Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia’s Current Season, Fan Pitches, Absurdity, and the Show's Future | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia’s Current Season, Fan Pitches, Absurdity, and the Show’s Future

Renaissance Woman

May 01, 2014 Issue #49 - February/March 2014 - Portlandia Photography by Maarten de Boer Bookmark and Share


"Carrie Brownstein is in my girlfriend's textbook. She was in a band called Sleater-Kinney?" That's the title of a post on the Portlandia fan forum on popular news and entertainment aggregate Reddit, submitted by a fan who was shocked to discover that Brownstein is also a musician of no small significance. And, as strange as it seems, more people probably now know Carrie Brownstein from her work on Portlandia than ever knew her from her 12-year run as the vocalist and guitarist for one of indie rock's most iconic bands. Though she's not the kind of person who would boast about the utter implausibility of someone becoming both a musician whose importance is written about in textbooks and a comedian who wins Peabody Awards, listen to Brownstein talk and you'll realize that the same analytical mind that is able to so astutely satirize the absurdity of everyday life is equally capable of examining why   Portlandia is able to succeed with the same people being satirized. Here, explaining the show's unexpected success, its underlying philosophy, and its future trajectory, Brownstein turns her investigative tools on herself. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Carrie Brownstein, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on Portlandia.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So you're in Portland and Fred is in New York. How much do you get to see him when you're not doing the show?

Carrie Brownstein: He's not here that much, but if he comes into town, we'll hang. And if we're in New York or L.A. at the same time, we'll hang out. He's one of my best friends, so it's hard to go from working with him every day and having access to him in my life and being able to hang out and go to dinner and work together, and he sort of disappears when this show ends. It always has this "summer camp ending" feeling, or like a tour where you've had this immersive experience with a group of people that you're really close to, and then everyone dissipates. There's always a little bit of that letdown. We definitely hang out, though. I just saw him yesterday.

Is it difficult to hang out with him and not be constantly working on ideas for the show?

I think the ways Portlandia infiltrates our lives are very seamless. It's a very organic extension of our friendship anyhow, because we had been working on this thing called ThunderAnt, which were these short little videos we did online for our friends. Of course, Portlandia was a much more intentional and considered endeavor, and it was with the help of our director, Jonathan Krisel. But as far as the way that Fred and I interact with one another, Portlandia drifts in and out of that in terms of our discussions and things we talk about. If we have dinner, we don't have notepads out or our phones, writing down ideas. The way we are on the show is not unlike how we are in real life. Those kinds of conversations and observations drift in and out of our dynamic.

Do you think your feelings toward Portland have changed since you started the show?

I think they have! [Laughs] I've grown up in the Northwest. I've never, for more than half a year, lived anywhere outside the Pacific Northwest. I could never really divorce myself from feeling like this is my home, and the landscape of the Pacific Northwest and Portland feels very intrinsic to who I am. Portland is also the subject matter for the show, or at least the mindset of Portland is, [but] I don't think it's actually so specific to Portland. I think the reason other people relate to it is because it's more about a mindset than a place. But I do feel kind of conspicuous here, like I just wish that I could enjoy it and be a little more lost in itjust feel a little more, I guess, passivity as a resident here. Sometimes I just feel like [it has] this kind of entrenched quality. But I do love it here. When I'm gone I always love coming back to Portland.

Do people in Portland approach you with ideas for the show?

Yes. All the time. I'm grateful for it in the sense that I feel very lucky that Portlandia is a show that fans and viewers feel a sense of ownership over. It has a relatable quality, and people see themselves in the show and see themselves as having a relationship with the characters and the situations. I really like that. Playing in Sleater-Kinney felt like that, too, where people felt a sense of ownership with the music, so I like to be involved in something that has that kind of dialog with the audience. I'm always flattered and feel fortunate that that's how people view the show. But we tend not to write the show by committee, so we're not dipping into a fishbowl full of ideas that fans have sent in and using them. First of all, that's illegal. But, second, again, there are a lot of funny ideas for observations or wacky people here, but that doesn't make for a story necessarily. But I love when people pitch themselves for the show, like they consider themselves so strange that they'd be good material.

Would you say that there's a typical Portlandia fan?

Actually, I would say no. I'm always surprised. Fred and I get approached by construction workers, cops, kids, grandparentsit really, to me, has a much broader demographic than anything else that I've ever been involved in. It's wonderful. It doesn't seem to be specific to one group of people, whether that's age or culture or region. It really seems like it has a wonderfully broad appeal but not so broad that it's mediocre or anything. But I'm always happy to have a bearded, pierced guy come up to me and then a construction worker and they both like the show. Great! That did not happen to me in music. [Laughs]

It seems like the show has struck a really fine balance between having very timely cultural critique and timeless absurdity. I could see these episodes being funny 20 years from now, yet still acting as a kind of time capsule for what life was like at a specific moment in time.

I hope so. Hopefully it's not like a news show or a satire like [Stephen] Colbert or Jon Stewart, who have to be very specific to headlines. They're brilliant at that. I think a way of writing that we've figured out works well for us is to start with a situation or an idea that is very relatable, very grounded. To then take that to a level that is slightly absurd, and then hopefully to take that to a level that is surreal. And, to me, those are often the most successful sketches, whether they're the full wraparoundthe through-line of the episodeor in one-off sketches, that trajectory is hopefully what makes things have a timeless or lasting quality, because it's not just rooted in this "Remember that one phenomenon that existed that one week or that one year?" because it ends up being about someone's story or a relationship between two people. We definitely try, and we're not always successful at pulling that off, but I think some of our favorite sketches are ones that do manage to veer off into something that is absurd or surreal.

It seems like it has become a show where everyone can see a character that's either like themselves or someone they know.

I hope so. Certainly Fred and I do, and I think that people do see themselves in these characters. Because it's a show that lacks cynicism and it's not a derisive showit's not putting people up as targets and trying to tear them downit's finding the softness or likeability or the clumsiness in certain people, but it's a clumsiness that is charming. I think it's because Fred and I embody those people and certainly the writers we work with also have a sense of kinship with these characters that we write, so I think when people see themselves in the show or they see someone who reminds them of a relative or a friend, I don't think they feel attacked. I think they feel noticed.

Do you think you need to be able to laugh at yourself to enjoy Portlandia?

It helps! It's like going to therapy but...cheaper. Actually, it's probably not cheaper. I think, for me, it's a way of figuring out how to be in the world. I think performing or being able to inhabit a different character for a certain amount of time allows me to understand interpersonal dynamics or relationships or the ways that I could view a situation differently. So I think there is a lot of understanding and awareness and revelation that comes with working on this show, and I suppose that a certain level of forgiveness or being able to not be overly critical of these traits that might be a little bit obnoxious or a little bit caustic sometimes. A lot of my characters, I feel like, really border on that caustic just-about-to-go-off-the-rails type of personality, just one step away from shedding politeness in order to fight for their beliefs or to vent frustration. It's nice to be able to act out those things.

Even though you can be really specific in how you satirize certain characters or mindsets, it never comes across as if you're attacking them.

I think that's true. I also think that part of that is because Fred and I see ourselves in these characters and in these situations. We've backed away from meanness before. In the writing room, if we've gotten far enough, we'll think, "What is the point here? Are we just making fun of this kind of person?" That doesn't feel authentic to the show. It doesn't feel like the kind of sketch we want to be writing. I think you can be trenchant and you can be incisive without being mean-spirited. I think it's harder sometimes to be earnest or be optimistic in comedy, and in life actuallyit's a lot harder to be both those things. [Laughs] When you keep people at arm's length, which is what happens with that mean-spirited abrasive humorand I love some of that stuff; sometimes it's very gnarly and off-putting, and it can be really brilliant and funnybut it kind of makes up the audience's mind for then. Whereas, if you're doing something that has an underlying sweetness to it, it allows a sense of discovery on the audience's part. It allows them to venture toward what you're doing and figure things out for themselves or feel invited in. For this show, that's very important because it really allows people to enter our world and not feel put-off by it or feel like they don't belong. I feel like that's something that we just tried to do, and I think it works for the sensibility of this show to have an underlying sweetness to it. But at the same time, I think that niceness and earnestness can also make people uncomfortable. We don't want the show to be this assuaging, palliative show. We want there to be moments of discomfort, moments that hang a little too long. So it's not just a nice show, but it's definitely a show that lacks cynicism.

It definitely seems like the show has an indie rock feel.

Yeah, I think it comes from Jonathan and Fred and I. We come from a very similar background in terms of what moved us when we were young. We all came up listening to music and being part of these indie or punk rock communities and really saw the world through that lens, a lens that was a little bit anti-corporate, a little bit contrarian, very idealist for better or worse, and I think we just work well together. We also didn't necessarily come up through very traditional channels of comedy or even working on a television show, so I think we think of things in terms of rhythm a lot. We made the analogy all the time about the seasons being like albums. I think the sensibility of the show is very specific to the three of us. We all just happen to share this mindset that I don't know if you could just...I don't think it's a model that would work if the people involved in it were different. I think it just kind of came together very organically and seamlessly, and it's really three misfits coming together to work on this show. I think it does have a very weird quality to it that I appreciate that I can't quite put my finger on. It's sort of ineffable but hopefully when we're doing it right it's greater than the sum of its parts.

What role do you think you and Fred also being musicians plays in the way you approach comedy?

Well, I think a lot of writers and comedy people think about rhythm and timingthat's very clichéd. But I do think that feels imperative with the improvisational factor. I think that Fred and I both are very unafraid to have things cohere in the moment and to leave certain things slightly unfinished, knowing that it's slightly like a live musical performance and that you might come up with something better in the moment than you would have in the writing process. I think Jon is also very adept at facilitating that and adding to that spontaneity. But certainly we think about the visual and sonic texture of the show. There's a lot of weird little audio...the sound design of the show tends to be part of the humor. I think the way that we order the sketches has to do with...it can be very rhythmic. The editing tends to be very percussive. So I think there are certainly ways that we've incorporated our musical backgrounds into it, from a sonic and rhythmic perspective. But I think, more than that, it's a slight irreverence that comes from both of us having grown up in these communities that really exalted irreverence, which, of course, with much chagrin to the other people you're working with when you have this contrarian attitude.

It must help that you and Fred share so many references and speak the same language, in a cultural sense.

It's definitely a nice similarity. And Jonathan, too. I remember the first season we had wonderful Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning actors and guest stars, whether it was Tim Robbins or Steve Buscemi, but Jonathan was more excited because the drummer [Sara Lund] from Unwound and Kaia [Wilson] from Team Dresch were both extras on the show. And Jonathan was like, "Oh, my God! Is that Sara from Unwound?" Only on this show could we all know who that is and be more excited about her than some Oscar-winning actor. That's really such a summation about how specific and rare our sensibility is. Not that we're not excited about all the guest stars that we get, but it was funny to see Jon more star-struck by the drummer of Unwound than anyone else.

Would you say most of the characters on the show are based on people you know from your personal lives?

For the most part they're permutations of me and Fred and Jon or the two other writers this season, Graham Wagner and Karey Dornetto. But they're also definitely composites of friends we have or traits that individually might just be one facet of our personalities and then we take that to an extreme. Kath, who is a very aggravated characterthat is me at my most infantile, my most self-righteous, my most aggravated. Kind of highlighting parts of our personalities and starting there as a character and not making them one-note, but if that was the main feature of my personality, what else might I be interested in? So they're definitely a lot of composite characters, and often we name them after friends. They're all people we know. It's very rare, and I actually think that none of the main recurring characters are people where we thought, "Oh, you know that annoying trait that person has?" The basis is never, "Here is someone I don't like." It's always, "Here's this thing that I love about someone else that's so strange and unique, and I'm interested in exploring it."

You also have Fred and Carrie characters on the show. What does that allow you to do, having characters based on yourselves?

It's weird, because now I like that about the show. I think it's almost like a reset button for people, because the other charactersnot all of themespecially some of them are very big personalities, they embody an extremeness or absurdity or an outlandishness that I think the audience needs a respite from. It's kind of like if a singer is always screaming, you don't really notice unless they do a song where they're not screaming. It's like how you put a slow song on the record so the fast loud songs actually have impact. So I think it's nice with the Carrie and Fred sketches to have a moment that has kind of a relaxed quality to it and settles the audience back into a place that might feel a little bit normal for a second, even though the versions of Fred and Carrie on the show are more gullible and sillier and a little less intelligent and more naïve. I think there are a lot of little ways that we play out truths in our characters, and for me it's a nice reset. It's a way of connecting with the fans that doesn't have as many layers or impedances because it's mostly just us.

So how did you and Fred decide that you wanted to make a show? Was there a particular moment when you decided that?

I think he had started to see the end of SNL for him. Obviously, he still had three or four years to go, but he was starting to think about what would be after it. What would be something else? And if I wasn't doing Sleater-Kinney anymore, I was writing for NPR. And he and I, we thought about all the ThunderAnt sketches that we had done and realized that they started to feel like there was a vision there, that there was something interesting between the two of us. And we talked to Fred's manager and started to brainstorm ways of elevating these disparate sketches that were very unformed and one-note, and we thought "How can we elevate this to a TV show, something that's actually worthy of being on TV and not just thrown up online?"not that there's much difference between that anymore anyway. So we had some preliminary conversations, and we talked to Andrew Singer at Broadway Videothat's Lorne Michaels' production company, and Andrew's a producer there. Yeah, the idea to us felt really exciting but very implausible. It just seemed like, "Oh, a TV show?" That's a far-flung, out-of-reach idea. I think we were just really fortunate that as we were putting the pieces together we met Jonathan Krisel, who I think really understood what we wanted to do, and he helped elevate it. And then IFC, who were just starting to do original programmingI think there was just a lot of luck and good timing for us.

Do you think the aesthetic of the show was there from the very start?

Not necessarily. I think the first season a lot of it was figuring out what the show was going to be, and I thinkagain, I know I keep making the analogy of making a recordbut it seemed like making a first record to me. And there were a few hits out of the gate"Dream of the '90s" or "The Chicken Farm." But as a whole season, it has, I think, a lot of sketches that don't work, that we just figured out, "Where are the characters here?" So I think we were figuring out what sketches worked for the show, to the point where now in season four Jonathan will say "Well, that's not really something we do on the show." And he doesn't mean it stridently, because we can do whatever we want on the show. Sometimes you do figure it out along the way, but for the most part, we have stuck with the same tenets we set out to explorethe city, the place being a character on the show, having it feel like a world that is only populated by maybe 50 people. And then also really aesthetically having it be lush and vibrant and look good for a show. Considering our budget, Jon and our DP, Bryce Fortner, are really filming these short little indie films. So I think a lot of it was intentional, but there was some clumsiness in the beginning in figuring out what worked and what didn't.

Seeing that you don't come from a traditional comedy background, were you worried that you wouldn't be taken seriously as a comedic writer?

I think my talents are served well on the show. I think that I could branch out and do a bunch of different things, but I think the show speaks to a writing and performing sensibility that I'm capable of. Yeah, I feel better about it now. But in season one and people not knowing that it would find an audience outside of the city, that was another question in season one. But it's nice to surprise people. There's so few ways to surprise people, including yourself, that I'm fine with people being surprised by it. Once you do something for a while, that sense of fraudulence or of not belonging, that can be a very good motivating factor for worknot writing from a place of entitlement, not taking something for grantedsometimes that allows you to push yourself further and take risks and not settle into something. When you watch shows or movies or listen to music written by people who really feel entitled, that's not a great look.

What do you think you bring to the process that is different from someone traditionally schooled in comedy?

I think a sense of elasticity, but I'd say that we all actually shared that, because Jonathan didn't come from a sketch-writing background. Of course, Fred had SNL, but before SNL he hadn't. So I think we all came into it with a sense of open-ended possibilities, elasticity to the form, really not adhering to "Well, here is what a sketch show is. This is what it looks like." There are a lot of moments on the show that just kind of hang out there, and I like that. And I like that awkwardness that we're willing to embrace. There's sometimes a lack of polish on the show, and I appreciate that. Not in terms of the aesthetics, because I feel that aesthetically it looks quite good. But it terms of the sketches themselves, sometimes I feel like we let the infrastructure show a little bit, and you can see the cracks. It has a very kinetic dynamic to it, I guess. It feels very galvanic or very strange. I think we're all willing to do that.

Well, you and Fred end up with a dynamic tension in your writing, with you pulling in one direction and Fred pulling in another.

And me trying to rein him in, yes. It's not like an interpersonal tension, but the tension in the sketches is something that we've learned how to capitalize on, and now we can try to write for that. What is the conflict here? And either the conflict has to be between the two or us, or [it is] us in conflict with our environment. The sketches and the stories have become better with having real endings and all the things that you take for granted in writing and that you inherently know that's the way things are supposed to be written and what supposedly makes something successful, but that doesn't always work exactly the way you want it to. But we try to build that infrastructure beforehand so there is a place for us to go in a sketch.

Do you think your sense of humor is darker than Fred's?

It can be. [Laughs] I think Fred's is less dark. He's just a little less dark than I am in general. But I think he sometimes is a little bit...not perplexed, but I think he's sometimes amazed that I can be driven by things that are dark or things that make me angry. I think he's not as motivated by that as I am, but he's very clever and he's very adept at capturing personalities and voices in people. He's just a brilliant impersonator and he's just very good at character and subtlety. I think he's gotten better and better, and this season I can just see him inhabiting those characters.

So where would you like to see the show go in the future?

I think this season is a good indicator of how I'd like it to go for at least a little while. I think those wraparounds, where we tell a story in three parts, are getting stronger. I think we're telling a bigger story. I think there's a loose cohesion thematically with the other sketches that we populate around those through-lines. I like the connectivity and I'd like to continue to explore that and find ways to make the episodes more cohesive. But what excites me about Portlandia is that I feel like we can deviate from form pretty easily without losing the audience or losing the point. Last season we did a couple times, and this season we'll only do it in the finale, where all the characters revolve around one story. Mostly, I feel like we have some more inspiration to do a character and there's so much about these people's lives that we don't yet know, and I think that gives us plenty of material. Peter, this season, you find out that he has an ex-wife, and we go into that. For so long, we put these people in very specific places. Like the feminist bookstore owners, you only see them in the store. This season they get out of the store. We've never seen their house, and there's so much to explore. There are a lot of human stories to tell, and hopefully they'll be married with some satire and topical humor. But the fact that we can go back and forth between that makes me feel like we can do that for a while.

At this point, do you think about what you want Portlandia's legacy to be? You have a chance to be remembered like the great sketch comedy shows, Monty Python, The Kids in the Hall...

I don't, really. Those are two of my favorites, especially Kids in the Hall just because that was on when I was growing up and I watched it all the time. I do love the weirdness of both of those shows, but I don't think that we can focus too much on what we're doing compared to other sketch shows. In some ways, I just like to look at other shows that I like right now, whether they're sketch or not. Louie is a show that I think is so brilliant, and I love how he really stretches the form so much. The last season there were certain episodes where halfway through they changed, and it was like, "I want to do 10 minutes on this, and then 13 minutes on this." And there was very little that related between the two. I also love how sad Louie is sometimes, not just he as a character but the show is often not laugh out loud funny but is actually a little bit depressing. I think that we're okay with having people be able to find humor in the show in a variety of ways or not at all. Maybe there are things about it that are just uncomfortable and not conventionally funny. But hopefully there are some laughs in there. There's plenty to laugh at this season, I think. I think it's a good season. I'm really happy with it. I feel good about this one.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital/iPad version of the February/March issue  (Issue 49).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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