After years of satirizing politics on both sides of the pond, Armando Iannucci looked to the stars for his new comedy series, “Avenue 5” — but his latest for HBO wasn’t a total departure from earthly concerns.
“After doing ‘Veep’ and ‘The Thick of It,’ I knew I didn’t want to do another political show,” Iannucci said during the “Avenue 5” TCA session in Pasadena, CA on Wednesday morning. “But I wanted to talk about some of the emotions that are floating around, [including] anxiety, a sense of foreboding doom about the climate, […] populism and how crowds can take on a life of their own.”
“But also, I love sci-fi. So I thought, wouldn’t it be good to put [all] this on a pressure cooker in space? That was the start of it.”
“Avenue 5” chronicles the ill-fated odyssey of the eponymous space cruise ship, Avenue 5, helmed by Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) and funded by the uber-rich entrepreneur Herman Judd (Josh Gad). Both are on board, treating paying customers to a luxurious three-month trip through the galaxy, when unexpected turbulence causes problem after problem until their brief vacation becomes a desperate journey to get back home.
Iannucci and Laurie worked together on “Veep” and became close — the actor spoke of a “jolly” trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with the writer before making “Avenue 5” — collaborating again on Iannucci’s upcoming film, “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” Laurie worked in British comedies (like “Fry and Laurie”) long before he landed his breakthrough part as Dr. Gregory House in “House,” and Iannucci said “Avenue 5” began by sitting down with Laurie to build the show out from his captain character.
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“I suppose it’s where my heart always lay,” Laurie said of absurdist-style comedy, “but I’m not sure if it’s heart or annoying anxiety. It brought back the thrill, but also the fear of trying to do something funny. […] There’s lots of bad funny, but good funny is hard to do.”
Iannucci’s particular brand of funny is slightly altered for “Avenue 5.” He described “Veep” as watching a small group of people just trying to get through the day, while his new show focuses on a longer journey with more people. Handheld cameras and their off-kilter comedic zooms are toned down, as well, but there’s plenty of black comedy driving the laughs. After all, the cruise ship is in crisis, and there are plenty of potential casualties onboard.
“It all starts from this sense of unpredictable unease that I think we’re feeling at the moment,” Iannucci said.
“We feel we can be fired at any time because Armando can just kill us,” Suzy Nakamura, who plays Avenue 5 associate owner Iris Kimura said. “That really keeps us on our toes.”
“We like to think of ourselves as the ‘Game of Thrones’ of comedies,” Gad said, after being asked about how bleak the show gets in its early episodes. “I like that you think there’s quite a big body count — just you wait.”
“Avenue 5” premieres Sunday, January 19 at 10 p.m. on HBO.