Talking to Fred Armisen About ‘SNL’, ‘Portlandia’, And Being Part of A Comedy Collective
After 11 years of creating some of the oddest and most memorable characters on Saturday Night Live, Fred Armisen left the legendary sketch show at the end of this past season to focus on his other soon-to-be legendary sketch show. Portlandia, which he and co-star Carrie Brownstein created with director Jonathan Krisel, has be picked up for two more seasons on IFC. He will also been seen in the upcoming film Justice for Al, from Bad Santa director Terry Zwigoff. I caught up with Armisen over the phone from Portland to talk about great sketch shows and how Game of Thrones influenced Portlandia.
So it is official now that you’ve left SNL?
I think it’s clear. I didn’t do any kind of official announcement, but I really felt like it was obvious. An ending that was a love letter to all the music I grew up with, and also to my friends and to SNL and to Lorne and to the cast. There was a lot of emotion attached to it, but it was a very positive emotion.
And how do you feel, having left? Does it feel weird?
It feels very natural, because I love SNL. I love Saturday Night Live, and I really feel like people who have left before me have always stayed with the show. They never really quite left, which is nice. Everyone kind of stays close. For example, like when Kristen [Wiig] left, we saw her again. And Andy [Samberg] and Tina [Fey] and Amy Poehler and Maya [Rudolph]. On one level, we stay in each other’s lives, but also the show. I feel like people don’t really just leave in a cold way. I think people stay around in their own way.
Why did you decide to leave the show now?
It was really just strange, in that it felt very natural. It felt like a very healthy good time to do it. I was really enjoying and it just felt—it’s almost hard to define. Bill [Hader] was leaving, and Kristen and Andy had left. It just felt like I was very happy, maybe this is like a good time to do it. And then the other thing that really was eclipsing it was Portlandia. Portlandia started to pull me away more and more, schedule-wise, and I just felt like it’d be nice to focus on it a little more and go into the fall a bit more with shooting. So it was because of that. And also it was just a feeling.
That’s fair. You were there for a long time.
Yeah. I was there for a long time and I also felt like I came away from Saturday Night Live feeling very well represented. I felt, and I still feel like, they let me do sooo much stuff that I wanted to do. Stuff that I almost didn’t even know what it was. I was like, this is kind of a little bit of an experiment, or this is just a band thing, this is just a music thing. They just let me do so much, so I felt very fulfilled.
And also the new cast, something about the new cast as they were coming in made me feel really good. Like, this is awesome. This is so great. Look at how well they’re taking care of the house, you know? So it was a combination of everything, between Portlandia and the feeling of real satisfaction and happiness. I was like, I’m enjoying this so much, this’ll be a good time to kind to go to the next phase.
What do you think you’ll miss most about being at SNL?
My biggest memories of SNL, the ones that really stand out in my mind immediately are just writing with people, and being in an office laughing really, really hard. Like this year I wrote a couple things with Vanessa [Bayer] and I don’t even know if any of them went to air but God, we just laughed. And all the stuff with Bill or Seth. Great times with James Anderson. I wrote soo much stuff with James Anderson, more than anybody, through the 11 years I was there. We wrote just sketch after sketch. We wrote The Californians together. It’s this really intensely close relationship. You write until 6 and 7 in the morning, all night, and you just look like a mess, and your hair is a greasy but you’re there and the sun’s coming up and you’re in front of this computer writing and laughing really hard. And that is something that I really will always miss, and I just yearn for it, as far as Saturday Night Live. I’m very fortunate in that I get to do it still with Carrie Brownstein and Jon Krisel and the writers of [Portlandia] so at least I still get to do that.
That’s something I wanted to ask you about. How differently do you approach writing sketches for Portlandia than you did for SNL? Is it a totally different mindset?
Oh, definitely, definitely. Because when you write for a live show, it has to be relevant to the week. It relates to what’s going on, day-to-day. Whereas this, we think, “Well, when is this gonna air? This is gonna air in January.” So we’ve got to step back a little further. Or in some cases, step even closer to it. It’s fewer references to pop culture things that are going on that day.
Other than that, you know, on SNL, we tried to write around what the characters need to be and what the host is going to do. And with Portlandia, its very much, who are Carrie and I going to play? It’s a little less singular. And so I would say that’s the biggest difference. [But] it’s also the same goal, because all we want to do is put together a good show. It’s like two paths to the same ending.
I feel like there’s been a resurgence of really great sketch shows in the last years. Portlandia was one of the first ones that I remember everyone talking about, but now there’s things like Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer and all these really cool sketch shows.
Yeah! It makes me so — it’s the best thing. It’s so cool, because everything that I ever liked about music scenes, I always envied. Like, that must have been great in New York in 1977, or England in 1978 or Liverpool or London in the sixties. There were all these bands that played with each and played on each other’s records. And if you have a record collection, you have a Clash album and a Buzzcocks album and a Sex Pistols album and The Jam album. Or if its SST Records, I love that SST had Black Flag and the Minutemen and I just really envied that. That’s so cool to be part of something. I wished for that someday. And I really strongly feel like that’s what I like get to do. In the future, we can look back and say like, “Hey, remember when there was this whole scene? There was Key & Peele and Amy Schumer.” I love that. And I don’t mean to say this with any conceit, I just will consider that we are part of that. Portlandia was part was of it. It’s like everything I ever wished for. It’s the biggest dream come true, because I could never have been in Sebadoh. I wasn’t in those bands. I didn’t get to do that. And now I have this chance. It’s like I did get to do it. I did get to be part of this thing that was a collection. And I love that, not just that it’s kind of a collection, but I love the quality of it all. I love that Key & Peele is just one way. I feel like Tim & Eric was the sort of start of it all, and Flight of the Conchords. Those are the originators, and then everyone took a different take on it. It’s the quality of it, I’m so happy about that too.
Does having all those other sketch shows sort of encourage you to go off and do things that are maybe a bit more ambitious or unique?
Yeah. Oh, definitely. It gives you a sense of, like, a conversation. Like, “Oh that’s what you’re saying? Great, well we’ll say this then.” It’s like everyone’s sitting around a table or something. And it also makes you step off a couple things too. Like let’s not go in that direction, so-and-so has it covered. They’ve conquered that. No reason to reiterate.
The third season of Portlandia, especially towards the end with the relationships between the characters, reminded me a bit of Louie. Where there’s all these vignettes that don’t immediately seem connected but they build to an emotional thing on top of the comedy.
Yeah, we’re huge fans of that show. It’s almost like that goes without saying, because I feel like, who isn’t? I think the storylines — our goal, and I don’t mean this as a joke, I know it’s a huge show — but we kept talking about Game of Thrones. We’re like, why is it that Game of Thrones, you have to come back to the next episode? We’re like, if there’s something that kind of hooks people, we can weave a couple things together so that you want to see what happens next. So that was what was about, really.
And you have so many guest stars on in ways that you would never expect. I keep coming back to Jim Gaffigan and Matt Lucas as a couple. That’s not a combination I would have ever put together in my brain, but it worked so well. How do you approach that kind of thing?
Yeah, it’s a bit like gluing people together. Like, we needed these two — we haven’t covered these bear guys. How about Jim Gaffigan? Maybe he could be one of them? Yes, that’s a great idea. Great, great. I think he even has a beard, perfect. OK, we still need somebody. Lucas, he would do something. What about him? Yes, great! And it’s a little bit of just like juggling and throwing things together and then all of a sudden it becomes really clear. Of course that’s who it is.
And it’s fun to see people like Matt Berry, who you don’t expect to see on TV in the US.
Yeah, Matt Berry. I’m such a Matt Berry freak. I want to be Matt Berry. I want to work with him but I also, I just love what he is. I really admire him, and I’m just into everything he does and the way he does it. So that was just like a matter of like, we’re getting him on the show. Because we’re all fans, and we’re like, we’re gonna make a character for him. And then that’s how that happened. We’re like, how about someone who does kids music? Great! Get him over here.
He was perfect. And obviously, you and Carrie both did music for a long time, and you bring all that history of music to your show. Do you ever think that you’re educating people about music?
No, I don’t think it’s anything like that. Because we don’t ever think about having to teach anyone anything, cause there’s no such thing as teaching. People just go through life, I think, and they just take in what they want to. I don’t think there’s any way to inform anybody. It’s not fun for a sketch show, you know what I mean? It’s not fun for comedy to try to show anybody anything. That’s just our crutch. That’s what Carrie did, that’s what I did, it’s a match. We love music so much that it’s just a tool. It could have been cooking. It could have been something else, it happened to be music.
I find that when I watch the show, I get a lot of the music references but I don’t feel like I know as much as I should. But it’s still fun.
Oh yeah. But don’t ever think of it as should. I mean, none of it is like, “You should know this term.” It’s just a tool to use in the script to keep it going through a point, but it’s never a point of like, “You need to know who these people are.” Like, I would watch Saturday Night Live growing up, and I didn’t know half the things they were talking about. I’d watch Weekend Update, I was like, “Who are these people?” Especially politics, I didn’t know who the hell they were talking about, and it was funny to me. I didn’t know what was Republican or Democrat or any scandals or sports figure or any of that. I was way in the dark when I was 15 or whatever, and I loved it. I was a huge SNL fan, you know? I don’t care.
I also wanted to ask you about working with Lorne, on both SNL and Portlandia. I feel like’s got such a good eye for comedy as it evolves, and I wonder how his vision sort of seeps down into what we see on the screen?
Well, he is a visionary. And I don’t mean just in knowing what could be coming up in the future. Even the aesthetics of things, like down to the look of sketches on SNL and in the look of Portlandia. He’s involved in the most perfect way. So, he is a real guide for us. He advises us, he definitely pushes us in the right direction, and he’s been there for when we needed him. He’s incredible with advice. He has such a clear picture and just the right kind of experience, and the same goal. So what seems to be, for lack of a better word, arty about Portlandia, these were all things that the original version of Saturday Night Live was. That was a sort of counter-culture show but at the same time, wanting to be entertaining. Wanting to be funny. So he already has the same goal that we do. And we’ve needed him for little things, like how do we cast this kind of role, and for big things, for marketing and for the look of the show. On many different levels, he’s a guide.
And he’s a comedy fan too. The guy loves good comedy. So, we all want to make the same thing. And aside from Saturday Night Live, you have to remember that he did Kids in the Hall. That was another show of that side of him coming out. He’s been incredible, and I don’t make it sound like I’m like making a speech, he’s incredible to Portlandia, he’s protective of it, but he’s also been that way to me. He’s been really incredible to me, throughout SNL and even towards the end. When you think of me doing that last sketch for the season, he’s the person who makes the decision to say okay. That’s a sketch. So I have a lot of gratitude about that, and I don’t think he does it to do anybody any favors. I think he just wants to make a good show.
He just seems to have such an innate understanding of comedy, and how it evolves.
Yeah. I have a suspicion that — I think he’s rooted in music also. I think that the people that moved him in the sixties and the early seventies, the people who inspired him, it all comes from a very musical place. Even the way that he had musical guests on SNL, there’s something that is very exactly on the pulse of what is about to happen. He comes from a very musical place, and that’s another area that I think that Jon and Carrie and Lorne and I have in common. It definitely comes from a musical place.
So what’s next for you? Any other future plans?
Just more Portlandia. Two seasons is a lot for us, and I just want to keep making things. Just keep going. I love doing it. I want to make more and more things. It just makes me happy.
Season 4 of Portlandia will premiere in early 2014.
Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider.