way into that subject. You know, when I was doing The Death Of Stalin, I looked back at Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, which was a whole comedy about anti-Semitism and about brutality. But it is his way into it, explaining what was going on in Germany to a wider audience -- first to an American audience and then to an international audience.

RFE/RL: Would there be an argument to be made that there is no convincing going on anymore (in media and on social media)? It's more exploitation.

Iannucci: It's not convincing. It's damage limitation where their image has been damaged. But fundamentally, it's about keeping their own economy, their company economy going, no matter the cost. You know, the whole history of Facebook has been the whole history of Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Meta, parent company of Facebook) saying, "I'm sorry, we didn't get it right. We'll do better next time." And he's been trying to do better next time for the last 15 years, you know. Any other company, any politician would be out, any other company would be shut down.

RFE/RL: Throughout the interview, we poked fun mostly at Russia.

Iannucci: That's because of your line of questioning, it's been mostly about Russia!

RFE/RL: Because we are in Georgia, where Russia casts such a large shadow, you need to ask those questions.

Iannucci: Yeah, absolutely. It's a fundamental threat to existence. As a journalist from Ukraine was saying last night, it's not just about Ukraine versus Russia. It's about freedom and democracy against authoritarianism and military rule. It's that important. Autocratic governments across the world mustn't be given the sign that they can get away with it.

RFE/RL: In order to remedy my own shortcomings of asking too many questions about Russia, let's take a somewhat satirical look at the West. as well. I'd like to invoke another all-time classic of political satire that I happen to know you have a great respect for -- Yes Minister, the British sitcom series -- especially considering the current president of Ukraine starred in the remake of it.

I want to ask you about a particular quote from it that deals with foreign policy. The four stages of it, according to Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby from that series: "Stage 1: We say nothing is going to happen. Stage 2: We say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it. Stage 3: We say maybe we should do something about it, but there's nothing we can do. Stage 4: We say maybe there was something, but it's too late now." Why is it as relevant today as before? To a large extent, this was also the case with Ukraine, at least until 2022. It certainly was the case with Georgia.

Iannucci: Because it's just a perennial truth, like all politics has been like that, you know. And yet, time and time again, we think it wouldn't happen again. The whole shock, I think, to the system, with the invasion of Ukraine, and the war on Ukraine, has been that a lot of us, especially in Western democracies, thought that things like that were all in the past [and] would never happen again. And even someone like Putin, who had a history of clamping down on opposition and killing his opponents and so on, even someone like him, because he's in the 21st century, would never do something like that.

It's this complacency that we have, that we've read it, we understand it, and we'll never get it wrong again. That's the big mistake. "Sorry, we didn't get it right. We promise to do better, you know." Well, we can't keep promising to do better next time, because we'll run out of next times. You know, the next biggest thing, even bigger than the war, is the climate crisis. And, still, we're in this complacent, maybe we can come up with something, maybe technology will sort it out.

RFE/RL: The four stages of climate crisis.

Iannucci: Yes, exactly. And you know, it's getting nearer. But this is really the time now that, you know, geniuses like [Elon] Musk (boss of Twitter and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX) and so on can put their brains together and come up with something that will solve it. And then you realize, Oh, no, it's too late. He didn't, he went to Mars. He went to Mars and died, because that's what's going to happen when you go to Mars. And he's just left us here in the smog.

RFE/RL: Why do we keep buying into those promises? Is it human nature?

Iannucci: It is human nature. And it's always tempting to go with the positive outcome, isn't it? It's a self-denial thing. And also, we're encouraged more and more to retreat from the real world anyway, by our screens, 3D, the meta world, you know. And I think more and more of us will just simply conclude that it's too depressing to think about the problems here. And we'll just spend all our days in our little goggles.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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