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TV Junkie Interview: Fred Armisen - 'Portlandia' Premieres Tomorrow
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein star in IFC's "Portlandia" which premieres tomorrow at 10:30pm. Put a frickin' bird on it!
For "Saturday Night Live" cast member Fred Armisen, wearing many hats is part of the job of a sketch comedy performer. This reality is even more in effect on his new show, a project he co-writes, co-produces, and co-stars in, IFC's "Portlandia," which premieres tomorrow night at 10:30pm. Executive produced by Armisen's "SNL" boss, Lorne Michaels, "Portlandia" takes the viewer to Portland, Oregon, to encounter just some of the many strange characters who call that place home. Shot entirely on the streets of Portland, the show humorously explores the lives of the city's denizens who seem determined to take their ideals to the sometimes illogical extreme.
Austin, Texas, may have to print bumper stickers in order to rally behind their weirdness but, from our experience, Portland has never had to resort to that. A lot of people, some of our friends included, move to Portland in order to become devoted "hardcore" (fill in the blank here), and after living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, the characters that Armisen and fellow conspirator Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney fame, have created, don't seem that extreme to me. I've ridden in Critical Mass next to Armisen's militant cyclist, I've encountered people proud to procure all of their groceries via dumpster diving, and have attempted to find a restaurant that would satisfy a 100%-locally-sourced/free range/zero-carbon-footprint devoted friend. These people are real, and, as Armisen tells us, they live all over this country, but are perhaps more highly concentrated in Portland.
With guest stars that include Kyle MacLachlan ("Twin Peaks," "Sex & The City"), Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), Selma Blair ("Legally Blonde," Hellboy), Heather Graham (The Hangover), Jason Sudeikis ("SNL," "The Cleveland Show"), and director Gus Van Sant, each episode includes surprising performances shot and edited in a style that reminded us of the cult classic series "The Kids In The Hall," with its focus on scenes with two or three characters operating in a reality that is both familiar yet insane. For example, a scene which involves a hapless citizen who makes the mistake of wandering into a feminist bookshop (one of which exists in the real Portland), or perhaps, the "Amateur Hide-And-Go-Seek League" whose antics take over the town library.
If you are a fan of sketch comedy and improv, and particularly if you've been a fan of "The Kids In The Hall," you should definitely check out "Portlandia." You can see the first episode on IFC.com now, before it airs tomorrow and then watch on Fridays at 10:30pm.
Before we got into the "Portlandia" part of our interview, Armisen and I chatted for quite a while about music. Armisen is a gifted musician, and the two times we've been to "SNL" tapings he came out to warm up the crowd by playing some songs: when Peyton Manning hosted in March of 2007, Armisen and Maya Rudolph played the Selecter's "On My Radio" and when Ashton Kutcher hosted in April of 2008, Armisen and Kristen Wiig played Blondie's "Hanging On The Telephone."
But my history of seeing Armisen play music goes much further back than that. In the early 1990s when I was studying film at UCSB, I had seen Armisen's Chicago-based band, Trenchmouth, play at a club in Goleta, CA, called The Living Room, a well as, I think, in a garage somewhere near by on another occasion, but we were drinking a lot of malt liquor during those years. Trenchmouth was an experimental punk band that explored everything from ska and dub to dissonance reminiscent of Sonic Youth, powered by rhythms hammered out by none other than Fred Armisen. Definitely check out the Trenchmouth MySpace page where there are a few tracks for you to listen to. Let's start a Reunite Trenchmouth movement!
Please read our interview below with Fred Armisen, who very kindly gave us some time during a whirlwind press tour that culminates tomorrow with the premiere of the first episode of "Portlandia" on IFC at 10:30pm.
LAist: You have populated "Portlandia" with many, I wouldn't call them stereotypes, but rather, very real and developed characters - they have motivations that are not one-dimensional. Did you have specific friends or people that you've seen that you were inspired to model these characters after?
Fred Armisen: I think in that over all the years I've been going to Portland, I thought that they had just sunk into my subconscious, so that when we were writing the show I thought they were coming out of my head. For example, I said, "This is a really bicycle-friendly city so we should come up with a bicycle character" and then the guy that I did, I would actually see later - some guy rushing by with a bunch of piercings, and I'd say, "Oh yeah, that's the guy I was trying to do." I think they were just in my periphery and they had just sunk in. Some of them were just made up, I don't think we got too specific in who they were going to be. A lot of things came about from us just putting on wigs and costumes and they were just improvised. And a lot of it is from the editing too since a lot of it is improvised because we'd pick out the bits that made the most sense to that character. But I also think that there's a lot of people like this all over the country, they're not specific to Portland.
LAist: I think that, probably, there is a higher per capita of these types of people in Portland, right?
Fred Armisen: I think that they can really thrive there. I think that you can live there being like that forever. We did something in one of the episodes called "Dumpster Divers," which I had first encountered back in my Trenchmouth days, these people who weren't necessarily poor, but they just go an find things in dumpsters and make a life for themselves. So we went and did a sketch about it and I wondered if people were even doing this anymore. Then while we were shooting another segment, we met this girl, this actual dumpster diver, who told us about all the stuff she finds in dumpsters, like radios and food, that she sells and lives off of. So then we knew we were on the right track.
LAist: I think you're definitely onto something there because of the subculture of alternative economies and the fact that, even recently, I've encountered some dumpster divers. Also, the militant cyclist is somebody that a lot of people have met - I ride a bike everywhere myself, and while the majority of cyclists would like to make changes to transportation in a positive way but you have these individuals who want to be militant and angry about something and they've chosen to do it on a bike and they choose to be confrontational. I'm not sure that's helpful, because you want someone to smile when they see a cyclist and not react negatively.
Fred Armisen: That's really funny because you definitely want a positive image. But this is a guy who's almost everywhere, he's in Brooklyn and parts of Silver Lake, and many other places.
LAist: How did you score Kyle MacLachlan?
Fred Armisen: I think Kyle had already been on "SNL" so there was already a connection. But it was more of a matter of our wondering who could play the mayor? And we thought, "A Kyle MacLachlan-type would be good." Then our director said, "Why don't we get the actual guy?" Sometimes I forget that I'm in show business and that people like working on projects, it's OK to ask them.
LAist: How did he feel about the role and the piece he was in?
Fred Armisen: He was great! As you've seen him in movies and shows, he's really like that! He's so funny. He's almost like a grown up kid in a way: "Oh - great! Let's do that! Oh - great! That's fantastic!" He wanted to hang out, I really aspire to be that kind of a person.
LAist: It's been so great to see him regularly on television, he brings an element to something like "Desperate Housewives," a show I really wouldn't care about so much - he makes it interesting. But to see him on a show like yours, something more experimental and challenging, seems to be where his heart truly lies. With your show, the Pacific Northwest can celebrate the return of Kyle MacLachlan at pretty much the same time that California can "celebrate" the return of Jerry Brown.
Fred Armisen: [Laughs] Jello Biafra is probably not happy about that.
LAist: I don't think Jello Biafra is ever happy about much.
Fred Armisen: I really don't have a problem with Jerry Brown, I have nothing against him, he seems great to me.
LAist: Before I let you go, I had a question from one of my Twitter followers: If given the opportunity, while in character as President Obama, would you hit on Mrs. Obama?
Fred Armisen: [Laughs] Never! Never, never! I would have so much respect for them, I'd be in awe.... perhaps a better word is starstruck. I'd probably end up being pretty shy around those people.
LAist: Probably the highlight of this most recent season of "SNL" for me was the Weekend Update segment where your version of Governor Paterson met up with the real Governor Paterson.
Fred Armisen: Oh, thanks. He was so cool, that was such a nice happy evening for me.
LAist: I still have that on my Tivo.
Fred Armisen: I still haven't seen it yet!
Fred Armisen's "Portlandia" premieres Friday (tomorrow), January 21, at 10:30pm. Catch Armisen tonight on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"
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