Fred Armisen, Star of Portlandia, Wears Many Wigs

You know Fred Armisen as Saturday Night Live's in-house President Obama impersonator, not as the drummer from the early 1990s indie-rock band Trenchmouth. But you're about to see more of the latter Fred, because his latest project showcases his flair for the alternative, artsy, and weird.

Armisen's IFC show Portlandia, which debuts Friday night and also stars Armisen's pal and former Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, is a hilarious flipbook of kooky characters inspired by the fringe culture of one of America's most eccentric towns: Portland, Oregon. I spoke with Armisen about the show, his favorite characters, and his future on Saturday Night Live.

Why Portland? Why not Williamsburg or Austin or Berkeley or any other progressive town?
It started because that's where Carrie is from, and that's the easiest place to shoot. I'd go visit her and we'd put these pieces online. Little by little, it kept working out. The characters kept working out, the thrift stores were great for buying costumes and wigs, and we found that the people there were really great for doing characterizations. Then, later, we figured it would be a great way to make the show an actual show and give it a theme. Also, on a personal note, I just like being there.

Which of Portlandia's characters do you enjoy playing the most?
I like doing the feminist bookstore ladies. I notice that in Portland a lot of the people let their gray hair go, people are proud of their gray hair. [That bit] is really filmed in a real feminist bookstore called In Other Words. I like doing these Japanese ladies who are tourists to Portland, and there was this one bit I did where I played this Brazilian guy playing guitar and singing. A lot of the characters came from the costumes first, we'd put stuff on and say, "Who is this?"

Do you consider yourself a part of the culture that you are, for lack of a better term, playfully mocking?
Oh [I'm] part of the group for sure. And it isn't even playful mocking. A lot of it, when it comes down to it, it is a lot like me and Carrie. They're pretty much who we are.

How do you describe the group? "Hipster" comes to mind, but that term seems to have lost its meaning.
That word kind of died. I walked into Urban Outfitters, and that's a big commercial store. It's a weird feeling when I like everything in there. Anyway, what's the word? It's not about race, because it's multi-racial. Physically, it's always that part of town that has cutesy stores that sell lampshades, tablecloths, and cool books, it's next to a cafe, which is next to record store. Whatever that area is.

I'm quoting Lorne Michaels here: "Portlandia is light, smart, and funny. It's not going to be wildly popular, but I think it will find an audience." Who do you imagine that audience to be?
Oh, wow. For some reason I'm picturing couples, musicians... I'd like to be surprised. I hope it's people I wouldn't expect to watch it. I wonder if it's going to be people who don't know that world very well, and are just taking a look in.

You're closing in on a decade of being on Saturday Night Live. Have you though about how much longer you'll stay on the show?
I try not to think about it because everything time I do something like that, it always turns out different. [Before] I got Saturday Night Live, I thought I'd live in LA forever, then all of a sudden I was on a plane to New York. There was a time when Maya [Rudolph] was on the show, and I thought I'd do stuff with her forever. Then she left, so the more long-term thinking I do, the more it turns out to be something else. It's better for me if I just go, "What am I doing this week?" That's all I can really focus on, it doesn't matter what I think the long term will be. I'm just going to try and make a good sketch this week.

Portlandia premieres Friday, January 21 at 10:30pm on IFC.

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

Comments (4)
Sort: Latest | Popular
Jan 22, 2011
I live in Portland> Like the good Portlander I am, I am already bored. Portlandia is so yesterday, and made for NYC | LA. We been there, done it, wore out the Tshirt, named the baby, and retired young.
Jan 21, 2011
As a Portlander, I agree with oregon2010. This show will be very successful here. I hope it finds it places elsewhere as well. I want it to get at least semi-decent ratings.
Jan 21, 2011
As a Portlander myself I can say that these characters are exaggerations of real people from Portland. We are definitely different, kooky, eccentric--and proud of it! Keep Portland Weird!!!
Jan 20, 2011
Good interview. I'm a fan of Armisen and have good hopes for Portlandia.