The lines between fact and fiction blur when speaking with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, cocreators and stars of Portlandia. The show (whose second season debuted January 6 on IFC) is funny in part because Armisen, Brownstein and we the audience are as self-reflective as Portlandia’s pedantic do-gooders (like fretting over the fate of a free-range chicken or a leashed dog). It takes the preachy ethos practiced in liberal enclaves and heightens and heightens until absurdist extremes are reached (“Put a bird on it!”). “There’s a legitimacy in the sense that people know that Fred and I come from these worlds we inhabit,” Brownstein says via phone in advance of Portlandia Live, a sold-out show happening Wednesday 18 at the Hideout. “Even some of the most seemingly outlandish traits some of these characters possess stem from real parts of us.”
Its second season is off to a swell start. In a recurring sketch in episode one, two friends follow a mixologist (played with low-key swagger by Andy Samberg) down to Los Angeles with predictable, yet still funny, fish-out-of-water results as they deal with the city’s monotonous sun, car culture and glut of theme restaurants (watch for a hilarious cameo from Kumail Nanjiani). The obvious horrors of L.A. point to values shared not just by Portlanders, but people in other urban enclaves like San Francisco, Brooklyn and Chicago. “It’s not a show about Portland,” Brownstein says. “Portlandia is this dreamy version of a city. It’s more of a mind-set.” Armisen agrees. “I spent a long time in Wicker Park. That was my whole world. It’s not that different.” Season two also treats us to a Pride parade for allergy sufferers, Battlestar Galactica obsessions and cameos from Kristen Wiig, Jack McBrayer, Jeff Goldblum and others.
Both Armisen and Brownstein have musical backgrounds, which informs the way they approach Portlandia. Armisen played music in Chicago with punk band Trenchmouth before joining SNL in 2002, while Brownstein was a driving force behind alt band Sleater-Kinney. “Fred and I and Jonathan Krisel, our director, often talk about the show in terms analogous to making a record in terms of rhythm, sequence, texture and timing,” Brownstein says. “We all kind of approach it with a musicality that’s kind of innate.”
Says Armisen, “I remember when I was in a band how much we cared about how the album cover looked and the way different songs make up a whole album. To look at a whole episode, things that go up and down in intensity are okay. It’s okay if this one’s a little sleepy or if this one doesn’t make sense. It’s going to help the whole of it.”
It’s easy to wonder how Portlandia, with its heavy reliance on props and Portland-specific places, will translate to the bare-bones setting at the Hideout, but Portlandia Live is not a series rehash. Instead, it will be a variety show tailored to each city it stops in, including surprise guests, video clips, a conversation with Armisen and Brownstein and likely an appearance from a couple of the series’ more memorable characters (Women and Women First’s Toni and Candace are at the top of our wishlist).
When I ask about comparisons Portlandia is getting (StuffWhite PeopleLike.com springs to mind), Armisen and Brownstein teeter on parodies of their Portlandia alter egos. “I always find it hard when people ask to describe our show to other people because that’s the writer’s job, that’s your job,” Brownstein says. Says Armisen, “But we’re not mad at you for asking, just so you know.”
Portlandia Live happens Wednesday 18 at the Hideout.