Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein expand the world of ‘Portlandia’
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein wanted to take the comic characters they developed in the first two seasons of sketch comedy show “Portlandia” someplace new.
Playing themselves, Armisen and Brownstein venture to Seattle to recruit prospective Portland residents (and end up with Chloe Sevigny as a new roommate); as Toni and Candace, they investigate a negative review on Yelp, which requires them to actually leave their feminist bookstore. Even Spyke — Armisen’s ever cynical and hyper-local hipster bike messenger character — takes his crusade to “take back MTV” to New York City on Friday’s premiere.
But Armisen and Brownstein say that putting their characters in different locales is only part of the new direction for “Portlandia.”
“This year we were all about making it less conceptual and more about ‘Who are these people?’ and then ‘Which of these scenarios do they lend themselves to?’ like putting a handful of characters in conflict,” says Brownstein.
It seems like “Portlandia” itself is in conflict. What began as a niche sketch comedy show that skewered a city known for its quiet eccentricities has struck a universal chord. From the season 1 launch to the season 2 premiere, the show saw a 39 percent increase in viewers. Not bad for a show that’s just as apt to cast indie rock musicians in supporting roles as comedic actors. In between seasons 2 and 3, the pair toured a live show that featured as many earnest musical performances as it did comedy bits. Armisen acknowledges that the show has a bit of an identity crisis, but he says it’s liberating.
“I want to reach many people,” he says. “It’s a comedy show and I guess technically it’s a variety show because there’s music in it, and so I have no limitations on it.”
But Armisen bristles at any insinuation that “Portlandia” is a place where he can put ideas that would be “too weird” for that other comedy show he’s on, “Saturday Night Live.”
“There are things on ‘Portlandia’ that are broad,” he argues. “It’s hard to classify what something is, but ‘SNL’ historically has done some weird stuff and I would say that that show has allowed me to do some very weird things that I can’t believe I’ve gotten away with. … And it’s not just myself! Bill Hader does sketches that, for lack of a better word, are as weird as anything that’s on ‘Portlandia.’”
Brownstein says they have kept a focus on certain characters throughout the seasons not because they’re reliable for audiences, but because of the possibilities she and Armisen find in them.
“I’m really not totally interested in crowd response as a means of gauging what to do next, creatively, because I think you can just really go down a rabbit hole with that, like trying to think from a marketing or network standpoint, because everybody has a different relationship to the show and it’s such an individual experience and to try to guess or determine that beforehand is to limit yourself and take less risks,” she says. “It kind of has to stem from the characters that we feel the most invested in and that we feel like we can explore at great length, and I think that if we’re into them and find some sort of kernel of truth or authenticity or darkness in them then you just kind of have to hope that the audience will be on board with that too.”
Make it BIG? Why not?
The night before this interview, we spotted Armisen at the 12.12.12 concert in Madison Square Garden, taking in some of the biggest acts in music. He says he is not at all like Spyke, that character who becomes enraged when somebody he doesn’t approve of joins in on a trend.
“Even at my most punk, as a teenager, I embraced the biggest bands,” he says. “I remember in high school, one of the biggest bands was The Police, and to me, I didn’t care, and I never used the word ‘sellout.’ I loved The Police! I would love my Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains records and at the same time I embraced going to seeing huge bands. I don’t subscribe to any theory that ‘big is a bad thing.’ In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s great!”
Regarding our favorite sketch of the new season…
In order that we don’t have to write spoiler alert here, we advise you to watch the sketch below before reading the rest of this story.
So where did the idea for that sketch come from?
Brownstein: A friend of mine did a 10-day retreat where you couldn’t talk to anybody for 10 days and she developed a complete fantasy life about the people in front of her. At the end there was this dinner and the spell was so immediately broken. Just hearing their voices completely shattered that illusion.
Armisen: We improvised the lines, but I just used Johnny Ramone as a model. It goes without saying that I’m a huge Ramones fan. We all are. But I like watching interviews with the Ramones on YouTube because the way that they talk is just, it’s just so very specific to Queens. … And we just thought that something that would be a turn-off would be talking about money.