Jonathan Krisel Talks Portlandia Season 3, debuting January 4th with back-to-back episodes
Portlandia has become one of the hippest shows on television, here in Season 3. Created by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, there is a third important cog to this machine that we don't get to see on screen every week, and that is director Jonathan Krisel, whose voice shines through in every sketch concocted for this hit IFC comedy series. His past work includes Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, and later this month he is launching Kroll Show on Comedy Central. But first, he has ten all-new episodes of Portlandia for us fans, hungry for more of his inventive, crazy directing style.
Tonight, Friday, January 4th, will give us the all-new back-to-back Portlandia episodes Take Back MTV and Missionaries. We recently caught up with Jonathan to chat about the show's return, his recent work with Nick Kroll, and the likelihood that we will see a Portlandia movie sometime in the near future.
Will Portlandia continue its successful run as the North West's greatest sketch comedy series ever made? Here is our conversation.
Do you direct every single episode of Portlandia? Or do you farm some of the episodes out?
Jonathan Krisel: No, it's just me. Yeah.
I've talked to both Carrie and Fred over the course of the past three seasons, since this show first launched, and they are always quick to sight you as the third star of the show. Can you explain to me the collaboration process of getting each episode off the ground, and how you three work to make this a complete group effort?
Jonathan Krisel: Yes. It starts from the writing of the show. The three of us are the three main writers of the show. All the ideas are coming through the three of us. I am the one going, "Okay, let me figure out how to turn this into television." It will start with a little observation, or insight into the way that people are behaving. An antidote about a friend, and how they are acting a certain way. It is all very grounded in reality. And then that gets turned into these little sketches. Just having worked in the sketch world for a while, that migrates from the writing process to the actual carrying out of shooting things. Something will start out as a little nugget, and that will turn into an outline. We mostly work in outlines. They are not fully fleshed out scripts. If we do have a script, its used as a jumping off point. A lot of the excitement coming off the set starts with the creative process, through the writing process, where it keeps changing, and we keep modifying it on set. Every part of the process is adding another layer onto the idea, trying to make it as funny and relevant as possible. So, its like, "Okay, we are going to go to this home in Seattle." The art department comes along and says, "A home in Seattle? That should have a Kurt Cobain shrine in it." Ok. Yes. That's ridiculous, but yes, lets do that. I show up on set. The scene has nothing to do with Kurt Cobain, but now there is this huge Kurt Cobain aspect to it, because there is this weird shrine in the scene. Every department is adding to the process. It's never a mission of carrying out the script. Ok, so here is the perspective that you put in. Here is a Seattle home, and that is done. We are always trying to capitalize on the funniest thing in the moment, all along the way. Once it gets to editing, maybe we put some funny, Kurt Cobain style music in there. It is constantly keeping the process alive, and it is open to improvisation. There is always a feeling that the process is constantly evolving. Its never, "We shot what was in the script, let's move on." It's about trying to add layers onto it. I just worked with an actor who said it perfectly...It wasn't for Portlandia, it was for another little project...It was actually Luke Perry who said, "Thank you for letting me find the comedy." Comedy is all about the timing. You can write a joke, but then you have to perform it. You can see a comedian say a joke on stage, and think, "That is so funny." Then you try to tell your friends, and its not as funny. Because you have to find these little details, and that really adds up in front of the camera for me. That process is like alchemy. You are experimenting constantly, but there is no exact formula. You have to be open to finding that formula every time. And we won't give up until the last cut. We will try as hard as we can to get it as funny as possible up until that very last minute. Any change that we can find is great.
This is one sketch show where, though you do have reoccurring characters, I don't ever see you repeating a certain sketch. Maybe an idea, but the sketch never stays focused on one primary joke or idea...
Jonathan Krisel: I think I am always very hard on every idea. Have we done this before? This is such a small little show. To repeat an idea would appear lazy. If we had twenty-two episodes per season, maybe I'd be a little more relaxed. We'd have a lot more content to fill. But on our show, every second counts. There is no point in repeating anything, to trot out an old character and an old premise, running at it over and over again. The writing process doesn't really lend itself to that. We don't think about creating a certain catch phrase that we can trot out. It is more about finding ideas, and they are usually social ideas, or observations. We don't do the same observation twice. That lends itself to taking on a new topic. The originality of it is the most important thing. Like, are we going to be the first people to comment on this important thing that is happening? I think that is always my goal. To be on the cutting edge of social commentary. That keeps it fresh. And then the characters are these really fleshed out, real characters that are experiencing these things. Even though a character can be really silly, and cartoony in one way, they are so real, and they have a whole history to them. You can't have a character in a sketch that isn't a real character at all. They are just saying funny things. I think you lose something in that. Portlandia is about real characters. They really live there. They really care about things. They believe in these things. The locations are real. They are not sets. It gives it a lot more...The situation is going to be as silly as possible, but this is a real universe. I think that helps.
The Brunch episode was one continuous storyline. Is Nina's Birthday Party going to follow that same structure?
Jonathan Krisel: Yes. To me it is the most fun. Because everyone has a storyline that runs throughout the episode. You are still invested in these one-off pieces. It's not like, "What's going to happen next?" They are still random pieces. It is a really fun way for everyone to have a pay off. You get invested in each journey. "Are they going to get to the brunch restaurant? How is the birthday going to turn out?" For me, it is way more fun, and its way easier to come up with ideas for it. Essentially, we have two episodes that are like that this season. Nina's Birthday, and then the finale is going to be similar to Brunch Village. I love it. I think we have such a strong community of characters to pull from. I always think of our show as Tales of the City, which was about San Francisco. Like Melrose Place, or something like that. Those are kind of bad examples. But, I think we have created such strong, real characters that live in a certain place, that in future seasons and episodes, that's what the show is. Its not a sketch show anymore. Its individual scenes, that are kind of treated like sketches, but they connect together in a little puzzle that is one story, and it is like a comedic Melrose Place.
My parents live in Corvallis. What is interesting to see, here in the third season, is that the whole Oregonian community has really embraced this show as their own in a way I don't think I've ever seen before. And when it comes to some of the actors who live in, or are from Oregon, they are all clamoring to be on the show. Has that become overwhelming for you at this point?
Jonathan Krisel: It's not overwhelming. Its definitely nice, because now...In the first season, we'd walk into a store that we wanted to shoot in, and we'd say, "We're doing a show called Portlandia." They would say, "I don't own a TV, I don't know what you are talking about." Now, in the third season, you walk in, and you hear, "I don't own a TV, but I've heard good things about it. So, please, I want my business to be associated with it." It has a nice quality to it, in that there is a lot of good will. There is this hometown hero aspect. It is very high quality, yet it's very original. Which is how Oregon sees itself. It is a perfect product. It stands for something. I think everyone can be proud of the show, because it came out of here. It doesn't feel like, "Oh, they set it here, but they don't capture what it really means." Its created there, a lot of the writing is done there, the city mayor is involved. It appreciates the city, and I think the city embraces that. If you watch it, you can see how the city and state would be proud of it. Like, oh, yeah, that came from here. It really has the stamp of the city on it. It doesn't feel like carpetbaggers have come and capitalized on it. It really feels authentic. There is a lot of good will that way.
My parents are both in their 70s, and they don't watch too much television in terms of sketch shows, or some of the newer, hipper comedy shows. But they never miss Portlandia. And my mom said to me, "It reminds me of Portland in the 70s." She lived there in the 70s. Which I thought was interesting. That the show captures a certain nostalgia for the city. Or maybe it's the fact that the city hasn't changed much at its core...
Jonathan Krisel: That must be. I know in the 80s and 90s, it was a little scarier. It was a little seedier. And now it's a lot nicer. They removed the train tracks out from the Powell district, which created this utopian landscape. But I think the characters in the show are lifelong Portlanders. And they aren't all hipster kids, or young adults. They are older. I think a lot of them are our parents. Some of the characters are based on our parents. There is an older community...I have to say, my parents love the show, too...It has a good parental vibe, which is kind of weird. I do think a lot of the fans of the show are older, because there are no gross out jokes. There are only a very few...The comedy is G rated in a way, but it stays cutting edge. It's not relying on the easy sex and poop jokes, which is the easy go-to thing. It's classy, in a way. I think that's why my parents like it, compared to some of the other things I have worked on.
My parents...They have never seen Tim & Eric. I don't think they would enjoy that.
Jonathan Krisel: My parents were horrified when they would watch that. They would say, "You worked on this?" And I would say, "Yeah!" And they would go, "Oh, god, this is so gross!"
The thing about that show is, you really did some interesting work there, as a director, that was new and fresh. I've noticed quite a few up and coming directors biting that style, especially in the world of advertising. Do you acknowledge that, or do you kind of look the other way, as to not seem conceited?
Jonathan Krisel: I have noticed that. I noticed that both Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Portlandia are big in the advertising communities. A lot of those art directors in advertising are always looking out for the newest, coolest thing. The underground thing. Both of those shows fall into that category, and they are such huge fans. That is really nice to hear that this style is falling into their work. I think that's great. I have just noticed that there are a lot of fans in the advertising community. And I have taken the style of commercials, and put that into both shows. 'Put a Bird on It'. That was Carrie's idea. She said, "I see people putting birds on everything. Maybe we should do a sketch about people who get hired to put birds on things." I said, "What if we create it as this psychedelic commercial." The idea is so good, I don't think it needs a story. That could slow the idea down. I am always thinking about stealing from commercials, especially for things like that. It is so hyper. To do a proper 30-second commercial, with a joke in it, is not as exciting to me. It's about using the form, a little bit. It's very presentational. I love the style of things, and using that where you can use it. But its not locked down, and characters can break out of it. That's our universe. I love commercials, and I love the way commercials tell stories. It is at a very exhilarated pace. For a lot of the Portlandia stuff, we tried to infuse those storytelling techniques, which you can't use in a sitcom, or anything. You can have a lot of fast cuts, and you can have a one-minute sketch that really pops. It's being told in a different way. You can't do that at Saturday Night Live. You can't do that on a stage. Advertising is a back and forth with us, so I don't mind that my style is being used at all.
Am I wrong, or did you utilize the Wyden and Kennedy advertising firm in Season 2?
Jonathan Krisel: Season 1, yeah, we did...
Nike is in Beaverton, so there is a huge advertising community there in Portland, I can see that the show would be big with them...
Jonathan Krisel: Yeah. Portland has a couple of other agencies there. But it's all across the country. New York agencies, I think, really follow the show. That is cool.
You guys just aired the Winter special over Christmas, and you did the Brunch special last year. Do you have any more one-offs, or special episodes planned?
Jonathan Krisel: That is a good question. Not at the moment. The Brunch Special came about because we had too much content to fit in that one show. Now, with our finale episode coming up, we are just about to start editing it. It will probably be long. I don't know that we will do a special for it. It might just be a DVD extra. At this moment, no, there is nothing in the works. But I think that there will always be some kind of outside the season special, at least once a year.
What about a Portlandia movie? I have to ask that question, but lately, that hasn't made too much sense to me. I'm getting five hours of Portlandia in the next month, so why do I need a movie? Its like Arrested Development. There are going to be 14 new episodes, that we can watch all at one time, as though it were a giant, super-sized movie. But people still go, "I want the movie!"
Jonathan Krisel: There are no plans at the moment. My goal would be to do a movie. But not have it be Portlandia. It would be the same creative team with Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and me. But I think that Portlandia exists in this context so well, a movie version of it, especially the way they do those Saturday Night Live movies, where they take something and blow it up...I would just want to start from scratch with the same creative team. But not having the show be a limitation. The show works so well, lets just keep it like that. There will be an Arrested Development movie, though. But I agree with what you are saying. That isn't a good format for those characters. In that universe. I am excited for the show. But a movie is too small. It's too short.}
Portlandia is on Netflix. I have a projector. I can hook Netflix up to my projector, and its like I'm watching an 8 hour Portlandia movie. So, people still asking for movies of TV shows boggles my mind a little bit, because the episodes are as good, and play on the big screen as well, as any comedy movie out there. It seems like a weird request at this time in our current technological state, especially with TV where it is in terms of quality.
Jonathan Krisel: Yeah, exactly.
Before you dodge out, I wanted to ask you about your other upcoming show, the Nick Show Kroll. Is that what it's called?
Jonathan Krisel: No, the name has now been changed to Kroll Show.
Are you directing every episode of that as well?
Jonathan Krisel: Yeah.
What can we expect to see when that debuts on Comedy Central?
Jonathan Krisel: That will be eight episodes. I don't know if you are familiar with Nick Kroll's comedy style...
Yeah, I actually just watched one of his stand-up specials...
Jonathan Krisel: He has been doing characters for the last ten years, on stage. Sometimes they are in his stand up. This is his universe. This is his show. It is a very high quality show. It is more slick than Portlandia, but it has a similar creative process. It is a different team. Its me, and Nick Kroll, and John Levenstein, who was one of the head writers of Arrested Development. It is super funny, but it is also action packed. I am excited for it to come out on January 16th. We've been holding it. I actually did that between Season 2 and Season 3 of Portlandia. Comedy Central held onto it. They really like it, and they though that putting it on in January was a good time slot. I think, if you like Portlandia at all, you are going to like it. It is a different universe. But it's a similar...Its almost like the disgusting Los Angeles version of Portlandia with Nick Kroll's characters populating the universe.
So we'll see The Ed Hardy Boys and Bobby Bottleservice...
Jonathan Krisel: Yes, Bobby is in it. That is one of Nick's best characters. There are a lot of new characters, too. Like The Ben Stiller Show, there is a little cast to it, too. There are some comedians that aren't in every episode, but there in a bunch. Like Jenny Slate is in a bunch of them. Andy Milonakis, if you remember him from MTV. It's a cool little community. I am really proud of it. I hope it does well.
What's it like to have these two shows on at the same time. Is that a little weird?
Jonathan Krisel: It is weird. It wasn't planned that way. When they both come out, it will be interesting to see. Portlandia does well, but its on IFC, which doesn't get big ratings at all. Comedy Central, normally their ratings are a lot higher. So it will be interesting to see. Even if the Kroll Show doesn't hit like Portlandia, the ratings might still be higher.
Last question. Do you know the fate of Check it Out? Is that coming back for a third season?
Jonathan Krisel: I think it is. I only worked on the first season of it. But I think there is going to be a third season, which is crazy. It was very hard to do that show, with John C. Reilly's schedule. It was all over the place. I think there will be another season, but it might be more than two years off.
Two years? That's a long time to wait for that!
Jonathan Krisel: I know! (Laughs)