Created by Armando Iannucci (Veep), the new HBO comedy Avenue 5 premieres on January 19th, 2020.
Set 40 years in the future, Hugh Laurie (House) stars as the suave but inept captain, Ryan Clark, of Avenue 5, a luxury space cruise ship on an 8 month journey around Saturn. When the ship encounters devastating technical difficulties that might extent the trip for 3 years or longer, Captain Clark and the other members of the crew aren’t up to the task of handling the catastrophe.
The series also stars Josh Gad (Frozen) as Herman Judd, who owns Avenue 5 and Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager), who portrays Spike Williams, an alcoholic former astronaut.
Creator/producer Armando Iannucci, and stars Hugh Laurie and Ethan Phillips came to the TV Critics tour to discuss their new venture.
Armando, can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for Avenue 5?
Armando Iannucci: (After) doing Veep and The Thick of It, that’s ten years of doing political comedy, I felt like I didn’t want to do another political show. But I did want to touch on certain, not even themes but emotions that are around just now. There’s an air of uncertainty, unpredictability, anger and anxiety; a sense of foreboding doom about the climate and nobody’s really doing anything about it. Just that sense of the madness of crowds, populism and how crowds can take on a life of their own.
I wanted to tap into that, but also I love sci-fi. I thought wouldn’t it be good to put this pressure cooker in space, of fundamentally, six-and-a-half thousand people, 5,000 passengers, 1,500 crew and let it go. So that was the start of it. We discussed very early on, doing a show with Hugh, so we sat down and worked from Captain Ryan out.
Hugh, is there something universal about Captain Ryan? Obviously, he’s an extreme character for comedic purposes, but we’ve all had those feelings where you’ve got the big school exam and you’re not ready, or the book report and you haven’t read the book. Can you tap into everybody’s deepest fears in that way?
Hugh Laurie: I think Ryan is the most extreme version of the facade that the adult world presents to the rest of the adult world — we all do — in any number of different contexts. We’re forced to pretend a competence or a confidence that none of us can really have.
The most human quality of all I think is doubt, and the self-questioning and that sense of faking it. In the last ten years, I had such an extreme version of it, pretending to be a doctor (in House). (Ten years is longer) than it would’ve taken me to become a doctor. It is a really peculiar thing made more so by the fact that my father was a doctor.
Armando, are you having fun with the sci-fi jargon, versus the White House jargon?
Armando Iannucci: It’s set only about 30 or 40 years in the future. I wanted to deliberately not be futuristic. If you think about what life was like 40 years ago in 1980, not radically different. All the buildings look the same. Cars are roughly doing the same job. The only innovation has been the Wi-Fi and the fact that we stay on our phone. So I didn’t wanna go mega futuristic with lots gadgets, robots and hover boots.
Other shows do that really well. I wanted to concentrate on the human element underneath it all. So the only major advance has been that we can fly further in space, and hopefully get back. Even though we have an enormous set, (I wanted to keep it) as intimate as possible because the comedy’s really there in the small private moments.
With this it’s people trying to get through the next three years, and possibly the rest of their lives, so (a different) speech rhythm comes in because of that.
Hugh: May I interject?
Armando: Ah yes, interject away.
Hugh: I think it is worth pointing out though, that Armando is very technically up to speed. It was some three years ago that you and I visited –
Armando: – the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, not far from here.
Hugh: And I thought we had gone for a jolly gawk at all this extraordinary technology. He knows it all.
Armando: I wanted to pack (the show) with hard sci-fi, laws of physics. We obey the laws of physics, apart from gravity.
Ethan, the format is obviously very different from Star Trek. How does the Avenue 5 ship compare to something like Voyager?
Ethan Phillips: Oh, it’s so massive, and on Voyager we had many, many sets. This was all one unit. It was like being on the Norwegian Jade or something. It took ten minutes to walk from one end to the other. (It was a) totally different sense of space. But (Voyager) was also 400 years in the future. This is only 40. It’s not a big deal.
It was mentioned that the actors get to do a bit of improv on Avenue 5. Can talk about that?
Ethan: I haven’t done a lot of improv. I was doing a scene with Hugh, and I came to my last line, and I was waiting for (someone to call) cut. The cameras just (kept) going, and he said a few lines to me, and I’m going, ‘My God, I can do anything I want, they’re still recording.’ It was just this sense of being launched into space. It was quite freeing, scary and wonderful.
Hugh, are you still involved in music, and do you plan to put out any more records?
Hugh: This won’t take long. (he laughs) Thank you. Yes, I am. My daily active devotion and worship is sitting at the piano. And, I do plan to do a third — that’s right — third record. So, yes, I am. Thank you for noticing.