“It is an honor just to be nominated,” insisted both Lena Dunham, the creator and star of “Girls,” and “Portlandia’s” Fred Armisen, when Variety caught up with the Emmy comedy nominees recently. While they were clearly delighted with each other’s noms, the actors said they were content to simply enjoy the attention, along with the Aug. 25 ceremony. Both Dunham and Armisen had plenty to distract them in the meantime — Dunham was getting ready to shoot the fourth-season finale of her HBO show, while Armisen was in pre-production on the fifth season of IFC’s “Portlandia.”
Armisen: Wow, you’re already up to the season finale already!
Dunham: We are! I don’t know if you’ve found this but it goes faster, as the seasons go on. Today Zosia (Mamet) was like, “Yeah, it’s like how camp goes faster as you get older.”
Armisen: Yeah, it becomes like a blur.
Dunham: I remember getting to the first season and some big thought and story, and now I’m just like, “I guess it’s happening.”
Variety: So, what happens in the finale?
Dunham: (Laughs) I would have fallen for that so hard! To me there’s no such thing as a spoiler. And I like the fact that “Portlandia” is a spoiler-free show. You can get surprised by jokes and things but no one can exactly spoil “Portlandia” for you in any possible way.
Armisen: Sometimes we don’t plan what’s going to go that much in advance, but maybe this season it’ll be different.
Dunham: We constantly in our writers’ room find ourselves pitching “Portlandia” storylines, and we’re like, “I guess it’s not really constructive that we’re all just pitching ‘Portlandia’ storylines for 45 minutes.”
Variety: How about a crossover?
Armisen: Oh, I would love that! That would be so much fun. How would that happen? How can that be possible?
Dunham: We could join writers’ rooms.
Variety: Have you ever worked together before?
Dunham: Fred, I told you before that before I ever did “Girls” or made my movie or anything, that I was an extra in a “Saturday Night Live” digital short in which you sold Weiman cigarettes, right?
Armisen: You never told me that!
Dunham: I was sitting at a table right by you, and I had a really bad problem with giggling. I had to be told several times, “You can’t laugh.” I also didn’t know what being an extra entailed. I thought I was just gonna get to hang with Fred and be part of the different jokes. I was such a crazy fan and so I remember first I giggled too much, then I fell asleep, so I was the worst background artist.
Armisen: Was I nice? Was I nice to you?
Dunham: Oh, you were amazing! You were really nice, you were the nicest. Because I now know you and Bill Hader, you were yukking it up with the crowd. I was like, “What a great guy!”
Armisen: Oh, thank God! I have to go back and watch it. That’s really incredible.
Variety: What makes each of you laugh?
Dunham: I have so many favorite scenes! On “Portlandia,” when Fred and Carrie (Brownstein) play the couple that dies of not being sure of medical issues, that dies of conflicting medical information? That’s a big one for me. And on “SNL,” when Fred and Vanessa Bayer act like the best friends from childhood of a former dictator.
Armisen: You did great hosting! That was really, really great.
Dunham: The fact that you were there was so exciting. I still, by the way, have three dreams a week where someone’s like, “It’s an emergency! You’ve gotta come back and host ‘SNL,’ ” and I’m like, “I don’t know any of the sketches!” That’s like my new version of a no-underpants-in-high-school dream.
Armisen: There’s this one scene in season 3 where Amy Schumer is confronting Adam (Driver) in a coffee shop — that scene really makes me laugh. I don’t know how you wanted it to play, but I just love that, That is my favorite scene of the season.
Dunham: Amy Schumer is one of the funniest working people, and her just going off on a guy. … If you gave Amy Schumer free rein, there’s no way you’re going to keep a straight face.
Variety: What do you like most about your job? What’s your favorite part of what you do?
Armisen: I’m glad that I get to hang out with my friends. Instead of Carrie (Brownstein) being in another part of my life, I get to work with her and then also hang out with her. So, I’m just very fortunate.
Dunham: I was actually going to say the same thing. Working with my friends like Jenni Konner, who I’m showrunning on “Girls” with. A lot of the writers are my friends, a lot of the other actors have become my close friends and so to get to go to work everyday with your other family. So I can’t remember I’ve complained once, about having a cold or about being hungry or anything, because this gets to be our job. … Working in television is the best job in the world. You have a consistent job that you love. What a gift to get to do this everyday.
Armisen: Oh absolutely, it is the best thing to be doing. I don’t forget about that for a second.
Dunham: Earlier in my life as a person who made movies, I met James L. Brooks, who I’ve always been a crazy fan of, and he said something like, in his great James L. Brooks voice, “When it’s working, a TV show is the best gig in the world,” and I really never forgot that. The best gig in the world!
Variety: How much of your show is scripted, and how much do you improv?
Armisen: Sometimes we pick something in the room and if we all laugh then, you know it’s good. But there’s some that’s very last minute: “Let’s just shoot it and see what happens.” Do you guys do any improvising on your show?
Dunham: We tend to do a couple takes that are on-script and then just let people kind of go crazy. And it’s interesting, even though we don’t end up using an extraordinary amount of our improv, most of our favorite jokes come from it — so it’s an important part of the process even if it’s not the thing that most of our content comes from. But sometimes the one really exciting weird joke in the episode came from that moment where we said, “OK guys, before we stop for the night just do whatever feels exciting to you.”
Armisen: And do you choose takes from the edits?
Dunham: I spend a lot of time looking at the edits and looking at dailies. We’ve got really good editors who we’ve been working with for a long time. And our editors cut really great and they’ve got a sense of the stuff I like and the stuff that makes me crazy and my editorial pet peeves. Do you like the editing part of the process?
Armisen: I’m gladly not part of it because it’s one area where I don’t trust my judgment on it.
Variety: Why not?
Armisen: Because I think that I’ll start imagining in my head that a joke works really well. I’ll think that works great and then I’ll sort of convince myself, as opposed to letting a third party decide for themselves. So, it’s best, I think, if it comes from somebody else, because if I’m in it, I really do think that there are things I should not be a part of just to be away from it and to let somebody better at it decide.
Variety: What kind of notes do you get from the networks? Do you listen to them?
Dunham: HBO’s notes are incredible and the people I work with are so smart that I’m like, well if you guys have a note I should probably listen. I’ve never been given a note that’s been like cold-chilling of bones or Jesus, these people don’t understand. When they do give a note they give very specific notes, and then only when they think they need to and I’d better let them because these people know what they’re doing. And usually it’s a good, really smart emotional or logical note. One time I was told not to have arching semen across the screen, and then when I thought about trying to fight that note, I was like, “No, they’re right.”
Armisen: I do think that letting a note settle in and once you’ve decided to let it be right, it also becomes right.
Dunham: I would imagine at this point you guys don’t get many notes because your aesthetic is so your own that it’s hard for me to imagine people coming in with major notes.
Armisen: As the years have gone on, it’s been less and less. This is almost an uncool thing to talk about, but because we’re sponsored, they’ll ask very simple things, like do you have seatbelts on?
Dunham: Does Lorne (Michaels, producer) give you a lot of notes?
Armisen: Lorne gives the most valuable kind of notes. I don’t know how he knows. I don’t know if he has like some secret connection to my brain but he addresses questions that I haven’t asked yet and then I feel better about a whole season. In a sentence, he can diffuse any anxiety that I have.
Dunham: The biggest takeaway from doing “SNL” was like trying to feel as close to him as possible and watch him do his job and just to see his notes, which range from like big amazing, macro-script notes to, “There’s not enough stuff on that desk, mess it up a little bit.” He’s always right.
Variety: Lena, what was the experience hosting “SNL” like for you?
Dunham: I’m not saying this to suck up to anybody, but it was truly one of the most valuable experiences of my entire life. Like, creatively, delivery-wise, like stretching my own limits, learning like it really felt like that thing where I am a fetus and I’m doubling my size in the first few weeks of my life. I had to just get out of the way and let the people who do this job so well do it because even though I’m used to having a certain amount of control in my workplace, I have a different kind of workplace. It was like, “Lena, you are going to just sit down and shut up and wear whatever weird mustache is handed to you.” I don’t know anyone who’s hosted who’s had a bad experience. Everyone I’ve spoken to since says, “Was that not the best week of your entire life?” My boyfriend was like, “I get that you loved it, every story can’t be Kenan (Thompson) said the funniest thing at lunch because you’re in our house.”
Armisen: Did Lorne say anything to you like, “Your job is to blank”?
Dunham: I would say he was quiet but impactful, and was supportive in a cool way. He’d say, “I’d tell you not to be nervous, but it’s live TV, so of course you’re going to be nervous.” I was like, “What a great thing to say!” And then he gave me this nod in the middle of the show when he was walking the floor, that was like, things are going OK. I was just “OK, I can enjoy the rest of this ‘cause I made eye contact with Lorne and it felt good.”
Variety: How do you both feel about social media?
Dunham: I’m just a little Twitter-holic and could probably stand to ease up but I like it, I like that interaction. The seventh-grader in me is still really into that. I like getting feedback and I feel like I’ve connected with a lot of people, specifically women, who share my politics and beliefs and sense of humor. I love it. I love it as a form of creative expression.
Armisen: I’m on Instagram. And I like it for the same reason. I feel like I can record things and express myself much better through pictures. People are also very positive on there and very sweet. I prefer to focus on that as opposed to Twitter, because I feel like I do a better job on that.
Dunham: I’m like freaking out that you’re on Instagram and I didn’t know.
Variety: Could you see yourselves working on broadcast?
Dunham: “Girls” would not have been able to have a life anywhere but where it is, purely because we wanted to tell this story and it couldn’t really be sugar-coated or made palatable for the limitations of a network. People on networks are doing totally revolutionary things, but it’s just this particular show has so many factors that would not be able to exist in a context with advertisers.
Armisen: Yeah, the thing with “Portlandia” from day one, it could only exist in this format.
Dunham: I love that IFC trusted that something that could seem niche wasn’t. What I love about “Portlandia” is like, it’s Portland, but it could be any enclave where people have decided that they know the best way to live and it makes me laugh because my parents just moved to Williamsburg and they’re hip, but they’re 64. They’re like, “There’s a guy with pocket watches in the grocery store!” And I’m just like, “Portlandia! Portlandia! Portlandia!”
Armisen: Yeah, the thing is it could have been totally different cities. You know, all over the country.
Dunham: I went to a craft fair in Los Angeles and just could not believe, everyone was selling plant cozies made of plastic bags and popsicles made of rhubarb and dirt. I just wish I was with you guys, even though I know you get enough of these stories designed for the “Portlandia” writers’ room. Because it was not clear what came first, “Portlandia” or this craft fair.
Variety: Are you ever surprised by the fans you meet in person?
Armisen: We get a lot of people, sometimes it’s families and that is really, a weird kind of surprise. And it also kind of gives me faith that families are still doing stuff together. For whatever accusations they make about whatever habits are these days, I just feel like it’s so nice that here are these families sharing something.
Dunham: I love it when an older guy comes up to me and is like, “Your show
made me understand my daughter, my granddaughter.” That’s the dream, the idea that it’s causing anyone to connect in any way. It sounds so cheesy but that’s why you do this.