Armando Iannucci may not be a household name but he’s certainly become a respected figure in comedy, with his writing and producing credits including such highly regarded TV shows as The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge.
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His most recent project, Time Trumpet, attracted publicity of a more negative nature, yet The Armando Iannucci Shows were virtually ignored when they aired back in 2001. Nevertheless, the latter programme has since picked up a small but loyal fanbase and, thanks to last month’s DVD release, can now be seen by the many viewers who missed it the first time around.
For those unfamiliar with the show, the format is largely sketch-based, yet each episode also has a running theme that helps to tie the sketches together (if rather loosely) and create a sense of unity. It also means that the viewer is able to distinguish one episode from the next, as well as setting the programme apart from the typical sketch show format. Iannucci also appears as himself in each episode, sharing his thoughts and anxieties and often speaking directly to the viewers, and this undoubtedly works well: Iannucci may not have the most dominating screen presence but he makes a believable everyman and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself (one sequence shows him donating his clothes to Oxfam, only to later find them displayed in the shop window with the advertisement, “Students – It’s Funny Bad Clothes Day – Hilarious!”) Most of all, his opinions and annoyances are those that most viewers will be able to relate to, from fears about the passage of time and having wasted one’s life, to minor irritants such as a showerhead that is advertised as having “exciting spray patterns.”
The topics that Iannucci covers during the linking segments are also given exaggerated form in the sketches themselves, with the material reflecting contemporary culture and social mores. One sketch, for example, pokes fund at the popularity of reality TV by featuring Hale and Pace working at a shoe store, with the twist being that they’ll be working there for 17 years and there won’t be an accompanying television show. Another sketch, meanwhile, sees Iannucci struggling to fit in with pub-based football banter only to ultimately discover that all the other men are being fed lines via earpieces. Other sketches cover topics such as aging, job dissatisfaction, dinner party etiquette, the way that people use jokes as a coping mechanism, the desire to keep up appearances, and the notion that genuine human connection has given way to disaffection and strained attempts at making conversation.
As is usually the case with shows of this nature, some sketches are more successful than others. Nevertheless, most of the material is at least mildly amusing and some sketches stand out as particular highlights. One of the funniest sequences features a reversal of western campaigns on behalf of Africa by showing an African village attempting to bring to public attention the plight of London theatres – hence shots of an African village festooned with the slogans “Keep Dame Judy Dench Alive,” “Zoë Wanamaker: We Love You!” and “We’re All Deeply Interested in Subtext.” Another hilarious scene features Iannucci doing a stand-up comedy routine at a business conference, tailoring his material to the corporate audience by adopting a formal approach complete with display material. Suffice to say that the merging of traditional gags (e.g. typical mother-in-law jokes) with a deadpan tone and Powerpoint slides results in comedy gold. Sketches that put an exaggerated spin on real-life frustrations are also successful, with one sketch showing a man leaving his high-flying job in the city and walking onwards until he reaches a tranquil countryside setting. Here, he finds that a multitude of other disillusioned office workers have had the same idea, and the group decide to create a new life in this idyllic setting. However, the man soon finds that his views are disregarded here as much as they were in the workplace, which leads to him walking back to the city and his old job.
Most sketch shows have their fair share of regular characters and The Armando Iannucci Shows are no exception, yet these rarely become tiresome: the sketches that focus on idiotic but self-congratulating TV executives could be seen as an example of going for obvious, easy targets, but one can imagine that similar characters exist in real life, albeit in a less exaggerated form. The East-End thug is also an amusing character, with his cockney gangster persona being put to some unusual uses (threatening a faulty washing machine, for example), while Iannucci’s visits to the barbershop result in some hilariously strange anecdotes courtesy of the talkative barber (one sketch, for example, sees him recollecting the time when he found his house infested with Wombles, complete with Bernard Cribbins in the wall cavity.) The highlight, however, is undoubtedly Hugh – an elderly man who provides skewed recollections of his formative years, recounting that “in those days the Internet was black and white” and “you couldn’t just jump into bed with a lady back then – you’d go round to her parents house and ask if you could knock her up and get her on crack.” Indeed, even if the show were poor in other respects, it would be worth watching if only to witness a kindly looking elderly man musing that “Chris Evans was very good – until he disappeared up his own arse.”
The show is less hard-hitting than one may expect and, while it often takes a satirical approach, it’s rarely lacerating. However, there is some variation in tone. Some sketches, for example, are silly and good-natured, with one sequence showing a sniffer dog tagging along with a blind woman as she boards an aeroplane and then proceeding to enjoy a holiday in the sun. However, there are occasional sketches that venture into darker territory, such as the depiction of the perpetrators and victims of a knife attack meeting up 20 years later for an anniversary get-together, complete with finger buffet and lots of friendly jesting. As such, the show sometimes feels slightly off-balance, but its tongue-in-cheek attitude is evident throughout and is epitomised in Iannucci’s closing statement in episode seven: “There are only two things in the world that give us absolute, total happiness. One is unwrapping a newly bought CD, and the other is seeing other people fail.”
While unlikely to change the face of comedy, The Armando Iannucci Shows excel in witty observational humour and exaggerations of real-life situations. Indeed, everyone should be able to relate to at least some of the themes that are touched upon throughout the show, and Iannucci never seems to be taking himself too seriously. The relatively unassuming approach may disappoint those who are expecting a more potent form of satire, but the show’s charm and originality are key factors in its appeal and make for an enjoyable viewing experience.
DVD extras: the fans have been eagerly awaiting this DVD for a long time and are rewarded with some excellent extras – in addition to cast and crew listings, there are seven deleted/ extended scenes, including an extension of the ‘Armando the Great Adult’ sketch (which has become a viewer favourite) and appearances from regular characters such as the East-End thug and the talkative barber (look out for Iannucci struggling to keep a straight face during one of the latter sketches). In fact, most of the scenes feature characters that also appear in the main show, with the exception of a sketch about a porn star that hates seediness and continually questions his character’s motivation. The disc’s key selling point, however, is the presence of commentary tracks for all eight episodes, with Iannucci and producer Adam Tandy being joined by writers Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley for the first half of the series, and programme consultant/ actor David Schnieder for the second half. Iannucci proves a likeable and talkative host, and we also get a nice mix of anecdotes and information along with speculation as to why the show was overlooked when it first aired (that its transmission coincided with 9/11 and its aftermath is cited as a major factor). Of course, there’s always a chance that commentaries will run out of steam as one gets further into the series, yet those featured here are consistently enjoyable and keep up the banter all the way through. All in all then, this is an impressive set of extras for such a little-known show, and fans should certainly find that the DVD was worth the wait.