Alumnus reflects after “Portlandia” success

Ife Olujobi

The name may not ring a bell, but Jonathan Krisel, an alumnus from the Tisch School of the Arts, Class of 2000, is a prolific comedy director who has worked on some of today’s best comedy shows, with directing credits ranging from “Saturday Night Live” to “Kroll Show.” This year he is nominated for two Emmys for his work on the IFC sketch comedy show “Portlandia,” which he co-created with stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

“Fred and Carrie had been making little sketch videos together, and they knew they wanted to film the show in Portland,” Krisel told WSN. “I brought the idea of the city being the unifying concept to the show. I also wanted the filmmaking to be as punchy, indie-feeling and cinematic as the city and as the characters.”

Krisel is currently on set filming the fifth season of the sketch series in Portland, where the cast and crew routinely work 12-hour days, writing and creating on the fly.

Citing Monty Python, the Monkees and French New Wave films as his inspirations, Krisel is not one to shy away from experimentation while his crew is on set.

“Fred and Carrie might change costume and wigs five times in one day,” he said, adding that they are open to improvisation. “On a lot of sets there is a bad attitude about modification and change, however, our crew is so nimble and positive that we can really make things great,” Krisel said.

Though he’s been nominated before for “Portlandia,” Krisel was still surprised by his two nods this year, one for Outstanding Directing and another for Outstanding Writing (along with Armisen, Brownstein, Graham Wagner and Karey Dornetto), both in the Variety Series category.

But despite his success in the genre, Krisel is not limiting himself to variety, branching into more narrative projects soon, including the upcoming FXX dating comedy “Man Seeking Woman” and another pilot starring Zach Galifianakis and produced by Louis C.K.

With that said, Krisel’s passion remains the sketch format of “Portlandia” — a passion that started while working on his thesis at NYU.

“I saw a lot of short films in college that were ‘calling cards,’” Krisel said. “They were little mini feature films, and they were boring. I liked the short films that played with the format.”

Krisel also looked to video art and experimental film because these formats could produce comedy that was “more punk rock and less hindered by schmaltzy lesson learning and other sitcom tropes.”

In addition to comedy, Krisel also wants to try making a drama and loves a good mix of the two genres.

“I admire a good solid truth or a relatable scene just as much as something funny,” Krisel said. “I’d love to be able to achieve both.”

And for anyone looking to achieve success in funny business like Krisel, he has some words of advice.

“First off, never refer to it as the funny business,” he said. “It’s funny biz. Next, keep a day job. Make stuff in your spare time.”

And though getting started may be slow and tedious, Krisel believes that a career in comedy is ultimately a blast.

“Making something funny is never a grind. Parts of it can be, but overall if you aren’t having a good time, it won’t be funny.”

Ife Olujobi is entertainment editor. Email her at [email protected]

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