Fred Armisen is master of characters but he’s not quite a chameleon. Rather than blend in seamlessly with his surroundings, the comedian’s distinctive flavor always seems to rise to the surface when he takes on a new character—something that he does with increasing frequency.
The Saturday Night Live vet has augmented his decade-plus stint on that show by slipping into plenty of additional personalities for IFC’s manic sketchfest Portlandia, which he created with rocker Carrie Brownstein. One of the cornerstones of SNL has long been its steadily replenishing supply of catch phrase-spawning characters. It’s an element that Armisen has also brought into his new venture.
"I think it was understood when we started writing Portlandia that there would be recurring characters," he says. "This is a thing that makes a show have some life to it, and some recognition, so it sort of went without saying. Our characters have catch phrases too, which is a nice thing—it’s like having a hook in a pop song."
While both of Armisen’s shows share a basis in sketch, there’s a world of difference between them. Over the course of Portlandia’s first two seasons, its writers and performers established an impressive knack for the kind of well-observed lifestyle details stemming from a geographical setting that nurtures individuality. Also, whereas SNL incorporates music by having guests play songs each week, sometime-drummer Armisen and Wild Flag leader Brownstein bring a music-honed sense of timing to the art of sketch, in addition to thrusting guest stars like Aimee Mann and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis right into sketches. Naturally, the creation process for the two shows is rather divergent.
"It’s a much smaller group, and we’re primarily writing for just Carrie and me. So we have a different kind of focus," Armisen says. "Also, since SNL is a live show that’s much more topical; with Portlandia, it doesn’t air until six or seven months later, so we keep it a little more general."
Unbound by current events, the writing staff on IFC’s breakout hit is free to pursue any number of targets ripe for satire, including a host of uber-twee services indigenous to towns like Portland—the kind that offer to pickle just about anything or put birds on things. In these sketches cloaked as ads, the show’s stars don aprons and at least one fake mustache to play local hucksters Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman. And like much of the food in Portland, apparently, the inspiration for such creations is arrived at organically.
"You see a wig or a costume you like, and you kind of figure what the character must be or what the person is like," Armisen says. "You hear a song and you imagine what the person singing it is like. It comes from a million different things."
However Armisen and Brownstein arrived at the characters they created for the show, it looks like we’re about to see more of them than before. According to Debbie DeMontreux, IFC’s SVP of original programming, one big change this year is that there are a few characters’ storylines that carry through the whole season. The episodes can stand alone, but there are some storylines that pass through until the end. You don’t have to have watched previously to follow along, though."
If you missed the first two seasons, catch up on Netflix Instant where they’re both streaming. If you’re really keen on saving some time, though, simply sift through the slides above for our guide to the recurring characters you’ll see in season three, which began this month.