Politics is the mess you make trying to disguise your cock-up. That's what I think I've learned from watching Armando Iannucci's political comedies The Thick Of It and Veep, which has just started again on Sky.
Life is a cock-up not a conspiracy. That's what I know I've learned from trying to interview Armando Iannucci. Frankly, it has turned into something of an extended cock-up scenario. The first time we arrange to meet he has to call off at the last minute with the lurgy. The second time, we do get to meet in a London hotel room. He tells me he loves science fiction but hasn't been asked to direct an episode of Doctor Who yet (even though his mate Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor), sums up Malcolm Tucker - the spin doctor played by Capaldi in The Thick Of It and the film In The Loop - in one concise, pithy, four-letter word and tells me he doesn't hate anyone except maybe Julian Fellowes, whom he met once at a dinner party.
All good - except my tape recorder catches none of it. Not one word.
The third time we arrange to speak he has to call off with jet lag as he's just back from Los Angeles. (Some small matter of the Emmys or something; I suppose it's an excuse.) So it's only after the fourth time of asking that we get to talk and I manage to record what he says (turns out the Julian Fellowes line was just a joke, by the way). One of us would probably be entitled to go off on some Tuckeresque opera of offensiveness, some contemptuous display of Olympic cursing, at this point. But I'm not sure I really have the excuse and he (who clearly does; I didn't tape a bloody word, for goodness sake. That's a fail of the highest order) doesn't seem the type. So no Malcolm-inspired comparisons to me being a clown running across a minefield or something much, much more offensive.
Obviously I'm rather pleased he isn't a pottymouthed ass. But isn't there any alpha maleness in him? This is someone, after all, who has risen to a position of power in both British and American television, and who has made the foray into film with some success (with both In The Loop and this year's Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa movie).
He says not. Not even though Veep - Iannucci's excellent American political sitcom, which has just returned to Sky Atlantic - has won two Emmys: one for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is sassy, seriously funny, even (whisper it) a little bit sexy in the title role (the vice-president of the United States), and one for Tony Hale, who plays her aide. No, the best he can come up with in response is less a peacock display of self-love than a wishy-washy, vicarish "it was very heartening". Heartening? Is that all?
"I didn't feel like the cock of the walk wandering around," he says. "I sort of felt, 'Oh, that's good.'"
Iannucci, who is 49, has a lovely squashy face, with eyes like currants, dark and shining in the dough. He's the geeky boy grown up and made good, the boy who, when he was 12, did Harold Wilson impersonations, and someone who has always talked of the thrill of being in the Glasgow Hillhead constituency when Roy Jenkins stood for the SDP in the 1982 by-election. He's always loved the drama of politics, he says, the ups and downs, the polls and swingometers. "It's like people who aren't very good at sport who suddenly get into cricket because at least they can talk about lots of statistics."
Now that I think of it, didn't he used to jot down election results or something? Is he stats-obsessed? "I don't know. I've never really seen myself as that, but maybe when I was younger … I liked the rhetoric and the oratory and the speechifying. There was something appealing about that. You don't get that so much now, really. It's all about something ordinary rather than something super-ordinary, isn't it? It's all about dropping your Ts and referencing Coronation Street and Strictly or whatever."
Politics is clearly a touchstone for him. The first time we meet he gives me an extensive tutorial on the differences between American and British politics. He does something similar second time too. "In the UK everyone's running to the centre and it's very difficult to tell Clegg, Cameron and Miliband apart, and a lot of power is concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. And if the Prime Minister has a majority you can pretty much do what you like, whereas it's very much dissipated in America because it allows more people to have power, I suppose."
That's very true. You can see that in the US at the moment. When we speak the second time, the country is in shutdown - a case of life imitating art; one of the central storylines of the new series of Veep is the impact of the "fiscal cliff".
"There are 20-odd Tea Party congress people in the House of Representatives who are more or less dictating what's happening," points out Iannucci. He calls them fundamentalist extremists. "I use the phrase because there are similarities in that you assume that anyone who doesn't agree with you is wrong scientifically and objectively, and therefore there is no point even arguing with them."
The pleasure of Veep is how he exposes all this stuff to the light. Here's my confession. I think Veep is funnier than The Thick Of It. It feels very real ("real" may be Iannucci's favourite word), a feeling greatly helped by the access Iannucci and his colleagues are given to the politicians and political aides.
It's bizarre. What I don't understand, I tell him, is why - given that his comedies so completely eviscerate the political classes and the political system on both sides of the Atlantic - they are all so keen to help out when it comes to research.
He thinks they may just be star-struck. "When we were shown around the west wing [of the White House] by Obama's aide and he was saying, 'This is the Roosevelt Room. This is where CJ and Josh would meet', he was referencing The West Wing TV show and I'm thinking, 'But you know you're the real thing. Why aren't you saying this is where Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin would meet?' It seems odd, but I think they're in a bit of a bubble and they see and deal with the same people again and again, so the idea of cameras and showbiz coming from the outside rather excites them.
"When we were filming In The Loop, 10 Downing Street allowed us in to film inside and it was a scene with Malcolm Tucker, and of course the day we arrived all the staff at Downing Street brought their cameras because they wanted to be photographed next to Malcolm, And then we were taken to the back room where people introduced themselves as 'the Malcolm of' this or that department. It's nice we get the access but also deeply worrying that it's as easy as it is."
Of course that's because for some, Malcolm Tucker has become something of a hero. You wonder if half of Gordon Brown's spin doctor Damian McBride's troubles arose because he was trying to channel his inner Malcolm. Iannucci is horrified by the idea though. "But Malcolm's a c***," he tells me when I raise the possibility of Tucker's political "heroic" status. "A dangerous c***."
The thing Iannucci hates about politics, he says, is labelling, "making a judgment about someone on the basis of their class or what school they went to or what their parents did. I can see exactly why Ed Miliband is jumping up and down at the moment with the Daily Mail."
Which means this is possibly not the best place to describe him as Italian-Scottish. But he is. His father, a former partisan from Naples, ran a pizza factory in Springburn. His mother is Scottish, but from an Italian family. The family were brought up speaking English so they felt integrated. His Italian is still not great. "My mum regrets that." His own children are called Emilio, Marcello and Carmella. The family now live in Hertfordshire, not Chianti-shire.
Iannucci was a smart kid and was even sent to a private Jesuit school. He wasn't an alpha male then either. "I was hideously self-conscious when younger, I was very unostentatious. I was very, very quiet with anyone other than close friends, in which case I'd kind of be the opposite and I'd be the performer. In larger groups I was very, very shy and quiet and bookish. I'm acutely aware of that and how that can sit on people and stop them from fulfilling their potential."
That hasn't been the case for him, but maybe the idea of escape was always there. Ask him for a memory of his Glasgow childhood and the first thing that springs to mind is not a happy one. "I seem to remember Sunday afternoons being the darkest, dullest days ever. Every shop shut apart from one corner shop. It was a bit bleak. I remember thinking, 'Surely I'm not the only one who thinks this is wrong.'"
When we first spoke I came away with the impression that he felt much more at home when he went to Oxford University but that's not quite the case, it seems.
"Actually the first couple of years at Oxford I felt doubly outside because in Glasgow I was Italian-Glaswegian and in Oxford you're Italian-Scottish in an English university, so it does take a while. Then you realise everyone else feels that when they go to Oxford. They always feel that they are the outsider, that they'll be found out, and then you realise we're all in the same boat. It's a strange leveller. Irrespective of whether you came from a very wealthy English public school or a council estate outside Liverpool, actually you're all doing the same thing, the same course and you're all getting the same treatment. It forced you to bond. And I like it a lot that, in the end, it didn't matter."
Oxford was where he met his wife Rachel. It also freed him from Glasgow's tribalism. Suddenly nobody was trying to find out which tribe he came from. "It was absolutely irrelevant. I remember that feeling was a tremendous relief. You were under no obligation to determine very quickly whether someone was Protestant or Catholic. I remember thinking that was a tremendous thing to get away from."
After graduation, Iannucci worked for BBC Radio Scotland and then as a producer on Radio Four, becoming one of the key pillars in British comedy, firstly with On The Hour, then its television incarnation The Day Today, which led to the spin-off Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, and to the subsequent Alan Partridge sitcom (I'm saying it's the greatest modern British sitcom; far better than The Office), The Armando Iannucci Shows, The Thick Of It, Veep, those Emmys and an OBE for services to broadcasting. There's been the odd misfire (I can't be alone in thinking Time Trumpet blew, can I?). But nobody has done more to advance the comedy of embarrassment than Iannucci. What's its appeal to him?
"I don't know. I don't think of it as that. I just find it funny. I don't think, 'Oh what shall I do next? I'll do a comedy of embarrassment?' I just think, 'What's the funniest thing that can happen to them? This is going to be about American politics? OK, what are my feelings about American politics? Who are the characters? What are the absurdities? What kind of personalities occupy Washington, what are their ambitions and their hopes and their characteristics? What do they regret?' And gradually stories emerge. And then the stories that emerge turn out not to be that far removed from the reality."
Well indeed. He returns again and again to the idea of what's real. Even when he talks about his desire to make science fiction it's not the utopian possibilities that interest him, it's what happens when the utopia malfunctions. That's the reality, he says. Things and people, we all cock up.
Which raises the question as to what happens when everything you do goes right. And clearly things are going right for him. What does that mean for him? His answer is as neat a summary of who he is and where he is as you could get.
"This is the kind of frustrating conversation I have with my American agents because they would love it if I just boarded up the house and settled in LA and made 105 different American shows - but I keep telling them I'm nearly 50. I've got family here. I'm not that interested. I've made the shows I want to make and it's quite fun to have the challenge of making one in America but I don't have a grand ambition.
"Where I've benefited in America is working with HBO and the quality standards they have. And the success of Veep means hopefully it will be easier to get the cast I want and that sort of thing. I'm very appreciative of that but I'm not thinking, 'Now is the time to set up Iannucci Studios.' If I was 30 you'd think, 'Oh, that would be exciting.' But I'm not 30. So I think I'm more pleased that it came off. It just reassures me that I haven't diluted my standards."
And that's the nearest Iannucci gets to cocky in either of our conversations. n
Veep is on Sky Atlantic on Wednesdays.