Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein on the Show’s Fourth Season, Which Premieres Tonight

Growing Up and Getting Down

Feb 27, 2014 Photography by Maarten de Boer Web Exclusive
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The fourth season of Portlandia starts with a sketch that more or less encapsulates the social critique-mixed-with-absurdity aesthetic of the show. Featuring Kirsten Dunst as a house-sitter who is terrorized by ghosts that harass her with health advice and facts from NPR reports, it expertly illustrates what Fred Armisen means when he says Carrie Brownstein's genius is found in how she "makes fun of facts...with other facts." It also sets the tone for a season that strikes the perfect balance between the timely and the ridiculous, with multiple sketches capturing the money crunch facing many urban 30-somethings and others poking at the quirks of modern romantic relationships. But after three critically-acclaimed seasons, there's a slight difference, in theme if not in tone. The show is going one level deeper.

When she speaks of the Portlandia's fourth season, Brownstein is cautious and humble, quick to spread credit to Armisen and director Jon Krisel for the show's wildly sprawling vivisections of modern life. But while the writing has never been sharper, it's possible the show has never been quite so outlandishly silly. You have Jello Biafra, former singer and songwriter for punk rock heroes Dead Kennedys, waking up from a 28-year coma to find the world overrun with yuppies. You have a misguided tax accountant who faces an intervention by St. Vincent's Annie Clark and former Guns 'N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan when he decides he wants to start a second career as a rock star. There are bumbling eco-terrorists and tailgaters at a Prairie Home Companion taping, and tons of development time for each of the most memorable characters from previous seasons. Here, Brownstein discusses the unique challenges of writing seasons four, explains the origins of those sketches, and why making Portlandia is actually getting easier over time.

[Note: There's a separate cover story article on Portlandia in our current print issue. These are portions of the interview with Carrie Brownstein not included in the print article. Pick up our current print issue to read more about Portlandia's new season in our extensive cover story that features interviews with both Brownstein and Fred Armisen. In the print issue Armisen and Brownstein also interview Stephen Malkmus for us.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): The tone of this season seems slightly different than those in the past. In what ways would you say season four is different from the first three seasons?

Carrie Brownstein: For season four, I feel like we've finally settled into something that feels like a very fortuitous extension of everything we were trying to work in the first three seasons. It has the one-off sketches of the first season, in terms of "Oh, here's a succinct tension piece," but it has a little more of the character development and storytelling we were going for in season three. There are challenges in terms of continuing to push ourselves to come up with material that feels like it's leading the conversation instead of merely commenting on it or coming in on the heels of a conversation that already exists. In terms of the actual process, I feel like that gets a little bit easier, because you start to know what works for the show and what doesn't. You can start rejecting ideas earlier, just based on past experiences of realizing "Well, there's no character in that" or "there's no dynamic between our characters." If it's just going to be conceptual, it loses some of it relevancy. In some ways it has gotten easier. Season four was probably the easiest writing we've had, and we had a really big writing team. We had more time to write, too, which is good.

Since you had already done three seasons of the show, was it difficult not to repeat yourself or recycle ideas?

I think that's always a challenge, no matter what medium you're working in. When you get to that place where you're like, "Oh, this is a Portlandia sketch..." in that kind of meta conversation that you have with yourself where you think, "Is that a good thing? Probably not." If you feel that it's self-referential or a snake eating its own tail, you just start to feel like it's too insular and it's too self-aware. I suppose that is a challenge, to just feel like the world of the show is specific and vibrant and interesting but that it continues to have a far-reaching quality and doesn't become too esoteric.

There are a lot of high profile guest stars this season, from Kirsten Dunst to Steve Buscemi, but I think the most surprising might be Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys). Who came up with the idea to include him in sketch where he wakes up in a world of yuppies?

I think the sketch idea was Jon's [co-executive producer Jonathan Krisel], where he had this observation that basically everyone is a yuppie now. The definition of a yuppie from the '80s was atomized into all these different subgroups, but essentially there is no shame now in wanting the good life and high quality and slightly...not necessarily conspicuous consumption like there was in the '80s, but there's definitely a lot of conspicuousness in terms of conspicuous goodness or conspicuous kindnessthat showiness of a yuppie has manifested itself in foodie culture or yoga culture, whatever. But, of course, we don't call them "yuppies." So Jon had the idea, like, "What if someone like Jello Biafra, who railed against all this, was in a coma and woke up? He would just think that all these people were yuppies." So we wrote that sketch. We thought, "Well, let's get Jello Biafra. He's the right person." But we weren't sure that he would be willing to poke fun at himself at the same time. I think one thing that has been really wonderful about the show in working with people whose work we admire and that has been a part of our lives is just realizing how willing people are to poke fun of themselves and how all these people that you assume lack self-awareness are actually full of self-awareness and are very much willing to be a part of that conversation. He was very much game.

Another sketch that seems very pulled from the music world is the one where the accountant wants to become a rock star. Where did that idea come from?

There are sort of two ideas that are colliding there. One, it definitely is a music world concept of feeling like, "Well, sure everyone can make music, but not everyone should." We need people to be doing these normal jobs, whatever that means. I don't mean that in a negative way. It's just the balance of the worldthe people that are wearing the suits and ties and everyone else. And that's how everything has been, and we all can't veer toward the creative class, for better or worse. But, really, the impetus of that sketch was based on a true story of mine where I met this veterinarian and I remember telling my friends, "This guy is a veterinarian. He's a cardiologist. He's a very well-studied educated guy. Totally not from my world." We didn't date, but we went on a couple dates, and within a week he was like, "You know, I think I just want to do consulting. I want to be self-employed and I can consult from home." And a week later he had a bass! And it was so strange. We only went on a couple dates, but within that span of time, he had basically quit what I would consider the best job I had ever heard of in Portland and had bought a bass and played a Ramones song for me on the second date. I just thought, "What are you doing? You have to be a veterinarian! Why would you go to school for so long?" So we combined all of that into a sketch.

How about the Prairie Home Companion tailgaters sketch? That's such a brilliantly absurd scenario, yet it ends up being strangely believable.

I really love how that one turned out. First of all, that couple, Malcolm and Kris, who were on "Fart Patio" and "Helicopter Parents," they remind me of all of my friends' parents in Seattle. We had tailgating down [on the list of sketch ideas] for a while. That's not a new idea-tailgating. But we thought, "What would be a weird juxtaposition?" So we imagined the least rowdy tailgating would be for Prairie Home Companion. There's so much realness to that sketch, watching it back. I always give credit to our extras casting and our casting directors, because they really bring in the best people. The other people in the sketch are so amazing; they're just perfect. I think that one was a group effort, certainly not based on any of our own experiences, tailgating at Prairie Home Companion. I'm excited for NPR to see that sketch, because I think it captures their audience pretty well.

One sketch that is bound to become a classic is the one where Claire and Doug are discussing opening a joint checking account. That really seems to capture something unique about what commitment means in the 21st century.

I know so many people in that world. I think all of us who have been in relationships where there's a financial disparity, and trying to navigate that without disempowering someone or emasculating someone or feeling beholden to someone else, it's a very precarious situation. There were a lot of money things that came up this year in general. I think "Rent It Out," that came from the culture, like, "How are people making due right now, monetizing everything they have in order to make money?" or with Claire and Doug combining their finances. When Doug brings out that pile of papers and receiptsthat was based on someone we knew who did eventually get fed up with her boyfriend basically adding up a tally. That's so offensive. What a way to take the air out of a relationship. You sort of intuitively know if someone owes you money but it's under this false pretense that they might pay you back the $12,000 they owe you. At this point it's like, who cares? But also relationships are so multifaceted in that way that equality is very rarely based on financial equality. Parity in a relationship is often because one person is bringing something to the table, and the other person is bringing something else. They're not bringing the same thing. So we tried to explore that a little bit, but, of course, it ended up getting really weird.

That's the brilliant thing about Portlandiathe sketches never end up where you're expecting. Another sketch that ends up far from where it started is the eco-terrorist one. Where did the idea for that come from?

I think we all watched a bunch of movies. There was The East, and there's the new Kelly Reichert movie coming out called Night Moves. Kelly Reichert shoots her films here in Oregon, and I think she's brilliant. She's just a really interesting character, but her film is also about eco-terrorism. Also, I think we explore the notion of futility a lotthat sort of well-meaning endeavorand you think it's going to change the world or make these impacts, and then you're suddenly confronted with the potential futility of not just your effort but thenthe bigger picturethe futility of your life. [Laughs] So we were just trying to, again in that lighthearted Portlandia way, take a turn and they are just encouraged to use their protest skills for birthdays and clowning. I think we were just thinking about the notion of protest. Whether it was Occupy Wall Street or these kinds of movements, there's this surge of rebellion and idealism and promise and "We're going to change things!" and you think, "Where is that going?" It's not that it's not important, but we just wanted to posit some characters in that world and see what we could do with them.

At this point, who would you say are the show's most loved characters?

I think the Feminist Bookstore owners people really like. Peter and Nancewe have a huge wraparound episode with them. I think sometimes Fred's character Spyke, who also has a big storyline coming up later in the season. Nina and Lancethose guys. I'm so horrified by Nina and Lance. They're just so strange. "Pull-Out King" is definitely weird and speaks to the absurdity of the show. That whole wraparound is so strange. I kind of can't believe that we have an episode called "Pull-Out King" and that we managed to get a double meaning in there. I remember when we realized like, "What if he finds out there's another Pull-Out King that sells pullout king sofas." That doesn't even exist! A pull-out king sofa would weigh like a thousand pounds! Even just a double couch that's a loveseat that pulls out already weighs way too much. And that's something we really love about the show and appreciate is that there will be a sketch that we'll think, "Oh, well. That's fine, but that's not going to be one that people really relate to," and then you'll meet someone that that meant a lot to them. They're sort of the greatest hits, I guess, but what's really heartening is that there are sketches and characters that people really relate to.

This season, we really wrote for the main characters over and over again. We wrote for Peter and Nance. We wrote for Doug and Claire, Kath and Dave. Toni and Candace, the feminist bookstore ownerswe wrote for them over and over again so that by the end of the season you know a little bit more about their lives and you feel like there's a recognizability there. That actually makes it easier, I think, because the sketches that tend to succeed are character-based, like that Doug and Claire sketch. People can relate to that because there's a real dynamic there. It's not just a joke about combining a checking account. There's an actual dynamic of two people trying to explore inequality in a relationship and how to mend that. So hopefully by the end of season four, some of the characters that might have been a little inchoate for a while will be a little more cemented in people's minds. I think for us, it's easier to write like that. And I think that's why this season was slightly easier, because we thought, "What can we do with Doug and Claire? What can we do with Peter and Nance?"

www.ifc.com/shows/portlandia



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