Fred Armisen on Portlandia’s Current Season and Fighting Artistic Complacency | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Fred Armisen on Portlandia’s Current Season and Fighting Artistic Complacency

Dream a Little Dream

Apr 30, 2014 Fred Armisen Photography by Maarten de Boer Bookmark and Share

For someone so accomplished, Fred Armisen gives the impression that he hasn’t thought all that much about why he has become one of the most ubiquitous comedic writers and actors of his generation. Ask him about his career or his work on Portlandia, and he’s just as likely to turn your question into a philosophical discussion of the art he loves. Comedy, music, film, paintingit’s all part of the same continuum for him, and there’s a disarming excitement in his voice when he talks about his favorite artists. And if Armisen seems to avoid questions about his creative process, it’s not that he’s being evasive. He’s a dreamer, the kind of artist who is always anticipating his next move rather than examining his last one, as if thinking too much about his art would get in the way of creating it. As such, what follows here is a sprawling discussion of why some artists lose their way, why others stay vibrant, and why the future belongs to the risk-takers. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Fred Armisen, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on Portlandia.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Now, since you’ve done four seasons of Portlandia, are there any unique challenges that come at this stage in the show’s progression?

Fred Armisen: Oh, wow. That’s a good question. I suppose, knowing that people watch it, we don’t have that thing anymore where before, when we first started, we were like “We don’t know what the hell this is. We’ll see who watches it and hope for the best.” Now there’s a little bit of “Well, we’ve presented this character as this, so we can’t really stray from that as their ideology. People will note it and keep track, so we have to adhere to these rules a little bit.” So there’s that kind of thing a little bit. I don’t know if that’s a challenge, but it’s something to be addressed. But we’ve always trying to be careful. We’re trying not to be careless with anything.

It seems like some shows, even the great ones, start running out of ideas around season four or five. Why do you think some shows seem to run out of momentum the longer they go on?

I think that’s a grand mystery. Because for any philosophy or any wisdom I can come up with, we can come up with a show or an art piece that did the exact opposite. So you can’t write it off by saying “Well, it was just on for too long,” because there are some shows that hit their stride way later. The same goes forand I hope this is okay to use this comparisonbut it’s like bands. The Rolling Stones were around for a while, but it wasn’t until later, in my opinion, that with Some Girls it was like they kept it going and then hit this new plateau. You could say the same for Saturday Night Live. They kept it going, and then somewhere late, all of a sudden Will Ferrell showed up and there was this other new show. Trust me, I’m not comparing us to Picasso, but I feel like Picasso was like that, too. Andy Warhol was like that. So it’s not really longevity. I have this really weird theory, and this is something that you might not agree with and you might even be able to show me examples of the opposite, but I have this opinion that sometimes when art becomes too easy that something gets lost there. So I think shows, or any kind of artwork, where you indulge the artist and are like, “Hey, do whatever you want. If it’s easier to shoot your shows near your house in Miami, we’ll make that happen.” I think when you start making things easier for everybody, something happens there where all of a sudden it doesn’t have the same urgency. I don’t want to call any shows out in particular, because it’s not my place to criticize anything, but in my mind I have a show from the ‘50s where I think that happened. And I think there’s something to that, where you start really indulging everything, somewhere in there the comedy takes a backseat. But that’s a maybe. That’s something that I’ve seen a little bit.

Do you think you need to have a certain level of discomfort to stay connected to the absurdity of everyday life?

I think there’s definitely an element of that. And I think there’s an element of focus. And I’m not saying that it’s out of line to ask for some better food or a ride to the set every day. I just think when your focus starts to be “How can I make my life easier while working?” I think your brain is like “no, no, no.” What’s important is your writing sessionthat writers’ room. Forget the comfort of all of these luxuries you want around you. When you’re writing, when you’re at work, collaborate. Be with your other writers. Be in the same room. Don’t worry about everything else. Just be there and put in a lot of hours. I think that’s the focus. How can you make a sketch better? How can you leave a sketch alone when it’s enough? How can you cut a sketch when it’s not working? And I think when it starts to be something else, that’s the beginning of the end for whatever show that was. And it’s not a financial thing. I’m not talking about making money or asking for more money. It’s when talent and when the creators of the show are starting to focus on other things.

It seems like, whatever the creative endeavor, success can cause people to lose focus on their original motivation. That happens to musicians all the time.

This is a mishmash of things I’ve read, but you know when a band gets together to record a new album, and they’re like “Yeah, we all decided to do it in this other exotic country, and we all weren’t there at the same time, and some of us flew in and some of us did tracks in other cities.” I think at that point it’s less of a cohesive thing. But I say this, and I’m sure there is an example of the exact opposite. But as far as shows losing what’s funny, I think it’s many things at the same time. And also those are just some opinions. We’ll go, “Oh, this show, how come it got less funny towards the end?” But there are always those people who feel exactly the opposite. Like, there’s a Grateful Dead song that’s my favorite Grateful Dead song. I barely know their musicI never owned an album of theirs in my life. But I heard one song that is so, so good, and it’s called “Shakedown Street,” and it’s pretty much a disco song. I’m like, “Oh! That song is great!” But if you go on iTunes, all of their fans are like, “This is the worst of their albums. I don’t like this one. I don’t know what was going on with them.” So that’s an example of exactly the opposite opinion. Even if their fans don’t like it, I’m like, “Sorry. That’s definitely my favorite of theirs.” So for any show that you or I are thinking about right now that “got not as funny” or became unfunny, there are those people who are like, “No. That’s what I like the most.”

Do you think you’re in any danger of getting too comfortable on Portlandia?

No. It’s a low budget show. I can’t see any reason why we’d all of a sudden become a non-low budget show. I mean, it’s an IFC show. That’s nothing against IFC, but we are extremely limited. We shoot everything on location. We shoot in Portland. There’s a chance if we had a bigger budget that we’d shoot in L.A., and just do the exteriors in Portland.

It seems like so many artists, as soon as they get a sense of who they are as artists, they get comfortable and then spend the rest of their careers chasing some idealized version of what they think they are. They start thinking, “This is the kind of art I make” and become limited by that.

I think it’s really fragile. There are some people who have done it right. The Flaming Lips are still making great art. So there’s one. And also they treat themselves well. So I don’t know, man. It’s tricky. I know one thing, and that’s whenever I see the big push before something comes out, and they’re already saying it’s going to be huge, that’s a death knell. For example, sometimes there are movies where it’s like, “Here it comes! The biggest actors! Plus, this big director! Plus, this and this and this! Here it comes!” That’s when you know it could be trouble. It’s like celebrating success before it happens. “Get ready!” I’m like, “Well, I think you have to count that after the fact. That’s when you can say that.”

So you create something that can never live up to the expectations.

I think it’s that, but it’s also energy. How much are you putting into this campaign? Why don’t you chill out and look at your edit or something you can fix, instead of “Get ready!” On the other side of this, how great was this whole Beyoncé thing? I think that has all the elements of David Bowie and Devo and The Flaming Lips. We’re not thinking of an actual product now, but the art of an ad campaign, of publicity, of manipulating thatthat’s an art unto itself. The fact that she [released an album without doing any promotion], that’s a scary thing. She could have fallen on her face. And to do an unannounced albumtalk about punk! That’s a version. That’s a totally rebellious, really amazing thing that she did. That’s amazing. I’m so psyched about that. That’s what I mean when I say instead of indulging your comforts, that’s putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Not having anything to do with houses or travel, but the comforts of the publicity machine and putting out an album, making it completely unannouncedthat’s someone that reinvents themselves. Even if the look is similar, that is totally what I mean by that’s when people will not go sour. That’s when things will be fresh. “For this album, we’ll just not announce it.” A whole album! People are just getting used to the fact that there’s no such thing as albums anymore. That campaign is the equivalent of Sgt. Pepper’s. I’m so blown away. So psyched.

It seems like you need artists to take those kinds of crazy risks for the industry to change. That’s how revolutions get started.

While I’m trying to think of while things go off the tracks, on the other side of it, the reason things stay vibrant is because of moves like that. I think Kevin Spacey doing House of Cards on Netflixthat’s another one. That’s taking away all your comfort. I don’t know for a fact, but I imagine there were some regular network options he would have had. We know Netflix now as this big successful thing, but before House of Cards, I don’t think anyone knew how it was going to be. And all these people are like, “No. Let’s make 13 episodes and do this show that will come out on Netflix.” That is really risky.

Going back to The Flaming Lips, unlike almost every other band, they’ve kept things fresh for, what, 30 years now just by being willing to do whatever crazy thing they think of. It’s hard to think of too many artists that remained as vibrant now as they were when they started.

Right. It’s super rare. Maybe zero. I can’t think of any that have done it like The Flaming Lips. They’ve kept it positive. It looks to me like they’re enjoying it. Also, the way they look. They look like themselves. I love that about them. Also, where they’re from and where they music out of itit’s so cool that it’s Oklahoma City. I love them.

Wayne Coyne really seems fearless. I get the impression that he just wants to make art and doesn’t really care how commercially successful it is.

And he’s still a dreamer. He’s got all the combinations of everything great. I feel like he’s a hero. I definitely look at him as a person who is heroic.

Is it difficult to continually push yourself to reinvent the way you write for Portlandia?

Definitely. Carrie is really good at that, and Jon [Jonathan Krisel, co-creator] is really good at that. We kind of keep each other in check that way. If I stay in a comfort zone, one of the other two will say, “Well, we need to do this,” which is helpful. I’ll come up with an idea, and Jon will go, “Well, we kind of did that already,” and I’ll go “Damn it! You’re right.” And Carrie does the same. She’s really vigilant.

On paper, it doesn’t seem like the show should work. Carrie’s sense of humor is so analytical and cerebral and yours is so much more absurdist.

That’s something that I have to give credit to the show and also to IFC, because on paper it almost looks incomplete. And a good example of it is “Put a Bird on It.” That was Carrie’s idea, and any sketch writer, they’d present it in a different way. But Carrie had that idea, and she just said, “I just noticed that there are birds on everything, and they call it art. They’ll put it on a lampshade. They’ll put them everywhere.” That was her whole concept. There’s no joke to it. It’s this other thing that becomes comedy just from her saying, “I noticed this thing.” So if you presented it to a TV show, they’d be like “Why don’t you come back to us when you have finished the idea.” Leave it to Jon Krisel to turn it into a visual sketch. And there it is.

Well, it seems like the differences in you and Carrie’s senses of humor works to your advantage. You’re always pulling in a different direction, but it ends up pulling the sketches in an unexpected direction.

Well, thank you very much for putting it that way. Because it’s not in spite of each other. We also don’t think about it much. When we’re performing or writing a sketch, I don’t think, “Oh, I have to be in opposition to Carrie’s method.” I actually just think, “I have to make this moment entertaining.” I just want it to be funny. And then she approaches it differently, and that’s where that tension comes out. But all my favorite things in the world are like that. All my favorite comedy is like that, and I like that Pete Townshend and Keith Moon were so different from each other, and Pete Townshend was so linear when he played and Keith Moon was so all over the place. I like that in all my favorite things. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones…I also don’t want to come off and say that I’m comparing myself to them, but on the other hand, fuck it, I don’t care. I’ll compare our situation to art that I like. I’m not saying that we’re identical. I look up to that stuff is what I mean. I aspire to it. I aspire to all these combinations.

In retrospect, was there any particular moment when you realized the show was catching on with an audience?

Yeah…over the past couple seasons, I’ve seen it grow. And the most very literal thing is that when people say something to me on the street they say “Portlandia!” as opposed to any other show that I’ve been on. That’s huge to me, because one [SNL] is on a huge networkNBC. And it’s something that took me very much by surprise. And then over the years of interacting with people, another surprise is the type of people they are, like a mother and daughter. And a mother will say, “Oh, my daughter loves the show.” And it’s like a little kid. The actual moment was maybe some time after season one, seeing stuff about “Put a Bird on It.” We barely knew what was going to happen with the sketch, and to have people repeat that stuff to me, I’d say that was definitely it.

Why do you think the “Put a Bird on It” sketch connected with so many people?

I have no idea. If I only knew. I guess people notice as well that there are birds on everything, but I hadn’t. For some reason, it just really resonated with them. And the chicken one, toothe chicken farm one. Maybe I’m glad I don’t know. The moment you know why something is popular with people, that’s probably not good.

Do you think you Carrie has a darker sense of humor than you?

No. Because I don’t think I have a sense of humor that is that defined. I don’t walk around thinking, “I’ve got this sense of humor, and I’m so funny.” I’m more like, “I think [this] is funny…” I almost feel like when we’re shooting, everyone around me is also like, “Yeah, I don’t quite know what this is.” We did this sketch over our last season, season three, where I work at this recording studio, and all I do is talk about microphones and the fact that The Beach Boys use these microphones and recording equipment, and I don’t even know if that’s having a sense of humor. I just like the idea of someone who talks about microphones. It’s such a weird guy thing-recording studio guys. So I don’t know what it is exactly. I don’t know if I’m ready to define that I even know what my sense of humor is. But what I mean to say about Carrie is that if she goes a little bit darker, I’m lucky in that she hasn’t gone to those places that I’ve seen comedians go, where I’m like, “Oh, God. Don’t do that.” By the way, it has nothing to do with a moral compass. It’s just too easy.

Do you think you’d ever like to make music with Carrie?

No. We’re good. We’re fine. We collaborate enough. The reason we started ThunderAnt to begin with was so that we didn’t have to make music together, plus we do get to make music for the show a little bit. We’ve done enough. In the department of creative things that we do together, we’re happy.

So how long do you see yourself doing this show? Do you want to be doing it 10 years from now?

Something reasonable. There’s a lot more than it just being enjoyable. I think the other thing that’s important is that all of us are in agreement with what we want and that it’s all manageable, that the whole system for it is goodthe support system. There are a few things in the infrastructure that are also important for us. I’m just saying that it’s important that we are able to do it the way that we want to do it. That’s all. That’s not a big statement. I don’t want it to be the kind of show that we do for so many years that it just becomes a blur. But as long as we can maintain the quality of it and make it better and reinvent it. I’d like to see the face of it change. We’ve had some actors on the show, like Portland actors, and I want to see stuff with them in it. I want to write something that I’m not in.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital/iPad version of the February/March issue (Issue 49).]


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