Zachary Block chats with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen about their new show, Portlandia, which airs on IFC, Fridays at 10:30.
Though at first blush the new IFC original series Portlandia may suggest a scathing parody of the notoriously green-to-the-point-of-neurotic Pacific Northwestern cultural hub, the show may actually be a bit closer to “self-parody”. Its co-creators, Carrie Brownstein—formerly of Portland-based Sleater-Kinney—and Fred Armisen—currently of Saturday Night Live—are essentially products of the very movement at which they poke fun. Far from mean-spirited, the show is a celebration of Portland’s ethos and singular nature. I spoke to the two (who play almost all the characters in the show) about how they conceived Portlandia and how it’s possible to admire the very bike messengers you mock.
Zachary Block Portlandia emerged out of your web-based comedy duo, ThunderAnt: can either of you talk a little about its origins?
Fred Armisen ThunderAnt just kind of happened when Carrie and I were just hanging out in Portland. I used to go visit her and we just kind of started making these videos, we didn’t have any goal or anything. It was just a version of jamming, for lack of a better word. So we figured “why don’t we make some videos.” And then it was kind of a fun activity for us and then we just kept making more. They were short; they didn’t have any punch lines. We didn’t know if they were even going to be particularly funny, they were just kind of ideas that we had. And after a while we had a pretty good amount of them and then we said “Okay, let’s put them up on the website.” And after a while we had this website that had a good number of these videos on it and that was ThunderAnt.
ZB And by extension of that, the origins of Portlandia?
FA We just had all of these videos and I was looking for something to do over the summer and I wanted to work on something else and then I just thought let’s do something with this: maybe we can turn it into a TV show. I pitched it to Broadway Video and together we pitched it to IFC and the next thing we knew we were making this pilot for the show. It all happened very quickly. IFC was kind of the first place we went. Andrew Singer, the producer, who works at Broadway Video, just knew that IFC was looking for comedies and we just went to them and they were just so receptive and willing and supporting so it just happened, right then and there. It happened in a few steps, you know.
ZB I get the sense that a lot of the show is improvised. Do you have any particular approach to improvisation, if so what is it? And to what extent are the sketches written and developed?
FA We tend to improvise little by little, meaning that we’ll improvise something but then we’ll try to lock in after a few takes—lock in on an idea that works. It isn’t just improvising for improvising’s sake; we try to create some kind of a story out of it. And I think we try not to be too indulgent or anything, we try to just move the sketch along; that’s pretty much how I see our approach to it.
ZB I feel that the humor of Portlandia can be narrower at times, a bit broader at others. Are you confident that most viewers will “get” this show?
Carrie Brownstein I think that what you’re calling narrowness I would say is actually specificity. We try to be pretty specific in terms of the starting off point. The paradox, I think, is that the more specific you are, you might not reach a broad audience but you do tap into universal truths and I think the people who will relate to the show will relate on a really visceral level. And I also think that Portland is a place that ideologically exists all over the country, you know, whether it’s Williamsburg or Austin or San Francisco so I don’t think that the show has a narrowness, I would call it a specificity.
ZB Had you ever considered that people might be laughing for the wrong reasons?
CB I mean, I suppose that some of our characters take on an outsider status, where we are kind of looking in on this culture and sort of being befuddled by it, but this is not a mean-spirited comedy. I think it comes from a place of such affection towards Portland, and the truth comes from the fact that we know these people so well. I just can’t imagine that anyone would misconstrue it.
ZB One of my favorite characters from Portlandia is the obnoxious bike messenger shouting down cars and blowing a whistle, but it struck me as particularly scathing characterization and possibly less loving than some of the others. Would either of you say that you have a love-hate relationship with Portland?
FA Oh, you see it as scathing? I don’t see it as scathing at all because I admire people who—I can barely ride a bike, I can’t do all of those things, and people who are motivated, or even just being that physically fit: I admire anything like that. I wish I could ride through the street like a messenger, but I’m like a four-year-old. There was one point when we were shooting it that I got caught in these train tracks, for the trams, that are in the street, and my tire got stuck and I was so scared, I was like a kid. I wish I was that kind of person who can boldly jump all over the city and do all of that and have that kind of confidence. I don’t have that kind of confidence.
ZB I think that’s what a lot of people don’t like about bike messengers.
CB I also think that a lot of these characters like the bike guy—I think everyone that rides a bike has that bike guy in their head. For example, I drive a car but I ride a bike sometimes too, and for the twenty-five days out of the year that I ride a bike I feel so self-righteous. Even though I’m driving every other day of the year, I pull up at a stoplight next to a car and I look over and I want them to notice the “good deed” I’m doing by riding my bike. And I think even just the average bike commuter has part of that person in them. You have to have that level of confidence when you’re out in the world, totally vulnerable, riding your bike next to cars.
ZB Have either of you spoken to any Portlanders about the show, heard their general impression of it? What do they think?
CB I live in Portland and shot the show in Portland with a local crew in over sixty-five locations and people were really supporting then and I feel there’s a lot of pride and benevolence and genuine curiosity and support for people. I still live there so I see the show, in the context of Portland, as just another story, another creative endeavor that comes out of Portland, in dialogue with that: part of the ongoing conversation about Portland.
Watch the Portlandia trailer:
Zachary Block is a writer based in New York.