‘Portlandia’ Duo Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein Discuss the Secrets to the Cult Show’s Success

‘Portlandia’ pair Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein open up about their hilarious IFC show, which returns today.

Augusta Quirk/IFC

I remember the exact moment Portlandia won me over. During the second episode of Season 1, entitled “A Song For Portland,” a petulant, gum-smacking coed in booty shorts, played by Aubrey Plaza, wanders into a bookstore. She’s on the hunt for a few textbooks to satisfy her women’s studies courses. She has, unfortunately for her, landed at “Women and Women First,” a cozy little spot run by Candace (Fred Armisen, gray wig), and Toni (Carrie Brownstein, black wig)—two deadly-serious feminists out to rid the world of patriarchy one “queer horror” at a time. They size up their prey.

“This class you’re taking? You don’t need it,” says the soft-spoken Candace. “We have classes here,” she adds, pointing to a chalkboard behind her. “Abby D’s Queer Question … why don’t you take that?”

“I have pole-dancing class that day,” says Plaza. A pall is cast over the proceedings. Candace and Toni are pissed.

“Excuse me?” replies Candace. “Pole-dancing? We’re about to freak out right now. We’re about two seconds away from jumping up on this table and kicking everything in sight, which by the way is our own property.” Cue death stare.

Candace and Toni are just two of the hilariously eccentric cast of characters found in Portlandia, IFC’s cult sketch comedy series that returns for its fourth season on Feb. 27. They’re played by the show’s two stars, Saturday Night Live vet Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, lead singer/guitarist of the bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. The show, set in Portland, Oregon, skewers the artisanal-everything habits of the city’s gonzo-granola residents—ones that will consume the most organic of free-range chickens, decorate everything with little birds, or see their relationship quickly unravel over Battlestar Galactica. And, with their gift for deadpan hilarity and spot-on impersonations, Armisen and Brownstein have risen to become one of the funniest comedy duos on television.

I’ve always been curious about how you landed on Portland as the destination and concept for the show. When did you learn that it was a place that was ripe for comedy?

Carrie: Fred and I had been making these short video vignettes under the moniker ThunderAnt, and after we had about a dozen of them, I think we saw a common thread and a certain sensibility that had a lot to do with people’s relationship to place and the context in which they live, and being in conflict with that. Portland is a good microcosm for that mindset, but we don’t think of Portland as the subject matter. It’s more about identifying and exploring the minutiae of how and why people live the way they do. Portland just makes a really good backdrop and is a good stand-in for other cities.

Fred: There’s something that I can’t describe about the city that I really love—just physically—how it feels to walk around there, and have coffee there. Also, the way that it’s a little overcast sometimes. Something about Portland just really resonated with me.

Was part of the reason for setting it in Portland that it’s a very vibrant city in a transitional period, so there are a lot of young-ish, sorta-confused people there still figuring things out?

Carrie: Yeah, it’s the same way San Francisco used to be where people would come there in droves to find themselves and come out, or become an artist. New York has had moments like that as well. Portland is having that time right now. That transition can be awkward and it can be very galvanizing and it can be very interesting to be a part of, so you see things being built up and taken down, and there’s a great sense of exploration, energy, and creativity—and lots of humorous elements as a result.

When did you two first meet, and what were your first impressions of each other?

Fred: I was already a fan of hers, even though it doesn’t really count as knowing somebody. Sleater-Kinney meant so much to me. And when I met her, I just decided—or knew—that she was someone who I wanted to be my friend, and spend time with. It was immediate.

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Carrie: It was as organic as any creative partnership or process. We realized that we had a lot in common and have similar sensibilities. I think we obsess over a lot of the same details in a situation. We’re very observant when it comes to the ways people interact with one another, and instead of being interested in the “what” of a situation, we’re very interested in the “who.” Who is the kind of person that does that? We felt such a kinship with one another, and are so happy that something that started out so haphazardly and as such a labor of love has become a show that people watch.

I was reading an article about the inception of Seinfeld, and Jerry said he took a meeting with NBC and they asked him if he had any ideas for a show and he said, “Nope.” Then that evening, he went to the Improv and met Larry David, and the two talked and ended up at a random Korean deli making fun of the situations there, and that’s when Larry said the show should be about just that—two comedians riffing on situations. Did you have a similar light bulb moment?

Fred: Yeah. When I visited Carrie, there was this bookstore that I just happened upon called In Other Words, and it was a feminist not-for-profit bookstore. I walked by there during the day and I told Carrie, “I saw this really funny place.” As we were talking about it, we thought about who the types of people were who would work there, and the idea for the Feminist Bookstore bit just came from that. When we realized it would be something we would film, we went to the thrift store and bought some sweaters, necklaces, a long, gray wig, and a long, black wig. That’s one of the only things that’s survived from the inception of the show.

They’re not as strict at In Other Words, are they?

Carrie: [Laughs] They’re really wonderful. We shoot there under their offices, and their employees and customers often end up in the sketch. We had them take over Portlandia’s official Twitter feed, so they have a great sense of humor about themselves.

What’s your process for creating a Portlandia episode? Can you sorta walk me through it?

Fred: We have a pretty traditional way of doing it where we write for a number of weeks with our writing staff, and just start compiling ideas. We have ideas on our phones or things we’ve jotted down, and we just ask each other questions in the writer’s room like did you ever notice this? And it just snowballs from there.

Carrie: It’s about four days—maybe four-and-a-half—to shoot an episode, so it ends up being a 45- to 50-day shoot spread out over three months. The whole process is about five-and-a-half months when you factor in writing, pre-production, and shooting. But we’re very focused. Since we do projects on the side, we really come in with an urgency and energy once we’re in Portlandia mode.

What do you think it is about you two that allows you to complement each other so well?

Fred: We share enough opinions of how the world is, but we’re also different enough that, as corny as it sounds, I can learn from her. It’s not only that we just agree on everything, but I feel like I get to be exposed to other ways of thinking. I think that’s just a good way to live—to know that there’s room for another angle on something.

Carrie: He’s a very generous performer and person, and has an unwavering optimism that I find infectious. He’s such a “yes” person, and really has an openness and curiosity. It’s such an important tenet in warding off cynicism, and I think he really brings that into his writing, his acting, and his friendships, so you really feel a sense of possibility. And he really makes me laugh. He’s so brilliant at finding a tangent, and then making the tangent the center.

Fred: Her answer was so much better than mine! Can I say “Ditto?” Did it ever get too crazy balancing everything out—with Wild Flag, SNL, and everything else?

Fred: For some reason, juggling things makes everything work better. That’s just how we operate. It just makes the other project more of something to look forward to. I think the more you keep things going, the more it helps the other project.

Carrie, I was a big fan of Wild Flag. Why did the band break up, and what’s next for you musically?

Carrie: Portlandia is work I do that involves people coming together from different parts of the country, and Wild Flag was something that was like that, too, where we all lived in different cities and came together. It ended up feeling like something where we just wanted to make an album, and it ran its course. But I had a great time doing it and feel lucky that we were able to put out that record and tour. I’m working on some new music. I’ll work on it after we shoot Season 5, but I’m not sure what it’s going to be. But yes, it was a great run with Wild Flag. Maybe we’ll do something in the future!

There’s a rhythm to comedy, and a rhythm to music. Since you’re both musicians, do you feel like that’s helped strengthen your dynamic as comedians?

Fred: Definitely. And it helps us approach what we do coming from a music standpoint. In the marketing, or something as simple as a poster or a DVD cover or artwork, we even equate some of it with being on tour. Or even some of the sketches can be like a song. We don’t get too pretentious about it, but for me, it makes it easier to digest what’s happening.

Fred, you were drumming in a band in the early days before SNL. Do you miss the band life?

Fred: I don’t. Comedy took over a long time ago. I love my bandmates and they’re my friends, and even though we had fun and got to tour and I got to play the drums a lot, which I’ll always appreciate, we had a really rough time. We toured and tried to get people to come to our shows and put out records, and we really struggled. For me, I would get so frustrated because I would see these other bands just whip by us. Even on a level that, looking back, you don’t consider very big, but a band like The Jesus Lizard was so much bigger than us, and I’d look at them and go, “I really wish we were touring that way.” Pulling up to some city and maybe 11 or 20 people were at the show, and then afterwards, just hauling my drums into a van? No thanks.

Do you two ever jam out? Some drum and bass?

Fred: A little. But we’ve done so much music on the show that we feel like we’re good. We did “Cat Naps,” and “Battle of the Gentle Bands,” and when we shoot, we see each other every minute of the day, so I don’t even know when we’d get a chance to jam! It would be like midnight ‘til we’d be able to bust out a guitar and drums.

I really loved the “Take Back MTV” episode, where you recruit Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, and Matt Pinfield to reclaim the network, because I grew up with music videos and lament what happened to that network. How do you feel about what’s happened to MTV?

Fred: I think it’s fine. Whatever it is that we think it’s missing has just been placed somewhere else. You can always find that one thing that something used to be. I remember when CBGB closed and everyone was really sad about it, Patti Smith came out and said, “The spirit of what CBGB is will live on in another club somewhere else.” It’s just what happens.

Carrie: I think it’s very disheartening and undermining to focus on nostalgia or youthful sentimentality as the lens through which you view art and culture, because then you feel like everything good already happened. I really just try to be in the present with music and just find the things that are invigorating and make me feel happy to be alive right now. There’s plenty of great music, and I tend to try and seek out new bands through friends, or reading blogs, or buying records. There are a lot of bands that I’m really excited about. Fred: I like Frankie Rose. Parquet Courts—they’re great. Au Revoir Simone. Real Estate.

Carrie: I’m excited about that new Real Estate album, and this woman, Angel Olsen, from Chicago, has a new record coming out that I’m really excited about. Both Fred and I love that King Krule record, and Chance the Rapper is very inventive and exciting, and I love his energy. I’m also excited about that Wild Beasts album that’s coming out. There’s a lot of good stuff!

Were there other Portland moments that really resonated with you and gave you comedy ammunition for the show, like your visit to the feminist bookstore?

Fred: Whenever I drive there, I have to drive very differently then in any other city because they’re so respectful of people on bicycles. I have to reconfigure my brain before I get behind the wheel, which is very Portland of me. I’m thinking, “I do NOT want to get into a bicycle accident. Slow. Slow. Slow.” Because you feel like you might at every crosswalk.

Carrie: One thing that’s very prevalent is just the amount of time that people have here to make a huge battle out of a very small thing. It’s certainly a privilege to have enough time in your day and not have a job that’s so stressful that you can spend an extra 10 minutes in line chatting with a cashier, or wait in a line that’s 30 minutes instead of five minutes because everyone is valuing the personal communication, or worrying if something is “local” or “organic.” These battles are so much smaller than worrying if you have health insurance or worrying if you’ll be able to put food on the table. I’m in that environment so I understand how we wage these small, relatively insignificant battles, and it’s interesting to be in that and worry about why that’s important, and how it plays into the bigger picture. I really notice the ease with which people live in Portland.

The show’s been renewed for Season 5. How long do you see it going?

Fred: It’s kind of hard to think too far ahead. We feel lucky that we’ve gotten this far, and we love doing it, so we really take it year-by-year. We signed on to do two more years last year and that seemed like a lot of fun, so we just meet every year and say, “If we do this, we’re going to do it right.”