Exclusive Interview: Fred Armisen on the New Season of Portlandia

January 2, 2013

Photo credit: IFC

For two seasons, Portlandia filled our imaginations with sketches about the mythical land of Portland where the dream of the 90s is still alive. In Season Three, these sketches will start to look a little different. Inspired by the success of the Season Two finale, “Brunch Village,” Season Three will not only include hilarious sketches, these sketches will also become part of a bigger story – like going on a quest to bring music videos back to MTV or mastering the art of attending all your friends’ birthday parties on a limited budget. It’s a new Portlandia, and you won’t want to miss it when it premieres on Friday, January 4 at 10 p.m. on IFC.

We recently caught up with Portlandia creator and SNL superstar Fred Armisen to get his insights on the new season and how he manages his exciting TV career.

What is different about Season Three? What can we expect?

Fred Armisen: It’s a little weirder. It’s a little deeper. There’s some more emotion in it. The stories go from one episode to the next a little more. We have some stuff that extends throughout the season, where as we didn’t have as much of that before. We liked doing that so much with “Brunch Village” last year. So we’ve done a couple more of those types of episodes this season.

What was it like working with Chloë Sevigny this season? What made you think to add a roommate character to the show? Is she featured a lot in Season Three?

FA: She’s in a lot of the episodes. Not every single sketch, but a lot. We have already seen Fred and Carrie (Brownstein) as characters, and we really wanted to take a step forward this year. Things are the same, but we can’t just repeat Fred and Carrie riding around on bicycles (although we have that too). We felt we had to put something in to talk about their relationship more – because it’s such an ambiguous relationship. We thought that putting another person in there, you’d get to learn more about them.

They definitely have an ambiguous relationship.

FA: We even make the set like that, where they live. Like Bernie and Ernie beds, you know. And when they sleep in the room it’s these beds. That’s just to confuse it even more.

You mentioned in an interview last year that one of your dreams was to have Werner Herzog on the show. Were you able to feature him in Season Three?

FA: No, we never managed to make that work. I don’t think we even did the sketch in the end, but someday.

You clearly love Portland since you’ve based your entire show around it. How have your feelings about Portland changed over the years and since you’ve been making the show? Is it really the same as it was in the 90s?

FA: It’s gotten cleaner since the 90s. When I first went there – who knows when, ‘94, ’95, or something ­– it was definitely a little more rough around the edges. And I seem to remember people talking about how much drugs were there. I missed the in between, but when I started going back in 2003 it was much nicer. And since I’ve been going back, I’ve grown to love it a lot. I mean I really love that city. And I’m a New Yorker. I love New York. But, I have just grown to have so much affection for that place.

What do you think is different about Portland vs. Brooklyn and other cities like San Francisco? 

FA: The little difference is San Francisco is much bigger city. I think the history of its alternative culture goes decades and decades back. With Brooklyn, I really see a lot of similarities with Williamsburg and Portland. I don’t think that’s a new observation. I think people have noted that before. But it’s just slight ones. It’s stuff on the periphery that’s different. Surrounding Portland will be a lot of tress. And surrounding Williamsburg it’s taxi cabs and the water. It’s the framework around it. So Brooklyn has this frame of NYC and Portland has the frame of northwestern greenery. Both good things. When I’m in Portland I often miss the framework of this city [New York]. They’re both good. The trick is to go back and forth a lot.

What’s your relationship with Portlanders like when you’re shooting?

FA: Well, for some reason we’ve gotten very lucky there. And they just let us shoot everywhere. Including City Hall and the mayor’s office. Everywhere we go. It’s a small operation. We have a very small budget. We knock on doors. We don’t have much to offer, but we say, “Hey, can we shoot in your house all day?” and the answer is always “Yes.” We do everything on location so we’ve been in a million beds, kitchens, and bathrooms. They’re always so accommodating. I don’t know where it comes from. I guess it comes from Portland.

Do you have any particular favorite characters on the show?

FA: It varies from when we’re shooting. I like the feminist bookstore ladies. Gahvin Quinn – who has a really low voice, big red curly hair, and a mustache ­– who I really like doing. But it just varies from episode to episode. Whatever our mood, we’re just into whatever we’re doing.

What were some of your favorite sketches from the show in general? What have audiences connected with most?

FA: It’s weird, everywhere I go someone’s got something different that they like. I think of the durian sketch, for example. We buy this fruit we can’t open, which is a real fruit. We didn’t even know if we were going to put that sketch in the series. And just the other day someone was telling me that they love that one. There are all different kinds of favorites that people have.

You work on SNL but you also have your own show. What made you want to do your own show?

FA: I love working. I love doing it. I love TV. I love comedy. I love performing. I love hanging out with Carrie and working with Carrie and John. I just love doing it. It is a dream come true.

How do you juggle those two jobs?

FA: I just make it work. I commute from city to city sometimes. Most of Portlandia is shot in the summer. SNL is mostly September through May.

What’s it like to work on someone else’s show vs. your own?

FA: The difference is that SNL has a legacy going back to 1975 and with this [Portlandia] we’re sorta going out on a camping trip. We’re sorta figuring out every year what the show even is. SNL is, “This is the blueprint, this is how the structure of the show works.” Which is a good thing. Structure is a good thing. And Portlandia is like, “What are we? I don’t even know what we are. Is this what we are? I think so.” So we’re kinda going on a camping trip.

So you have structure on one hand, and on the other you’re put in a position to take a lot of risks and to figure it out on your own?

FA: Yes, and they both inform each other. I take some of what I learn in Portlandia to SNL and I apply it, and vice versa. They both help each other.

Can you tell me what it’s like to work with Carrie? How has your relationship evolved over the years?

FA: It has it’s own life. Our friendship, our relationship. And getting to work together physically just puts us in the same city and it just helps it grow. And that’s probably the really nice thing about it.

Do you have any future dream projects?

FA: I have many. I want to keep going. I would never say them out loud. I mean, Portlandia wasn’t said out loud when we were planning it. These things are always past tense. You do them and then later you look back and go, “Oh we did this other thing.” You don’t give away the path. Because you don’t know it yet. You don’t know what it is. You say, “I want to keep going.” But we can talk later and we’ll look back past tense.

Do you not want to talk about these future projects because you’re afraid of talking about them and then they don’t come about?

FA: It’s not fear. There is no such thing as being afraid of something turning out or not turning out. You have to respect that when you have an idea for something it’s going to have a life of its own or it’s not going to have a life of its own. That’s the beauty of it. You have to appreciate it. And let it take you where it’s going to take you. The moment when you start going, “Well I’m going to do this and this, “ then life takes you in a different direction. You just have to embrace it. So we’ll talk past tense. We’ll talk in three years, then I’ll say, “I did this, and this, and this, and this.”

Don’t miss the season premiere of Portlandia Friday, January 4, at 10 p.m. on IFC (Ch. 559).