Top 10 TV shows of the decade – # 5
The Armando Iannucci Shows
Another comedy show, and my second favourite of the entire decade, The Armando Iannucci Shows cracks the top ten with a paltry eight episodes to its name. It’s another lost classic that’s so little known in the grand scheme of things, it makes Kings seem as ubiquitous as those unending repeats of Friends, which still manage to find their way into your living room even if you’ve smashed up the TV with a broken pool cue. The Armando Iannucci Shows are pretty hard to describe – kind of a sketch show, and with sort-of bits of stand-up, but not really. It’s vaguely somewhat of an absurdist Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, as though that reference helps anyone but the most “I’ve never seen a lady’s tit but I’ve seen a lot of comedy” nerds like myself.
The basis of the show is Armando strolling about through the landscape of the world as he sees it, ruminating on various big topics like morality, reality, and if all people are really twats. That world is off-kilter and dreamlike without feeling forced or relying on affected surrealism about woodland creatures or a lion driving a car made of…I dunno, Noel Fielding’s dreams or something. In retrospect, TAIS was pretty highbrow for a channel whose more recent comedy output has been along the lines of The Friday Night Project or Balls of Steel, the latter of which is a program so vile and soul-less, years down the road, the number one wish on my Christmas list remains the hope that someday, everybody involved in its production gets badly hurt up the arse by a gorilla.
Even the term ‘sketch show’ doesn’t do it justice. There are no catchphrases or tedious skits where people walk into a shop to buy a conceptual idea, but rather a collection of ideas, segments and stories that flow into and through each other, overlapping and thematically interconnecting in a soft-focussed ethereal way that suits the universal nature of philosophical questions being tackled. A lot these themes lean towards the worries we all have about growing old, or not fitting in and feeling, in many situations, like an imposter. One segment realizes the universal tendencies of mentally escalating small worries into huge issues with Armando being chased through the streets by an angry mob for putting something back on the wrong supermarket shelf.
There have never been ideas like this, and never so beautifully realised onscreen. Every episode is so crammed with invention that there are more ideas in a single twenty-five minutes than most shows get in an entire run, and for a series that could have been flatly directed with a more conventional structure, it’s beautifully shot, looking more like a movie than a late-night comedy show. There’s a frequent use of special effects, and the sheer visual invention adds to the otherworldly quality of never having seen anything like this before or since. It’s the closest a show has ever come to essentially broadcasting directly from inside someone’s mind.
The main thing about The Armando Iannucci Shows is that they’re very, very funny. Everything ties in with that week’s theme in very a subtle way, for example the notion that everyone is riddled with self-doubt and constantly faking it, which plays out via Armando suffering through a dinner-party being dominated by an aggressively witty and opinionated guest, until their meals are mistakenly swapped, leading Armando to find strips of paper with the charismatic responses on, hidden inside a pie. The march of time is addressed with a retirement home for middle-aged men (“a middle-aged man just pissed himself”) while the show dealing with how we don’t know our neighbours has a sketch about the community in a quiet country village who have their lives enriched by the introduction of a rooftop sniper. Everything’s played completely straight, which adds to the unreal ambience, and the dialogue is filled with the sort of lyrical structure and magical wordplay you’d expect from Armando Iannucci. Even when he’s talking about “hot piss and turds” it’s like poetry. Take a look at the sketch below from the Time Passing episode, of a reunion for the 20th anniversary of a brutal knife attack.
I know how unspeakably pretentious it is for me to talk about how something has influenced my own work, because who the fuck am I? Christ, even calling it “work” makes me shudder from the depths of my balls, but the series was a tremendous influence on me, and aside from Chris Morris’s Blue Jam, there’s been nothing anywhere close to being as instrumental in helping to find and shape my own voice as this series.
My own stinking life peaked when the “customers who bought this also purchased…” link on Amazon below my books contained both The Armando Iannucci Shows DVD and his latest book, although at the moment it’s a bunch of tie-die howling wolf t-shirts. For a while my American Amazon related items were seven pages of toilet cleaning products, making me wonder exactly who my audience are. Furry comedy fans who can’t stop shitting?
The reason this show is so tragically little remembered may be down to the bad timing of airing so close to September 11th – the inclusion of a sketch about a group of people whose lives were transformed after the crash of a flight simulator probably didn’t help – but it’s certainly no indication of quality. Armando’s in the midst of somewhat of a mainstream resurgence with The Thick of It and In The Loop, it’s just a shame The Armando Iannucci Shows seem destined to be forgotten. Through no fault of its own, and despite being fucking amazing, it may very well get swept under the rug of history, like Madusa Miceli’s never-seen Playboy shoot, which is why you must buy the DVD. Oh, and when you do, be sure to buy my book/s at the same time, as I’d prefer not to see in the next decade as someone synonymous with wolf shirts and faecal scrapers.