Comedy - Your butt, 'Portlandia's' jokes
How a stalled music career turned Fred Armisen into one of pop culture's most hilarious comedic voices
Fred Armisen is a sucker for what he calls "meat purveyors" — those restaurants with house-made charcuterie and chalkboard menus that could pass for butcher shops. They're everywhere these days, just like suspendered mixologists, plaid, and Armisen and his "Portlandia" co-star Carrie Brownstein.
In January 2011, Armisen and Brownstein hipster-bombed cable with their sketch comedy show "Portlandia," which riffs on the kinds of people that have the luxury of worrying about things like charcuterie and plaid. It takes place in a light-dappled, rain-free version of Portland, Oregon.
Even if you don't have IFC, or cable, or a TV (like many of "Portlandia's" residents), chances are you know what it means to "put a bird on it." Clips from the show's first season went viral fast. In "Put a Bird On It," a couple that looks cast from the Regretsy archives emblazons everything from tote bags to toast to birds with avian silhouettes, thereby transforming them from common goods to art. "Is it Local?" goes down the rabbit hole of locavorism when a couple's concerns about the pedigree of a restaurant's chicken entrée devolve into questions about "Colin's" chicken life and chicken friends.
"Portlandia" airs on IFC and is the channel's most successful series ever, the first season pulling in more than 5 million viewers. The show's popularity is rooted in the fact that it's of its time: "Portlandia" is not so much about Portland as it is about popular culture, and that makes it about everywhere. The Internet and social networking allow trends to catch on, be bastardized, and fizzle out in a fraction of the time they used to. A similar online agility helped popularize "Portlandia," along with a realism grounded in the palpable chemistry between the show's two co-stars.
When Armisen calls to talk during a break in rehearsal for "Saturday Night Live," the conversation instantly feels familiar. The discussion drifts in and out of personal tangents on both sides because he's as interested in asking the questions as he is in answering them. Even to a stranger on the phone he exudes warmth and humor, which may partly explain why the same people the show lampoons are often its biggest fans.
Now, in time with Season 2, Armisen and Brownstein have taken the show on the road. "Portlandia the Tour" comes to Atlanta on Feb. 23 at the Variety Playhouse. The tour logo is indie concert poster meets DIY wedding invitation, with the tape from a wood-grained cassette unraveling to spell out "Portlandia the Tour." There are birds on it. For the show, Armisen and Brownstein will sing some of the show's original songs ("Dream of the '90s"), perform as some of the series' more popular characters (feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace), and generally just hang out on stage with each other and some of their famous friends. In Seattle it was Dan Savage; in San Francisco, Dana Carvey had a cameo.
For Atlanta, "There's someone I'm trying to get, but I don't even know if it's a yes, so I can't spoil the surprise," he says. "But it's someone who was in a really popular pop group, a trio. And I really used to love them. They're not really a band anymore; they're just singers. Oh, god! I love them so much. I can't say anymore because I haven't heard anything back."
Armisen has spent the past 10 years performing on "Saturday Night Live," doing memorable impressions of Barack Obama, Prince, and legally blind New York Gov. David Paterson. He and Kristen Wiig sometimes pair up as the hilariously daffy singing duo Garth and Kat to perform poorly planned improvisational ditties.
Armisen has a knack for honing in on the nagging quirks of people and places, including himself. "Everything we do on %22Portlandia%22 is not very far from what we're like," says Armisen, 45, who's usually seen wearing a hoodie and his horn-rimmed glasses. Brownstein, 37 and a full-time Portland resident, is most well known as a former guitarist and singer for the now defunct riot-grrrl band Sleater-Kinney.
Armisen has always harbored a desire to be famous. "Entertainment, television, and music mixed together spoke to me as far back as I can remember," he says. "Things like horror movies and Carol Burnett and the Beatles spoke to me more than anything. I believed in the Beatles like a religion. I couldn't believe that anyone would want to do anything else."
Arimsen's cracks at comedy didn't go over well in junior high. "I got sent to the school psychologist because they thought I was crazy," he says. "I was kind of upset by it because I thought I was trying to be funny, you know?"
Then he discovered John Waters. "In a crazy coincidence, I heard a radio interview with John Waters, and he was talking about shocking people as entertainment. And I was like, 'What is this?' I was 14 or 15 and I went out and bought his book called Shock Value and I had never read a book in my life. It gave me hope. I was like, you can be a weirdo and make something of yourself," Armisen says.
"So then, I wrote to him and he wrote me back. And then I wrote to him. And then he wrote back. And we became pen pals. And later, when I was 20 or something, I met him in New York and then again. And every once in a while we would sort of see each other and catch up. I recently I saw him in December or January."
Armisen's rise as a comedian didn't come from logging serious time on the road in clubs trying to break into the stand-up circuit. It came after logging serious time on the road in clubs with Trenchmouth, the Chicago-based post-punk band in which he played drums from 1990-1996. After Trenchmouth broke up, he played backup drums for the Blue Man Group. But it was a trip to Austin, Texas, for its annual South by Southwest music festival and conference in 1998 that shifted the trajectory of Armisen's career.
There he filmed Fred Armisen's Guide to Music and SXSW, a guerilla documentary in which the actor/comedian posed as a number of characters, including deaf, blind, or German journalists, and crashed discussion panels and cornered celebrities for awkward interviews. In one clip, Armisen raises his hand during a self-serious and underattended panel and says, wide-eyed, "OK, I think everyone's listened long enough. Can you guys play some music now?" and starts clapping excitedly.
To Armisen, whose band had broken up after years of relentless touring and recording, the idea that there was any kind of formula for making it in the music business, especially one that necessitated a weeklong convention, seemed absurd.
"In music, Trenchmouth never really had the success we aspired to. At the time, I think I was frustrated," he says in a behind-the-scenes Season 2 teaser for "Portlandia." The SXSW video went viral in the way things went viral in the late '90s — by being bootlegged and shared between friends. Armisen's discomfiting and subversive comedic style drew comparisons to Andy Kaufman and Peter Sellers. It grabbed the attention of HBO and led to a working friendship with Bob Odenkirk of "Mr. Show with Bob and David," intermittent stand-up performances at Los Angeles' Largo night club, and eventually landed him a gig on "SNL" in 2002.
On "Portlandia," Armisen and Brownstein make a near-perfect couple, their idiosyncrasies so well aligned that they dazzle each other while driving the rest of the world mad. In real life, Armisen calls Brownstein his "best friend in the whole world, my soul mate." They met in 2003 when he invited her and her Sleater-Kinney bandmates to an "SNL" after party and the two became instant friends.
In fact, an extensive January 2012 New Yorker profile of Brownstein detailed the pair's "unusually devoted platonic relationship": "Carrie and I are more romantic than any other romantic relationship I've ever had—that sense of anticipation about seeing the other person, the secret bond. But things don't become obligatory. I'm not thinking, I'm doing this because you're my girlfriend; I'm just thinking, I love Carrie," Armisen told the magazine.
"Portlandia" is one of the outcomes of that love affair, spawned from the pair's goofy home video side project dubbed "Thunderant." For the most part, their affection for each other carries over into the characters they play and the lifestyles they parody, including their own. "Portlandia's" funniest bits are often the most relatable: getting publicly shamed for forgetting your reusable grocery bag or being sucked into a "Battlestar Galactica"-watching vortex.
The pair's infatuation with each other or an idea allow some of the show's sketches to run on too long — a flaw visible to the TV audience but not always Web viewers since the clips benefit from a tighter online edit. "Portlandia" can also hew dangerously close to becoming too self-referential. In Season 2, the "Put a Bird On It" couple returns with a fresh determination to push the boundaries of pickling. ("We Can Pickle That!") The idea resonates but falls flat.
This season's theme song "Dream of the 1890s," on the other hand, is spot-on in its parody of the current trendiness of 19th-century whims: "Belts didn't exist yet. Everyone wore suspenders and had to carve their own ice cubes!"
"I think that being too self-referential is something to watch out for," Armisen says. "'Dream of the 1890s,' we had worries about a little bit. We thought, 'Do we want to reference ourselves?' but I thought it stood on its own pretty solidly."
In a mark of the show's success, and perhaps of the world turning in on itself, Grand Central Publishing will release on Nov. 20 PORTLANDIA: A Guide for Visitors, a semifictional guide to the city helmed by "Portlandia" writer Bill Oakley with contributions from Armisen and Brownstein. Armisen says it has some good lists and rules and that he's "happy with it."
"I feel really lucky," Armisen says about achieving the fame he's spent the last 45 years chasing. "I feel lucky that I get to make stuff like comedy. Stuff that may be thought of as weird or, you know, even not that funny sometimes but that people react to."
"Portlandia" must maintain that absurdity in order to stay relevant. As relatable as the show may be, its appeal ultimately lies in the extremes to which it pushes its subjects. We can laugh at it because we see ourselves in it, but we're laughing from a distance, safe in knowing we're not as bad as what we're watching ... right? Given the fervor with which people chew up and spit out trends, the show may be able to avoid becoming its own cliché as long as the audience can tell where the real world stops and "Portlandia" starts.
Editor's note: This article has been updated. David Paterson is the governor of New York.