Talking with Fred Armisen About ‘Portlandia,’ ‘American Documentary,’ and His New Friend Rob Zombie

Whenever it seems like Fred Armisen has more than enough projects on his plate, he goes ahead and becomes the new Late Night band curator, or he lands another show on IFC, or he decides to release his fake band songs from SNL through a string of 7” singles. But that advanced level of multitasking is really the secret to Armisen’s success, as his spontaneous zen-like approach to his work has led to some of his finest comedic creations, from making web videos with Carrie Brownstein under the moniker ThunderAnt to his commitment to even the most inconsequential gigs, such as dressing up as Penny Marshall to star in the real-life Marshall’s book trailer or showing Conan O’Brien his flawless impression of a decomposing time-lapse photography fox. Now that Portlandia’s fourth season is in full swing, I recently got the chance to talk with Armisen about how the show has evolved, his next IFC show American Documentary, a possible future Fred Armisen/Rob Zombie collaboration, and whether he’s a Bert or an Ernie.

First of all, congrats on getting another IFC show. How did the idea for American Documentary come about with Bill Hader and Seth Meyers?

It’s actually an idea we’ve been working on for a while. Last year when we did Ian Rubbish – which was directed by Rhys Thomas who works at SNL, Seth wrote the piece, Bill was part of it – and when we made it we wanted it to look real as opposed to it just being a joke. So there was a lot of attention to detail that we sort of crammed into those few minutes that we immediately wanted to keep doing it. Not just of music, but maybe a political story or a sports story, and it kept coming up. And Bill is a huge movie fan, he knows all these documentaries – not just the documentaries you go to the movies to see, but stuff you find on Netflix and YouTube where there’s all kinds of obscure documentaries. So we thought, let’s make some. So the Ian Rubbish thing was sort of a launching pad. The other thing we thought too was just so that it’s not just me Bill and Seth at the center of it, we thought it’d be good to have some other actors in it and some other figures in it so that it looks even more authentic.

You mentioned in your Howard Stern interview on Monday that you and Rob Zombie have become friends. Have you two talked about possibly collaborating on something together?

Yeah. We sort of said it half jokingly, but I think that’s where real ideas come out. Rob Zombie to me is an idol in that, aside from the fact that I love his music and his band, I always like when people reinvent themselves. It’s such an admirable trait that he became this director behind this very specific genre. So he’s somebody I want to work with because of that – he’s made this whole other world. Also we’re both fans of exactly the same thing; we were texting each other and every reference was a reference we had to expand on. I couldn’t type fast enough. So it was like “Do you like the Misfits?” “Yes! We used to go look at Glenn Danzig’s house!” “I know that house!” and it was almost like a violent “I like Glenn Danzig!” “No, I like Glenn Danzig!” That kind of thing. It was really funny because it’s been a while since I’ve been that giddy while I’m texting.

So the possibility of a collaboration is very good.

Yes. I’m gonna say the possibility is very great, yeah.

One of the things I like about Portlandia is how spontaneous and improvised the episodes feel. Now that you’ve made four seasons and have a fifth in the works, how have you learned to sustain that off-the-cuffness?

I actually credit Jonathan [Krisel] and Carrie, because they’re very good at keeping us in check for not repeating ourselves too much. Sometimes I’ll walk in and think I have this genius idea and they’re really good at saying “Well we kinda did that.” And we need content for the show – we need to come up with ideas, and they are that good at it that they would sooner have nothing than to do something that we’ve already visited. Now, you can look at stuff and say we did a couple things twice, but in general, as far as the ideas that matter the most, we try to move on to the next season in a way where we’re not going backwards.

Portlandia is known for having a lot of musical cameos and references that are on the obscure side, but it’s still accessible for those who don’t catch everything. How have you learned to keep that balance?

Well that’s an easy one in that I just think of my memories watching Saturday Night Live as a kid, I didn’t know who the hell they were talking about. There were jokes on Weekend Update that I would laugh at but I didn’t know what they were talking about. So I think it doesn’t matter – references don’t really matter. Even Bugs Bunny is that way, they throw in some jokes for adults and sometimes you just laugh at the way it’s being done. That’s something that is a lucky break – we get to have Jello Biafra in a sketch, and if you know who he is great, and if you don’t it’s still a sketch.

Between the shows on IFC and Comedy Central there’s a ton of sketch series on television right now, and Portlandia was near the beginning of that. What are your thoughts on how sketch shows are evolving?

I think that we were not at the beginning of it. The roots can go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s I think, but as far as present-day current shows, I think it started somewhere with Tim and Eric. It really started with Mr. Show…and if I keep going backwards I’m just gonna go back to SCTV and Kids in the Hall, but let’s just say – and this is only my opinion – there’s Mr. Show, which is the very early Bill Haley/Chuck Berry/Elvis Presley of it all, and for this current movement that we’re seeing, I think Tim and Eric were sort of the green light of “Oh, you can do this.” And Flight of the Conchords, too – they really spelled out the whole thing of mixing music up with it, the look of it, and the way that they are. I’m sure I’m skipping over many many, but those are the first names that come to my mind, because we were so directly inspired by them.

Still, there seems to be a sketch show boom these days – there are so many on TV to pick from.

It’s exciting, it’s a great thing, because any movement like that in the past has been an awesome thing. Like the British Invasion with The Kinks and all those bands, or when all those New York punk bands like Blondie and The Ramones came up and got signed, and the British bands and stuff – those are my favorite movements. I’m a fan of mass movements like that, because then the audience is motivated, the fans are motivated, the band is motivated, it has a “look.” I think in 10 or 20 years from now, we’ll all look back at these sketch comedy shows that are coming out now, and we’ll notice that they all had a look and a sound and rhythm. We’ll go like, “Remember that style from 2013-2014 that was like this?” We’re too close to it now, but it’s gonna happen. You’ll even be able to make fun of it.

So far two of the 7” singles of your SNL band songs have come out. Whose song will be out next?

The next one coming out will be an artist named Joshua Rainhorn. It’s a sketch I did where Noah Baumbach directed a short film where I was a singer a few years back, and it was near the end of the show or something, so that’s the next one.

March isn’t even over and you already have nine IMDB credits for the year on top of your new Late Night gig. You field a lot of questions about how busy you are, so I was curious whether your stress-free attitude is something you’ve always had or something you had to learn?

I think it’s something that I’ve learned, because I spent so much time in a band working really hard and getting not very far, and it was very difficult that to do anything in television and comedy is hugely, hugely lucky. It’s a lucky thing. Then somehow through all of my time being at work, all of a sudden now I get to do a show with Carrie Brownstein, who I was a fan of?! It’s nothing but really really lucky. And you mentioned how I was on Howard Stern – I’m a fan of him! I listen to Howard Stern then I’m on his show? What else can I say but lucky me? There’s no other way to look at it; all I can do is enjoy it. And when you look at IMDB it looks like work, but what is my workday really, you know? Trying to come up with some abstract comedy idea? I mean, it’s getting to hang out with people who I really love – come on, it’s awesome. I couldn’t have dreamed or designed something when I was a kid as great as this.

This might be a dumb question, but I love how you and Carrie sleep in Ernie and Bert-style beds in Portlandia. Which one of you is the Bert of the relationship, and who is the Ernie?

It’s so not a dumb question. I think in the Fred and Carrie characters I’m the dumber of the two, and I remember Bert being the smarter one. So I think she’s Bert. I’ve never been asked that so this is just my answer that’s coming off of me thinking about it for a minute. I’ll ask her what she thinks later today. (Note: Fred later confirmed that Carrie indeed feels like the Bert.) In my opinion she’s the Bert, because wasn’t Bert kind of smarter?

Well, he collected bottle caps and liked watching pigeons.

Yeah, I feel like Bert was more practical. And it’s easy to address, because me and Carrie are really a caricature of who we are in the show anyway.

Portlandia’s fourth season continues tonight at 10:00pm on IFC.

Talking with Fred Armisen About ‘Portlandia,’ […]