Voices 2013: Fred Armisen

Why he loves living here, and why Portlandia plays it safe.

FRED ARMISEN: "I think some people will say, 'Oh, I moved here because of the show,'" he says. "I apologize if I'm that one extra-annoying person, but I'm one of them."
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When he's here, Armisen, 46, rarely leaves the city, where he buys drumsticks at Revival and takes in Timbers games. He hates nature and the outdoors, and the farthest from downtown Portland he's traveled is Happy Valley, for the Pickathon festival, to see Neko Case perform. 

For someone who has only recently made the city a part-time home, Armisen—more than any writer in many years—has helped shape and shift perceptions of Portland by the rest of the world.

Portlandia, the series he created with co-star Carrie Brownstein, begins its third season Jan. 4 with a well-established cult following. 

The series has been hailed for using the city's oddities to parody a more universal self-satisfied preciousness. "Portlandia knows that there is a little bit of Portland in everyone," read the citation when the show won a Peabody Award last year, "and invites us to have a quick laugh at our own foibles."

But the show has also been criticized for its lack of comedic edge and as a safe, even bland, collection of sketches—as The New York Times said this year, for a "mildness to the show that keeps it from being as funny as it should."

Armisen's career has moved from his time as a punk drummer in the Chicago band Trenchmouth to a comedy career in his 11th season as a regular cast member of Saturday Night Live, where he gained fame for his impressions of President Obama. (Full disclosure: Armisen and I are friends of a sort—we first met in the Chicago punk scene.)

Armisen's own future is uncertain—he's rumored to be leaving SNL after this season. He will only say it will include Portland for a long time.

Do you want to start by telling me what you're doing today?
I've been doing a lot of phone press today with different publications. Last week I had to work on SNL. Just today I did a voice-over for a show called Bob's Burgers.

What are you doing on that show?
I play a food inspector. 

Before Portlandia, you were visiting Portland and doing projects with Carrie Brownstein and hanging out. Now that you actually live here half the time, what has changed in your perspective of the city? I've just gotten to like it even more. But all I knew really was downtown [and] a little bit of the east side. The outlying areas, all those things that surround the city of Portland, I've really liked getting to know that. Going to places and areas I haven't gone to before, I like that kind of discovery.

There's a street up way west. I think it's called Skyline—all the way up in these hills, and then it just goes up and up and up and up, and you see a few scattered bicycle people but not like messenger people, people who do it athletically. And there's farms up there and there's like this whole world. Technically, it's Portland, but it feels like you're a million miles away. 

I'm surprised to hear you say that. It borders Forest Park, so I think of it as this place where hard-ass nature lovers go—people who like to hike.
Oh no, no, no. You've got it wrong. You're thinking that I'm walking around. I never leave my car. I'm very, very comfortable in the surroundings of my car.

Some people say Portlandia, when it comes to depicting the city, plays it on the safe side. It covers a certain segment of Portland, a certain part of the culture, a certain kind of person. Do you feel like you're playing safe on purpose, or do you feel there are a lot of things you don't know about Portland, and that's why those aspects of the city don't really make it into the show?
It's a few different things. On a personal level, I feel like we write about what's close to us and the areas that we're in. My feeling is that every year it expands.

With some luck, and if we get to do season four and season five, those are places to explore. That's a place to go. We can't fit every aspect of the city in the first few seasons. My gut feeling is, you know we'll get there.

When we write, we actually don't think, "What can we cover about Portland?" Portland is kind of like a road map. Sort of like the gravel and the driveway.

When we sit in the writers' room, we think, "We need to do something where Carrie plays a sister to me, and what that dynamic is. We need to do something where there's customers trying to buy a phone." It all starts there.

It's not a documentary. It's what is going to create a funny sketch? We've made the mistake of thinking we need to cover this aspect of Portland, and we can't think of any jokes for it. We wasted a half a day trying to do something about movie theaters that are serving rustic foods, and it went nowhere.

So it starts with the joke.
The first thing always is, what's the relationship? And this is actually a bit of a chore because I don't enjoy that. And it's the others that always say, "Dude, you gotta think about what the relationship is." I have to be told stop making it a circus, because it really is about me and Carrie. 

There's still a general quality to the show that is kind of good-natured, but in an edgy way as Portland itself can be edgy.
That's my own ethic. I think there's enough dark stuff out there. I think there is enough negativity that is covered. And I feel like, well, let's try optimism because I think it might be a good way to go. And it moves things forward without bumming people out. 

You don't like to acknowledge when you dislike something or find something annoying. But there are things about Portland that drive people nuts.
One thing that drives me nuts is there are a lot of stop signs and really careful, overly polite [drivers] at the crosswalk to the point where you can't drive. We covered it in this [sketch] called, "No, You Go," where the car just keeps stopping forever and you never get anywhere.

So that's as complain-y as it gets. We try to keep it really light.

Also, you have to remember that I'm not from there. So I can't complain too much. My complaint if anything is that people are too nice at the crosswalk, but that's as far as it's going to go.

You know when you talk about your family, you could totally complain about them. And then someone else does it. You're like, "You can't talk about my mom."

What are some scenes or jokes that didn't work?
Another one we shot—which was my idea and I was so mad at myself, wasting everybody's time—Carrie and I played these ambulance drivers in Portland, and we shot and we shot and we shot and we just never went anywhere. Ambulances are just not fun. 

How much do you improvise on the show?
Like 90 percent, 80 percent. We'll map stuff out. We even write a script. But then you just kind of look at it and go, "Well, we don't need that."

You're moving away from the individual short sketch into more of an ongoing narrative.
It's a combo of the two. So a good way to think about it is, the last episode of season two, it's all about this one long line at brunch. But if you look at it, it's individual little sketches. 

Have you milked dry the Portland you know—what's funny and what's joke-worthy?
Maybe Portland will change. There might be a whole new way of looking at Portland.

The show seems to focus on particular parts of the city. What happens if Portlandia goes past 82nd Avenue and redirects its focus from this middle-class, fixie-bike, coffeehouse culture to people who live in trailer parks and the rest of Portland?
That's what I'm looking forward to. 

But is that sort of focus—the man on the street, the maybe-not-so-wealthy people that live here—is that out of the safe range for you? 
There's lots of ways to do it. It's tricky. But my answer is, I don't know.

I saw a couple of interviews you have done just recently—one in the Daily Beast. You said Portland is impervious to anything bad happening. There is a reality of Portland that is actually really difficult. Your show doesn't reflect some of the basic underlying, unfortunate realities about Portland, like the lack of jobs.
Well, it's a TV show, not a documentary. It's comedy and entertainment. We're not going to cover every aspect of it.

If you look at the show and you go character to character, you might find some people whose houses are foreclosed on them. 

Carrie and I play a couple who are sort of the punks out on the street. And even if they're white, you can argue that they're broke. And we make a joke of it. But you know those people are homeless. 

As far as what I said in that interview, I would say that my point was that my perception of it is that I don't go to those areas. I know they exist but—you know, I'm admitting my ignorance. 

My question isn't really about the content of the show but more the effect the show has on Portland's reputation and image. People say they move here because of the show.
I think you might be overestimating people's ability to move. I think some people will say, "Oh, I moved here because of the show." I think moving is kind of a big deal, and I bet you those numbers—if you really, really examine them—I'm gonna just guess that it's probably not that high. Even if it is kind of a trend, I think it'll pass quickly.

But again, I don't live there. I'm kind of a person who's kind of new there. And I apologize if I'm that one extra-annoying person, but I'm one of them. 

People were moving here for the same reasons before Portlandia came out. It's just something to consider in terms of the way it has expanded people's knowledge that the city of Portland even exists. 
I just don't believe that a TV show can in a big way affect numbers like that. In fact, that's kind of like, you know, our world, for lack of a better word. White people, sort of like privileged people. We all thought a lot of people were moving to Seattle in the '90s, but they weren't. It was just white kids with guitars.

You've had an apartment here for a year maybe. Are you thinking about buying a house?
I don't know. I'm still thinking about it. As far as, like, plans, things change so much, and they're so unpredictable that I think, oh, I'll just deal with it when I get there. 

You must be thinking about your plans for SNL. I mean, you're leaving this year, right?
What I'd like to say about SNL is, I love it there and I don't know what the future holds. I won't be there forever, but like I said, I don't plan this far in advance.

My life is, like, I'm in a few different places at once. Don't forget I used to go to Portland before Portlandia. Portland will always be a part of my life. TV show or no TV show, I love going there. I can't help it.

But you've never spent a whole winter living here. 
Yeah, but I like winter. I like cold, I like rain. 

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