How Portlandia’s Jonathan Krisel Is Keeping the Dream Alive in Portland

We check in with Portlandia’s executive producer, Jonathan Krisel, about the sixth season of the hit IFC comedy...

Jonathan Krisel has quietly been the mastermind behind some of your favorite cutting-edge comedies currently on television. He’s amassed a formidable empire of brilliant programs that are all pushing boundaries in their own respective ways. In February, he’ll have three comedies in full swing on television, between Portlandia, Man Seeking Woman, and his latest endeavor, the Zach Galifianakis clown vehicle, Baskets. 

A favorite of many, Portlandia has quickly risen to the top of the sketch comedy precipice, arguably becoming IFC’s flagship show at that. After a creatively reinvigorating fifth season, and a two-season renewal on their hands, audiences are eager to learn what Krisel, Fred Armisen, and Carrie Brownstein are cooking up for Portlandia‘s new season, which debuts Thursday, January 21st at 10:00 p.m. on IFC.  

DEN OF GEEK: Last season you guys sort of had a more centralized storytelling structure by focusing on individual characters, whereas this season looks to be a little more like “Brunch Village”–one of the best things that you guys have done, in my opinion–where you focus on a unifying location topic. Do you have a preference between the two structures, or is it more just about keeping it fresh for you guys? 

JONATHAN KRISEL: Well actually this season we have both styles. There’s a mixing and matching. We kind of liked this new “full episode” structure. That’s definitely something that’s more inspirational, but we did both. There’s a little bit of each. And then we just have some normal Portlandia episodes in there as well. I think season five was almost like a new show, so season six was kind of like season two of that. With season seven there have been some e-mails flying that have been like…Who knows what it’s going to be?

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DEN OF GEEK: Interesting! 

JONATHAN KRISEL: You know, when you get into season seven of–

DEN OF GEEK: Any show!

JONATHAN KRISEL: Yeah! Key & Peele had five. That was it. They were good. We’re trying not to make it repetitive and we are fans of original stuff. There’s no point in doing a retread of the same thing. Season seven is going to be hard. We might need some new characters. We might need some new things to take on so that we’re not just saying the same thing from a billion different angles. It’s tricky.

DEN OF GEEK: Shifting gears a little bit, Man Seeking Woman switches between being hyper-grounded and over-the-top, with Baskets doing similar things with mixing reality and surrealism, too, but in a totally different way. Can you talk about the different balances that these two shows find?

JONATHAN KRISEL: Well I think that Man Seeking Woman is really based on–each act is really its own sketch. Simon’s writing and what I like lined up pretty well, in that there’s some insane character from space that’s happening, but the characters are treating it just like it’s real life. At least in the first season. I think the second season does a better job at servicing the story overall. It’s still dipping in and out of these psychedelic kind of things in a sketch way. It’s more cohesive this season.

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Going into Baskets it was like, okay, Zach–to me–is a really great comedic and dramatic actor and I want to build a show around showcasing him and everything that he can do. His manifesto for a show was like, let’s make it emotionally realistic and track, so then people are making choices based on real things, and making good or bad decisions based on real emotions. Then he says, “I can make it funny” on top of all of that. We all need to be in a comedy logic universe where super crazy, funny, wacky things are happening but at a certain point you get fatigue. Especially in a TV show. The main thing is whether I like these characters and want to see what they’re doing every week, and if I care about them in some way. I think you’ll see as the season progresses, it starts kind of different and very dramatic. I think that gave me a taste of drama. With comedy I’ve always had a pretty good sense of what I like and how to execute it well, but drama has its own rules.

DEN OF GEEK: It’s harder to tell when it’s working, sure. There was a brief moment during last season of Portlandia where you were away doing Baskets and Daniel Gray Longino and Steve Buscemi stepped in for directing duties. What was that like, watching someone else’s take on the material? 

JONATHAN KRISEL: Well I think I was away doing Man Seeking Woman actually, but both of them have been around the show for a long time and know what I like, and the sensibility of it. So it wasn’t like I was bringing in Jay Roach or something–someone totally different. But it was still strange to watch, and as a writer on this show–some of these writers will just write something and then they’re done. And then I take it and I direct it, and edit it, and then they see it at the end. So I got to have that experience for the first time of being just the writer. It was a strange relationship to look and be like, “Oh, that’s how that video was executed.” I mean I’m involved with the casting and all the big decisions beforehand, but it is strange. It is strange. I really enjoyed it though and I think they both did a great job. I was really, really happy with the results. So this season has even more different people on it. Bill Benz who also comes from editing Portlandia and directing Kroll. I only did five episodes this year. 

DEN OF GEEK: Is there any particular sketch from Portlandia this season that you’re particularly excited about? Or are there any set pieces from any of the shows that you’re working on that you’re really excited for people to finally get to see? 

JONATHAN KRISEL: Definitely… I’m trying to think of a good Portlandia one. I’m really proud of that “Going Gray” episode. I think it’s a really cool idea. It’s such a small idea of just getting older and not really paying attention to the time going by. We explored a lot of ideas to get into this season.  Yeah, that Mitch Hurwitz gynecologist scene is really funny. I really enjoy working with Mitch. I would love to work on a show and have him be the star of it. I know that he’s a great writer, but he’s such a good performer, too. I’ve watch so many different performers improvise on set and his style is so different because he comes from writing. Literally in the middle of a scene he’ll be like, “Hold on one second.” He’ll sit there, be quiet, we’re still rolling. Five, ten, twenty seconds will go by, and then he’ll go, “Okay, I’m good,” and he will unleash a string of jokes that are amazing. I was the one who was like, “Okay, I want Mitch for this role,” but I don’t think Fred and Carrie knew–they might have known who he was, but he blew them away with his mind. His mind is amazing. So funny, so smart, and he’s really funny on camera. 

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For our full interview with Jonathan Krisel, listen below. You can follow Den of Geek on SoundcloudTuneIn, and Stitcher.