Fred Armisen Q&A: ‘Portlandia’ and ‘Documentary Now!’
“It was shocking and still a lot of fun,” exclaims Fred Armisen of getting both “Portlandia” and “Documentary Now” into the Best Variety Sketch Series race at the Emmys last year. In our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video above), he adds, “I let go of overthinking it. I thought in the future I’m going to look back on this as a really prolific time. I was really happy. I also like the tradition of the Emmys in general. I just love TV and to be part of that part of it is a lot of fun.”
In both series Armisen is able to use his musical abilities to create comedy. In “Documentary Now” he wrote an episode where a band played their final concert, and in “Portlandia” he performed an anti-feminism song called “What About Men.” On using music in this sketch format, he says, “It’s like a sturdy pair of shoes. If comedy is like this Frankenstein body, it’s like Frankenstein’s shoes. It can hold the monster up. For me that’s what it’s like. I might have a comedic idea but I can’t really express it unless I have the music for it to stand up on. I just came up with that by the way. Frankenstein’s boots.”
In “Documentary Now” for IFC, Armisen writes with other “Saturday Night Live” alums Seth Meyers and Bill Hader. Each episode is a mockumentary parodying an iconic documentary. On working with his former castmates again he says that “the more I get to know them the more I realize we really are brothers. It’s one thing we get thrown together at ‘SNL,’ but then when the show’s over to be working together. We know each other well, know each other more and make each other laugh. What is better than that?” Armisen adds, “Documentaries want to have a serious message and there’s something funny about it. I feel bad saying this because some really do have a serious point. But there’s something about an earnest ‘look at this’ that is funny to me. We do also want to send a message of tribute. We love the documentaries we reference.”
On his other IFC program “Portlandia,” Armisen works with Carrie Brownstein to create a series of fictitious characters living in the city of Portland. Even though the show is about to start shooting its final season he says, “I’ll never stop working with Carrie. We’ve been friends for so long and that will never end. I don’t foresee a time where I have to say goodbye. She’ll always be in my life, this is just one project of many.” Armisen explains that when writing the show “sometimes we are in the room and an idea is met with dead silence. But if people start adding to it and laughing at how preposterous it is, then we think it might be a sketch and keep going until it’s on screen.”
His favorite characters on the show are the Weirdos because, “I would like to spend my life dressed up as a vampire. In life you can’t really do that. I’m in love with everything that seems Dracula-like. The characters themselves talk like us, but they are still sort of scary and have coffins and get around in a hertz.”
Brownstein and Armisen have been nominated at the Emmy Awards four of the past five years for Best Variety Series Writing (missing out in 2015). As producers on the program, they have also been nominated for Best Variety Sketch Series in 2015 and 2016.