Interview: ‘Portlandia’ writer/director Jonathan Krisel

This isn’t, typically, a get-out-and-move-around job. The cardio benefits are minimal, so the other day I decided to dance a little. Threw on “El Camino” and I, to make a long story short, made bliss appear at the corner of movement and rhythm. Alas, I also pulled a muscle in my foot.

Cut to yesterday afternoon and I am not in my nice, quiet office, but rather stuck in bed, a pair of crutches just a few feet away as I wait for a call from IFC and Jonathan Krisel, the director and one of the writers and producers of Portlandia. Like clockwork, they call and like kismet, my dog begins barking at ghosts, or the faint whisper of children four lightyears away. I excuse myself from the call, grab a crutch, hop up and let her out of the room, random curse words flooding into my mind as I put the slightest amount of weight on my dance injury.

The matter now resolved, I return to my spot, pick up the phone and continue to offer a wide bouquet of “Don’t you dare” glances at my dog while she stares at me from the hall, gently growling for a few moments longer, at the ghosts, the whispers of the children, and now me. This is all happening as I begin an interview with a man who has a hand in one of TV’s smartest sketch shows since Mr. Show, a man who has gone from Funny or Die to Tim and Eric and SNL, a man who, when I ask about his influences, says:

“I’m not a huge fan of sketchy-funny-wacky stuff, I’m more a fan of British dry humor, Steve Coogan, absurd stuff happening where no one really responds to how crazy it is.”

In this moment I smile, and think about how much I can relate.

Portlandia is anything but typical, not so much weird (Krisel isn’t a fan of that descriptor) as it is unique. Spawned from the unlikely sketch troupe ThunderAnt (unlikely because SNL players like Fred Armisen and alt-rockers like Carrie Brownstein rarely come together for anything more than an after-party), the show premiered on IFC last year to acclaim and heady comparisons thanks to its masterful use of its host city, Portland, Oregon. A city which is described as “a city where young people go to retire” in the first moments of the first episode, and a fully fleshed out, vibrant, and reminiscent cityscape in every episode from there on.

The city is, and I say this with the small hope that it not sound trite, a character in the show, clearly inspiring and informing the cast, crew, and some of the characters, but it’s also a sandbox for them that stands outside the usual, a contrast to a restrictive soundstage in a studio with bloated crews and a rigid focus.

“It definitely is a guerilla operation. That’s the way I wanted it; I would not want it any other way. You can change gears easier, since the show is totally improvised. I mean, there are scripts (later described as a loose outline), you can meander and it’s nice to have the ability to go, “Something came up in that last take, let’s maneuver to change the story a little bit”. That’s nice, to have sort of a nimble crew and options available, that we can sort of be inspired in the moment and be able to actually do something about it, as opposed to, “Oh, that would have been great, but we can’t actually do that.”

The Portland crew is really essential to that; I felt like the people up there are more interested in making artistic things. There’s a real value in it. There’s not as much value in, “Is this going to come in exactly on budget?” or, “We got the day done!”, it’s like “Well whats the creative… what do you guys really need, what do you want?” and there’s a real satisfaction from everyone when we go, “That was really funny and we got it!”

Krisel, Brownstein, and Armisen

Funny is, of course, the key, though, and it is the lo-fi, centered approach that Armisen, Brownstein, Krisel, and Allison Silverman bring to the show, usually eschewing the the previously mentioned, “sketchy-funny-wacky stuff” in favor of more natural and organic tones that accomplishes that goal.

“It’s just a group of friends making each other laugh in that moment, and we’re just capturing it and putting it out there,” says Krisel who also notes that, “There is a looseness to comedy that makes it work and if it’s too structured, if it’s too packaged, it sometimes looses that spontaneity to it.”

“Just don’t overthink it. The worst thing you can do is overthink it, that’ll make it stale.” says executive producer Lorne Micheals, according to Krisel, who perfectly summarized the open style of the show as it heads into it’s second season — “The concepts can be crazy, and can go into kind of surreal places, as long as it starts in Portland, and ends up in Portlandia, then that’s, to me, why I write the show.”


Portlandia‘s second season kicks off tonight on IFC at 10pm ET, now please look upon my bird.

Jason Tabrys

Written by (@jtabrys)

The former editor-in-chief, Jason still reappears in the rafters of our fair site from time to time but he now spends his days leaping from one place to another, trying to put right what once went wrong. You can still find his words across the toxic constellation that is the… More »

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