Fred Armisen on Portlandia | Interview
The Saturday Night Live actor talks with Time Out Chicago's Novid Parsi about his new IFC series, Portlandia.
Fred Armisen can’t recall when he met Carrie Brownstein. “We keep not remembering,” he tells me by phone. Was it after she stayed with a friend of Armisen’s when he lived in Chicago, playing drums for the band Trenchmouth in the ’90s? Or maybe at a party for Saturday Night Live, where Armisen is in his ninth season? The one early connection Armisen’s certain of is Brownstein’s onetime indie band: “I loooved Sleater-Kinney like a crazy person.” In recent years, the two friends created videos based on Portland, where Brownstein lives. On Friday 21, IFC premieres a series of their comic sketches, Portlandia.
Did you and Carrie have any concerns about whether satirizing Portland would have appeal beyond the Pacific Northwest?
We didn’t think about it too much. There’s a little bit of that [Portland] sensibility in Wicker Park, as I remember it. I guess now it’d be, like, Pilsen or something.
So that hippie-dippy liberal element, you mean, is everywhere.
Yeah, that part of town where you’ll find a shop that sells homemade soap, like, “We sell soap that we made.”
Portlandia parodies self-serious lesbian bookstore owners, an angry bicyclist, restaurant patrons concerned about the living conditions of their chicken. Why target the self-righteous liberal?
I don’t know if we think of it as target. It’s more like a celebration of these people…’cause I think there’s elements of those people in me. As much as I like to think that I’m cool, there are parts of me that are just as self-righteous. Except I don’t ride a bicycle. Those are way too dangerous.
We definitely have the angry bicyclists here in Chicago.
I worked with a guy like that. He used to bicycle to work. He was so mad when he got into work. He was, like, “One guy tried to cut me off!” And my thought was, like, Be careful when you’re riding a bike.
That was here in Chicago?
Yeah. I worked at the Chicago Cultural Center. I used to help organize the sound systems, and this guy would come in furious, holding his bike.
Given the popular view today of liberals as kind of outmoded, why, if not target, then satirize that group?
It was just, like, what was around us. Me and Carrie are friends, and we just wanted to do a show, mostly about our relationship, and because she lives in Portland, that’s what was around us, so we’re like, okay, what’s one thing I see everywhere? Bicycle people.
I asked a colleague of mine who dated you when you lived here if she had any questions for you. So: What do you like best about Portland—the lack of sunlight, the strong coffee or the bounty of strippers?
Three things she knows you adore.
That is so funny. I would say the lack of sunlight because I like dressing warm. The coffee comes a close second.
Not the strippers?
No, because, like, it’d be the worst thing in the world for me to be, like, “Yeah, the strippers!” I will say we did an episode [later cut] that was about Portland strippers. I think it’s the most strip clubs than any other city.
Is that right?
Someone told me. Everywhere I go, every city is like, “We have more this than that,” so I have no idea.
A question that’s stuck with your impression of Obama on SNL: Why isn’t a black man playing him? Do you have any qualms about that?
I don’t have any qualms about the question. I don’t know what I have as an answer. I love doing it, and it’s fun.
But you see why people ask it.
Oh, absolutely. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I have an answer for it. Like, well. [Laughs]
So what do you think when people ask you that question?
It’s great, people should ask questions, and I’m glad that I’m lucky enough that I’m in a discussion about it. If my life is people asking me what I do on Saturday Night Live, then things are great.
Your mom’s of Venezuelan descent; your dad, German and Japanese. Did you visit those countries as a kid?
Venezuela and a little bit Germany, and at the time, especially Venezuela, I didn’t appreciate it. When you’re growing up in America, you just want to be American. [Venezuela is] a difficult place. It’s really poor. I remember the highways were just anarchy.
Is it tricky dating a fellow cast member on SNL, Abby Elliott?
Stuff about, like, personal stuff I try not to even talk about. I hope that’s okay. It’s just too much for me to address.
IFC’s Portlandia premieres Friday 21 at 9:30pm.