In February of 2007 I was unemployed, desperate, fairly broke and on the wrong side of the manic-depression coin. The only thing that freaked me out more than my lack of work was my inability to work when I landed a freelance assignment. Anxiety stopped me from focusing. Everything sucked. When the Guardian‘s Comment Is Free editor asked me if I could quickly turn around 600 words about a recent Sy Hersh piece, I freaked out over my inability to think of anything worthwhile to add and overthought it to the point where I turned in a lazy effort centered around comparing George Bush to Steve Coogan’s inept, deluded egotist character Alan Partridge. I practically hyperventilated when I filed, unable to justify to myself such a stupid piece. The commenters — in retrospect, not as uniformly derisive as I remember — had my number, calling the analogy "lame" and "very tenuous," among other things. "Please stop pandering to people by linking Bush to a popular comedy show," someone asked me.
And yet that piece of ridiculous hackwork led me into the lucrative and glamorous world of film consulting. In a few minutes, I’m going to head over for a press screening of In The Loop, the new and very funny Armando Iannucci parody of the Bush-Blair relationship in advance of the Iraq war. My name is in the credits.
A few weeks after that piece came out — April, if I remember correctly — I got an email from someone at the BBC saying Armando had read my piece and wanted to know if he could hire me to help him research this new movie he was writing, since it required him delving into the obscure world of the U.S. national security bureaucracy. Sheer dumb fucking luck. I’m a British comedy nerd and Armando has had a hand in most of my favorites: The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge/Knowing Me Knowing You, The Thick Of It and later the Armando Iannucci Show. Yet he remains unaccountably obscure in the U.S., owing to our generally poor cultural tastes. Now here’s this fairly legendary figure asking me, while I’m unemployed, if I wouldn’t mind taking a few days to hang out with him and introduce him to the people I already talk to at State, Defense, the CIA, the think tank world and the rest of institutional Washington? And would it be all right if he paid me handsomely for my trouble?
Armando and his assistant Sean came to Washington in October. By that point I was working for TPM, and explained the improbable situation to Josh Marshall, who granted me four days of leave. It remains inexplicable how nice and unassuming Armando is. I tried my best not to be a fanboy and deflected my nervousness by trying to pack the man’s schedule with contacts and interviews. My friend Farah Stockman, who covers the State Department for the Boston Globe, suggested that we try to get Armando into one of Sean McCormack’s briefings, which I think we accomplished by having Armando flash his BBC laminate as if it were a press credential. We had steaks with ex-CIA dudes, beers with Pentagon staffers in their 20s and coffee with thinktank people. I paid for nothing. Armando would extemporaneously come up with script dialogue based on the byzantine and occasionally farcical world of the national security bureaucracy.
If I made any contribution, it was impressing on Armando that an amazing and alarming amount of substantive policy is made by ambitious people in their 20s and 30s deep in the bowels of the various agencies. On a subsequent trip Armando took to Washington, I took him to DC9 and the backstage at the Black Cat so he could see the places where these people got drunk and picked each other up. By further dumb luck, the Gaslight Anthem played one night to maybe 30 or 40 people, and two of them were Armando and I. He opted not to floorpunch; I had no such compunctions.
In April of last year, Armando sent me a fairly-completed script for me to make suggestions to, and invited me to come to New York to sit in on a script reading an answer some questions from the actors about their characters’ backstories, motivations and bureaucratic relationships to each other. That was a charmed experience, involving me at one point advising James Gandolfini, who plays one of the film’s main characters, how to construct his character and coming really close to suggesting how to read his lines. If that weren’t enough — again: British comedy nerd — Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison from the Thick Of It were there. A friend of mine is a huge Thick of It fan, and Peter indulged me by calling him in character as Malcolm Tucker and yelling a deli tray assortment of obscenities onto his voicemail.
I haven’t seen the film. As the U.S. premiere is still a few weeks away, the closest I’ve come is watching this trailer at a theater with my girlfriend’s mother a few weeks ago, which allowed me to pull the You know, I consulted on this film... card. There’s a screening pretty soon — I really need to get going — and I can’t wait to see the finished product. This is one of the least-probable places journalism has taken me. If one specific script suggestion of mine stayed in, there’ll be a reference to how anyone who’s anyone in Democratic circles in Washington is checking Yglesias‘s blog to see what he makes of their proposals.
The lesson here, clearly, is that the universe will reward your hackwork, so never ever try to do anything well.