The charming sketch duo spreads their wings in a second season and on tour.
Wed Jan 18 2012
Photograph: Chris Hornbecker
When Fred Armisen, best-known from his myriad of oddball characters on Saturday Night Live, met Carrie Brownstein, formerly of bedrock punk band Sleater-Kinney and currently of Wild Flag, a friendship quickly blossomed into a comedic partnership. After making a series of online shorts as ThunderAnt, the duo successfully pitched IFC a sketch show now known as Portlandia. With great chemistry, deft direction and a pair of locally made, artisanal rose-colored glasses, Portlandia transformed a limited premise—showcasing weirdos of the Pacific Northwest—into a loving jab at cloistered liberal attitudes of hipster enclaves around the U.S. TONY spoke to Armisen and Brownstein before a series of tour dates at the start of Portlandia's second season.
The precursor to Portlandia, your Internet project, ThunderAnt, grew out of your friendship; but how did you initially decide that you should create comedy together?
Carrie Brownstein: Well, we actually didn't hang out that much before ThunderAnt. We hung out twice at these public events and really, the next time was a very intentional trip on Fred's part with the idea that we would film something. So from the beginning, the nature of our relationship and dynamic would be that we would get together and work on these projects.
Fred Armisen: We both just make stuff. It's a natural thing. Well, natural for people who go onstage to do things regularly.
Although at that point, Carrie, you hadn't done much comedy, had you?
Brownstein: You mean, you don't remember the Sleater-Kinney Comedy Tour? [Laughs] No, that's true. But we knew we would either play music or we would do something else. Something else just happened to be these silly shorts. It was immediately an extension of our burgeoning friendship.
How did Portland the place or the underlying utopian ideal influence what the show has become?
Brownstein: We assessed all of the sketches we had done and realized there was a lot to do with place and context. Our director, Jonathan Krisel, thought that Portland sort of functioned as a sort of third voice or perspective—almost a philosophy. There's a visual specificity to it, but also a way that could translate to other people just by the subject matter and the characters we were covering.
The feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace seem to be the spine of Portlandia. What it is about those two that demonstrates to you the sensibility of the show?
Armisen: It's how ambiguous they are. There's an ambiguity to their sexuality and what their relationship is—the mystery says a lot about the show.
Brownstein: I love that they're these two women that own a feminist bookstore, but they really could have been anyone. They could be two old punks or two people that are part of some other subset of society that are operating by these very specific rules that claim to be very inclusive, but by the nature of how esoteric they are, are highly exclusive and are hard for other people to understand. In some ways that's an underlying thesis of the show—people trying to live by a certain ideal, being flummoxed by how to go about that and starting to wonder whether it's really worth it.
Given that you're both so musically inclined, how integral is music when you're imagining or mapping out a sketch?
Brownstein: It's more of a sensibility. When we look at the overall picture of the show, a lot of our analogies are music-based. That's just the lens with which we've viewed the world for so long and during our formative years, so I think that there's a lot in terms of rhythm, timing, even volume, in how the show is edited or how we approach a scene.
You have cameos in nearly every episode. Is there one person you were particularly proud of what they brought to what they did or how far they stretched?
Brownstein: People brought a level of dedication they didn't have to employ. Someone like Tim Robbins—you're never going to doubt his skills as an actor, but he brought his own wig and flew it out with him on the plane. Some of the musicians—Johnny Marr, Joanna Newsom—were so funny. And there's a real joy in watching them get to do something different.
Armisen: Miranda July, same kind of thing. It's definitely her voice, but it fit perfectly with the show.
What do you expect to be different on a comedy tour from a music tour?
Armisen: We're going to try to make it like we're all hanging out together in a living room or something. We know there'll be way more talking and new videos, but we're going to define it as it goes.