The importance of ‘Portlandia’
In one sketch during the new season of “Portlandia,” the characters played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein decide to watch a single episode of “Battlestar Galactica” before they head out to a friend’s birthday party. Unable to pull themselves away from the TV after 45 minutes, they miss the party, end up devouring the first season, and over a few consecutive days, the whole series. Jobs are lost, bills go unpaid and they stop getting up to use the bathroom. At one point Brownstein tiredly says, “I a little bit feel like I have a bladder infection, but I’m just going to get antibiotics after the next episode.”
This scene is typical of the comedic duo’s adoration of the absurd, and is one that could easily apply to viewers of their show. The first season recently began streaming on Netflix, and the second season premieres Friday.
Armisen says he has found himself in similarly intense viewing marathons with shows like “Game of Thrones” and “American Horror Story.”
“And ‘The Wire,’” he says, “I burned right through that.”
What makes the comedy hit so hard is Armisen and Brownstein’s ability to create relatable situations that go awry. He says the pair are able to get so ridiculous because almost half of the show is improvised.
“We film so much stuff,” he says. “We could do a whole season of what we didn’t use.”
Armisen says that a large chunk of that unused footage is he and Brownstein ruining the scenes by laughing uncontrollably at what the other one has come up with on the spot. He is quick to give away the credit for the finished product.
“We’re not part of the editing process,” he explains, “because those guys are geniuses.”
Armisen says relinquishing that authority is liberating because every time he watches the edits, he finds himself saying, “Oh my gosh, I never thought that we wouldn’t need that.”
“That’s a really weird part of the process, where you think you’re in control, but you know it’s good that you’re not in control.”
Face the music
One of the things that sets “Portlandia” apart from Armisen’s other comedy outlet, “Saturday Night Live,” is the way the show handles musical guests. On “Portlandia,” musical guests don’t sing, they act.
“Sometimes when musicians do things like this, they come at it with just a slightly different way of playing things than a comedian, and that’s just interesting,” says Armisen.
Season 2 cameos include Eddie Vedder, Joanna Newsom and guitarists from the Sex Pistols and The Smiths. Since Brown-stein is most well-known for her role as a singer and guitarist in the bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, and Armisen got his start in show business as a drummer in a band called Trenchmouth, do they ever try to arrange jam sessions with these stars?
“I feel like every time I turn to someone and start talking to them, the conversation always turns to, ‘We’re going to Australia,’” says Armisen. “Maybe they’re just avoiding wanting to make any connections, like, ‘I’m going to be wayyy out of the country.’”