“Portlandia” stars: Why we tease the cool kids

In a Salon exclusive, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein preview the second season of TV’s smartest new comedy

Published January 1, 2012 6:00PM (EST)

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the smartest sketch comedy show on TV stars an iconic indie-rocker and a quiet “Saturday Night Live” cast member who once wanted to be a drummer. Fred Armisen seems most comfortable burrowed deep into characters and impressions – so much so it’s easy to forget he’s now been on the venerable show for a decade. Carrie Brownstein was the jittering livewire at the heart of Sleater-Kinney, which no less than Time magazine once called the best band in America, and now brings her smoldering, Jagger-esque intensity to the band Wild Flag.

But as the creators of IFC’s “Portlandia,” which returns for its second season on Friday, they’ve got hipster culture – the culture they both come from – in their sights. They skewer twee urban preciousness with such precision – feminist bookstores, organic food, magazine obsessives, the ubiquity of birds – that it’s easy to imagine their gentle mockery forever putting the end to trends in Portland or Brooklyn. It’s certainly hard to walk into a gift shop and not be reminded of their viral hit “Put a bird on it” – in Portlandia, you can “put a bird on something and call it art” -- or to question a waiter about a menu and not feel a little like the “Portlandia” characters who want to know if the chicken is “USDA organic or Portland organic.” If it took Nixon to go to China, evidently it requires a “Saturday Night Live” vet and a beloved indie-rocker to point out the absurdity of adult hide-and-seek, the vintage cocktail craze and DJ nights.

Season two brings more attention, and as musicians, Brownstein and Armisen are well aware that second albums are especially hard. IFC asked for 10 episodes instead of six. Brownstein’s the subject of a profile in the current New Yorker. But as Armisen and Brownstein explained over the phone last month, all they need to do is walk around town or have lunch to generate more material.

The new season of “Portlandia” opens with the return of Bryce and Lisa – but instead of putting birds on things, they’ve become master picklers with the catch-phrase “We can pickle that.” So it wasn’t enough to target all of Etsy culture – now you’re determined to do in the poor picklers.

Carrie Brownstein: I know, we're going to shut it down. It's a conspiracy. I hate pickles, so I want it to stop.

It’s a great observation – pickle plates are suddenly everywhere, in all these rustic locavore restaurants, but they’ve become super-common without anyone really noticing it, or even demanding it. How did you and Fred come to realize there was a sketch in this?

CB: We would go out to lunch during the writing process, and almost every restaurant we went to had an option of a pickle plate -- and the variety of things that they were pickling just kept getting broader and broader. What always struck me about pickling was just the idea that you could improve upon something that was a little bit unwanted to begin with -- by preserving it forever. It's sort of a weird idea.

Fred Armisen: That was more about the sort of late-1800s-ish curating of stuff that we saw. We were like, "Wow, there's a lot of, like, jars happening. A lot of things wrapped in paper, old paper..." And you know, when we thought of jars, that just led right to pickling. I feel like iced tea is served in jars a lot. It was more about the sort of 1800s framework.

I like how Bryce and Lisa change their look for some extra authenticity in the pickling world.

CB: Yes, Bryce is now sporting a mustache. I think you're only allowed to pickle with a little bit of facial hair. And then my character, Lisa, has real earthy, thick braids, which look better with the apron than her old hair style. They're real trend setters. Or, I should say, trend spotters.

Is that where a sketch like the waiter with an endless number of specials comes from as well? Or the cashier who shames the poor customer who arrives at the grocery store without his reusable bags – just being out and observing the ridiculous things you see?

CB: Yes and no. I mean, I guess that they are ridiculous, but at the same time they're things that I embrace -- it's a set of behaviors and an ideology that I enact, and that I think many of us sort of perform or follow. But then, at the same time, as you're doing it, I think there is an awareness sometimes that probably somewhere, for someone else, there is a bigger battle than, you know, making sure that your fresh pasta is local, or whether or not the ingredients or organic.

You know, it takes a certain amount of good fortune, privilege and entitlement to have those things be what you're worried about. And I think that most of us know that. So I think it's a little bit of a stifling way to live, because it's so well-meaning, and so well-intentioned, but, like you said, there's part of you that knows that it's a little bit ridiculous. And many of the characters on the show, I think, start right when someone's belief system has just gone off the rails -- or is about to.

There’s a Whole Foods near my house, and I always forget my bag. And I just keep buying the bag. I'm just accruing more and more of these reusable bags, which I'm going to end up throwing out when I move. I'm hoarding reusable bags. So now I'm a hoarder. What's worse?

There's this gentle mocking of these groups, but we all consider ourselves part of them at the same time. Do you ever feel pushback? The well-meaning and the earnest are used to being applauded; they're not necessarily used to being made fun of by their heroes from indie-rock and comedy...

CB: Right. You know, I think it is hard, because I think there's an inherent sensitivity that I know that I possess, and I think Portland and cities and communities of its ilk also possess this kind of hyper-sensitivity. I think that's part of what makes us tick -- this constant self-reflectiveness, and self-awareness. And so yeah, to have it come back at you on television, I think might be weird. But I also think that I am so much from this world, and I think it seems more like part of a conversation. We're not talking at people; I feel like we're sort of engaged in this conversation that people are having anyway. So I haven't felt a lot of backlash, even though I'm sure there’s….

A Tumblr blog about how “Portlandia” is hurting the world…

CB: I'm sure it exists. And if I want to cry for the next hour, I can probably go online and find some anonymous commenter somewhere and make myself feel really shitty. But yeah, I think for the most part, the show is earnest -- or, I should say, it's not cynical -- which I think helps people relate to it. It's not a cynical show. We're trying to be specific; we're not trying to be realistic. I think there's a difference. And I think you just can't worry about insulting people with what you create. If you start at a place where you're considering your audience's feelings, you're already stuck. You've already lost. So I think the idea is just to put something out there that hopefully people can relate to, and not worry about whether they're going to be angry, or not get it. And hopefully, not everyone will get it. I've never liked things that are benign -- or banal. So, I'm OK with it. Haters, hate on.

FA: I get confused, too. You know, we shot this one thing, in season one, where I was in this "technology loop," where I had my iPad and everything else out. We wrote it as this sketch, but I straight-up do that all the time. I'll sit on my couch, and I have every device out, and it'll make perfect sense to me. That’s where it gets blurry, because it's like, are we making fun of anything? Or are we just -- it's just ourselves, really.

The one couple that almost felt a little different in these new episodes -- like maybe they were the target of the joke -- was the couple getting married who were so concerned about being cool, but without looking cool...

CB: I don't know if they were. It's interesting that you say that they were more of a target, because that first scene in the wedding planner's office, everything that Fred and I are saying, I feel like -- oh my God, this might be our philosophy about marriage. We definitely are two people that have stumbled through many relationships, and they have ended very ungracefully, and I think that that kind of negativity… it's so self-effacing, that couple, they barely want to exist as a couple, and I think that even those guys are not targets. I definitely see myself in Iris, and in her sense that It's so depressing, that, "Oh, there's nothing else to do but get married." I think that's everyone's fear, that marriage is a default when you don't know what else to do.

In the first season, one of my favorite sketches was the video about how “the dream of the ‘90s is alive in Portland.” It’s back in a lot of cities, I think – cities where there’s pickling and birds on things and vintage cocktails. Is it possible that despite the recession, we’re in a similar moment now? Or has that Clinton-era, post-Nirvana optimism been quashed? All the ‘90s bands are certainly getting back together…

CB: I think that’s exactly right. The dream of the '90s, I think, certainly was that Clintonian dream -- and there was something as we approached the millennium, people just thought that we were on a linear path that would only continue to move up. That we were going to keep progressing and moving forward. And there was certainly an optimism that obviously came crashing down with 9/11, where we realized, no -- the future is very much uncertain. It is darker than we had imagined. It's certainly not as hopeful. That anxiety obviously is still very much pervasive in the collective psyche. But at the same time, certainly, micro-niche communities have developed ... It's almost like the way it functions on the Internet, where like-minded people kind of find each other. I think cities have gotten like that too, and I think the cities that have sort of maintained their sense of optimism, or pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, are the cities that have built up the downtown area, stopped spreading out towards the suburbs... and have sort of congealed in these communities [where] the focus is more sort of curated, and pointed. And it is weird that even '90s culture and music is having a sort of renaissance moment right now. So, yes -- certainly that dream did die, but I do feel like that sense of free spiritedness is sort of returning.

Fred, you mentioned “Portlandia’s” love of the ‘90s earlier – but you meant the 1890s, not the 1990s. Other than pre-prohibition cocktails and pickling, what else are you seeing from that era in hipster culture?

FA: Mustaches -- and then the way that meat is treated. Meat, for some reason -- I feel like in Brooklyn, people just really love cuts of meat, and it's almost unacceptable to go to a crappy butcher. It's like -- "No, I've got to go to this purveyor." Why? Do we feel like you can trust it more?

For some reason, decades and generations love to look at each other. If you look back at stuff from the '70s, during variety shows, somewhere in the mid-'70s they had this fascination with the '20s. You'd see all these sketches about Charlie Chaplin, and flappers -- and it's arbitrary. Why did that happen? Why were they so into the '20s? And I feel like the '80s had this obsession with film noir, a lot of the videos were kind of 1940s-ish, and everyone had fedoras on... So I wish I knew why that happens, and why decades pick other decades -- why they choose to be so nostalgic about this specific, weird thing.

How does “Portlandia” differ from “SNL”? You don’t have to be as broad certainly, and can be a little more specific and niche with “Portlandia.”

FA: They're both different, and at the same time they're the same in that we try to be entertaining -- which, even though "Portlandia" is a very specialized kind of show, we still try not to get too indulgent, or -- we still try to focus on what the premise of the sketch is. The other thing with “SNL” is that it's a variety show, with a cast, and that's what makes it work. And with this show, it's just Carrie and me.

Carrie, your music with Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney is so intensely physical, an irrepressible force, and “Portlandia” is so smartly observed. Is it easy for you to go back and forth between these worlds? How does each help fulfill your creative needs?

CB: I think it's kind of an issue of intentionality. In terms of music, I take it very seriously -- I never was drawn to music that's funny. There's kind of a desperation to me, with music. It's always been about urgency, and salvation, and it's a little bit of a darker place for me to go, creatively. I think just because of when music came into my life -- it's true for a lot of people, it comes in during those angsty, formative teenage years. It sometimes maintains this emotional fear that's very complicated, and often a little melancholy. It's definitely sort of a soundtrack. And comedy, I feel like I have a wider range of emotions to explore, which in some ways makes it a relief. When I'm writing or performing for "Portlandia," I feel there's just a place of levity, that I just automatically go to that. Obviously, I get there with music, but I think that, in terms of the process, [comedy] has a wider range of emotional possibilities for me. But both of them, to me, are earnest endeavors. Sometimes comedy comes from a place of trying to be really serious anyway. I don't feel schizophrenic about it, but I definitely kind of appreciate the ways that they both vacillate between a visceral and an intellectual realm. They both allow for that; they both allow me moments to sort of let go, and get out of my head a little bit. But there is something about the process of writing for the show that is a lot more difficult, I think, than writing music -- because you're just sitting there, and it can be sort of brutal.

Especially if you’re used to working with a collective like Wild Flag, or getting the feedback rush of playing live.

CB: Oh my gosh, I know. It's so much more immediate to play in front of an audience. And Fred has that from “SNL” -- we're both used to it. That's probably why we're so desperate to hear applause...

So when you go into boutiques or gift shops, do you still get “put a bird on it” jokes? Any artists complain that you ruined their art/business of putting birds on things?

FA: It's always positive. People seem embarrassed sometimes; they're like, "Oh, I can't believe you did that -- I actually have birds on my bag,” But the nice side of it is, people will put birds on things. They'll give me something -- and then, there's a bird on it. It's nice. At least it's pretty. It's nice that it's something pretty. I'm glad we didn't do, you know, "Put a potato on it."

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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