'Veep' Creator Armando Iannucci Is Back On HBO With 'Avenue 5'

Jan 17, 2020
Originally published on January 17, 2020 9:46 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Noel King.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin. Let me take you about 40 years into the future. You're going on vacation on this giant vessel and it's got it all - champagne, gourmet meals, spa treatments, group yoga and an amazing view. This ship takes passengers on an eight-week tour through space...

(SCREAMING)

MARTIN: ...Until things go horribly wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AVENUE 5")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The gravity flipped to the port side.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, you think?

MARTIN: The ship veers off course. And now it seems everyone on board is going to be trapped in space for years. This is the premise behind the new HBO satire "Avenue 5." The show's creator is Armando Iannucci. He also brought HBO their now classic comedy "Veep." I talked with Iannucci ahead of "Avenue 5's" premiere this Sunday. And we started off discussing one of the main characters, the eccentric mastermind behind luxury space travel, Herman Judd.

ARMANDO IANNUCCI: He's the sort of businessperson who's had one good idea in their life, like, you know, travel...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

IANNUCCI: ...Tourism. And because that's gone well, he therefore thinks that every idea he has is a work of genius. So he has various people around him who are there to protect the world from his ideas and him from the world.

MARTIN: Played brilliantly, we should say, by Josh Gad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AVENUE 5")

JOSH GAD: (As Herman Judd) I understand everything - all things. I'm the alpha and the beta. I know so much, so much

MARTIN: I mean, this is Elon Musk, right?

IANNUCCI: Well, except Elon Musk is - to be fair to Elon Musk...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

IANNUCCI: ...And I never thought I'd use that sentence publicly. He is a bit of an expert. So (laughter) he does know the ins and outs of that.

MARTIN: He knows some things...

IANNUCCI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...But the outsized celebrity, CEO and the big, huge ideas - it's hard not to draw a parallel.

IANNUCCI: There's an element of that. There's an element of Richard Branson, who, you know, in the U.K. started Virgin Atlantic. And that worked really well, so then thought he could bring out versions of Coca-Cola and makes of contraceptives, bridal wear magazines...

MARTIN: Right.

IANNUCCI: ...All of which then folded because, you know, he didn't really (laughter) have much knowledge on how those things marketed themselves and worked.

MARTIN: So, you know, this is a comedy. It's very funny. And I want to talk about some of the comedic elements. But there is something deeply philosophical about this show.

IANNUCCI: Without wanting to put people off, but I see it as a sort of an existential comedy...

MARTIN: Yeah.

IANNUCCI: ...In that it's fundamentally about 5,000 people trapped together in space. And that's a lot of people. If it was just 10 people, you could more imagine how the dynamic might work. But because it's 5,000 and all of them are expecting leadership from our central team, there's a general sense that if our heroes get it wrong, you know, the whole thing can turn into "Lord Of The Flies" with anarchy...

MARTIN: Right. The anarchy is just right under the surface.

IANNUCCI: Yes, battle royale, perhaps. You know, it's a pressure cooker in space, basically.

MARTIN: And Captain Ryan, the captain of this ship...

IANNUCCI: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Played by Hugh Laurie. And we find out pretty early in the series that he is not exactly who he claims to be.

IANNUCCI: Yes. He is this, you know, dashing, charismatic, tall and bearded captain to whom everyone looks for stability and decision-making. And we do find out fairly early on that he's not quite that...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

IANNUCCI: ...And is aware of it. And really, the rest of the season's really following him coming to terms with his own fragile state and yet still try to keep a face publicly that he knows, you know, what's going on.

MARTIN: Right. So in light of that, is it too big a question to say, what are you saying about the nature of leadership?

IANNUCCI: It's not too big a question. I might give a very short answer...

MARTIN: Sure.

IANNUCCI: ...Which is...

(LAUGHTER)

IANNUCCI: I think as we all grow up, we all arrive at this conclusion that no one really knows what they're doing...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

IANNUCCI: ...And that's fundamentally why there's so much anxiety today. It's just become writ large now. And this show is exploring that. It's also exploring - I don't know - the madness of crowds, the way, you know, people can take on a mass movement very quickly and how that can sway people's opinions...

MARTIN: Right.

IANNUCCI: ...And it's also looking at society, really, group dynamics. If you're up there for a long time and there's 5,000 of you, you know, who really is in charge? Do the people in first class stay in first class? Do the people in economy stay in economy? Is Herman Judd, because he owns the ship, is he the leader?

Well, you know, it's about something else now. And it's about everyone measuring up their own worth, really, and how they can contribute to the rescue and therefore, people questioning themselves and whether they do anything useful in their lives. And every episode is looking at questions like that.

MARTIN: That wasn't such a short answer.

IANNUCCI: No...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

IANNUCCI: ...No, it wasn't. No, you know, but I can do longer...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

IANNUCCI: ...So relatively speaking...

MARTIN: I have to ask, though, this is sort of your jam, for lack of a better word. I mean, you've made a career out of satires that skewer people at the top - "In The Loop," 2009 film, "Veep," obviously. What is interesting to you about this kind of incompetency?

IANNUCCI: Well, I mean, I try not to make the people involved, you know, habitually incompetent...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

IANNUCCI: ...It's more how the pressure that is put on them from outside and from all around forces them to start making compromises or forces them into a panic. I think what fascinates me is discovering that the things that we think are solid and immutable are actually peopled by human beings who go around going, I think I got it right today. I mean, nobody said no, so maybe I'll carry on as I am and I'll get through tomorrow as well.

You know, we found out - with the crash in 2008, we discovered that the banks didn't really know what they were doing. Economists didn't know what we were doing. So it's about that. And what fascinates me is just the human fragility at the center of it, really. I kind of want to explore that.

MARTIN: I mean, you're the show creator. You have been and are the guy at the top. Have you ever felt like a fraud?

IANNUCCI: I certainly don't know what I'm doing...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Come on...

IANNUCCI: ...Which is why I...

MARTIN: ...I mean, you do have a track record of some success.

IANNUCCI: ...You know, which is why I surround myself with people who I have every confidence in. I think the secret is to surround yourself with as much talent as possible and something might stick.

MARTIN: Armando Iannucci is the creator of the new HBO comedy "Avenue 5." It debuts Sunday night. Thank you so much for talking with us.

IANNUCCI: A pleasure, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARMAN")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) There's a star... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.