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Which comedians or sketch artists have inspired you?
When I was younger I watched the same things that a lot of people did. I loved Kids in the Hall, I loved early SNL—I loved Gilda Radner so much. Writing-wise, Elaine May is super-funny, that old Nichols and May stuff is so funny. Kristen Wiig is brilliant. I think that wit and intelligence is what I'm attracted to at the base of any humor. But then what I love about something like Kids in the Hall is that it is intellectual-based, but it also goes into a level of absurdity. And I think that that's a freedom that you have in comedy that you don't necessarily have in music. I don't like joke bands. [Laughs] So I love that area that you can explore in comedy where it goes off into a level that is surreal.
The show does have a sort of absurdist quality that's similar to something like Kids in the Hall.
Yeah, otherwise then you feel like you're too on the nose with something. I'd rather have those characters in the restaurant [in a Portlandia sketch] who are being so persnickety about the chicken that they just go off and end up on a cult farm. They should always go off somewhere strange.
Some of the characters and situations in Portlandia reminded me of stuff I see in Brooklyn.
It takes place in Portland, and there's a specificity to that, but we're hoping that it will translate elsewhere. I think there's a little bit of Portland in many cities, and if there's not, people wish there was.
In what way?
Thereare these sorts of rules, in terms of progressive ideals. It's not just doing good, but there's a specific way of doing good, and those rules are really hard to follow sometimes. There's also a preciousness, and a self-awareness when people start businesses. Like, "We're going to sell coffee, and we're only going to deliver the beans by bike, and all the cups in the store are handmade," and that's why the coffee spills out when you drink it. But people tolerate that because it's under the guise of being local or being good.
You and Fred Armisen poke fun at that on the show, but straddle the line between satire and mean-spiritedness. Is it hard?
I think the reason it's not mean-spirited is because I love that stuff. Even with "Put a Bird on It" [a sketch from Portlandia]—when I went Christmas shopping this year, I found myself buying things for my family with birds on it. And I know it's so ubiquitous as to be benign, but at the same time I'm like, Well, it does look nice.
Do people in Portland have a good sense of humor about themselves?
I went around [Portland] with a reporter from NPR, and we went into a bunch of different stores and interviewed people. And I felt like every store owner and local merchant felt the same: "You are aware of the things that make Portland silly, but at the same time it's what you love about it." I think most people do have a sense of humor, and Portland is a very self-analytical city. I definitely think most people will be on the same page as the show, and see it as a little bit of a love letter to the city. When we were filming, it felt like we were running a marathon, being cheered on by all the locals. And hopefully that goodwill feeling will still exist once the show comes out. [Laughs]
You're also touring and recording with your new band, Wild Flag. I know you've worked with the other members of the band in different ways before—how did you all finally come together and decide to do this?
A woman named Lynn Hershman asked me to write some songs for a documentary she made called Women Art Revolution, which covered the feminist art movement in the '70s. So I wrote some songs, but I needed some other musicians: Janet [Weiss], who was in Sleater-Kinney with me, is the best drummer I know, and it's hard to collaborate with other drummers. And Rebecca Cole, who is this great multi-instrumentalist...we worked together recording new songs for this film.... So we had this ersatz band all of a sudden, but it didn't have any intention to it.
Fan reaction has been pretty overwhelmingly positive. Were you surprised by that?
Yeah, I was really flattered....What we love about Wild Flag is feeling like we can do whatever we want. It all feels very freeing. I think, to have people's level of excitement being high, it's really helped with our own momentum. Certainly we feel fortunate—we went on a West Coast tour that was sold out without a record. But we also are trying to just pursue it as an organic process; even though we're opening for Bright Eyes at Radio City [for two dates in March], most of the East Coast venues for our own shows are small. We're trying to have people like us for the right reasons, which is not that we used to be in other bands, but that they actually like this music. We're not trying to capitalize on anything, we're actually just trying to function as a real band.
How does making music compare to doing comedy?
The actual filming of Portlandia is maybe the most taxing performance thing I've ever done, like being on a long tour. But I think that they each have their own rewards, and it creates a nice balance for me.
So you're not going to pledge allegiance to one or the other just yet?
Isn't it possible to [do] both? There are two flags: The flag of Portland and the Wild Flag, so I'll just focus on both of them.
Portlandia premieres Fri 21 on IFC.