He’s the creator and showrunner of one of the biggest shows of the last few years, Succession. So we take a look at 20 fascinating Jesse Armstrong quotes to see what this titan of the industry has to say on writing, creating characters and TV.
It’s perhaps both surprising and unsurprising that the origins of the creator of Succession lie in comedy. Succession, after all, is one of the funniest series on television. But it’s also one of the most powerful and dramatic.
Armstrong made his name creating (along with writing partner Sam Bain) cult comedy shows in the UK, most notably Peep Show and Fresh Meat. From these sitcoms, which firmly established Armstrong’s comedic sharpness, he would develop his satirical voice – something integral to his later work – on films such as Four Lions and In the Loop and series such as The Thick of It, Veep and Black Mirror.
Looking at his CV, it’s easy to see Jesse Armstrong’s path to creating a show like Succession – equal parts comedy, drama and political satire. His journey to being one of the industry’s biggest showrunners has not been slow but steady.
He built more and more experience working on award-winning, top-class TV and film until steering a global mega-hit like Succession. In doing so, he proves the value of learning from and collaborating with others, cultivating one’s craft slowly and getting to know one’s writing voice.
For this reason, we wanted to look at 20 fascinating Jesse Armstrong quotes. What does he have to say about working in TV, the writing process and the inspiration behind his biggest hit? Let’s take a look…
1. “We have characteristics we’re born with, that are molded by the lives we live. And so to have a psychologically engaged show, our view of human nature is that it doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from somewhere.”
2. “Who has not stared at the blank page and not been able to think of anything to write for what at least felt like six months? Getting started is the hardest bit, obviously.”
3. “Character is key. Once you’ve got that voice going, everything else can follow. If you’ve also got the right tone, you’re in the right area – an inconsistent tone can screw up a project.”
4. “It’s a good tip for writers, that – write with an actor in mind. Even if you have no hope of getting John Cleese, it’s much better to write it with him in mind because you might find someone else to do that stuff; it really helps.”
5. “Sitcom characters, my writing partner Sam Bain and I sometimes tell each other, are not normally self-conscious. Or not quite. The best sitcom characters are probably just a little self-conscious. Deep enough to feel pain and humiliation, but shallow enough that there are no hidden depths”
6. “You’ve only got so much plot, character and psychological capital. One day it will be gone and you don’t know when that day is. The fear is that it’ll sneak up on you when you’re not looking.”
7. “One of the things that strikes me when I’ve read about these families – whether it be the Maxwells or the Redstones or the Julio-Claudians – is that, when you get that combination of money, power, and family relations, things get so complicated that you can justify actions to yourself that are pretty unhealthy to your well-being as a human being.”
8. “I started reading about media moguls in general, and Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch both made the same joke: they both were asked, ‘What will happen when you die?’ and they both said they didn’t plan to die. It just struck me: what’s going on with these men in their 80s and 90s who are still packing their diaries every day?”
9. “I do think it’s really tough being super-rich, really hard-working and wanting to get some sort of immortality by passing on the organisation to your kids. But then looking at your kids and thinking, ‘Oh, they’re just these privileged people who haven’t had to struggle. Am I really going to just give it all to them?'”
10. “The truth is that when writing a TV show or a film you are a part of a team. And though you might be the architect who makes the initial drawings, somewhere along the line it all has to be given up, handed over. To the costume department and the actors, the art department, the director and the producers.”
11. “With an unscripted take, you let the thing live and bring an extra level of life to the performance. Sometimes you get extra jokes because the actors are super smart and see a funnier or more true way to go with the scene.”
13. “The camera reacts with the speed of a human being rather than somebody who knows what’s going to happen next. And that lets the comedy and drama play in a way which I think subliminally makes you feel like you’re in the room.”
14. “My writing partner and I usually write separately, because if we write together we are liable to go a little nuts. The person not at the keyboard can start to feel disenfranchised to the point that they sometimes make a lunge for that accoutrement of computer power, the mouse.”
15. “The best bit about having a collaborator is plot. Plot is quite hard to get right. It is a testing intellectual exercise that feels quite different to being in the flow of voice or characterisation. I like having someone to construct a plot with.”
16. “Standups always like the room cold, and if you’re shooting a sitcom live you want it a little bit chilly for the audience. I don’t know why – you’d have to ask a combination of an evolutionary psychologist and a building-maintenance man.”
17. “I love the breadth and space you get to explore character in so-called serialized TV, the novelistic element of maybe being able to find out who people are. But I also very much like the sitcom discipline of having a self-contained episode that you could conceivably, I hope, be able to enjoy in and of itself.”
18. “Without sounding defensive, I would say that sometimes TV critics assume that after a few episodes the writers ‘finally understand the characters’, and as a writer I often feel that what really has happened is that the viewer has gotten to know the characters. It’s a natural process.”
19. “In my own experience with films, books, plays, TV, I don’t want somebody telling me what it means, because I think I know, and I want my interpretation to be valid, because it is valid.”
20. “You’ve got to trust the audience, and hopefully if you do interesting work you’ll get an audience that are interested and engaged. But if they go out thinking, ‘Ra-ra-ra, I wanna be like Malcolm Tucker,’ then at a certain point you can’t take responsibility for that person. That person’s just a moron.”
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