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Portlandia - The Under the Radar Cover Story - Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein

Laughing With You

Apr 29, 2014 Issue #49 - February/March 2014 - Portlandia Photography by Maarten de Boer Bookmark and Share

When Portlandia debuted in the spring of 2011, it seemed like a longshot for breakout success. Fred Armisen, despite being a nine-year veteran of Saturday Night Live and countless TV and movie cameos, had never been the star of anything, always a brilliant member of an ensemble cast but never the face of a franchise. Add to him Carrie Brownstein, a truly legendary guitarist and vocalist, first for indie rock icons Sleater-Kinney and then for supergroup Wild Flag, who was nonetheless almost completely unproven as a comedic actor or writer. With hipster haven Portland as the show’s backdrop, the subject matter would revolve around satirizing the mindset of somewhat privileged, somewhat pretentious urban adults-the kind who eat vegan, shop local, protest corporatism and sexism in all their forms, and aren’t afraid to humorlessly demand that everyone else should, too. These same people, the ones being mocked, would also be the audience for the show. For Portlandia to succeed, it would require its audience to see itself lampooned week after week and, ultimately, to acknowledge its own eccentricities and absurdities. The audience would have to laugh at itself.

“The fact that Portlandia enters the conversation at all and has become a part of people’s lives, that people want to dress up as our characters for Halloween, that’s all very surreal and flattering and, of course, surprising,” Brownstein says from her home in Portland. “I think the question [for] the first season was ‘Will people understand this outside of Portland?’ That question was answered and became a moot point soon after, because we realized that probably people outside of Portland got the show better, because they weren’t trying to look for the verisimilitudehow similar to Portland is this?they were just looking at themes and ideas and the mindset. Even internationally people get the show. It’s definitely surprising, but everywhere I go there is a version of Portland, and what it aspires to be, in all corners of the world.”

Now, after three seasons of critical raves, a Peabody Award, and an Emmy nomination, Portlandia enters its highly anticipated fourth season as arguably the best sketch comedy show on television. By any measure, the progression of the show has been swift, and (as Armisen and Brownstein are quick to point out) not without obvious parallels to the creative trajectory of a musician. The first season, Brownstein says, was typical of first albumsa little scattered and unfocused but featuring standout moments that would grab people’s attention. In many ways, the very first sketch on the showa music video called “Dream of the ‘90s” that presented Portland as a beacon of admirably naïve idealismhas set the tone for everything that has followed. That was the season of the farm sketch, introducing well-meaning yuppies Peter and Nance, who were so concerned that the chicken they were ordering in a restaurant was appropriately raised in a fully organic setting that they drove to the farm to inspect it themselves. It was also the season of the “Put a Bird on It” sketch, the show’s first viral moment, a delightfully odd introduction to Bryce and Lisa and their simple campaign to beautify the world by emblazoning everyday items with birds. Two million YouTube hits later, they had their equivalent to a hit single.

Season two, like a second album, consolidated the gains of season one, sharpening the sketches and deepening the character development, and the ratings jumped accordingly. And just like a third album is often used as an opportunity to experiment and reinvent around previous themes, season three was Portlandia‘s experimental moment, entangling their now sprawling cast of characters in larger story arcs and having multiple sketches revolve around the same central plotline. In the process, Portlandia moved from being a cult hit to IFC’s most-watched show, routinely pulling in over a million viewers per episode. At a glance, it doesn’t seem like a show that would find much more than a niche audiencetoo many obscure references to indie rock bands and esoteric subculturesbut it turns out that not only do hipsters enjoy laughing at themselves, so do people that probably don’t even know what a hipster is.

“I used to think [the show] was for music fans and art people, but at the risk of sounding braggy about it, it has been all kinds of people,” Armisen says. “For me, I grew up in New York, so when a typical New York guy says something to me, it almost sounds unreal. Like a New York guy [saying], ‘Hey! I like your show, Poort-land-eeya,’-like someone that would be at a Mets game. I grew up around these people. I feel great. I feel very lucky. More than feeling weird, I feel like that is really, really nice.”

This point seems to be particularly satisfying for both Armisen and Brownstein, as each of them report multiple instances of being approached by grandparents and children, construction workers and gutter punks, who love the show for different reasons. (“That did not happen to me in music,” Brownstein says.) Continuing the music metaphors, Brownstein compares season four to Sandinista!The Clash’s famously sprawling fourth album that functioned as both a culmination of everything that came before and an expression of everything they wanted to do. In that same way, the fourth season of Portlandia has the brilliant one-off sketches from season one, yet makes time to include the deep character development and storytelling that defined season three. As before, there are guest stars galoreSteve Buscemi as a down-on-his-luck celery salesman, Jeff Goldblum as the owner of a store specializing in pull-out king sofas, and Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra as himself, awaking from 28 years in a coma to find the world overrun by yuppies. But just as fourth albums present unique challenges for musicians, fourth seasons can be tricky for a television show.

In particular, how do you move forward and challenge yourself, as well as your audience, without drifting too far away from what made you successful in the first place? How do you take very timely themesincurring wrath for taking too long to comment on a Facebook birth announcement or subletting an apartment five ways to save moneyand not create a show that could be dated in a decade? Most essentially, when so much of your humor comes from satirizing your own audience, how do you continue to convince them that you’re laughing with them and not at them?

Out of the Woods

Though recent years have seen a number of indie rockers dabble in comedy, none, aside from Reggie Watts (who was never particularly well-known as a musician in the first place), has made the transition quite so smoothly as Carrie Brownstein. In fact, there just isn’t a precedent for such an accomplished musician having this kind of success in comedy. Imagine if Louis CK, after 15 years of accolades as a comedian, suddenly joined a band and, against all odds, ended up creating some of the greatest music of his era, too. That’s what we’re talking about with Brownstein, going from one of the most acclaimed rock bands of her generation to writing and starring in what is quickly becoming one of her generation’s most-loved sketch comedy shows. That just isn’t done.

“Well, I still don’t know if I’m taken seriously as a comedian,” she says. “But certainly I felt a sense of fraudulence and like an imposter the first season. I think everyone in some ways feels like that a little bit, but I felt like I snuck in the side door, whereas you had all these people coming up through the usual channels. And those channels are proven, whether it’s Groundlings or UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] or Second City. Those places are chock-full of talent and really exciting performers and writers and ideas. But I think because Fred and I were already friends and already working together, there was an understanding with the audience that this was an extension of that and potentially the show wouldn’t have worked if someone at a network had put together two actors or performers and said, ‘Okay, here’s this concept. It’s about the mindset of people trying to do good in the city….’ Fortunately for us, the dynamic and chemistry was in place and benefitted the show, and me feeling like an imposter, that dissipated because what I brought to the show worked. Now I don’t really think about it as much.”

Though Brownstein and Armisen had circled around each other for years on the indie rock circuit when Armisen was the drummer for ‘90s hardcore band Trenchmouth, they didn’t meet until years later in 2003 (or 2004, accounts vary), when Armisen invited Sleater-Kinney to an SNL after party. They immediately hit it off, with Armisen soon realizing that Brownstein’s quick wit and considerable intellect would make her doubly dangerous as a comedy writer. By July of 2006, a video appeared on their ThunderAnt website, the first of a series of Armisen and Brownstein’s comedy sketches that are essentially Portlandia in embryonic form. This also marked the beginning of their extensive use of indie rockers in their sketches, starting with St. Vincent’s Annie Clarkwho will guest on Portlandia for the second time in season four and whose 2010 “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” video featured Armisen and Brownsteinand continuing with Joanna Newsom, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, The Shins’ James Mercer, and Dinosaur Jr.‘s J Mascis, among other luminaries to make guest appearances on the show.

With no particular expectations, the duo had Armisen’s manager approach Andrew Singer at Broadway VideoLorne Michaels’ production companyto discuss the prospect of turning their disparate, underdeveloped sketches into a TV show. Paired with director Jonathan Krisel, a veteran of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and several Funny or Die and SNL digital shorts, they found a kindred spirit to help them navigate through the process of translating their vision into 30-minute episodes. Brownstein, it turned out, brought something different to the process of comedy writing simply because she hadn’t been doing it for the past 10 years.

“Carrie is a brilliant writer,” Armisen says flatly. “The way she thinks, her scope of how she sees the world is just tremendous. She’s so conceptual. Even her use of language doesn’t come from comedy school. There’s nothing wrong with comedy school. It’s great, and it works in some places. But she comes from another place. She’s very factual, so it’s almost like she makes fun of facts…with other facts. There’s this thing that she does, she doesn’t approach it like ‘This is a joke.’ It’s more like ‘Here are two conflicting things that happen in life’that kind of thing,” he says, drifting off, as if in a daydream. “Ahh, she’s fantastic…”

Though they’ve always denied any rumors of a romantic relationship (including during a particularly awkward grilling from David Letterman when the two were guests on Late Night), one gets the sense that Armisen and Brownstein have become something approaching platonic soul mates. As Armisen tells it, they didn’t even have to get to know each other; they already had all of the same music, film, and comedy references in common. More than that, they had both spent their formative years living immersed in a DIY lifestyle, touring around the country, sleeping on friends’ floors, and formulating a worldview through the lens of the culture that would end up providing much of their material.

“I think so much about how being young and being in an esoteric punk rock scene informed how Fred and I think of in-group, out-group dynamics,” Brownstein explains. “You have these communities and these scenes that were supposed to be this catchall for freaks and musicians and weirdoes and whoeverkind of a come-one-come-all counterculture. But the reality is that there’s a lot of very proscriptive rules. Something that professes to be very inclusive becomes very exclusive, and there was always a group of people that felt very alienated by these very codified rules of dress or engagement with punk or indie. It can be very alienating. So I think that Fred and I are both people who, even though we were desperate to feel a sense of belonging and inclusivity, were ones to notice the absurdity of all of this, like, ‘Here we are professing to go against the grain, but we’ve really just reconstituted our own rules that can be just as strident as the ones we’re rebelling against.’ We were noticing those hypocrisies and absurdities, even though we were loving it at the same time.”

For lack of a better word, “love” is probably the one essential element that animates Armisen and Brownstein’s portrayals of their charmingly clumsy characters. In the wrong hands, these same character sketches would almost certainly be one-note caricatures to be held up only for ridicule, an indictment of self-important people and their privileged lifestyles. But despite the pointed social critique underlying most of their sketches, they seem careful to make sure that the fundamental decency inside each character shines through. If Armisen and Brownstein feel comfortable laughing at others, it’s probably because they’re also laughing at themselves at the same time, having created their characters by amplifying aspects of their own personalities and those of their friends. Among those recurring characters is punk couple Spyke and Iris, perennially agitated activists Dave and Kath, and even fictionalized (and far goofier) versions of themselves, BFFs that live together in Portland, complete with matching twin beds, Bert and Ernie-style. But no characters are more representative of Armisen and Brownstein’s formative experiences than the combative owners of Women and Women First, a feminist bookstore that operates on the principle that the customer is always wrong.

“The feminist bookstore owners to me are like a lot of the punk rockers and indie rock snobs that I knew growing up, where it’s like ‘Do you want us in your store or not?’” Brownstein says. “‘Do you want us at your show or do you not want us at your show?’ And the meaner they are to you, the more you’re like, ‘Yeah! I love you!’ I’m not separating myself from that snobbery, but there was definitely a lot of that. So much of music sometimes was like you couldn’t even tell if the band wanted an audience. So, yeah, our characters are either the ones making the rules, the ones trying to follow the rules, or the ones that have given up on the rules and are just going to break them because they are too frustrating. I think you could boil a lot of our characters down to those three situations.”

An Impression of Genius

Fred Armisen doesn’t say “hello” when he answers the phone. Seeing that I’m calling from Akron, Ohio, he greets me by repeating the name of the town as a question, then pauses for an uncomfortably long five seconds. “Home of Devo,” I say, and that’s all the prodding Armisen needs. The first 10 minutes of our conversation will be spent talking about the legendary Akron natives-about how their drummer was one of the first to experiment with electronic drums, how they looked and sounded completely different from other bands in their era, how they had a uniquely odd sense of humorand it’s obvious that Armisen knows his stuff. But what seems like a tangent at first really is representative of a much larger theme in Armisen’s worldview, one that repeats throughout our 75-minute chat: he admires iconoclasts and innovators. And when he thinks about the future of Portlandiaabout how the show is going to remain vibrant and fresh at a point when most shows start recycling themes and running out of ideasthese are the sorts of artists whose examples he ponders. “I love doing [Portlandia], but I want it to really have its own voice, so much so that it becomes something unexpected,” he says. “I want the tone of it to change. I want the idea of what a sketch isI want that to change.”

Today, Armisen is buzzing over the new Beyoncé album that was dropped on the American public with no high-profile media blitz, no publicity tours, no hypesomething that he sees as an example of the kind of daring he’d like to bring to Portlandia. He’s not sure what the equivalent for his show would be, but he has obviously spent considerable time considering just how Portlandia is going to surprise viewers, especially as they grow more accustomed to the off-beat universe of the show. He has his inspirationsBowie, Picasso, Warhol, SNLall examples of how to stay alive through constant reinvention. Knowing he appeared in The Flaming Lips’ film, Christmas on Mars, I mention to him something lead Lip Wayne Coyne told me once, about how the band has stayed vibrant for 30 years largely because they’re still not sure what kind of band they are, so, as a result, they’re free to reimagine themselves however they want.

“That is so brilliant!” Armisen replies, his voice rising excitedly. “To compare it to comedy, the direct comparison is when a performer or comedian says, ‘I’m a genius, and I’m brilliant. Everything I do is going to be important and is going to define TV or standup comedy.’ It’s exactly those moments when they go off the tracks. What [Coyne] said is exactly right, and comedians and performers suffer exactly the same thing. I think it takes humility and you have to embrace the question mark. You have to embrace that you don’t know what’s next. You have to reinvent yourself, like David Bowie did. He moved to Berlin to make music. All of these thingsI think you have to make things uncomfortable for yourself.”

Luckily for Armisen, in Brownstein he has a writing partner that keeps him just a little off-balance. He’s a natural optimist, not to mention one of the nicest people in show business that you’ll ever come across, and his gift for taking everyday scenarios and stretching them to their most farcical conclusions is perfectly balanced by Brownstein’s more caustic, cerebral, and focused sense of humor. Put them together, and you have a keenly observational, bizarrely surreal representation of modern life, one that hasn’t been articulated in quite the same way by any other comedy show. Like many of the great musician duosJohn Lennon and Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer and Mick Jonesthe brilliance of Portlandia lies in the fact that Armisen and Brownstein are often pulling in different, yet entirely complimentary, directions.

“There’s definitely a lot of overlap and there are ways that we diverge,” Brownstein explains. “I think that Fred on his own is much more of an absurdist than I am, and I tend to be more observational in my humor. I think when those two things combine those are some of our best sketches. He loves a tangent, and he’s brilliant at making the tangent become the center. He will veer so far off from the story or the dialog, and it’s like a top spinning. You can see it gathering momentum and it becomes very dazzling and strange. And I tend to stick with the center and try to bore into that, like, ‘How can we take what we have and keep digging?’ And I think Fred thinks, ‘How can we take what we have and veer off from that in a way that’s very surprising and chaotic?’ I think that tension is something that we’ve learned how to work with.”

As conflict is the heart of all good drama, comedic or otherwise, this sense of tension serves Portlandia well. But Armisen says he doesn’t spend much time thinking about why their dynamic works. Even now, after all of the success the show has had, he says he still isn’t sure why it connects with people as it does, and he’s content not to know why sketches worked in the past. He’s far more interested in how they are going to work in the future.

Where Young People Go to Retire (and Shows Go to Stay Young)

“A grand mystery”that’s how Armisen describes that tendency for most creative endeavors, no matter the medium, to slowly run out of momentum the longer they’ve been in motion. He’s thought a lot about this question, he admits, and he has come to no clear conclusions. He isn’t even certain that his premise is correct. But, like most musical acts, even the great sketch comedy shows don’t tend to last very long. With the obvious exception of Saturday Night Live, which Armisen officially left in the summer of 2013, the great ones tend to burn brightly and then call it a day. The Mighty Boosh lasted three seasons. Monty Python’s Flying Circus lasted four. The Kids in the Hall and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! each made it to the five-season mark. And while he admits he dreams of doing something with Portlandia that has never been done in the sketch comedy medium, fundamentally changing the way that audiences experience the show, Armisen seems to have reached at least one of his goals.

“I wanted to be part of a scene that started somewhere with Tim and Eric,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of the arena with Parks and Recreation and Girls and Louie and Veep-all that. I wanted to be in it. I wanted to be a part of this thing. Just like the late ‘70s when there was The Police and The Clash and all these other bands, but it was part of one record collection,” he says, trailing off. “I know it can’t go on forever, but I love it. A lot.”

For Brownstein, the goals appear clearer: she wants the show to experiment more with form, to go deeper into the lives and backstories of their characters, perhaps even to walk the line between comedy and existential drama, similar to what Louis CK has done with Louie. As they’ve already signed on for a fifth season and have no intentions of stopping, the question remains: how will Portlandia find ways to continually reinvent itself? Won’t they eventually run out of new ways to explore the sillier side of Portland? How much absurdity can one city hold?

“When people ask ‘Are you going to run out of topics?’ that always seems strange, because we’re not just trying to be topical,” Brownstein says, before pausing in thought. “I mean, there are certain things here that I think we just can’t do. You’ll read in the paper that there’s a professional cuddler here, or I see this delivery company called Soup Cycle where people bike around and deliver hot soup. It’s funny and strange, but what would we do with that?” she laughs. “It’s already a story.”

[Note: This article first appeared as the cover story in the February/March print issue (Issue 49).]


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