Tim Fernholz points TAPPED readers towards the Guardian’s series of columns “written” by Malcolm Tucker, one of the MVPs on Armando Iannucci’s masterful comedy The Thick Of It (and film adaptation In the Loop). I’m not sure who’s written them–Ferhnholz guesses Alistair Campbell, but my guess is either Iannucci or someone else from The Thick Of It‘s writer’s room–but whoever it is has nailed the voice perfectly. I can’t be the only person who reads these columns and hears it narrated in actor Peter Capaldi’s pitch-perfect belligerent-yet-deadpan Scottish brogue.
The fact that this is even possible is part of why I refer to Iannucci as a writer’s writer. Not only is he really skilled at wordplay, but he’s great at creating characters–believable, plausible ones who are much more than mere joke-delivery devices. They also all manage to all walk that tricky line of having unmistakeably distinct, strong voices that are also unmistakeably Iannucci creations. Of these, Tucker’s is the strongest.
This is something that’s important in all good fiction, but I think it takes on added importance in comedy, where the temptation to subvert character to punchlines can be overwhelming. That’s the sort of thing that works really well in short bursts–think 30 Rock–but has a limited shelf life. The best long-form comedy is frequently the stuff where the humor comes from characterization instead of just through it. And key to that is having a really strong comic voice. Plus, when that’s the case, it gives you an opportunity to create a comedy that’s greater than the sum of its laughs. It’s the reason why The Thick Of It and In the Loop work brilliantly as devastating social critiques and political dramas even when the jokes stop.
One of the best examples of this I can think of in literature is Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s genius comic novel of Jewish self-loathing and sexual frustration. I heard somewhere that Roth spent years writing several books’ worth of material just to nail down the first-person narrative voice of Alexander Portnoy, and it shows. The whole book is essentially one long monologue, and it’s never boring or unconvincing.
By the way: As long as we’re talking about Malcolm Tucker, I can’t resist embedding a clip of “Tucker’s Law.” Truly, NSFW words to live by.