"Saturday Night Live" fans were bummed that funny guy Fred Armisen made his final appearance as a cast member in the series' 38th-season finale in May, but Armisen's departure certainly doesn't mean he'll be MIA from screens big or small.
He reprised his role as Brainy Smurf in July's sequel "Smurfs 2" and will co-star opposite fellow former "SNL"-er Jason Sudeikis in the upcoming comedy flick "Relanxious." He's the voice of Speedy Gonzales on Cartoon Network's "The Looney Tunes Show" and the voice of Terry the boyfriend on "Out There." And he's hard at work on the fourth season of "Portlandia," the IFC comedy series that has earned for him, co-star Carrie Brownstein, and the show's other writers an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series.
"Portlandia," which Armisen, Brownstein, and a diverse lineup of guest stars — which has included Eddie Vedder, Penny Marshall, Jack White, Sudeikis, Chloë Sevigny, Martina Navratilova, and Bill Hader — film on location in Portland, Oregon, is also nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series; and earlier this week, it won a juried Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Variety Program or a Special.
Shortly after beginning work on the series' upcoming fourth season, Armisen talked to Yahoo! TV about the inspiration for sketches like "Fart Patio," the surprising celebrity he's determined to land as a "Portlandia" guest star, his love of TV, and how he, too, spent the last season of "Game of Thrones" waiting for Joffrey to die.
What is your process for coming up with ideas for the show?
It's pretty traditional, in that we have a writers' room and a bulletin board, and we start talking, and we start sharing notes about things that have happened to us. "Hey, I went on this excursion" or "My building did this" or "I noticed that in car rentals, this happens." Then if we all agree and say, "Oh my God, that happened to me too," then we start circling around: What if? What if that happened to this character, to that character? It just grows from there. That's part of them. Some of them are just insane ideas where someone will say, "I really want to do something where there's a doily store" … that's the more just sort of crazy, who knows why it comes up [idea], and that's most of what we do. Then, as the months go, there will be two or three just last minute ideas that kind of get thrown together.
[Related: Fred Armisen on Leaving 'SNL']
As an example from Season 3, what was the inspiration for the "Fart Patio" sketch, which was a clever spin on standard joke fare?
Well, it was literal. We kept going to this place called Cafe Gratitude in L.A. We were writing in L.A., and it was close to the studio, and it was healthy. "Oh, let's just go to this one healthy place." It really felt like, speaking from experience, we probably had done some farting, and actually my stomach would make so much noise, because it was very raw food. And really delicious, I'm not dissing the restaurant. But my stomach would just make these noises. This isn't hunger … just what is this? And we all shared that. And then, I forget who came up with it, but one of us was just like, fart patio, separate fart room … and then we laughed so hard that at first we thought it couldn't be a sketch, but it haunted us and we just thought, well, maybe there's a way to do it.
Watch "Fart Patio":
Do you have a favorite sketch from Season 3?
There's this one that we did with the character named Gavin, who's a guy with red curly hair and a mustache. He is a recording studio enthusiast, has his own home recording studio. And it's the kind of guy, like the next version of guys who used to work on cars, because it's a very guy thing. It's a conversation I've fallen into and had, and also overheard, this conversation guys have when they talk about microphones and cables, and "I have this new vocals room and a drum room." And you get into this tone that's such a guy thing that I thought, "I feel like it's like the new 'I'm working on my car.'" It's like, "I'm working in my recording studio."
So, it was kind of an indulgence, because I got to walk around and talk about studios. For some reason it felt like such an inside joke. You know, it was like, "Oh my God, who's going to know about this, just recording studio people?" But the fact that we got to do it on TV felt like a little victory.
Watch "The Studio" sketch:
From "Portlandia" what do people quote back to you most?
I would say, "Put a Bird On It" or "Cacao."
Watch "Put a Bird On It":
How is Season 4 progressing so far?
We're in our third week of writing, and literally on the other side of this wall — I had to step away to do this — are the other writers. I'm really excited about it. I know it's a very easy thing to say for some people, but I feel like we are very much in sync with each other, and we know what the show is, but we also want to take another step. Something feels very nice about it. We're thinking and laughing a lot, which is my favorite thing.
Is there a little less pressure, time wise, this year, since you don't have to rush back to New York in the fall?
Yes, definitely, schedule wise it opens things up a little bit. I feel like we have a never ending allotment of time to do whatever we want. With the writing, we don't have to cram every day, like a final exam where we have to just pile things on. We can kind of think things through a little bit.
Do you have guest stars lined up for Season 4 yet? You always have great guest stars; they're always a good fit with the show.
We haven't gotten to the phase where we start booking people yet — that's a bit of a ways off. We have a marker board where we start writing down people who we like or who are friends of ours. We go, "Oh, what about so and so?" I like it because you start dreaming a little bit. "Oh, that would be fun."
Kind of a wish list of guest stars?
Yes, it's like a wish list, but also it's these question marks of like, "Oh, why do I keep thinking of this person?" Sometimes it's even a matter of, who has been close to us over the years? Somebody who I've been into a lot, that kind of thing.
Is there one person who's on your wish list to fit in in some way that you haven't been able to yet?
We've never quite been able to find Werner Herzog. We're trying. I think literally, from Season 1, we've been like, how can we get him? But I think he'll always remain on the horizon as someone we're reaching for. I forget what season it was, but we were really trying to get him, and we couldn't get a response, because someone said he was on a train in Siberia. And I didn't believe it. I was like, "Oh, that's such a line," you know? Then some documentary did come out where he was out in the frozen something or other in Siberia, so I was like, "OK, yeah, that sounds about right then." (Laughs) That gave me hope. I was like, that's truthful — he might have really been on some train.
You reprised your role as Brainy Smurf in "Smurfs 2." Where does voice work fall on the scale of fun work?
[That movie] is something I like on another level. It's just so nice when something is made that … I'm such a fan of things that have zero cynicism. There's not an agenda, except to be funny and sweet, with a movie like that. I just really like that.
Are you working on new episodes of "The Looney Tunes Show"?
I haven't recorded one in a little while. I don't know where they're at or we're at with production, but that's sort of ongoing. I feel like I'll do stuff for a couple months, then I don't hear about it for a while, then all of a sudden I'm doing it again. But those guys are great; those guys are really very talented.
Your Speedy Gonzales is great. What is your process for creating a voice, especially for both Brainy Smurf and Speedy Gonzales, characters that we know and love? How do you put your spin on them?
For things like that, I really do subscribe to being physical in the studio. It sounds pretentious, but I think I should stand the way that those characters would. And there is a director there, or at least on the line, and you do have to do it over and over, and there is a way that they want it to be. But the more that I physically stand the way they do, then all of a sudden they go, oh, whatever you did in that, that was the right one. And for Speedy, I think they do literally speed up the voice a little bit.
Speedy seems a lot savvier, a lot smarter, in this new "Looney Tunes."
That's all the writers, you know. That isn't one of those cartoons that's like, oh, do whatever you want, go crazy. There is a real script to it, and they just try to make him kind of realistic and very much a city person — I'm sorry, city mouse. He's almost like a character that could exist on "Portlandia," very savvy in business and that, and laidback at the same time. But those guys are great, and I feel like that was one of the great things about the original Looney Tunes, that adults could really relate to it.
What's on your wish list for the next project you'd like to do?
I'd like to do another TV show. I have a few thoughts in my head about what it would be. But I love television. I think it's a really exciting time for TV, and it just keeps growing. And people are collecting TV shows like they did records. You know, grown ups are just talking to each other about having seen this episode or that season … I love it.
What do you watch on TV?
I just finished "Game of Thrones."
Are you waiting for Joffrey's death now?
Yes, but I waited so long for it the last season that I just kind of gave it back to them. I was like, I know you want me to want Joffrey to die, so I'm not going to give you that pleasure. If you want to torture me with keeping him alive, I'm not going to give you that power. I'm letting go, I'm letting go. Let him reign for as long as you want — I don't care anymore.
I'm looking forward to the conclusion of "Breaking Bad." That's one of the greatest shows ever, that's ever existed. And "Orange Is the New Black," that was really good.
Is that something you would consider doing, a Netflix series, where the audience gets to watch the whole season at once?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely, because I feel like even they approach it all with a question mark. They all are saying, "Wow, what's this new way of making a TV show?" It seems to be working out. It's kind of a version of them having their own recording studio.
"Portlandia" Season 3 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can also win a DVD copy by entering our giveaway.