Fred Armisen on the Evolution of ‘Portlandia,’ ‘SNL,’ and American Accents

Portlandia’s fifth season premiered on IFC earlier this month, and for longtime fans of the show, the newest crop of episodes have been the perfect culmination of four years’ worth of exploring the many characters, small businesses, and human idiosyncracies in the magical world of Portland. But Portlandia isn’t the only thing that’s evolved and changed over the past few years – co-creator and star Fred Armisen has moved from his SNL roots to be the new Late Night band leader and has a brand new IFC show set to debut later this year, so it looks like 2015 will be another busy year for one of TV’s favorite punk rock/comedian hybrids. I recently spoke with Armisen about how he approached the new season of Portlandia, NBC’s upcoming SNL 40th anniversary special, and his hopes to one day master every American accent since 1930.

The last time we interviewed you was almost a year ago, right after you started at Late Night. How’s your year been?

It’s been amazing. I just feel luckier and luckier every year, and the more work that we put into the show – or the more work that I put into things in my life – I just feel like really nice things happen from it. So it’s been great. I mean, for this season of Portlandia we sort of intended to do a very different kind of season. We even said it out loud in the writers’ room, like “We’ve already made what we wanted to make, so this time around, let’s do something that feels like a completely different kind of season.” So then we started to talk about albums that we like and how bands go from making singles to making albums – and so we just started to go in that direction. Now it’s one thing to say it because that’s the easy part, but somehow it really happened. We started to write with those parameters – you know, like with a full episode that goes all the way through – and then it just kept going, and we actually started making the episodes, we started shooting it that way, and then the editing, and it’s like wow, that’s like a full episode! And I am beyond happy. It’s everything I ever wanted in life – all my favorite records and things that bands did, this turned into that.

Last season definitely felt like a transitional one, at least in the way the episodes were structured. Did the “full episode” approach feel like the next natural step for the show?

Yes, because at the end of every season we’ve always done a full episode, and it was a thing we looked forward to, like the fun part at the end of the season. Last year we did that episode called “Getting Away” where we all go to a different town, or “Brunch Village” was another one of those. We kept looking forward to making those episodes, so we were like “Why don’t we just do all of them like that?”

Are there any Portlandia characters in particular who have surprised you in terms of how much material you’ve mined from them for five seasons?

All of them. In the beginning they were such one-offs, like Spyke the bicycle messenger guy, that was like “Oh this’ll be a funny one-minute sketch – there’s no way there could be a backstory for this guy where we see what he’s made of.” And then there are these two “gutter punks” we call them, they just live on the street and have dreads and stuff – those were people who I thought were just a visual thing, but it turns out that they have a whole dynamic, which is coming up this season. So yeah, they all were like that. I had no idea.

You and Carrie have said before that one of your goals with Portlandia is to never repeat yourselves. Season 5 just premiered so this might be too soon to ask, but now that the show has evolved to these full episodes, where do you go from here?

We have some ideas, but I think that’s something we want to not think about until we get to the writers’ room. I think we need all of this time to gather our thoughts, because we put so much into that writing period that I don’t want to rush it. I want to sit with this for a while, see what worked, and then purposefully tiptoe back into it. I think this is something I might’ve learned from SNL too – we would write on Tuesday nights, and sometimes I would try to beat the system by coming in early on Monday to start writing something, but that’s the stuff that always ended up not being used, because I think you need the time to not think about it for a while.

How has it been going back and forth between your jobs on Late Night in New York and Portlandia in Portland? I imagine the constant switching might actually be helpful, or at least force you to stay productive.

Oh yeah. And now it’s happening to everyone on Portlandia – Carrie’s doing a lot of stuff, Jon [Krisel] is doing a lot of stuff, and yeah, it definitely helps. It helps because as far as I’m concerned, the more I’m in motion and the more I’m doing things, the better everything else becomes. It’s just how it is for me, where I just keep coming back to certain projects or starting new ones and it just keeps going and going.

You, Carrie, and Krisel all are big multi-taskers. It seems like you all enjoy having multiple projects at the same time.

Yeah, and Portlandia is our baby in a way and because we film in summertime and because the city of Portland is this whole other city, when we arrive there in June it’s just like this summer camp that we love going to. It’s very much like how we do it on the show where it’s a green, dreamy place with lots of coffee and music, and it’s like catching up with each other again and a mini celebration.

What have you learned from working with Jonathan Krisel over the years?

Oh man. It’s so weird because I always think I’ve learned enough – like after being on SNL, I’ve got this, you know? I continue to learn so much from Jon, and there’s a way I could generalize this and just say I’ve learned a lot, but there’s a very specific thing that has to do with editing and shooting. So say we do a scene… I’ll just use this as a made-up example: A character of mine shows up and I’m at the door, right? So I’ll say to Jon, “Well don’t you need me pulling up into the driveway? Don’t you need me walking up the stairs? Don’t you need me ringing this doorbell?” I have all these steps and he’s like “We don’t need any of that. We don’t need to explain every little moment.” There’s so much that’s said right there in a second that the audience gets, and every year I do the same thing; I go to him like “Yeah but don’t we need to see that he’s in this place, that it’s this modern motel?” and he really trims away all the fat and all the nonsense that could be a waste of the crew’s time and the editors’ time. He really is just like “This is you banging on a drum – everyone gets what that is.”

I’d say that’s the main thing: Don’t overthink stuff. The other thing I would say is that characters have to have a relationship with each other – that’s something I always forget. If you watch some of the PSAs on Portlandia where Carrie and I are presenting something in a fake commercial or whatever, the way we have it scripted is we just have us talking, like “Hey, do you need new camera equipment? We’re a video company!” [Krisel] reminds us that we have to talk to each other, and that’s something I always forget. It can’t just be us two talking at the camera. Even if it looks like a mistake, you just have to have some kind of a dynamic, and that’s an easy thing to forget. And later when I watch it, that’s when I’m like “Oh my God, we so needed that,” because when we’re shooting I don’t think we need that.

What’s the status on your other IFC show American Documentary? Is that still set to premiere this year?

We’re working every day on it. It’s all coming together.

Where are you shooting it? Is it based in New York or LA?

I think we’re splitting up what city we do it in because we want each episode to look different from the others. So yeah, I’m going to say it’ll maybe be in New York and LA and maybe another city thrown in there.

I know you’re working on it with Bill Hader and Seth Meyers – can you share anyone else who is involved?

One of the producers is Erik Kenward, who’s a producer on SNL. He’s helping us along. This guy named Rhys Thomas, he’s a filmmaker on SNL, he’s working on it too.

This isn’t really a question, but that clip of you doing New York City accents from November was fantastic. It was all over the internet that day, and it’s hilarious.

[laughs] Even though I’m not one of those people who’s like “Oh I don’t know the internet,” I actually am not aware of that. You telling me that is really nice, but the only way that I would accept that to be true is that people have told me that. So that’s the only way I know that that got out there. But yeah, I don’t know – I love New York and spent some of my youth growing up on Long Island, and it’s just something that’s interesting to me and fun to do.

If I had more time in my life, I would want to devote a year to figuring that out in every city, you know what I mean? I’d want to be able to do all the Chicago accents or the different San Francisco accents – every place has it. I want to break down how accents have changed over the years. Like, what were the American accents like in 1970, or 1950? Because I think it’s changed. So if there was a way I could do it, I’d want to do an impression of the American accent from like 1930 until now.

That would be so great. Accents are universally entertaining.

It’s really wild. I just haven’t figured out how to really master it all.

Are you excited to see Reggie Watts as the Late Late Show band leader? I guess he’ll be your competition.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as competition. I know how you mean it, but Reggie is my friend, and I think it’s such a great thing. I love how all this stuff is changing. I love how the job of music is changing and how much, even since the last time I talked to you, how the face of music and comedy really is all melting together. It’s an unexpected thing of like “Wow, all of our friends are doing the things they love.” And how great is it gonna be to watch and hear Reggie? You know that’s gonna be great.

The SNL 40th anniversary special is in a couple weeks – is it safe to assume you’ll show up at some point? How’s that all coming together so far?

It’s very much like the actual show in that you never know how it’s all going to turn out, you know what I mean? So a bunch of us are helping out and trying to organize a few things and make it truly as great as it should be. It’s really exciting, and I’m an SNL freak – I love SNL. I can be a fan because I’m not a current cast member, so yeah, I love the history of it, I love watching it now, and I watch very episode. The show doesn’t come together until a few days before the actual live show, so the reason I can’t really announce or say anything is because I just have no idea. But we’ll see – we’ll see what feels right. I can’t put into words how excited I am about it.

You mentioned that you’re an SNL freak and you watch every episode – can you be critical of it, having been a cast member before?

Now that I know what’s behind it, no, I don’t go to a critical place. There are things that I love on the show, and because I know people on the show I just know what goes into it. And many of the writers that were there when I left are still there, so I’ll just go like “Oh, James Anderson did this one – this is totally him!” or whatever, and then I’ll text him and go like “Did you write that?” Or Sarah Schneider – her and Chris Kelly write these pieces, and sometimes I don’t know it’s them and I’ll write and go “Okay, who wrote this one? Who wrote that? Because that was the best thing ever, I can’t believe how great that was,” and so many times it’ll be Sarah and Chris and I’ll be like “Why didn’t I know that? Of course it’s them.”

The “Christmas Mass Spectacular” sketch was so incredible. I loved that one.

That was them. How amazing was that? There was this part where Bobby plays this priest and there’s that joke that isn’t that funny where Bobby’s like “And back then they didn’t have GPS!” and then Beck does a little laugh – like a polite laugh – oh my God. [laughs] It was the best. So many good things. I just love watching it. I love the sounds of it – I love the sounds of the cold open where it feels so live…

And now Darrell Hammond’s there announcing all the names. It’s fun to watch how it changes over the years.

It’s incredible. I love it. I love how it changes, I love the feel of it. I just always remain a fan of it, and it’s so great just to watch it.

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

Fred Armisen on the Evolution of ‘Portlandia,’ ‘SNL,’ […]