"Portlandia's" Carrie Brownstein: "I want to poke and prod and prick people"

The funniest smart person on TV talks "Portlandia," the Clash & Lorrie Moore, and why the dream of the '90s matters

Published March 7, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

  (IFC/Jeff Vespa)
(IFC/Jeff Vespa)

Carrie Brownstein is a rock star and a sketch comedy star. She's about to be a memoirist. She's been a rock critic and an advertising executive. She has the best shimmy this side of Mick Jagger and a leg kick that has made every living, breathing person want to pick up a guitar and dance. If you haven't noticed, we think she's awesome.

After a spell back on the road with her now former band Wild Flag, Brownstein and her "Portlandia" partner Fred Armisen are back for a fourth season of their acclaimed IFC show, a show that sends up hipster culture with exactly the right sense of satire and absurdity.

Season 4 is loaded with brilliant moments -- a date fact-checker who reminds a guy that he actually liked "Juno" when it came out and hasn't actually watched all of "Breaking Bad," a beleaguered celery salesman whose wife considers an Indecent Proposal to learn kale's hipster secrets, crazed fans of Garrison Keillor who tailgate outside a "Prairie Home Companion" road show only to fall asleep in the parking lot before show time.

Based on the four episodes we've seen, it's the smartest and most satisfying season yet -- and also the sexiest. We talked with Brownstein about it late last month over cappuccinos at the, yes, very "Portlandia" Intellegentsia coffee shop at the, yes, very "Portlandia" High Line Hotel in Chelsea.

You have a degree in sociolinguistics. And then you went out and got the one job where that would come in handy, as a writer and performer on "Portlandia." So congratulations! You're making it much easier for lots of college kids to calm down very nervous parents.

Thank you!

You've been an up-close student of subcultures, mannerisms and identity for a long time. Do you see the connections between the academic work you did, and the show?

Certainly. With sociolinguistics, after covering the basics of the field, I focused on discourse analysis. At the time it was generally called computer mediated discourse, which actually is very popular now -- people are often discussing how linguistic shifts occurred on account of technology, and the way we communicate via text message, in chat rooms, on Tumblr. It feels very current.

At the time, it was very fascinating to me how people found communities to gather around, and then created a register of speaking that informed the context and was an identifier of who they were -- and how through language they could build up a persona, a community and a sense of self. And differentiate themselves from other communities.

Of course, "Portlandia" is all about ways that people curate their physical space and their life. So yes, I see a lot of threads between what I used to do and what I do now. And I think Fred [Armisen] shares the same curiosity with minutiae and the ways that people perform at personhood, at couplehood, at community. Because I think there’s that duality between who you are and how you perform in your environment with the constant awareness that you're sort of being observed; that conspicuous way of going through your life. Because you know that it means something to other people.

It does mean something!

Of course.

It's very easy for people to make fun of, you know, eating kale or over-earnestness in wanting to know where your food comes from. But what makes "Portlandia" different is you understand the real value of that community and what those connections signify to people. For a generation probably best known for irony, don't you think most of this "performance" actually comes from earnestness and sincerity and a longing to connect with like-minded people?

I think that’s a really good point. There is a permeating earnestness of the show in terms of characters, and a benevolence instead of mean-spiritedness. The fact that the show lacks cynicism or a kind of derisiveness is what makes it inviting and allows for a broader appeal. There’s something about mean-spiritedness that has a way of distancing an audience. Whereas, earnestness implies, to me, an openness, an ability or a wish to make space for other people. We’re not defining, necessarily, or placing judgment on these people -- which allows them to explore it a little more. We haven’t defined it so distinctly or so judgmentally that you can’t say, "Well, let me check this out, maybe it’s not as silly as I thought it was. Maybe there’s something to be said about living this way." Even though you’re exemplifying the absurdities, maybe there’s also a generosity of spirit.

Did your thinking ever change on this? Because so many of the music scenes of that era, especially in Olympia where you went to school, did have some sense of boundaries and closed-off-ness. Not all of these communities were super well-known for inclusiveness. And a lot of times they were totally right. This was the time of "Nevermind," a time when money and the mainstream was eager to co-opt what made these scenes so valuable. So you can understand that, in some ways, as a response to someone trying to come in and buy what you’ve built. But welcoming it was not. There were rules -- strict rules.

Yes. I mean, you’re being generous about the justification. Fred and I both experienced that. Fred, in his most formative years, was in Chicago -- which was a another very intense music scene.

Steve Albini had some rules.

Yes! There was definitely a strong sense of regionalism at the time. Even though there was a relationship between different scenes, there were these rules that applied to your specific scene, and then the broader scene, and even sometimes a slight differentiation in geography could indicate a huge shift in values.

Did your years in those punk rock scenes inform characters on the show?

Oh yes. I think a lot of the characters on this show, but particularly the infamous feminist bookstore characters, are drawn very, very specifically from punk scenes. And the ways that one would think that punk or indie or a community that was building itself up and creating itself -- because at one point we had felt like misfits or we had felt like "others." It was supposed to be come one, come all, you know? Freaks gather around and we’ll provide you with shelter! And you get in these scenes and you realize, no, I’ve gone from one set of rules and regulations and codifications of how you should dress and what you should know to another. In some cases, it was more strident, more heartbreaking.

So yeah, we draw so many similarities between characters on the show and our experiences in scenes where what should have been inclusive felt very exclusive. And, of course, I was on all sides of that. There were times when I felt very much inside of it, and I was making the rules. And there were times when I felt very flummoxed by the rules, very alienated, and I was trying way too hard to figure out not just what band to like, but am I liking the right album from that band? And then, am I liking the right band member in that band? Am I liking the right song on the right record? Have I picked the right year to stop liking the band? You know, there was all these demarcations.

It’s very complicated!

It’s very complicated. Very esoteric. And there are all these demarcations that you’re supposed to be aware of. If you liked the Ramones past, you know, “Brain Drain." (laughs)

I don't know. That was Marky's first album. And it had "Pet Sematary," which was such an "I Wanna Live" retread!

Maybe! I’m really pulling that out of my ass, but I think that may be right! There were all these variations of selling out and to sell out; there was such a line in the sand at the time. These notions barely seem relevant or even to exist now.

In some ways, it's more relevant than ever -- but you're right that it doesn't exist. It's gone. It would be great if we asked more questions about art and commerce …

Right. And the bigger question is why don’t we care?

Well, it’s become so hard to earn a living doing this at all that it seems horrible to be judgmental. If bands did a commercial in the '90s, it was instant death. Now, you turn on the TV and you’re actually rooting for even the awful companies. Oh, my favorite band doing a University of Phoenix ad, good! Maybe now they can make another album ...

Exactly. I think there’s a lot of similarities between the music communities and the ways that we think of our characters [on "Portlandia"] in relation to place, in relation to rules, in relation to friendships. And the ways you sometimes build up friends around their likes or dislikes -- even though you aspire not to.

A lot of those questions play out in the fourth season. But let me ask more broadly: Fourth season vs. third season. You tried a lot of longer narrative arcs last season, the brunch episode. In some ways, the first four I have seen feel like a "Portlandia" back to basics. It's about characters.

Yes. I think a "third" of any artistic endeavor, whether an album or television show, is the first time you feel pressure to deviate from the form. And I think you have to push yourself in order to feel like the boundaries are elastic and that you can feel your way into another version of what you’re doing. So certainly with the third season we tried to write season-long narrative arcs and story lines. The payoff was at the end, but it was harder to find the payoff episode to episode. Because in order to tell the story, sometimes that interstitial sketch didn’t really have a payoff until two episodes later -- which is difficult for a comedy show.

Especially the way people watch these days.

Yeah, people watch episodic television in a very atomized way, and you want something that has a lingering effect, that has an immediate relatability and takeaway, that has energy. And I think we sort of spread the energy out over the whole season, which, for a show like "Portlandia," doesn’t always work episode to episode. So even though looking back on it we needed that season, and there’s a lot of things that I’m happy with, when we went into writing Season 4, we were aware of the ways that the energy had been diffused.

We wanted to focus on character. That is the reason people return to any show. It can be the most outlandish sci-fi drama or some hard-edged cop show, but the reason you keep watching is because there’s somebody there that’s intriguing, that you relate to or that you despise, but you just can’t wait to see what transgression they’ll do next. So we focused on character, and we found that then we could write for those people endlessly and somewhat effortlessly. But still, like you said, we return to a place where there's just these very trenchant, satirical but absurd sketches, but with the depth of Season 3. So this is my favorite season. Everyone’s favorite will probably be the first, but this is my favorite.

Am I completely wrong to notice in the first four episodes a newfound sexiness? When I think of previous seasons, and Fred and Carrie sharing a bedroom with different beds and sweet little signs with their names, it's much cuter and less sexualized. This season you have a character very proud of being the pull-out king, a character who gives a really good hand job. In the very first sketch, you have characters with a minute to spare, so they get busy in a car in public.

Right. Right. I remember that hand job line. Yeah, I think part of that is a comfort with the material and with the crew and the writing. And another part is just wanting the show to feel a little more elevated and visceral. And just to have these varied textures. I think you don’t want to be a cute show. You know, I think if you’re starting to deal with the duality between things that feel a little bit dark and depressive and things that feel very absurd, sex is the thing that links all those things together. Because that’s a moment that can go from high to low pretty quickly based on any number of things -- and it’s very relatable. So I think there are these insertions of either actual sexual references or a sexiness that we weren’t able to play with before because we felt too on the nose about things. I think we’re starting to circle around that a little bit. And once you are jumping out the periphery and coming back in, the things you’ve kind of gathered from the periphery have a more galvanic quality and have a little bit more of edginess to it, or a sexiness or a darkness to them. And then we're picking out those things and bringing them back to the small world of our show, of our sketch.

You’re a student of so many different kinds of culture. Were there "fourths" that you looked at or thought about and said these "fourths" got it right? "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"? "Life's Rich Pageant"?

Oh, that’s a good question. Well, the Clash's “Sandinista” got it right. That definitely got it right.

You’d better be careful with "Cut the Crap" coming up …

I know! If “Sandinista’s” your fourth then you have to be very, very careful. I’m trying to think who else had a good fourth. I feel like Lorrie Moore's "Birds in America" might have been her fourth. I think she went "Self-Help," "Anagrams," "Something at the Frog Hospital" and then "Birds in America."

That’s a great one to pull out. And no put-a-bird-on-it joke. This is your "Birds of America" season. One of my favorite sketches is the one where you decide to date a boring tax attorney precisely because he's predictable and dull and not trying to be cool. And then he decides to play the bass and ruins everything.

Yeah, the sexiness of the other.

All your character wants to do is detach her romantic life from what she does, and imagine relationships in a new way. But he's chasing the exact same thing. He's probably been dating accountants …

And then we bring him into the intervention with Duff McKagan!

Who is very funny. I had no idea. But when the guy from Guns N' Roses is leading the intervention ...

I did not either. He’s also very intelligent and had a gravitas that I was very impressed by. He’s very, very grounded. We should all be able to wear a leather jacket and be that, you know, that stable. If you’re at his age and wearing a leather jacket and getting out of bed at 7 a.m., you’re in a good place. That leather jacket is clean and so are your clothes. He's pulling it off really well. He’s pulling it off better than most.

Tell me about writing that sketch. I can tell by your reaction to the question that there's a personal story I'm probably not going to get!

(laughs) Yeah. It’s based on a true story, on a slightly true story. And that I would feel bad for the person if they read it. But it’s definitely about the way that we exoticize differences and the ways that we’re always, sort of, wondering if we made the right choices in life. Sometimes when you look at somebody else’s career or choices or family, there’s almost a comfort in knowing there’s another option. So when you feel the crowd moving toward a singular option, a singular creative class, a singular lifestyle -- then that puts more pressure on that lifestyle to be the best one and the most meaningful one. Whereas if you notice variety and you live among variety, there’s just a reassurance in that. That even if you’re failing, you know, morally, spiritually or just literally failing, that there were other options. Essentially that sketch is about us not wanting to, you know, disrupt that balance of how things are supposed to be. There have to be tax lawyers and accountants so someone can wake up at 3 p.m. and play guitar and smoke weed, you know, and not get dressed. Otherwise we’re failing as a society. (laughs)

The sketch with the tailgaters at  "Prairie Home Companion" is kind of brilliant.

Thanks. Speaking of sexiness, there is that version of sexiness that as a child you witness your parents performing with their friends. Not in an intimate moment, but one where it’s just your mom and dad in the kitchen with some white wine, scampi, you know, sautéing some scampi. You know, you’re sitting on the couch and you look back and there’s some Sting playing and you see a moment when your parents express something intimate with each other, and you see a shoulder move or you see a hip movement and you realize your parents were once young and they are still existing in their mind’s eye as having a sexiness and, you know, a sexuality, and it’s very uncomfortable.

But as you get older, you find yourself -- every once in a while I’ll be in a grocery store and a song will come on and I’ll find myself doing those exact movements where I’m singing along or my shoulders do a weird dance. I am doing that moment where I’m allowing my body to express something -- you spend years trying to rein it in. And I love those moments! I thought that whole piece was about giving these people a context to feel a sense of togetherness and a sense of licentiousness.

There is a sketch where Fred is afraid he missed hip-hop, which I think is probably a moment that plenty of white people of that age group have probably felt.  Is this "Portlandia" mind-set we're living in too white?

I don't know if it is too white, but there is a certain level of privilege implied to be concerned about the minutiae that we're concerned about.  You know, if we're fretting over whether our coffee place is providing whole milk because that is now more interesting than half and half. It always reminds me of Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" with these kind of mock ethics.  Where there is something so small and insignificant and we're turning it into this grandiose battles.  And I just think, "What a privilege to fight for that?"

You know, there are a lot of bigger fights out there. But it's also a level of privilege and class and more of a class issue and the ability to curate your life. You have to have a certain amount of money or be able to reject a certain amount of other things in order to live in a neighborhood where you kind of chose it -- the people you live next to, the coffee shops.  Because you're not being pushed out by gentrification, or you know ...

These are the people doing the pushing …

Uh, yeah. I think there is an awareness to that and I think that discomfort sometimes underlies a lot of the sketches -- and the sense of being in conflict with your environment, not only in concert.  Because you're trying to create something harmonious, and you're trying to create something that feels progressive.

It's a value clash in a lot of ways.

Have you read Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Blithedale Romance"? It's that. Basically it's this farm. It's this utopian society, they all try to go to live there, and he basically says if a man -- a man's sagaciousness will be jeopardized if he will be only around reformers and progressives.  And I do think that there is a benefit to not making yourself so comfortable in your environment.  And it's almost always those moments of conflict or discomfort that remind you who you are and why you're anywhere.  So I don't -- one would hope that we don't get rid of all of those moments of not conflict but just difference.  You know just, and or light conflicts like, "Oh, you have a different political opinion or you don't give a shit about this thing that I give a shit about."

That feels harder and harder the way we have set up -- or curated -- our lives and our friends.

Exactly!  It's harder and harder.  But it's in those moments when you're like, "Oh, right, this is actually who I am."  Our edges become so blurred when we're around such similarity. You stop caring about a lot of things.

Tell me about the animal rights activists …

Oh, the eco-terrorists.  Right.

They care about a lot of things -- and yet they're one of the few characters on the show where the joke seems to be on them. They end up becoming children's entertainers. They have the right politics and real passion, but in some ways what they really want is attention. Is there a bigger comment there about left-wing or radical politics?

It's a good segue from what we were just talking about, because I think that there is so much high-mindedness and people being well-intentioned and wanting to re-create or tap into a radicalism that we perceive as having had lasting effects on our culture. We would hope, you know, to continue to push things forward, and we see it happening in other parts of the world.

But we kept thinking about how people could interpret it as just being kind of like Occupy Wall Street, where you started to feel the insignificance became louder than the message.  You could start to feel it, you know, disappearing and so when we were doing the unfurling of the banner in that sketch -- even just that term -- that there would be something that unfortunately started to seem smaller and less substantial than it should.  And I think we were just speaking to that and the frustration, at thinking that this is important. It was animal rights, which are important, but it's not Tahrir Square. Their lives aren't on the line. Or even all the NSA stuff that's coming out. We kind of freak out for one second and we're like, "Actually, do I really care?"

So I think that we were just trying to figure out how somewhat disheartening it can feel to have that happen.  That something that used to be surprising and shocking could be watered down as something that's cute and diminutive.  And then we looked at the other side of it, which was of course, "Well, here's a bunch of people that are just looking for meaning." And it's not surprising that we give them meaning in something that's small and personal and immediately rewarding.

They're making people happy.

I think it's more gray, exactly who we're making fun of, but it is essentially our own questioning of how do you radicalize anything?  How can you shock someone at all?

The political lobbying culture and the ad world in the celery sketch -- in which celery tries to determine how to become the next kale -- it's just too perfect. Because you know ever since Brussels sprouts and kale took off, there have been meetings about how to reverse-engineer hipness for every vegetable. You've worked in advertising!


How awesome if all of it is manipulated by Big Vegetable.

Yeah, which is exactly how we started that sketch.  Thinking about Brussel sprouts and kale and why they were in every restaurant.  And the minute you apply the word "conspiracy" to anything, suddenly you have a piece.  Then it was very noir.  And with corn, the corn people, corn has been maligned.  Corn used to be American's vegetable.  That's corn on the cob, that's cornbread.  It was American as apple pie, so yeah, I bet corn would be the most mad.  They'd be trying to take down the other vegetables because people use to hate vegetables -- the general consensus was that vegetables are kind of gross. We have to eat them and all.  But corn's great.

Do you just see concepts like this everyplace? You must have a lens that you have to turn off, or else you would see those $10 scones over there and think that the blueberry muffin lobby must be very upset about this.

Yeah, muffins really went away.  The giant blueberry muffin that used to be the only thing available!

You can have that idea.  It's yours.

Thanks, Dave Daley! I think yes and no.  I think that at the beginning of our conversation we were talking about character and Season 4 and one thing we realized -- yes, we wanted to be satirical and relevant and to have concepts that were funny, but that wasn't enough.  There were a lot of other things that we ended up throwing away because we couldn't figure out who, you know, the who of it. If the subject matter is the bull's-eye, Fred and I were more interested in the arrow. We want to know who is getting there and why.

Celery is a good example.  We wanted to know, instead of it being like two people at a restaurant ordering, who are the people behind it being on the menu.  If we can't find a relationship between two people at the core of something then I feel like it gets cut now. So yeah, we will write down things or read something in the paper. "Oh my gosh there's a professional cuddler in Portland."

But that becomes a tweet and not a sketch. There must be lots of those.

I think there was something where we came back to Portland and I noticed there were a lot of men with long-haired ponytails and I was like, Oh, the sister-wife haircut for men is really in, or something. That's just there.

Music is the same way.  It can be about phrases or it can be about sentences.  And at a certain point if you're not speaking in sentences, you start to lose coherency and you start to lose substance.  I know we're a sketch show and that's the moniker, but I feel like we're more interested in the ways that those boundaries are blurred.  When I look at shows that I love like "Louie," who is always deviating from the form.

It's really a show about middle-age depression.

A comedy about middle-age depression! But I find myself sad when I watch that show and in awe, more than I am actually laughing out loud. He's so brilliant. I love how he writes for women. I think the female characters on his show are amazing.  That Parker Posey character is one of the best roles I've seen on-screen.  It's so complicated.  To have such a strange turn.  It was beautiful.  It was so dark.  I loved it.

He idealizes her in a very specific way based on his assumptions, but then she slowly comes into focus as something completely different.

You don't know anything about her except what you've seen through his eyes. And suddenly you hear the bartender: "I'm not going to serve you." And right there, it's like whoosh. She's gone. That dreamy quality disappears. And then for the next little bit of time she's dark and mysterious and then this sadness starts to come in. It's so strange and wonderful.

I think that is always the most exciting kind of television to watch these days.  And we are such a different show, but we're not very interested in sort of tickling people and making them giggle.  I want to poke and prod and prick people a little more.  If they laugh in the middle of that, that's even better.

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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