‘Portlandia’: Carrie Brownstein on Season 2 and Its Success
For most people, getting married and planning a wedding is stressful. But for the characters in Portlandia—the show created by Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney member Carrie Brownstein—a wedding represents the worst of all possible things: becoming a grown-up. And becoming a grown-up means embracing normality. Next thing you know, you’ll be driving a Subaru to a soccer game. It’s enough to send a fixie-riding ex-punk to the exclusive speakeasy bar down the street to guzzle several bourbon-based drinks infused with egg whites, lemon juice, and organic honey.
Portlandia—IFC’s cult-hit sketch comedy show, which starts Season 2 on Friday—directs its satire at hipsters of all stripes, from foodies to organic-farming fascists to bicycle-rights proponents. And it’s already entered a few phrases into the cultural lexicon. Is there a crafty, self-aware hipster alive who doesn’t know the slogan “Put a Bird on It”? That's the catchphrase coined by two characters who noted, accurately, that putting a bird symbol on anything (be it a mug or an apron) makes it instantly quaint and cool.
This season, some of those familiar characters return, but they’ll start to explore adulthood—even though they are well into their 30s. In the second season, the “bicycle rights!” guy—played by Armisen, wearing four-gauge ear plug piercings and a hairy chin beard—is getting married to his equally surly, punk girlfriend. Spyke and Iris go to a wedding planner, snicker at her pretty decorations when she’s not around, and turn up their noses at all her suggestions. (Spyke: “If there’s anything that you’ve done, we don’t want to do it.”) On the day of the wedding, they unravel at the thought of people sitting near each other or doing anything that resembles a standard wedding (during the planning session, Spyke had raged: “We’re not marionettes dancing at the same time, getting up and dancing to and fro!”), and, predictably, they have a meltdown.
Being a grown-up, it turns out, is harder—and scarier—than it looks. Brownstein, calling from her home in Portland, talked about the Peter Pan syndrome many of her peers experience. Over the summer, when he was visiting the city, Armisen went to a street fair and noticed the myriad tattooed, gray-haired dads. “He thought, these guys used to be in bands,” she said. “These guys used to have this idea of who they were going to be when they were older. The tattoos were sort of representational of that. It can be crushing—I think, I’ve seen in myself, in my friends, realizing in a way that we do have to be an adult—it can feel crushing in people who didn’t realize that adulthood was coming until it was too late. I think a lot of the characters this season are dealing with adulthood versus sort of that prolonged adolescence they’ve been living.”
In addition to Spyke and Iris, this season sees the return of many of last season’s hit characters, like the couple who use “cacao” as their “stop” word during sex play, which featured Brownstein in drag as the male half and Armisen as a giggly, nervous girl. Also returning: the world’s two most uptight feminist booksellers, Toni and Candice (store name: Women and Women).
And there are more celebrity cameos in the pipeline, including a perfectly arch performance by Jeff Goldblum as an independent store owner (I won’t spoil what he sells—it’s just too ridiculous). Which is a good match for last year’s appearance by Steve Buscemi as a victim of the haranguing booksellers. And there will be more cameos to come from Tim Robbins, Miranda July, and Armisen’s Saturday Night Live castmate Kristen Wiig. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder turns up in a self-spoofing bit that might be one of the show’s funniest moments.
But Portlandia, which is directed and co-written by Jonathan Krisel, stops short of stunt casting by sticking to the offbeat. “It still really boils down to having a shared sensibility with someone,” Brownstein said. “There’s still a deliberation of who could work in this scene, who has almost, like, a weirdness, or an outcast quality to them. Somebody like Steve Buscemi—yes, he’s a very famous actor—but the choices he’s made are very interesting and weird.”
If the first season was about finding their sea legs, this season is about sharpening the writing, without making it too slick. “It’s a little chaotic, it’s a little rebellious,” she said of the first season. “And you don’t want to lose that as you start to tighten and polish, even though you want it to be better. I think the trick was creating better storylines and creating better narrative and character arcs, but leaving some of the chaos and messiness in and not cleaning up too much.”
The introduction of new characters, like the Sanitation Twins, shows a bit of that polish. The duo’s skit will give anyone who lives in the Northwest a hearty chuckle. In those parts, garbage must be separated from food compost as well as the usual recycling categories. Figuring out whether to throw out your lipstick-stained coffee cup in recycling, trash, or compost can be truly maddening.
“What it invokes in me is a very contrarian urge, which is just to throw all of it on the floor,” Brownstein said with a laugh. “It’s frustrating. It is. You have to read a short novel in order to figure about where everything goes.” Instead of dumping her trash on the ground, she and Armisen take out their frustration via the absurdist sketch, which takes the recycling movement to its most perverse (shall we say, microscopic) conclusion possible.
While the rest of the country may not have such strict recycling rules, Brownstein thinks it’ll still get it. “It’s the kind of mindset of carefulness and mindfulness, and hyperspecificity of an intense regard for rules, is something that people everywhere can relate to,” she said.
Artisanal stores, speakeasies, and specialized sandwich shops are all a part of what Brownstein called a “curated” indie universe. Case in point: a particularly delicious cameo comes via Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg as a pretentious mixologist working in a speakeasy-like bar, taking a thousand years and as many ingredients to make the best drink Brownstein’s character has ever had. (Oh, how well do we know thee, cocktailian.)
“That’s how people are setting themselves apart as a business or as people,” she said of the artisanal trend. “And also, people want that—it makes them feel, as a customer, you think, ‘I must be at a really special place, because they’ve taken all this time, and I’ll have to order this sandwich in a different way.’ It caters to people’s sense of entitlement, and specialness, and uniqueness. I think that’s why the show is relatable outside the Northwest, because that’s happening everywhere.”
If you live in a town with organic grocery stores, independent bookstores, and bike-friendly streets, Portlandia feels as if it’s speaking a secret language to a highly selective audience. It’s unlike anything else on TV, and succeeds in representing counterculture in ways that other shows—like 2 Broke Girls, which is supposedly set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—utterly fail at. In a behind-the-scenes segment, Lorne Michaels (who is an executive producer) says, “I think they are making the show they want to watch.”
That’s right, Brownstein said. “If you don’t see yourself or your sensibilities represented in a certain medium, then your goal is to actualize that,” she said. “I think that Fred and Jonathan and I, we’re telling stories about our own lives and our own friend groups and the kinds of cities and subcultures that we’ve grown up in, and they are just a little bit specific and maybe a little bit esoteric. At the same time, it’s stuff that people are relating to. There’s something we know really well, these worlds that our characters inhabit.”
But even as they are giving their characters a gentle skewering, there’s an endearing quality to it. “I think the show has an underlying earnestness to it,” she said. “The only places we really draw the line is, like, crassness or cynicism.”
As for Spyke and Iris: it all works out in the end. Spyke tells the wedding planner: “We want it to be pre-planned, but chaotic.” And it is. Just like Portlandia. How grown up.