Fred Armisen discusses Portlandia Season 2 which returns with all new episodes starting January 6th
Starting January 6th, Fred Armisen will once again leave the cold winter streets of New York City, home to his full-time job at Saturday Night Live, for the rainy weather of the Pacific Northwest, where he will star alongside Carrie Brownstein in IFC's hit comedy series Portlandia.
We're huge fans of Portlandia, and welcome Fred and Carrie back as they bring ten all-new episodes chockfull of crazy new characters, celebrity cameos, and a surprise or two along the way. We recently caught up with Fred to find out what we can expect to see in the coming weeks. He also gave us the lowdown on his current Portlandia live tour, which finds him touring the country with Carrie Brownstein in support of the show.
Here is our conversation.
Growing up around Portland in the 1970s, the city always had this creepy, scary vibe. It was like the setting of a David Fincher horror movie. Do you and Carrie recognize that atmosphere when shooting certain scenes? Because, sometimes, this show does feel a little overtly creepy to me. Do you often find yourself utilizing that horror aspect of the city?
Fred Armisen: That is an aesthetic that I like. I do know what you mean. It's interesting that you pointed it out that way, but its something that I have always liked. Its one of the reasons I have always liked England. I know that's like name-dropping a country, "Hey, I travel!" But I like the way England is always overcast. And it does look like a horror movie sometimes. That is something I definitely like about Portland. And I mean that as a complement.
The city does have that overtly weird, dark feel. I know you're not from Portland, but did you ever delve into some of the popular haunts from the 70s and 80s that aren't around any more? Like Hippo Hardware, and The Organ Grinder, Acropolis, and The Sandy Jug? These dank, unsettling outposts...Mary's Club. The haunted house of strip clubs. That actually gets a shout out here in Season 2...
Fred Armisen: No. I don't really know about any of that. I like these names, though!
They were truly horrifying places as a kid. And I can feel the aura of that landscape when I watch Portlandia. You guys have really captured something special with this series.
Fred Armisen: Oh, well thank you so much!
Hippo Hardware is still around I think.
Fred Armisen: Oh, oh, oh...I have been in there! They have all of these really teeny things you can get. It's that really expensive store. On Burnside.
Yeah. Back in the early 80s, the clerks would follow you around, and hide. They would try to scare you amongst the toilets. It was truly like going into some haunted hardware store. It was horrifying as a kid.
Fred Armisen: Whoa. That sounds so crazy.
I've heard you describe Portland as the third main character on the show. In talking with other directors who shoot in the city, they always say that it's hard to disguise Portland as anything but itself. That's why a lot of filmmakers shoot in Vancouver. It's hard to manipulate Portland. As a filmmaker working here exclusively on this series, do you find that to be true?
Fred Armisen: Well, we utilize Portland for everything it can be. We choose locations that feel very much like they could only exist in Portland, or Portlandia. I think Leverage shoots there, and they actually turn the city into Boston.
For some reason, I thought that series was meant to take place in Portland. I didn't know they were shooting it for Boston. I guess that proves my point...
Fred Armisen: I could be wrong. I seemed to remember it taking place in Boson. Maybe they moved it. I don't know...
(Editor's note: Leverage did shoot Portland for Boston in Seasons 2-4, but will be set in Portland for Season 5.)
I certainly won't argue that with you. I'm not sure myself. I don't actually watch that show. Now, how did your director, Jonathan Krisel, come in and help shape this show, and what is the collaborative process like between you, Carrie, and Jonathan?
Fred Armisen: Jonathan Krisel helped shape this show in so many ways. Writing wise. Music wise. The color palate. Everything about it. Very much, it is an equal group. He came up with so much stuff. He did Dream of the 90s. He conceptualized the show. Without him? He is the guy with his hand on the steering wheel. He isn't just some perfunctory director. He is a visionary genius. He is so good. When Carrie and I go off into a tangent, he really shapes that. He focuses everything. He steers us away from what we shouldn't be doing.
Jonathan helped shape Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! As Tim and Eric have pointed out, a lot of commercial directors are ripping off and utilizing his signature style. We're starting to see some of the techniques he pioneered in more mainstream fare...
Fred Armisen: Yeah. He is awesome. We are very, very lucky. It's great for our show.
How has the show grown or changed from Season 1 to Season 2?
Fred Armisen: We looked at stuff that we thought worked for the first season. Then we expanded on it. When we did the first season, we didn't even know what this show was. When we were shooting, we were able to point certain things out. We could recognized something as a certain type of piece. We knew what to avoid. There were some things that didn't work last year. We went through the process of doing that. It became more focused. Because now we know what the show is.
When you are more focused on what the show actually is, does that keep you from overdoing it? Did you not have any extra bits left over this season?
Fred Armisen: Yeah. I think we did end up using all of it. We only cut a couple of sketches. We keep the sketches short. We have the time, so we do try to include everything we worked on.
What are some of the new characters fans can expect to see this season?
Fred Armisen: We did a lot of family characters. There is this new family that you see. That I have been noticing. You'll see a dad with gray hair, and a kid, but the guy still plays the drums. There are a lot of musiciany, tattooy dads who are definitely mature...But they still carry their adolescence with them. Their version of adolescence. There is a lot of that, and the female counterpart to that. Carrie has a lot of really good characters. We do a lot of outdoors stuff, because Oregon is very outdoorsy...
Do you and Carrie collaborate in creating these characters? Or do you go off on your own, then meet back up and share your thoughts, combining that together?
Fred Armisen: We did both. We had to work. We went away. Then when we came back, we had our own ideas, and we expanded on that.
How are you pushing the old favorites in a new direction this season?
Fred Armisen: We tried pushing them in a way that finds them outside of their elements. We did try to keep them in their same locations. I think we wanted to visit them without assuming that everyone already knows who they are. We just want to keep them going. You get to see them more. Naturally, there will be some growth there. But like the feminist bookstore? You just want to see them do their thing.
Lorne Michael is a producer on the show. He is Canadian, and he has lived most of his life in New York. I have no idea how much time he's spent in the Pacific Northwest. Does he get the show? And what you guys are doing? Or does he just get the humor of it, and that's all that matters to him?
Fred Armisen: Yeah, he recognizes that it has less to do with Portland, Oregon than it does with performance, this relationship I have with Carrie, and the process of coming up with characters. He is really experienced in that type of comedy. Just look at Kids In The Hall, which he produced.
It seems like you guys have a lot more guest stars this season. Maybe I am wrong about that...
Fred Armisen: No! We had more episodes, so that would make it feel like there are more. We have Eddie Vedder and Jeff Goldblum, Ed Begley Jr. We got really lucky. It was cool having all of these people around. Tim Robbins ...
It seems like you brought more folks over from SNL this season. Was that something you wanted to stay away from in the first season? Or did it mostly have to do with their availability?
Fred Armisen: That stuff is always timing. We shoot everything in Portland, so its not like you can just call someone, "Hey, can you come out this afternoon to do something?" It has to be planned ahead. This is a show that shoots during the summer, so everyone on SNL is off doing other stuff. Luckily this year, we did get Andy Samberg. And we got Kristen Wiig.
You have quite a few musical guest stars. Does that mean we'll be seeing more original music featured on the program as well?
Fred Armisen: There is a little bit. It will be pretty much the same as last year. There are musical elements. I don't know that there are any songs. Or anything like that. There is a lot of music going on, and yeah, we are bringing in all kinds of different musicians.
You guys are currently on the road with Portlandia. What kind of live experience can fans expect with this show?
Fred Armisen: We will play some music, definitely. I will be on the drums, and we will have Carrie on guitar. We will do some of the songs from the show. I don't think we will do any skits. Maybe we will do a little something. We haven't rehearsed yet. We'll feel it out and see what is right. I think mostly its going to be a music Q&A. In every city, we will try and have special guests. We'll have some of our friends come out, and maybe we can get them to play some stuff.
Any chance we will see a reunion with your band while you guys are on the road with Portlandia?
Fred Armisen: Trenchmouth? We are still really good friends, but that would be a whole other ordeal if we decided we wanted to get that all together.
Your voice will also be featured on Unsupervised this January. How involved are you with that particular show for FX?
Fred Armisen: I play a recurring character. They call me every once in a while and say, "Hey, will you come and do another episode." It's a lot of fun. Those guys all created it, and I have really been enjoying it.
Were you a fan of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia before getting involved with Unsupervised?
Fred Armisen: Yeah! I have always been pleased by that.
So you have two new projects coming in January. It's so awesome...
Fred Armisen: Thank you! It is awesome. I am so happy!