When IFC's Portlandia first aired in 2011, it was a quirky indie project from Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen and White Flag lead singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein. Word of the show's biting wit, sharp satire and loveably pretentious characters spread like wildfire. Perhaps it was the Battlestar Galactica episode, or "Put a bird on it!", but in the past two years, Portlandia has quickly become a comedy staple.
With its third season, Portlandia adds Chloe Sevigny, Jeff Goldblum and Jim Gaffigan to its list of guest stars. After two years, Armisen and Brownstein have no choice but to keep adding to the madness with new sketches and characters to keep our indie fever going. Just before the season premiere, Buzzine's Rachel Heine was able to chat with the two creators and stars of Portlandia to find out who their favorite guest star is, how they come up with ideas, and what's next in Season 3...
Q: You’re now on your third season of Portlandia. That shiny new feeling has fallen away, and you’ve solidified yourselves as a big indie comedy contender on TV. After three years, what is It about these characters that continues to challenge you?
Fred Armisen: Trying to find... trying to do more things that are a little bit beyond the surface of what we’ve been doing already. Not just repeating ourselves, but finding a new angle, trying to make it seen fresh and new to ourselves. So I would say that’s probably the biggest challenge with it.
Carrie Brownstein: Yes, I think just finding ways of making the characters more multi-dimensional, figuring out who they are and how to write for them is a challenge. But it also becomes easier as the seasons go on because as we figure out what makes these people tick and what their essential traits are or their essential characteristics... it’s easier to put them in conflict with the environment and to create situations for them that kind of bring to the surface who they are. So it’s challenging, but it’s becomes more rewarding to create the world through these characters and stories for them.
Q: What do you think it is about this show that continues to make it such a fanfare program?
FA: I think that maybe people are reacting to because it’s a very affectionate show, and warm. It’s definitely positive, so maybe that’s something. There’s an optimism to it that I think maybe people react to. I mean, I honestly don’t know. You never know why someone likes something. There might be a million different reasons, so I also, I’m not sure.
Q: You both have such an awesome sense for comedic timing. Do you think there’s a certain formula for good comedic TV, or is it more organic than that?
FA: Well, I think there probably is some really complicated formula that no one really knows how to find exactly. For as long as comedy on TV has existed, there’s been so many successes and failures that it probably just changes from minute to minute. So there’s some kind of complicated formula, but I don’t think anyone will ever know exactly what it is.
Q: No, probably not. You both have other projects going on in film, TV and music… what does work on Portlandia fulfill for each of you on a creative level?
CB: Well, for me it’s an opportunity to get to hang out with and collaborate with Fred and with our director and co-writer, Jonathan Krisel. It’s a very specific chemistry that we have; it allows a certain kind of frivolity and certain kind of performance like, comparing to absurdity, but also kind of dealing with the awkward moments and I really love that. It kind of allows, with all the sort of observations that I make throughout the year, to get to write those ideas down and bring those to fruition.
I’m really just grateful actually that we only do it five months out of the year, because I think we never take it for granted. We come to it hungry and eager and with a sense of enthusiasm that I think is really important and infectious. It comes from a labor of love, which it very much is, so I think even just that, it provides that for me. It’s just something that I am very appreciative of and grateful for.
FA: It’s almost like it allows me to just kind of keep moving forward. Like... I don’t like stopping for any reason, so it’s a kind of like I look forward to every year. On a very immediate level, it allows me to hang out with my friends and to be in a beautiful city that I love and then I like that it’s not always easy.
We make little changes just so we’re not repeating ourselves and that’s kind of hard. If we let it sit back and go like, this worked before, let’s just do this again, it wouldn’t be as good. But that once there’s this new, we just kind of make these little like walls, you know like okay, let’s try to jump over this one and see what happens.
Q: There’s an episode this season that focuses on the MTV culture. Were you two big fans of the original version of MTV? What’s your view of the transition of MTV over the years?
FA: Absolutely, I grew up on MTV. I remember even as far back as when it first started, and I was addicted to it. I watched MTV all the time and it was a huge part of my life. I remember all kinds of shows like 120 Minutes andThe Cutting Edge and stuff like that. All through the years, I was really addicted.
So the transition is fine. I don’t subscribe to, things were better then. It’s just it’s a different kind of channel, but for people who were growing up on it, I’m sure it’s great for them, so the episode is not a judgment call on it at all.
CB: Yes, certainly MTV was an important part of my childhood and it helped kind of nurture and augment my obsession with music as a kid and I loved watching videos. I don’t begrudge or have any negative feelings towards MTV as now. I think it’s kind of a different time and a different era, so it’s fine.
Q: You also included Kurt Loder in the episode, even though he doesn't work with MTV anymore. What was his attitude when you suggested this part for him?
CB: Everyone was really on board with being on the show and it was actually one of my favorite days on the set. It had such a strange kind of nostalgic feel for me since I had watched all three of those guys when I was a kid. Yes, he was really excited to be part of it. All three of them were very gracious with their time and very game.
Q: Another fantastic casting choice was Kyle MacLachlan as the mayor of Portland. What has he brought to his previous roles that has inspired your stories for his character?
FA: Well, we wanted the mayor character to be pleasant, but not in a sarcastic way. It’s not the kind of ignorant thing, where we’re making fun of a politician who doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s more of a positive spin on it and he is very genuine in his performance and his personality is similar. He’s this happy guy and the mayor character kind of... we thought would just be happy to be mayor; and he doesn’t really care what the results of it are. He’s happy about doing the job, but he doesn’t care if they ever get a baseball team for real. He just likes the act of putting together a baseball team, so it has nothing to do with the results. It’s more he’s a person who lives to make his like every moment a happy moment.
CB: Yes, he kind of possesses an infectious optimism.
Q: Last season, we were given an extra episode – the “Winter in Portlandia” episode. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Portlandia in winter before. What was the inspiration for that? How did that collection of sketches come together?
CB: Well, we knew we had an 11th episode that we were going to make and that it was going to air in advance of the regular season, so that it will operate as sort of a special. And with it airing in December, we wanted it to be distinct from the rest of the season. Because with season three, we really wanted to go deeper into some character development and have some people on there to… and we kind of needed it to be a standalone thing.
So as you mentioned we never really show Portland as the rainy city that I sometimes see with, clouds overhead and the dreariness, so we did deliberately write for that episode and come up with ways of having the characters kind of deal with the darkness and the kind of dreariness as winter... so all the scenes kind of in storyline surround that. There’s some holiday stuff in there as well, but because we have never shown the rainy season in Portland, we thought that that would an interesting way of making it distinct from the rest of season.
Q: Carrie also is getting a new roommate this season. How does that figure into the organization of the show?
FA: Well, we just wanted it to, like the characters of Fred and Carrie, we didn’t want it to be the same thing where they’re just doing tasks for the mayor. So we thought, let’s put another person in with them, who is close enough that it can actually have an effect on their friendship in some way. So that’s kind of the idea behind that was. It wasn’t just that we wanted to have a roommate. We just thought like, would that be something that we can get to know the Fred and Carrie characters a little better.
Q: What was your experience working with Chloe Sevigny? What does she bring to the show as Carrie’s roommate?
CB: Chloe is a very confident actress. She’s very dedicated to the craft. She’s very funny and humble and she’s bright and we really got along with her. I maybe met her many years ago, but we have this really great—we became friends and she just knows a lot about music and we ended up really sharing the sensibility that we did not know we would have. We felt like we had a lot of mutual friends and we came from the same world, so there was just this really innate chemistry that we really looked forward to being on set with her and hanging out. We went to shows in Portland and just hung out. So it was a real pleasure to work with her and get to know her.
In terms of the story, we can’t say much, but basically we go up to Seattle on a mission from the mayor and we bring her back as our roommate and, like Fred said earlier, we wanted a way of developing the characters of Fred and Carrie a little bit more. And we thought that having a roommate, a third person to insert themselves in that dynamic would be a way of just kind of showcasing and adding a little tension to me and Fred’s dynamic, putting something that might get in the way of our friendship and… so she kind of plays that role.
FA: I was going to say also she’s very charismatic and that was important for the story and so the episodes that she, there’s a quality to her that’s very like just charismatic and attractive.
Q: You have so many fantastic guest stars on Portlandia… how much did you love that scene where you’re buying doilies from Jeff Goldblum? It seems like a dream come true.
FA: That shooting day was like being on some kind of a drug. Like it was so amazing, I felt kind of dizzy from how crazy it got and how awesome he was. He’s so good. We literally don’t have to tell him anything in terms of this scene. We’ve got this very talented art department who filled up this store with doilies, which is not easy because they’re so tiny. So they made it seem like a real doily store and he was just so good with it that I remember that Carrie and I barely had to do anything.
Q: Of all those extraordinary guests, who was your absolute favorite to work with?
CB: That’s a hard question because everybody brings something different to the table and we have been so fortunate in working with people that are very generous with their time and their energy and we were working with a small crew on a pretty small set. So I feel like it’s hard to kind of pick a favorite, but this year it was a real pleasure to work with someone like Roseanne Barr, Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt. But I’ll say I’m going to name this person just because they’re totally different from anyone else I feel it seems fair, Martina Navratilova.
All the actors have been amazing, but it’s just so surreal to work with basically a legend and literally one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She’s just in the highest echelon of that sporting role and I think it’s because she wasn’t an actor or comedian or a musician, it just lends itself to this kind of surreality and everyone was a little bit awestruck and star struck, so I’ll just say her.
FA: I’ll agree with that about Martina Navratilova. It’s definitely a different kind of being star struck.
Q: In the sketch you did with her, she gave a very deadpan delivery. Was that surprising for you, considering she doesn’t come from an acting background?
FA: Yes, I was surprised, and pleasantly surprised. She was really, really good.
CB: Yes, I was surprised, too, although I will say I think that she has such discipline, obviously, like I think that she took direction and basically all Jon had to say was just be natural and she did it.
Q: Do you get flooded with requests from other actors and comics to come on to the show?
FA: Not flooded, I mean I saw friends, people that we know. It’s always like okay, we’ll figure something out, but maybe next season, but it’s just friends of ours who just want to come and hang out.
Q: One of the fans’ favorite moments is the Battlestar Galactica sketch. It’s so on point. Who came up with that?
CB: It was Jonathan Krisel. It started out, the broader concept was there’s a couple who are kind of only getting along when they watch this show. Like their whole relationship has just become about this wonderful and deepest mode and where they just really feel connected to each other and it’s probably the only time they’ve become connected to each other. And that becomes sort of like this drug. And then we kind of broaden that out to be that kind of binging on a specific show and getting obsessed. Yes, I think it was Jon’s idea.
Q: Do you think you’ll have Ron Moore on the show again?
FA: Oh, that’s not a bad idea. Yes, we’d love to maybe next season. He was great. We are really friends.
Q: You shoot on location in Portland. What kind of ideas do you get from living there?
CB: Well, I mean I think it does help sometimes to be immersed. I live in Portland, but we do some of the writing in Los Angeles and then when the production gets going in Portland, it does help to be in this immersive environment, because it just lends itself to authenticity and also just kind of remembering the ways to keep the show kind of feeling real and textured and varied and not to become a caricature of itself.
There’s just an unabiding fondness that we have for Portland. So I think actually to be on location, it also I think reminds us that it’s not specifically Portland-based. Like we still need to focus on character and story and so it’s just, it kind of just helps kind of shape and contextualize the show.
It doesn’t really help in terms of material, but we’ve been very deliberate about not having the show be concept-based. People want to have emotional attachment to conceptual ideas. They’re drawn to something because of a story or a character, so Portland just kind of functions as this lyrical backdrop for what we’re doing.
Q: One of the earlier episodes this season addresses the rivalry between Portland and Seattle. Do you feel like you have to convince people that Portland truly is the better rainy city?
CB: There is a rivalry between Portland and Seattle for sure, but it’s actually been reversed where Portland is the underdog. Seattle had a huge time in the ‘90s with the .com boom and grunge music and Portland always felt like the younger sibling. But I think now Portland gets so much attention nationally for its cuisine and boutiques and whatnot that Seattle kind of has an inferiority complex. We just volley that and to carry it back and forth; but there’s actually and affection between the two cities and obviously a lot of similarities.
Q: When you’re playing with satire like this, how do you draw the line between “twee” or “too indie” and reach other sorts of audiences?
CB: Yes. I don’t know. You know I think that we actually try to have space in the audience in that the more specific we get, the more nuanced we get, I find it that like adds to the richness of the show, so that you have some people that are getting every reference and maybe some people that are not getting all of them and that’s okay. Because some sort of question whether the audience is going to get it and then write from that perspective, I think can be undermining to the process and kind of makes things too broad.
So we do try to get a little esoteric without being alienating and it seems like it’s working in terms of the specificity is actually what’s kind of drawing people to the show and making it, it seems making it believable, because we can just really dive into those roles hopefully.
FA: And also like all the shows are like we were fans of or that I’m a fan of, like I never thought like that’s too specific, it was opposite like we watch something like The Wire, it’s like so just about Baltimore and just like it’s like in the second season of The Wire they’re on these docks and there’s all this dock music and stuff. It’s such a tiny little world, but it’s still works for me, so that I thought that I had a good faith that something like this could world.
Q: With so many different characters and sketches, how do you plan out all your story arcs and figure out the wraparound order?
FA: It’s kind of a very traditional thing. We have a writers room and a bulletin board and we have the big cards. We really do sit there all day and just keep proposing things: what if this happened, what if Nina wanted a wedding, okay, no, let’s change it to a birthday party. It’s like then we look at the whole board of the season and we’re like, okay, well, how can we have the characters of Fred and Carrie expand a little bit, so it’s not just the same thing. What can we do with the mayor?
So that is the part that is most kind of work heavy, where we really do have to like try to come up with a storyline that is interesting to other people and us. That’s the part that where we just sit there all day saying you know that’s not a bad idea or that’s great or like you know, that’s how we do it.
Q: What have you found has changed from the first season to now, in terms of creating sketches and your work flow?
CB: We definitely, I mean to Fred’s point that character and you did say production of work flow where we spend a lot more time writing for sure. We spend a lot of more time being deliberate about endings and really making sure that there is a story. What we learned from season to season is that the characters have to have a relationship within the setting. We can’t just be a situation or a concept. There has to be stakes. There has to be something that brings tension to the scene.
Those are all the basic tenets of good story or good writing, but I think sometimes when you’re doing a sketch and you can kind of forget that that fully exists, so we really have worked on having arcs in place and endings in place and really building this infrastructure in which we can improvise because the dialog is mostly improvised. We’ve really worked on that scaffolding within the scenes and within the story, so that we know where to go as we improvise.
I think that that helps make the show richer and it’s becoming less and less like a sketch to me. Like the first season seemed a little bit more like that, but still some hybrid and now it’s seems even less like that and more like the lives of these people moving forward.
Q: I was just wondering what are some of your favorite characters in sort of recurring settings to do and which of those we can expect more of in the third season.
CB: This season Peter and Neil, who go to the cult farm. They’re just kind of that un-chic, boring couple who are very much in love with each other, a little bit syrupy.
FA: It’s like the best life ever, everything is just too fine.
CB: Yes, comfy and cozy, but we really explore their relationship a lot this year. There’s multiple storylines. There’s one major storyline with Peter and Neil this year, but I really like those characters a lot.
Q: Many of the jokes you make about underground music or the hipster community are so on point and specific that it seems that only people who would be involved in those communities would be able to make those jokes. How do you guys come about with stuff like that?
FA: We come from those communities.
CB: Yes, I think one thing that keeps this show from being cynical and mean spirited is that we’re inside these worlds, we’re not on the outside looking in and targeting people. Like we are these people, it’s a world we love, but also one that that we know the parts of it that can seem kind of ridiculous or precious, but only because we’re part of it. So yes, I mean the music thing, I mean really every annotation that I was getting for a while, it just seemed like every one of my friends was DJ-ing. Even in my mind I was like I could DJ. It seems like such a possibility, a desirable thing to do.
But yes, we also know the ways the world can seem like, sort of overly precious or obnoxious, but it’s also like, we’re very fond of them.
Q: How often are your characters based directly off of one person? In the new season, the recording studio guy is so familiar. Is that based off of one person, or a combination of people?
FA: It’s like every guy I’ve ever known. I spent some time in Chicago and Chicago has a lot of recording studios, a lot of people just run recording studios successfully still. And I just feel like every time I’m around them, and I’m included in this even though I don’t have a studio, I engage in conversations. It’s always conversations about microphones. It’s like it always, always comes up and it’s some German microphone and how expensive it was and having to have it shipped.
I remember one guy talking about how he had to dismantle one at customs at the airport, so I don’t know. I just think it’s a little bit like the equivalent of guys who are really into the cars maybe in the ‘70s or something like muscle cars, it’s like a version of that, like the guys who talk about recording studios. I like those conversations, but I think the people who aren’t into studios, I’m like what must this sound like, this must be the most inane conversation ever.
Q: And in terms of the characters Fred and Carrie, are they the characters closest to your “true” personalities? How are they different from the real Fred and Carrie?
FA: I guess. Who knows? I mean it depends on our mood, you know? I think they’re a little more dumb than we are.
CB: Yes, they’re definitely more gullible I hope than me or Fred. Yes, they’re a little I think to allow for that kind of like sometimes naiveté is okay as an attractive trait in a character, because if the characters are too smart sometimes it’s just like that kind of like wide-eyed openness and wonder, like I think our characters conduct that a little bit more than me and Fred, so it allows the audience to explore a situation along with us.
I mean certainly there are a lot of similarities as well, but I feel that way about a lot of characters. There’s even characters that seem more outlandish that I would say that is such a specific very distinct part of my personality that I don’t act on all the time, but that anybody that knows me would say like I can see that, I see you in that character. So interesting enough, I wouldn’t say that the character of Carrie is any more like me than some of the other characters.
The third season of 'Portlandia' premieres on Friday, January 4th at 10 p.m. ET and PT with two all new back-to-back episodes on IFC.