Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein Talk ‘SNL,’ Possible ‘Portlandia’ Movie

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in "Portlandia" (Photo: Christopher Hornbecker/IFC)

After Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left “Saturday Night Live” last year, Fred Armisen also considered bidding the show adieu. “It’s something we all think about,” he says. “It’s the group you came in with.” But he’s not making any moves right now. Why? For starters, Armisen claims to lack the ability to plan ahead. “Everything in my life has been so last minute,” he says. “I can’t even begin to, like, know when something’s going to happen.” He’s also focused on his other job, making the IFC comedy “Portlandia,” which he co-created with the show’s co-star, indie-rocker-turned-actress Carrie Brownstein. Both of them spoke with about Portlandia’s new third season, their favorite characters and the less-than-obvious but perhaps next logical step in their climb to hipster immortality, adapting “Portlandia” for the big screen.

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What lessons have you learned from previous seasons that you’ve brought into this one?

Armisen: I feel like the most simple ideas work best. I think the first season we sort of overcomplicated things in our heads but we learned to kind of streamline the way that we shoot and the way that we write. The ideas that came to us quickly are the ones that worked best.

What did you overcomplicate?

Brownstein: Logic. Like overthinking logic in a scene sometimes doesn’t really serve any purpose for us because once we get into a scene it’s usually improvised anyway. So spending too much time trying to dissect something in terms of, is this rational or irrational, is not very productive for us. But we did try to think a lot more about motivation and character. That’s something we learned — if there’s not a relationship between Fred and I — our characters — even if the concept is funny, it really falls flat.

Are there characters that you’ve found haven’t worked? Or conversely, ones that you absolutely love?

Brownstein: It’s more that. The ones that we just know really work well and we can put those characters in almost any situation.

Armisen: The Feminist Bookstore ladies is an obvious one. Captain Dave seems to have worked.

Brownstein: Peter and Nance. Just the ones where we have a good sense of like who they are and what their relationship is to one another and how they become in conflict with one another or with a situation. When we don’t have that it’s just harder to improvise and it puts more pressure on the editors. More has to be compensated later.

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You’ve had a lot of guest stars, and many more coming this season. What does the addition of those actors do to your dynamic as writers and stars?

Armisen: It really puts us at ease because then we can hand stuff over to people and they can take care of their character. We love to kind of let them do whatever they want and then that’s just a huge relief.

Who’s been the biggest relief?

Armisen: Jim Gaffigan just came in and was really funny.

Brownstein: Jeff Goldblum. It’s a privilege to work with all of the people that we get on the show, but when you work with someone that’s so masterful like Jeff or Jim Gaffigan or Ed Begley Jr., like we did in Season 2, you feel like you’re dancing with someone and they’re leading, and it just becomes very natural and fun. I think the biggest influence that any of the guest stars have on the show is just energy. It just changes the energy between Fred and I and we have to kind of like adjust to that and I think that makes things very exciting as a performer and I think it pushes us a little further.

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Can you preview what we’ll see with Chloe Sevigny this season?

Armisen: She puts our friendship to the test. She was very good. She was like a particular kind of performer.

How does she put your friendship to the test?

Armisen: Who knows? So much happens, we can’t remember stuff! Patton Oswalt played someone who’s a reply star. He plays somebody who’s good at like replying to birthday invitations online.

Brownstein: Like Evites.

What does it require to be a reply star? Writing the best comments?

Armisen: Like the most witty comments.

Brownstein: Like you know those people who really take pride in having the best reply to a Facebook post or writing a funny review on Amazon? They really start to think of themselves as like a professional replier.

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You guys have taken the show on a live tour nationwide, you’ve done a book, and you’ve done several special episodes. Do you feel like you’re getting more ambitious with ideas for the show outside of television? Is a movie something you think about?

Armisen: A little bit. I think about doing a movie.  I sometimes think of some things that are outside of it but there is so much work that goes into the actual show that we kind of don’t have time to even plan anything.

Brownstein: Also once we’re in the midst of writing and shooting you just really want to make sure that you do that as best you can. Also you realize how much work it is to improve upon the last season or change it and there’s just not a lot of leeway.

Carrie, it was great seeing you pop up on the Christmas episode of “SNL.” Was that a spur of the moment decision? Or was it planned?

Brownstein: I was really excited to see Paul McCartney and it was a special episode. I was supposed to go home on Friday and I decided to stay, and yeah it was really exciting.

Armisen: So she decided to stay and at work people were sort of saying, “Would you mind if we asked Carrie?” And I was like, “What?”

Brownstein: You were so mad!

Armisen: I was like, “You guys don’t get her. You don’t even know what she is! You don’t get it. Don’t talk to her. You don’t even know how to talk to her!”

Brownstein: I was a little nervous. It’s such a different beast. Everything there is so finely tuned. You can just really step into it, especially on that kind of sketch. I mean everyone else is rehearsing all week but with that sketch I’m pretty much being mute. And actually the most confusing thing about it if you’re not used to that world is the cameras and cue cards situation. It’s live so you’re supposed to be looking in a certain direction. There’s no room for error. You’re not playing off of these people, you’re looking at the camera. It’s a science. But there’s a learning curve.

Armisen: You never look someone in the eye. You’re talking to cue cards.

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Carrie, have you ever approached [“SNL” executive producer] Lorne [Michaels] or Fred about wanting to host?

Brownstein: [Laughing] Can you imagine me approaching Lorne, like, “Hey you know, I have this great idea!” That is so not of my personality. I would never ask Fred or ask Lorne. Nor honestly do I think that that’s where my best talents lie. I don’t think that’s a thing I’m suited for. Fred, do you want to host? You should host.

Armisen: I’m on the cast and I’m also hosting! Technically that’s happened once. Someone was in the cast and hosted. Nick Nolte dropped out and Eddie Murphy stepped in.

Brownstein: Well if you were to say that someone dropped out, we probably could have guessed Nick Notle. No jaw dropped here.

Armisen: Well he was like a big star at the time.

Brownstein: I would have been more surprised if he had hosted. I mean, he’s a good actor but he’s unpredictable.

Fred, when you’re pitching sketches for “SNL,” do you ever think, Wait, this would be better for “Portlandia,” or vice versa?

Armisen: It’s all timing. It’s like wherever I am at the moment that’s what ideas are in front of us.

Brownstein: I wouldn’t expect you to save an idea for “SNL.” It works out pretty well. Because when we’re doing “Portlandia,” SNL is wrapped [production].

Do you guys have a favorite moment from the past two seasons?

Armisen: There’s favorite moments of Carrie’s – the one where we’re watching the “Battlestar Galactica” marathon and she just turns and screams. That’s one of my favorite scenes ever. There’s also this one time where we’re talking about the Olympics and I think we’re both trying to do a chant and there’s a way that you [turning to Brownstein] rolled your eyes where you seemed truly frustrated and it was really funny.

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Brownstein: Yeah we were chanting all over the city and everyone else was laughing and there was something about us saying it all together…

Armisen: There’s no other sound on the entire street except for Carrie and I saying “No Olympics in Portland!”

Brownstein: And it’s not a real thing and people are looking at you…I would say generally when we shoot a little outside of the city and we have this amazing confluence of beautiful production design and being in some magical setting… There’s an episode this year with Kyle McLaughlin where we wind up on a farm kind of in a rural area, there’s just these kind of like magical moments where it’s late at night, you’re kind of punch drunk from being exhaused and waiting for darkness. Moments like that are always just cool and weird.

Armisen: Agreed.

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Final question: Who do you think looks better in drag?

Brownstein: Well, Fred has more examples. I’m only in drag once. It’s just Justin Long.

Armisen: It looks like Justin Long, right?

Lance? You think?

Armisen: Look at it again. It looks like Justin Long.

Brownstein: I think you [looking at Armisen] look better in drag.

Armisen: I can’t tell. Because I’m also horrified when I see myself in drag.

Brownstein: I’m not. I love Nina so much. There are certain things that Nina does that I think, “What a sweet girl!”

New episodes of “Portlandia” air on Fridays at 10/9c on IFC.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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