Fred Armisen Talks Portlandia

SNL comedian Fred Armisen heads to the great North West for IFC's new sketch comedy show, premiering January 21st

Portland is a strange city. There's no doubt about that. Its landscape is rich with unique characters and outlandish spectacle, all of which longtime Saturday Night Live mainstay Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney front woman Carrie Brownstein have brought to their collaborative sketch comedy show Portlandia, which is set to debut Friday, January 21 on IFC at 10:30 PM ET/PT. An instant classic, this first six episode run is not to be missed. We recently caught up with Fred Armisen to chat with him about the series.

RELATED: Fred & Carrie Finally Have Sex in Portlandia Season 6 First Look

Here is our conversation:

Portlandia is premiering with IFC's acquisitions of Mr. Show, The Ben Stiller Show, and Larry Sanders. Immediately, in just two episodes, it's clear that Portlandia is something very special that arrives almost as a classic, on par with these other comedy stalwarts. Are you able to step back and look at just how good and unique this show is that you and Carrie have created? Or is it still to early in the process to reflect on that?

Fred Armisen: That is way, way too nice. That is very sweet of you to say those things. That is my hope. I love doing it. It is really something that I hope to keep doing. To compare it to those shows? Those are the shows I grew up on. They were shows that I really loved.

What is interesting to me, having spent quite a bit of time in the town of Portland, is hearing how the people who live there have taken to the show. How do they perceive it? Are they having fun with it? Or are they a little bit offended?

Fred Armisen: The people from Portland who have been around love it. But I think I could be skewed, because it was people that I worked with. They were all from Portland. Most of them. The way we did it? We didn't do it in any mean way, where we were skewering the people of Portland. This is a party about Portland. It's a tribute.

Its never malicious, by any means.

Fred Armisen: We always thought about that. Anytime something went in that direction, we could sense it. We didn't want to make fun of anybody. We wanted to make it a little kinder than that. The people on the crew loved it. Our props guy was this ultra-Portland guy who had tattoos. He has a tattoo of 503; the area code. He was really into it. That was my gauge. If he didn't feel offended, then we figured it was okay.

He had a tattoo of 503? That is funny. You know, they split that to where its 541 now. He ought to be cautious where he moves...

Fred Armisen: I know! And that change could keep happening.

Once you sort of immerse yourself into the so-called "hipster" lifestyle, for the last couple of years, you'll find that Portland has really become their destination city. The city to dream about and the city to visit on vacation. And now we're starting to see that seep into popular culture. This show seems to be breeching that zeitgeist. Do you feel as though you are on the cusp of something culturally big with Portlandia? You're sort of like Mudhoney right before Nirvana broke...

Fred Armisen: Wow! We'll see. It could be...I don't know if we could be fully responsible for something like that. I did notice, before the show, that there have been quite a few New York Times articles about Portland. Just over the years. I'd be like, "Oh, look at this!" There'd be an article about Portland's food. I think, little by little, there has been a wave of "something's happening here!" I think. Though, that could just be my perception, because I am biased towards Portland. I do like it so much.

I have seen it. Last year, I was living in the Silver Lake, Echo Park area of Los Angeles, and it is a very hipsterish culture in that part of town. People were moving to Portland, people were talking about Portland as though it were Disneyland. Then we have the other IFC show that just aired in November, David Cross's Todd Margaret was also from Portland. Is that a coincidence? Do you know David?

Fred Armisen: I do. Though, I think that was just a coincidence. Maybe it's just out there. That Portland is a place to go. I certainly didn't discover it through a lot of research. I found it because I was drawn towards it. I also feel that places like Echo Park and Silver Lake...They are destinations on their own too. People love places like that as well.

I want to know how soon you guys are going to tackle Portland's amazing strip and Burlesque culture. When are you going to take viewers to the Sandy Jug and Acropolis? Or are those places too obvious to poke fun at? I mean, girls dancing in horse stables is pretty hilarious on its own...

Fred Armisen: We did one sketch where Carrie and I both played strippers. Somehow, the sketch just didn't...We didn't have an ending for it. We ended up cutting a bunch of sketches. We did try to approach it. Sometimes we don't know what the equation is to make something work. So we just shot it and thought, "This really doesn't make us laugh." So we just moved onto something else. But we're trying. I think there's a lot about Portland we haven't even touched on yet.

Having said that, I see that this series is only six episodes long. Are you going back to this? Is this going to be a seasonal thing, were we see more of your beautiful take on Portland's rich culture?

Fred Armisen: I certainly hope so. I will always work with Carrie. I will always do more. That is our hope. To keep it going. It is a TV show, so those hopes depend on how it all goes in the long run.

In the first two episodes we see a couple of prominent Portland luminaries. You have Kyle McLaughlin from Ashland, who is also known for shooting Twin Peaks up in the area. Sam Adams, the real Mayor of Portland. You have Gus Van Sant coming on soon. How did you go about securing these Portland ambassadors, and what exactly do you have Gus doing on the show?

Fred Armisen: All of that was very fun and easy. It was just a matter of a couple of phone calls. We were like, "Hey, are you around today? Do you want to do this?" And they did. And I could tell that they were all really into it, because they all wanted to hang out afterwards. We would shoot all day, and then we'd be like, "Okay, let's go get a meal." Gus Van Sant came in, and he was the moderator of a fake film festival that we did. Me and Carrie play a couple of filmmakers, and he is the moderator. We shot it at a local theater there. He was really cool.

I didn't know until I was looking at the background on this show, that you originally started out in the entertainment business as a drummer. That you were in the same scene as Carrie before you moved onto movies, and took your place at SNL. Can you give me a little bit of your history as a drummer, and the course you took in stepping away from that and becoming a comedian and actor. It's a slightly odd trajectory that you don't hear of too often...

Fred Armisen: The major difference between me and Carrie was that her band was hugely successful, and mine wasn't. Although, we had our personal successes. Personally, it was one of the best times I had in my life. I loved it. I was a drummer in a band called Trenchmouth. It was a punk band. We were inspired by Fugazi. We would play with Nation of Ulysses and Jawbox. A lot of DC bands. We played in Chicago. We toured a lot. We put out a couple of albums. We worked really hard. And we toured all the time. It was a lot of fun, and I really loved it. It was very loud, very frenetic, very idiosyncratic music. It was very percussive. Yeah, I loved it.

How did you segue that into the comedy you do now?

Fred Armisen: It was just a strange turn of events. I went to this music festival called SXSW. It was back in 1998. I went with a video camera. My girlfriend at the time videotaped me interviewing people. And I would do it as different characters. I was there to play music. But it was this weird festival, where all they talked about was how to make it in the music business. It was a good time, but something about it was off. I must have been frustrated, because I did all of these different interviews as all of these different characters. This videotape that I made started to make the rounds. In Chicago, and then eventually around the country. Eventually, I was showing this videotape at clubs; places where Trenchmouth would play. People would turn out for it. And people would write about it in the local papers. All of a sudden, I found myself doing it full time. Pretty quickly, I said, "Oh, I think I am doing this now." Then HBO brought me on to do some of these. The tape was just me being a German guy, or a retarded guy, or a blind guy, just interviewing bands. Before I knew it, that is what I was doing fulltime. And it hasn't stopped. I am still on that trajectory. Then one thing led to another. Before I knew it, I was doing stand-up. I was doing HBO. And then finally, I was on Saturday Night Live. It all happened very quickly, and I am blown away by it.

Do you ever find yourself in a club, being invited on stage to play drums? Or are a lot of the up and coming kids, much like myself, not aware of your presence in the punk scene?

Fred Armisen: There are bands that I am friends with, who will invite me up on stage. Like Les Savy Fav, who have had me on stage, and I have played on their record. There are a couple of bands like that. Yo La Tango has invited me to play with them. But it never happens where I am a stranger. And they're like, "Come up here and play!" Its only with people I 'kind' of know.

You have the great Portland Song in one of the first two episodes. I'm sorry, IFC switched the episode number on them, so I am not sure which one it is...But do you guys incorporate more music into the upcoming episodes, and do you plan on doing that heading into the future with this as well?

Fred Armisen: Oh, yeah. Definitely. We love doing it. The song you are talking about is in episode 1. And that is Dream of the 90s. It's an indie song. There will be music along the way, and we did do some more. We did some incidental music as well. Carrie and I, we did some background music that we recorded when we were in Portland.

How much fun is that for you to go back to your musical roots?

Fred Armisen: I love it. It's great, because I am not doing it to make it in a band. I am not recording an album, or trying to put out a single. It's like music for me. Its music for its own function.

What's great about the show for me, being a fan...I won't say that I was a fan since you first appeared on SNL...I grew into liking you quite a bit. I don't think that is a rude thing to say, is it?

Fred Armisen: No, that's fine.

Its like one of those great songs, where you hear it, and it takes a moment for it to click. And then you are suddenly, "Oh, wow, this guy is pretty great." Do you know what I mean?

Fred Armisen: Oh, yeah. There is stuff that I used to watch that was like that for me too.

Its great having watched you for so long on SNL, and then now see you shine as your own person on this show. Because the interesting dichotomy here is that you're creating these people from scratch, where your most known characters on SNL are caricatures of other people. But you have so embodied these public figures that now, when I see Obama, its almost like I am watching him do you. When I see the real Governor of New York, I feel like I am looking at you. Do you ever find it hard to disassociate yourself with these individuals?

Fred Armisen: Oh, it's easy. In a way, for me, they're just sketches that I do. I move onto other sketches and stuff. It's pretty easy. I think people can separate the two. I think...It's hard for m to tell. I don't always know what everyone is thinking. People are nice to me on the street. People can separate it. I think. I don't know. I wish I had a better, quicker answer for that.

Of course we can separate you from another person. But take the case of David Paterson. I had never seen him until you brought him on the show. I never realized that he looks so much like you playing that character. Now, it's hard not to think of you whenever I see him. I automatically think of you when I see the governor. I mean, I am not mentally deficient, by any means. It's just this undeniable tie you've created with this person...

Fred Armisen: Right, right...On SNL, you tend to create a character around someone. It's like an exaggerated version of them.

That is what's so fascinating watching you on this show. You are not nailing one individual here. You are showing us types that we are familiar with, in and around the area of Portland. Is that funner for you to not have to rely on a template that is already set up and preexisting in terms of someone's ticks or personality traits?

Fred Armisen: In a way, it's a little harder. There is not that thing of, like, "Oh, everyone knows who this person is." Its more like, "Oh, I hope people know who this person is." They seem like such obscure characters. I have this thing where I hope that everyone knows who I am doing. In the end, I like things to be difficult. I don't like things that are easy, anyway. I enjoy both types. I enjoy getting to work on Saturday Night Live, where I get to do people like David Paterson. And then, its like a different muscle to do someone like a bicycle guy on Portlandia.

Now, you must have seen these people on the streets of Portland, or at least elements of them. So in essence, it's almost like doing a caricature of someone people are familiar with, but might not know personally. Is it going to be hard to go back to Portland, and sit, and watch the people there, and not point to certain individuals out the crowd, thinking, "That person would make a great character for the show!"

Fred Armisen: Oh. I haven't done that yet. We shot in August, and then I came right back to New York. So that is yet to be seen. I trust that I will be able to enjoy it without thinking everyone is someone I should do on the show.

I'd imagine that might be hard to do sometimes, especially if you sit down in a restaurant and you run into a strange and unique individual, as you are apt to in that particular area. That must take some brain restraint...

Fred Armisen: I know. Sometimes, when you are walking around, you spot people. And they are simply living caricatures. You know what I mean?

Yeah, that is especially true of Portland. And that's what is so much fun about watching the show.

Fred Armisen: They exist all over the place. I have seen them in other cities.

That is true. But there is something so off about the city of Portland that you perfectly nail in this show. Which makes it so amazing to watch. Now, with SNL coming back so soon, can you tell us what we might expect to see throughout the rest of this year?

Fred Armisen: Nobody knows. We don't even know what is happening this week.

There is a new show this week?

Fred Armisen: Yeah, yeah. There is a new show this week. And we do very little planning before hand. We just write. And see what works.

It seems like you guys sure are doing a lot more shows this year than last year. Is that off-base?

Fred Armisen: No, no. It's about the same. We do twenty a year. Maybe twenty-two. We had a very short Christmas break this year. That may be why it seems that way. But we're locked for twenty-two shows this year.

Do you have any new characters that you are looking to bust out on SNL soon, and with that question comes my last question...Is it hard not to save any particular character for yourself later, thinking, "Gosh, I really should use this guy on Portlandia, and maybe not SNL"?

Fred Armisen: No. I never save anything. If something comes to me, I feel very luck. Like, "Oop! I just came up with an idea!" That is all total luck. It is a nice day when something comes my way. Like, here we are!

So, saving characters is not something you do when you are immersed in one particular project. Your whole heart goes into whatever you are working on in the moment?

Fred Armisen: Yes. You can never control timing like that. You can never control when something is going to work, and when something is not going to work. You just cannot control it. You don't want to save it, you might not get to use it. If something comes to me, I want to use it while I can, you know?