"Portlandia's" Fred Armisen: My Carrie/Chloe three-way!

"Portlandia" and "SNL" star Fred Armisen spills all about this season's bizarre love triangle

Published February 23, 2013 8:00PM (EST)

     (IFC/Christopher Hornbecker)
(IFC/Christopher Hornbecker)

Now that "New Girl" has finally gone there -- answering the "will they/won't they" question between Nick and Jess with a resounding yes -- the hottest sexual tension on TV is between, yes, "Portlandia's" Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

OK, maybe not the hottest. The most awkward? The strangest?

But for the time being, Chloe Sevigny has come between Fred and Carrie. Chloe dated both of them, before settling on Fred -- and as the third season concludes the two friends are barely speaking. But as a Portland is struck by a massive blackout, well, you know what can happen during a blackout!

So, Fred, will they or won't they?

Armisen raises an eyebrow.  "Who knows," said the comedian, also a "Saturday Night Live" star, when we met for lunch in New York this week. "Have they?"

Wait, what? "It’s a good thing to think about."

The third season of "Portlandia" has sometimes been awkward and strange. Two misfires during the first three episodes -- a drawn-out attempt to take over MTV and reinstall Kurt Loder and Matt Pinfield (as if those were the glory days of anything) and an oddly dated sketch with Patton Oswalt as the king of Evite responses -- had some critics ready to pounce. That's the danger with a show that lovingly satirizes of-the-moment cool culture -- your audience wants to be first to discover the show, and then first to lead the backlash.

This season might not have had a sketch as culture-defining as "Put a bird on it." But brilliant moments followed -- a battle of "gentle bands," a PSA from the Portland Nerd Council, the city being overrun with "art projects," Roseanne Barr as a temp mayor trying to make sense of Portland's unique culture and dog boutiques, among others -- which reinforced "Portlandia's" position as one of the smartest and most skewed comedy shows on TV, but also Armisen and Brownstein as savvy and trenchant cultural critics.

Over dosas on the Upper West Side, Armisen bantered with a steady stream of fans and admirers while discussing the differences between the show's three seasons, explaining the back story of the year's best sketches, and exploring the deep connection with his co-star.

So the third season concludes this coming Friday. It had a very different feel from the first two: Longer character arcs, not as Portland-centric, perhaps a little broader-based.

>What you see, what came out, is what we wanted. Which is a good thing. Sometimes you plan on something and it doesn’t work out that way, and this time it did -- and what you described is exactly what we wanted. We thought, "Let’s get to know the people on the show better, and then let’s have things go from episode to episode." Mostly because we’re fans of TV. We thought of shows that we liked and then we copied that.

Which shows were you trying to copy this year?

"Game of Thrones."

(laughs) No, you weren't. How is "Portlandia" like "Game of Thrones"?

No, it's true. People wait a whole year for it to come on again, and they’re right there. We thought, "Oh, that’s such a good way to have a show, where it doesn’t have to be on all the time. We can wait a year and then we show up." The thing that brings you back to "Game of Thrones" over and over again, is you have to see the next one. We just thought, “How can we do that? How can we have stories that go all the way through?” Even some weird stories that are a little hard to describe, not as central, little side, weird stories.

The Portland milk advisory board.

The milk board was something that was called a pod buster. Do you know what a pod buster is?


I learned about them this year. It’s almost like a secret TV term. Because of DVRs, companies are getting smarter, commercials are getting smarter -- they know you’re gonna fast forward through it. So in the middle of all the commercials, they want to do something where you stop. You’ll see a character and go, “Oh, the show's back ..." It’s like a trick. So they said to us, “We want you to do some of these." You can take something like that, that seems like a chore, and make it something cool."

So other than "Game of Thrones," of course, was there anything else behind trying to broaden the approach this season? After two seasons, after 16 episodes, was there a sense that you had to reinvent things a little bit -- that you'd done all the jokes about pickling and birds, and it was time to try something new? 

Yeah, that’s kind of it, and also it brings out the best in the writers and the performers if it’s a little bit of a challenge. Not insane, not going crazy where it’s something totally different, but just a little. It’s almost like a little homework assignment: "OK, we know how to do this certain kind of sketch with organic food. We know it, we could do it. Let’s give ourselves a different assignment so that we’re paying attention." And especially with comedy, I feel like it’s always good to throw yourself off balance a little bit. So when we show up on the work dates and shoot stuff, it’s not as easy.

Were the organic food sketches getting too easy? There wasn't any challenge in making fun of locally sourced restaurants and diners obsessed with their entree's childhood? 

Well, what I really meant is that the stuff on seasons 1 and 2, that kind of sketch – and we’ll continue to do them – we can do it, we know our way around it. This is kind of like, an extra thing.

We’ve noted a couple of times that calling something "just like a sketch in Portlandia" has become a media shorthand to describe anything anywhere that’s kind of quirky. Is that also the lens you see the world through: You walk around New York or Portland, and see sketches? 

The way you know it’s real is when you talk to other people, and then they agree.

The three of us – (executive producer) Jonathan Krisel, and Carrie and I – we’ll get together before the season starts. We’ll have our iPads and our pads and our paper and we’ll just start talking about, we’ll go through our list of things. And it’s by the reaction that you know, “Oh, this is something.” I can’t remember if it was Carrie or Jon who came up with Furniture Now, but Carrie – let’s just say it was Carrie – will be like, “You know what I noticed in Portland? A lot of guys are really into making their furniture.” And as soon as we go, “Yes, totally,” there’s our sketch. So yeah, that’s the kind of lens.

I’ll say conversely, sometimes you think of things that don’t really exist that for some reason keep nagging at us, and we’ll go, like, “Let’s try it, ‘cause there’s something there.” Like the fart patio.

I wanted to ask about that. The big organic food sketch this season is set at a raw food restaurant, and your characters end up outside on a fart patio. People sometimes think that there's 14 different layers of meta in all of these jokes, and with that one, you land on the oldest punch line of all -- beans and farts. 

That also came from a real experience where -- even though a fart patio would be, like, fictional – near the studio in L.A. there was this natural restaurant and everything is really raw. But we go because it’s close and it’s healthy and it’s actually nice – a lot of kale, a lot of brown rice – and we’d be like, “This is so good, I’m actually really glad that I’m eating this way!” And when we’d start walking back to – it’s not that we really farted, it’s just that our stomach, I could hear my stomach. I could hear my stomach going, “yeaow!” I think Jon said – “They should have a fart patio.” And we thought, “Let’s do that.”

Tell me about the “Battle of the Gentle Bands.” The entire cult of the 1920s-cutesy Mumford and Sons bands must especially annoy someone who spent a decade in a band as a punk rock drummer. The new authenticity is determined by how quiet you can be.

Well, I hear you. I’ll add – and I’m not familiar with ...

No criticism of Mumford and Sons is implicit in your answer.

Yeah, but in the past – I want to say the past five years – it happens to me where I’m not against any music. I’m so into punk that – part of what I liked about punk is that even though you had some hardcore bands, there were some pretty folky bands in there. The Meat Puppets, for example.

Who could be super-earnest. 

An earnestness, yeah. So it’s always been in there. So just to address that -- all that stuff is great. In fact, when they come onto "SNL," it’s always nice, ‘cause I actually like when bands at least play their instruments as opposed to having dancers. Instruments, I’m like, “Great, thank you.”

Sounds like you're against some music!

(laughs) For that sketch, we went to a music festival – I actually went with Janet Weiss, who’s the drummer for Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. There was this band playing outside, and we looked at this guy who was sort of sitting in the middle and he had a mandolin and the instruments were like acoustic: bass and banjo. The thing that was gentle about it was the actual instruments. They looked expensive, antique, cared for, the case … everything, even the drums, were sort of vintage-y. And Janet and I just sort of started laughing about how gentle the instruments were. And I think right there, we were like, “We should do a battle of the gentle bands that just gets quieter and quieter and quieter.” That feathers idea came from Fiona Apple. She was gonna be the last person to play, and we just could not make the schedule work. But in the email she said, “Can my instrument be chimes with a feather?” We should’ve given her writing credit.

So Roseanne Barr comes to town as the interim mayor and she doesn't understand what's happening in Portland. Fred and Carrie take her on a tour of the city and all of the cute boutiques only make things for dogs. She doesn't understand the guys in their 40s who get around on skateboards, or people in coffee shops who aren't drinking coffee. There's a lot of truth in what she says! It's a pretty good critique of all that is wrong with hipster culture.

The things that she said are the things that we were saying. I’m a New Yorker and I go to Portland and I think – I mean, I love it there, but – why is the airport so easy to get to? That’s not right. Every city I’ve ever lived in – Chicago, L.A. If it’s gonna be a city, it has to be a hassle. You have to work hard, it has to be a pain. To actually get to the airport easily and park easily! It’s like, what is happening here? How is this possible in a major city? So some of her lines were things that we’d thought about ...

But an airport that's easy to get to, that's a good thing. It’s not biting to say that. It is a little bit biting to say, “Hey, maybe we don’t need so many stores for dogs,” and “Hey, maybe some of you oughta get up a little bit earlier and go to work and get off those damn skateboards. You’re 45 years old!”

Yeah. Although when I’m there, I love it. I don’t even have a dog, and I’m like, “Great."

Do you ever feel like we’ve become this generation of people who refuse to grow up?

Man. This is a question I have to think about.

So: yes, but.

How do we know that previous generations didn’t do the same thing? So what we think of as old people’s things let’s just think of -- car collecting and pinups and stuff like that, baseball. I’m trying to think of grandfather things. Things that you’re just like, “that is so grandfathery,” you know? By the way, I’m not an authority on this, but now I’m thinking about it: Were those guys reliving their youth based on pinups, muscle cars and all that stuff. They also might not have been growing up. They might have been stuck somewhere, I think.

Except they weren’t on skateboards at noon. They were at work! You don't think there's something generationally specific about what you're satirizing on the show? Like the first-time parents who panic because they've read a dozen different books and they all have different advice. Our parents weren't cramming with a library of "what to expect" books.

Well, we’re talking about our generation, yes. The theme is definitely that we’re all living our adolescence. Not even our adolescence – our 20s, we’re all stuck in our 20s. So we might not be the first, but absolutely -- the recording studio – you know, the guy looking for the recording studio – the books on parenting, it’s a big theme in Portland. When we go shoot in people’s houses, there’s always a drum set. We find one, then another one, then another one, and like, actually, this is getting crazy, there’s another drum set!

I'm obsessed with my 20s. I buy things that I wanted in my 20s. It’s weird, it’s a weird thing that I didn’t grow out of. The other day, I bought a bass. I have a bass. Why am I having a bass? Because the 23-year-old Fred is like, “Gotta get a bass!”

Why do you think we are especially nostalgic for our 20s, when perhaps early generations looked back to their teenage years? 

My theory is the 20s is when you’re done with college and you get your own place, first place, and you’re like, “Now I’m me. All the bullshit that I had to go through to get to this – here I am. This is my bathroom, my apartment, my kitchen.” It’s like your first signature of this is who I am. More than college, more than, I think, high school. The only thing you have to worry about in your 20s is your job.

And relationships: There's a sketch where you take a third date to France, and go for that huge romantic gesture, and it just goes horribly. Like they always do.

I thought of guys who take girls on whimsical third dates, like, “I’m gonna be so romantic,” and it’s a horrible idea. Travel sucks. It’s hard. You’re just on a plane and at a hotel and you’re waiting on line for a passport.

You've totally done it. 

Yeah, and when I brought it up to people – in fact, Rose Byrne, who’s in the sketch, she was like, “Oh, I’ve done it.” And I feel like a lot of people have, where it’s just like, “I know this is gonna work! I’m gonna impress you and buy you this plane ticket.”

And as horrible as the trip is, it still looks good on Facebook, in the Instagram photos they take. Carrie has a killer line about how on the Internet, we crop out all the sadness.

That's Carrie being a genius. She's a genius.

I never notice what Carrie’s saying because I’m just trying to think of something funny and smart to say. So I’m in my head, I’m in my head, the camera’s here, then Carrie will say something, and I kind of hear it, and then when I watch it, I’m like, “Whoa! That’s the thesis of the whole sketch!” Really, I’m blind to a lot of the actual essence of something. I like all the sort of outside stuff. Then she’ll find, like, the root.

I got really lucky with her. She’s like a treasure, one treasure after another. She’s really well-read and she thinks a lot – I don't know how to put this, but – she thinks deeper than I do. She thinks about things and takes them apart. I think more about the window dressing. So, anyway.

That’s what makes it a good team. But this season, and some of this will work itself out in the finale, you have a character played by Chloe Sevigny who comes between Fred and Carrie -- the characters you play that actually seem based on some version of your actual selves. It must have felt a little twisted for two people who are as close as the two of you are, to even have a pretend character you're both dating get in the middle of this friendship.

Well, that was a simple thing of, like, we’re thinking of this season, doing this season, what are we gonna do, then: let’s get to know Fred and Carrie a bit more. And then someone brought up, like, without some kind of a problem, it’s just going to be us going from restaurant to restaurant and having all kinds of fun; let’s throw a real monkey wrench into it. It was just – that was probably the right thing to do. We try to make it not dirty, not like, a heavily sexual thing, because who wants that? We kept it light and kind of weird and Chloe was perfect for it. She is that type of person.

Everybody would fall in love with her.

She walks into a room, she’s just charismatic and cool and … that’s why we did it. We wanted to throw a real problem into the mix.

Is it playing off anything real? In that New Yorker story about Carrie, you both talk about being the last person the other person talks to at the end of every day. I imagine you've both been on the opposite side of that -- dating someone, and the third person needs to accept this close friend. Or one of you needs to accept the other person has someone new ...

Yeah. No, we’ve gone through so many things that we’ve weathered stuff like that just fine. No one has ever gotten in between us. We’ve actually kind of held our ground in that.

How do you negotiate it with other people? 

I think it’s because we’re not in a relationship and because she’s not my girlfriend that you kind of think very clearly. Whereas if you were, all this other stuff comes in the way. This way, when I think of her, it’s very easy to think clearly. Everything is taken away on the side. And I’m not gonna take that for granted, either.

I feel like I’ve never gotten annoyed by anyone she’s dated. I feel like I’ve been like, “Great, that’s great,” you know? Also in that "Portlandia" version, we live together, and Carrie and I don’t live together, so I think that’s where we don’t get to have any of that stuff.

Spoiler alert: There’s a moment in the finale where Carrie gets a text, and the '80s teen music soundtrack swells, and it’s as if something is about to happen. 

Yeah, we want to keep it exciting.

Will they or won’t they?

Who knows. Have they?

Have they?

It’s like a … it’s a good thing to think about.

You’ve talked about being bad at relationships and really liking that moment of first intensity. And Chloe's character has a line just like that -- that she's really into relationships for the fierce excitement at the beginning. So if you have those worries, and know you have that tendency -- and you’ve got this relationship that is so special and important. Have you kept it simply as friends because you're worried that you'd screw it up if it went anywhere else? 

>Yeah, that might be part of it. It’s existed this way for so long now that I don’t even think about it anymore. This is what works. Probably the longest relationship I’ve had is with Carrie. It just works and at this point we don’t even give it that much thought. We just think, look, this is the situation, this is our dynamic, and it works for us. So far, you know, it just makes me happier than anything. I have a very happy life, I’m very happy with the way things are. It’s really lucky, because it also makes me feel better about myself, that I’m not – I don’t feel like a fuck-up. There are things – I’ve made mistakes – but at least I know that something ... I can think things through and have a relationship that really works. For all my mistakes, it makes me feel like, here’s one little room where it’s been good.

Did you miss doing Barack Obama on "Saturday Night Live" during the election? 

No, I don’t miss anything now. I don’t miss anything ever. Because to me, missing something is like going backward a little bit. I don’t miss being in a punk band. For me, "SNL" is like … this is gonna sound overly dramatic, but … the way I am, it feels like I’m a soldier, so it was like, what do you want me to do? Put me anywhere. Do you want me to do these sketches? Great.

I also love the drama of changing order to Jay doing it. I love it. It’s like in a band when people switch instruments, you know what I’m saying? You guys think that’s the bass player? He's the drummer. So that changeover during that election was great. It’s like taking off – I’ll put on this jacket and do something else.

When I’ve been interviewed before about stuff, one of the questions they ask is if, does the weirder stuff go to "Portlandia"

Although this season there were reviews suggesting "Portlandia" wasn't weird enough. 

Sometimes "Portlandia" can be pretty traditional. But the stuff I’ve always loved on "SNL" has always been the weirdest stuff I’ve done. The stuff that went on at 10 to 1 in the morning.

Which casts did you grow up with? We’re about the same age, I am guessing.

I bet you you’re three years younger than me. To be honest, it was Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo where you just, you went to school and everyone’s repeating everything they’re saying.

People think of those years as the uncool years, but at that age, they were fantastic.

I know, I loved those years. That’s when the Clash was on, so I went to go see the dress rehearsal when the Clash was on, and Ron Howard hosted. It's funny because that's when Lorne Michaels did not have his hand in it. The more I talk to him, the more I see he was involved in his own way. 

But then again, it’s not like it was an underground time in "SNL," because Eddie Murphy was like the biggest star in the world. But then later, as I grew up with Phil Hartman and all those people and Dana Carvey – Dana Carvey is like – ‘cause I’ve never not watched "SNL," I’ve watched all the way through, and Dana Carvey to me was the ultimate cast member. Now, being on the show, I’m like, “How did he get so many characters on?” Impressions – he had a million.

Is Obama an interesting guy to do? It seems like he has been difficult for people to really get right.

Yes. Anyone’s interesting, everyone’s interesting, but he is charismatic without trying to be charismatic, so there’s a lot there, and there’s a lot of – it’s hard to get. But you know what, here’s the deal. Hard and easy doesn’t matter. The only thing for these sketches, as far as I’m concerned, all that matters is delivering the message of the writers. It wasn’t an exploration into Barack Obama, it’s what’s happening right now with the White House.

But those impressions do take hold. You mentioned Dana Carvey. I'd suggest that when a lot of people think of George Bush, they think about Dana Carvey saying "wouldn't be prudent." The "SNL" impression does provide a psychological window.

I suppose, I suppose it does. Who knows? I really enjoyed it.  The experience was great, and to sit at that desk as the president ... I’m a fan of the show, and to wander in that, I still feel – it’s not that long ago that I was in a band, so to wander into that set is always, like crazy.

But for me the most important thing I remember about doing Barack Obama was not to try to reach for things that aren’t there. Read the lines, you know … I’m a fan of leaving some blank space.

Is there extra pressure doing the president?

Well, you know who I wanted to make happy? Lorne and the writers. If Lorne was, like, “That’s great,” then I’m like, “Mmm, fine.” It’s a comedy sketch show. It’s not a documentary about anything, it’s over in four minutes. But I love watching Jay do it. Jay’s voice … I mean, it’s pitch-perfect. So it’s all great.

Will there be a fourth season of "Portlandia"? 

That’s the general consensus, you know. I think we haven’t finished up all the paperwork. But right now, that’s the plan. 

Where would it go? If you were trying to stretch things out in season 3 ... 

We have to sit down and map it out, ‘cause that’s what we did for the last one, and we have to ask what did we like that we saw, what can we redo.

Ever worry that cool culture will run out of things for you to make fun of – that all of this will turn back in on itself?

No, because the show won’t last forever!

What would be, like, the sort of "Portlandia" black hole that says, "OK, we're through!"

That’s happened already. Little things we’ve seen, where we’re like, “OK, what can we say about that?” Especially things in Portland when we see, like, a naked bicycle ride  -- they do this midnight naked bicycle ride – they’re like, “Are you gonna do a sketch about it?” and it’s like, “No, it exists.”

But even thought it’s about hipster stuff, some of it really isn’t. The Chloe stuff isn’t really hipster stuff, it’s relationship stuff. I can’t wait, though, because I love it. It’s the best challenge. And it’s so not all Portland.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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