Hometown: Los Angeles
Latest Project: Portlandia
For Fans Of: Saturday Night Live’s Digital Shorts, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
With their respective ties to Saturday Night Live and Sleater-Kinney, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have garnered the lion’s share of headlines about the success of IFC’s TV hit Portlandia. But there’s a third, more silent partner that can take just as much credit for the show’s success: co-creator, writer and director Jonathan Krisel.
The show earned a Peabody award earlier this year for creating, “A funhouse mirror reflection of Portland, Oregon, a city that takes its progressivism—and its diet—very seriously. The satire is fresh, organic and cage-free.” The accolades for the show—and for Krisel—continue. In September, the director’s up for not one, but two primetime Emmy Awards: Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series 2012 (with Brownstein, Armisen and writer Karey Dornetto) and for Outstanding Directing For A Variety Series 2012 for directing the Battlestar Galactica-themed “One Moore Episode.”
During a recent phone call from the Rose City, where he’s currently filming Portlandia’s third season, Krisel says that “having all those guys in the room” during that particular episode was a truly surreal moment. Admittedly, he was a little intimidated about directing those “guys”: BSG actors Edward James Olmos, James Callis and executive producer Ronald D. Moore.
But he really shouldn’t be. His portfolio of work has prepared him for the mishmash of absurdist sketches (e.g., “Put a Bird on It”), which has won Portlandia both critical and commercial success. But even with all the accolades, Krisel’s not one to rest on the laurels. “I definitely feel the pressure to keep things fresh and original,” he says. “I always want to push myself.”
Armisen, Brownstein and Krisel are also trying to keep the show’s guerrilla filmmaking and some of the on-the-fly decision-making aspects intact for the latest season, which, according to Krisel, is relatively easy: “We have to do that because the budget is so low.”
Krisel’s been focused on short comedy pieces since time at NYU’s film school in the late ‘90s. Going against the grain, his thesis film featured comedy sketches. “Everybody else was trying to make a feature film in five minutes,” he says, but instead, he took cues from British humor, industrial films and absurdist comedies. Krisel cites the short film The Waiters, created by members of The State comedy troupe as an inspiration for his own work. “It was about all these guys waiting for stuff.” (And trust us, we’ve watched the film, and that’s exactly what it’s about.)
After college, he worked for an agency Photoshopping with a bunch of “art school flunkies” and created a Brooklyn cable access show just to use the equipment to make parodies of industrial videos. “I was just making videos,” he says. “I didn’t know what they were for.”
After suffering a quarter-life crisis, Krisel moved back to L.A., his hometown, where he did “almost nothing for a year” except make cheesy karaoke music videos for songs that we’d probably never find in a karaoke songbook, like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Friends of P.” by The Rentals.
Krisel had no idea that cable access videos and karaoke parodies would be his ticket to the big leagues—that is, until he showed his work to Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who were developing Tom Goes to the Mayor for Comedy Central’s Adult Swim block. Krisel held a number of roles (editor, producer, animator) on that show, putting his former day job skills to use since, he says, “the whole show was done in Photoshop.” He eventually began writing and directing episodes for the duo’s next series, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
The digital shorts have proven to be his calling card, with several featured on Funny or Die and Saturday Night Live (including “The Curse” with Jon Hamm as Sergio, a bare-chested sax player; and “Zach Drops by the Set,” in which Zach Galifianakis photobombs several NBC shows.
Krisel’s fondness for industrial videos and unintentional humor can be seen on many episodes of Portlandia—especially when he casts amateurs for on-camera work. “I love working with nonactors,” he says, referring specifically to local Portland resident Henry Cottrell, who played the faux Ronald D. Moore in the Emmy-nominated BSG-themed episode. “It’s so bad it’s kind of good. You cannot fake that.”