Fred Armisen on Portlandia and the Dream of the 90s
Of all the current Saturday Night Live cast members, Fred Armisen seems like the least likely to spin-off one of his Studio 8H characters for the box office. Not necessarily because he hasn't been given the opportunity -- after Will Forte's disastrous MacGruber though, who could blame movie studios for not trying? -- but because Armisen, who Lorne Michaels described as "an artist, not a careerist," seems genuinely content to be part of Saturday Night Live's ensemble cast. So it is a little surprising to see that after nine seasons with the show, the self-described "short-sighted" actor has gone ahead and created a new sketch comedy series for the IFC called Portlandia, which co-stars Sleater-Kinney founder Carrie Brownstein.
The Long Island-raised actor phoned Movieline to discuss his involvement in the new project, his long-term friendship with Brownstein and his fondest memory of the 90s. Portlandia premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. on IFC.
[The first half of Armisen's conversation with Movieline -- about passing his Barack Obama impression to Jay Pharoah -- was posted earlier this month here.]
What was your relationship with Portland like before coming to this project?
Well, it is where my friend Carrie lives. I would just say, "I'm going to come visit you" but I didn't know what to expect. Little by little, I just realized that it was a place I really liked. I liked being there, getting coffee there, sitting at all of the cafes, walking around. I just liked the way it looked. I made a bunch of friends there and before I knew it, Portland was a destination of mine. I started just flying in to relax.
So Portland was kind of your vacation spot.
Yeah, a surprise vacation spot.
In the first episode, there is this brilliant musical sequence about how the dream of the 90s still exists and is alive in Portland. (Watch the clip below.) What part of the 90s do you miss most?
I miss the amount of recording studios. I feel like everyone had a recording studio back then. Maybe I'm just not experiencing them as much now. Maybe I'm just not in that world enough to see them but I remember that people would just build these incredible studios and that was a thing. People would put out a ton of record labels too but there are still good record labels.
Would you ever start your own record label after Saturday Night Live?
No, that's just not in my personality.
How do you mean?
There are people who are genetically made to start record labels and I'm not one of those people. People just have it in their blood and are good at it. Corey Rusk from Touch and Go and Ian MacKaye. These are people who have made their own labels. They're organized and -- I don't know, they're just so good at it.
Carrie is a rock legend in the Seattle and Portland music scenes but she does not have that much comedy experience. How did you help acclimate her to this environment?
I didn't have to do anything. She's a natural. She's just naturally funny. All I can do is do my part and try to make the sketches work. She was great. She really made me laugh.
Did this project satisfy you in ways that Saturday Night Live does not?
It's just more of a timing thing. I always want to be working on something. Saturday Night Live is from September to May. Portlandia came up during the summertime and it was with a friend that I had never worked with before professionally. And this was in a different city. Fortunately, it worked out that I could do this in my time off but there wasn't anything that was missing from Saturday Night Live that I was trying to do. A lot of Portlandia feels like the digital shorts we do for SNL. The director is from here -- I say "here" because I'm sitting in the Saturday Night Live office. So it just felt like an extension of Saturday Night Live, not an alternative.
It does feel like a slightly more sophisticated digital short, just because you have more time to explore each concept -- with thirty minutes as opposed to two minutes. Did you feel more comfortable with the long-form comedy process as opposed to the short-form process at SNL?
I tend to think that there is a sophistication to everything at Saturday Night Live including the sketches. I think the one difference is that there is a live audience so you hear the crowd react. So Portlandia is different in that sense but it's still just sketches of me in a wig talking to somebody. So they come out through a different channel but they still start from the same place.