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Fred Armisen.

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Fred Armisen on Writing Sponsors Into Portlandia, Joining Late Night, and Bad Art in the Netherlands

Watching Fred Armisen interact with Seth Myers in the traditional post-monologue, Dave-checks-in-with-Paul slot, the salient difference between the two men is apparent: They both seem nice, but Fred is a hipster (in the very best sense of that very loaded word). That's why his IFC show Portlandia, which makes its fourth-season debut tonight at 10 p.m., works: He and co-creator Carrie Brownstein know what they're poking fun at; the show is essentially a sketch-essay on how American cool is the equivalent of guilty white privilege. We spoke to Armisen ahead of the premiere about that self-awareness, juggling Late Night with Portlandia, and keeping his sponsors happy by writing them into sketches.

Who came up with the tailgating before Prairie Home Companion sketch?
I have to honestly say, that was a mixture of trying to write something for our sponsors, because Subaru supports a bunch of the show. I wish I had a cool answer for you. I think our director kinda thought — I can’t believe I’m telling you this — [let's do] something where we could include it in the sketch, with it still being a funny sketch. And by the way, I’m not saying everything we do is funny, but I’m saying, “What can we do in a parking lot?”

Really?
These are things that are just a reality of the show. We don’t have a big budget, so if we’re told, "Hey, there’s gotta be something with a parking lot" — it’s part of making the show. And I believe in things like that, because I think it sometimes helps art along, when you have a missive. When you have a command to do something. Sometimes it kind of gives you a little spark of something. And also, they support the show, so I’m not going to complain about it.

Goethe said, "It is in working within limits that the master reveals himself."
That’s something that’s really underestimated. I think that the best art has been made that way. I believe in limitations. I think the worst art ever made — in my opinion, because it’s all so subjective — is where the artist had complete freedom.

Can you give me an example?
Yeah, the Netherlands.

[Laughter.]
No disrespect to the Netherlands, but I went there and there was some sort of an art festival that I could tell was sponsored by the government or something. It was just this wonderful street fair where there were these stages and musicians and people doing art. And it was so, um … there was no struggle with [it]. It was people doing whatever they wanted and it was too nice. I think that’s when there’s no limitations. I could tell that they were just like, Okay, here’s a check and just do what you do and we really appreciate you. I felt the opposite of inspired. Disinspired.

Good art isn’t coddled.
Definitely. You’ll find an example of the opposite, obviously, where it’s worked out, but on the other hand, my favorite art comes from a total surprise, from an unexpected city and from an unexpected situation. That’s where the best stuff comes from. I can give you a few examples: Minneapolis and Prince. Who expected that city to make that? He didn’t grow up in New York City or London, and with all respect to Minneapolis, that must have been a different world in 1979.

And then the record company tells him you can’t release a triple album, you have to make it a double album, and that’s Sign of the Times.
Yeah! I mean, his struggle with the record companies, that in itself became a limitation, and I also love that phase.

I have an another good example, but I don’t want to criticize anybody. I’ll just say that, there are times when TV shows, like The Honeymooners, or I Love Lucy or something, where they’re totally in their stride and this thing happens, where you can tell they got everything they wanted. And it starts to look a little relaxed. No criticism to the shows whatsoever, these people are geniuses. I’m just saying, there’s a moment where it’s like, Look, they redid their contract and now it takes place in the suburbs and their wardrobes are a little nicer … It’s not necessarily something that you’ll even see on screen as far as writing or performance, but there are these little things where you can tell that they had things a little easier.

Your life became a little easier in this fourth season. How much time was freed up by being away from Saturday Night Live?
I was definitely able to focus more on the show, but it’s not like it became cushy all of the sudden. It didn’t alleviate the budget, we don’t have dressing rooms, we don’t have a sound stage. We’re still low-budget, it’s still IFC, it’s still Portland. An example of it would be if we did the whole thing in a different city, and sort of made our lives easier.

It seems like in the first couple of episodes of this season, the jokes were more pointed.
It’s tricky. I can’t believe I said tricky. I’m so sorry. We’re not really making fun. And the reason I say we’re not making fun is because we are those people. I am very much like all those characters. It’s not like we’re pointing a finger; I think it’s more reflective.

To borrow a phrase that you made famous, did you read the Grantland essay that Mark Harris wrote about the evolution in the way we talk about movies?
No!

He talked about how when we discuss say, the Wolf of Wall Street, now we’re talking about the morality of the art in a more sophisticated way — not just "is this good for us" but "what were the artist’s intentions?" I think the people in Portlandia are emblematic of this discussion. These people are conscious of this moral aspect of living their lives. And they’re doing it in nice places and they’re very comfortable, and maybe that’s why there’s something that begs to be teased about them.
Yes. I find myself in that position all the time, looking at movies that way. There’s also a thing about doing the right thing as far as driving and eating and just existing that seems kind of new to me. So there’s always this little cloud of guilt, a little bit of worry, that you’re reacting in the right way. Some people will talk about Wolf of Wall Street and they sort of talk about, "What did Martin Scorsese mean by it?" Or the writers or the performers. I wonder, do you think that we’re finding more detail in it because we’re reading things online, or did they have these discussions in the 1940s and '50s, but they didn’t document them enough because they didn’t have access to do that?

Maybe. So you just moved to Los Angeles, but you just got named the band leader of Seth’s Late Night show. Is there a model you're using for how you'll work that?
I take any project on a month or two at a time. Meaning, I don’t think too far ahead. I know that I’ve got to block out May through September for Portlandia every year. So I’ve been able to do that before. The way that they approached me to do this is sort of, Do you want to curate a band? My answer, always, is to always think, What would Wayne Coyne do? So yeah, right now mathematically it might not make sense, but do I want to go to New York and help my friend Seth Myers out? Absolutely. This is a good opportunity: I like playing music. So I think it’s something where I’m going to start it off and curate it and sort of revisit it, and get it going. And I’ve been having a good time doing it, and reconnecting with my friends who play music. My priority will always be Portlandia, but this is something that, like all of us — Carrie Brownstein does it, John Krissel, our director does it — we sort of go do all these things, and let it enrich what we’re doing together.

What’s the difference in the artistic impulse of a musician and a comedian?
I think a comedian has a more specific job. Whereas a musician can fall into different categories, you know, of making background music, or doing a soundtrack or wanting to be in a band, or writing the song, or writing your own songs. And then comedy is a very black and white thing. You want to make people happy. This is for the audience. It’s a little more specific.

On your last show on SNL, all your musician friends joined the stage with you. The impression I get is that you hang out with more musicians than comedians and writers. Is that accurate?
Oh, it’s pretty even. You know what’s weird, I think the two worlds in general are pretty friendly with each other. And this is nothing new. When I see Peter Sellers with the Beatles or John Belushi with Keith Richards, I think that they’re all on good terms with each other. Those worlds are very comfortable with each other. And I think it’s always been that way.

Photo: Michael Stewart/WireImage