Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen's anthropological sketch-comedy series "Portlandia" returns to IFC on Friday, Jan. 4, for a third season of gently mocking and dissecting the behaviors of niche Portlanders and their kin across these United States. Brownstein, who was Sleater-Kinney's front woman and now performs with her band Wild Flag, spoke with me while her dogs barked in the background. We discussed the series, the proliferation of Portland culture, her fascination with couples' behavior and the qualities she shares with Kath and Dave.
How many of the characters on "Portlandia" would make you insane if you encountered them in real life?
I will say, in my defense — but this is also damning at the same time — a lot of these characters are just permutations of myself. As much as I think that I’m immune to some of their personality traits, I find myself enacting them. An example: Kath and Dave are these characters ... in the first season they get incensed over this dog being tied up, and I think in the first episode this season, they have just come back from Spain, and they want everyone to know how inauthentic the paella is. I was walking my dogs out at the river, and I got to the banks, and there was a couple there who looked just like Kath and Dave — I see people who look like Kath and Dave everywhere — and they were talking to these people from the forest service. These teens had had an all-night or early-morning fire pit, maybe drinking a couple beers. Whatever, it was a very unremarkable scene, like you see like a smoldering log on a sandy beach, but this couple kept saying over and over again to anyone who would listen, which was just a group of us with our dogs, “REALLY GLAD WE WERE HERE. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t shown up and called the authorities!” It was so loud. They wanted so much praise for their deeds. It wasn’t enough that, in their minds, they had taken care of a situation. They needed so much validation. Everything they were saying was so loud, and performed, and broadcasted. It was Kath and Dave in a nutshell. But I’m Kath and Dave, too. I did this really embarrassing thing where I had just come back from Australia ... do you know that brand of yogurt called Wallaby?
It has a kangaroo on it?
Yeah, and I did this super-embarrassing thing of purchasing a Wallaby yogurt and then turning that into an excuse to tell the cashier at the grocery store that I had just come back from Australia. I was like, What is my problem? What is this over-sharing? And even as I was speaking, I felt myself talking louder, as if I was giving a speech. I was so embarrassed. And I do that sort of thing all the time. I’ll go to the bank, and I do not need to be giving out any information, but I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, well I went to the doctor the other day.” I’m like, Who am I? What is my problem? And that’s everybody in Portland. Everyone in front of me at the grocery store is doing the same thing. Anyway, these characters, I see them all the time, but then I realize I am these people, too.
Are you constantly paying attention to behaviors and trends you guys might use on “Portlandia”?
We are trying to steer away from the show being really concept-based, because conceptual ideas tend to not have a lot of heart to them. There are very few ways into concepts, as opposed to characters. I don’t feel like we’re necessarily trying to capture phenomenon, or in some scientific way, that we feel like we’re inhibited unless there’s empirical evidence that something exists. I think in general I’ve always been an observational person, so I feel like I’m always walking around Portland or wherever taking stuff in. Very rarely do I actually write something down as, “Oh, that’s an idea for the show.”
I would say on the first season it was a little bit more like that, where I had the observation that if you put a bird on an item, the bird became shorthand for art. An item didn’t have an inherent artistic or aesthetic value on its own, but if you put a bird on it, then all of a sudden it was something that you could put up and display in your house. Now, in the third season, for example, one of the writers mentioned that really annoying thing of a communal table [at a restaurant] where everyone’s conversation is being overheard. But the communal table joke, that’s just one joke. So you have to figure out what’s happening at the communal table. So then it becomes populated with characters or some kind of tension. So I think we have started to approach the scenes more from [the question], Who are these people? And what kind of situations bring out their essential qualities? And then we can, yes, take the home-brewing situation or communal table situation and cobble it together so we’re still in that “Portlandia” world, but we’re actually trying to explore a character. I think that’s become more common in terms of writing.
So where do most of your ideas come from?
I do have a notebook that I carry around. Sometimes I’ll overhear something. Often what I’m obsessed with is couples. I’m really obsessed with couples and the way that people kind of perform at couplehood or the way that people broadcast their selves, their sense of selfhood and individualism. The way that we just kind of perform at our lives. It’s less about, “Oh, that’s a strange phenomenon, you know, unicycles.” That, to me, is not as interesting as the ways that people have a relationship with place and with context, and when people are in conflict with their settings. That’s what I try to think about when we’re writing, more than, “Oh, I’ve noticed a thing where everyone is wearing a certain type of shoe or drinking a certain type of beer.”
That's interesting, your intrigue with couples performing, because you are a performer, in many different forums, for your work. Do you think those things are connected?
I do think that they are connected. Mostly because it’s too disjointed for me to think that my life is so compartmentalized and that the different aspects of my personality are so divorced from each other — that starts to feel slightly schizophrenic. I do think that the basis of a lot of what I’m doing is trying to find ways of connecting with people through creativity and performance in more meaningful ways than I’m probably able to do in regular life. I find that it’s always been a way for me to explore better versions of myself, or ways of exploring emotions that are harder to access. Also, the performance kind of gives you license to go places that are darker, more dangerous, more contradictory. And I think that’s a consistent theme in both music and “Portlandia” in the ways that you’re kind of given license to go off the rails to reach a precipice and flirt with the idea of going off it emotionally. Because it’s performance and not real life, you can enjoy that danger and that sense of imbalance and right yourself at the very end. I like in “Portlandia” how some of the characters are allowed to go off the rails and have moments where they become unhinged. In music, too, I appreciate that the stage is a place where being unhinged is actually OK; it’s sort of sanctioned and then you can kind of come back from it.
Do you have a favorite sketch or character to perform?
I really like Peter and Nance. The first season they went to the farm. The second season they had the motorcycles. They are a very unctuous, cloying couple, which usually makes me so uncomfortable. But I like exploring that weird blurriness, the way that couples become indistinct from one another, like everything becomes such an imperfect boundary with someone else. Fred and I, we’re so uncomfortable with that in real life that it’s interesting for us. I think we really like how Peter and Nance are this singular entity, and so the moments where they feel apart from each other are very hurtful for them. So I like playing them. Also they wear ridiculous clothing, and it’s nice to be able to just put on a black knee sock with a sandal and just walk around for a day.
I love that so many of your characters do not dress like cool people at all. They have a certain set of interests, but they are wearing dad jeans and polar fleece.
I’m always flummoxed by the characterization that “Portlandia” is a show about hipsters. Because I just think that 99 percent of the characters on our show would never be called hipsters in anyone’s imagination. They’re wearing fleece and sandals and cargo shorts, which is how most of America dresses. No judging, but that’s just how people dress. We’re not in skinny jeans and oversize knitwear. Very few of our characters are dressing in any way that would be considered hipster.
I was just in Nashville and it was amazing to me that a certain kind of cultural behavior, maybe most associated with Portland or Brooklyn, has been replicated so exactly in so many cities, not just the hipster aesthetic, though that too, but the locavore thing, the put-a-bird-on-it thing, the coffee culture thing. Obviously Portland is very important to you and singular in some ways, but it’s also everywhere.
Totally. Part of the narrative in terms of talking about the first season was, will this translate outside of Portland? And it did. I think part of that reason is that this idea of living these highly curated lives and living in very curated neighborhoods, having our needs be met and having our special needs be met, has become very important. And you see that being emulated in cities and neighborhoods, not just in the U.S., but everywhere. I travel. I went to Tulsa this year and Birmingham, and places where you just think — and this is only naïveté that would dictate this thought — it’s not going to exist in Tulsa. But then it’s like, yeah, here’s a coffee shop that’s serving some of the best coffee I’ve had, with literally 10 rules listed next to the register, letting me know that I can’t be on my cell phone, or wear sunglasses, or talk to a friend while I order. Which is fine, but you just don’t think that you’re going to see that there. Then you realize, no, everyone is living by these same sort of guidelines.
It’s kind of like the way we organize our iPads or our computers. We filter information that we want. We excise all of the critical stuff. We completely just pick and choose how we want our news, which friends we want to hear about on Facebook and Twitter. Which blogs we want to see, which music blogs we want to read. It just becomes this very insular, curated online world. I feel like people want their cities and their neighborhoods in the same way. If you go to a restaurant, it seems so overly fastidious and persnickety, but the more rules a restaurant or a boutique has, it’s like you feel more special. Like, oh, yeah, thank you for making this slightly difficult because that means that you care.
And I’m cool for being able to uphold all your rules.
Exactly. Everybody wants these moments that are very considered and curated. It definitely does not just exist here. It certainly exists almost everywhere.
It’s interesting to me how much of this behavior is organized around the things we buy or eat — that we consume. So few of the characters in “Portlandia” are explicitly political, unless you consider food political, which probably is happening more and more. These are characters extremely engaged in minutiae.
Yes, which to me speaks to a level of entitlement. We sometimes forget about the privilege of worrying about minutiae versus worrying about whether we can pay the bills or feed our families. That’s certainly a luxury to be concerned about how local your fresh pasta is, or whether it’s from Seattle or Portland or Brooklyn or Vermont. To have that be one of your biggest concerns is such a privilege. Is that what politics are? It’s strange to think that that’s what would be considered political, because it can seem trivial. I think of it like, "We’re always engaged in these mock epics now." We sort of elevate these small battles. We ascribe to them so much meaning, but they really are mock epic. Can we really consider these battles important? Some people do. And I do, too. But then I have to kind of check myself, like no this really isn’t that important. If I happen to go to Starbucks instead of one of the 200 local coffee shops in Portland, I don’t need to flog myself over it. [Laughing.] That’s OK. There’s worse crimes for me to commit. There are worse transgressions for me. The fact that I would even have a moment of guilt or that somebody else might judge me for that, I just think, please judge me for something else besides where I had coffee today.
Do you find it hard to be so gentle to these characters? I feel like you’re remarkably gentle. It seems like it would be easy for it to get a little more sour.
I know what you’re saying. I think in real life I’m more biting and acerbic than ends up on the show. And I think that’s OK. I think you can be trenchant without being cruel and without being derisive or mocking. I think that allowing people to come to their own conclusions about a story or about a character is more valuable than telling people how they should feel about a situation or a person. It’s really important that we don’t judge these people. So I think that’s why it doesn’t get mean-spirited, because we’re approaching these characters as if they're familiar and with fondness instead of with judgment. That allows an audience into the show. They have to take a few steps forward instead of us bombarding them with tendentious opinions about who these people are. I do feel affectionate toward them. Anytime that we think, oh, potentially there could be something more biting or forceful, I think, well, there’s way of being forceful without being obnoxious. Also you want to have an audience, and you want your audience to use their imagination.