BY: JAKE COYLE
NEW YORK – Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein may be the only comedy duo in television that’s just as likely to be a band.
Brownstein is best known as a singer and guitarist, formerly of the seminal Portland, Ore., rock trio Sleater-Kinney. Armisen, a “Saturday Night Live” comedian, played drums for the lesser-known Chicago band Trenchmouth.
So when Armisen approached Brownstein about collaborating, even she assumed he meant music.
“But when he came to Portland, he wanted to make videos,” recalls Brownstein. “It was very casual and very organic, in the same way that one might start a band. We were just practicing in our basement.”
Their informal sketch comedy Web videos — made under the name ThunderAnt — have produced a six-episode IFC series, “Portlandia,” that combines their passions of music and comedy. The show, which premieres Jan. 21 at 10:30 p.m. EST and was executive produced by Lorne Michaels, is a clever mishmash of sketches with the theme of its setting, Portland, and depictions of its Pacific Northwest characters.
“It seems so dreamy to me,” Armisen, a New Yorker, says of the Oregon city. “It’s kind of misty because of the rain. It almost seems like it’s a city in the clouds.”
Guests include Steve Buscemi and Kyle MacLachlan (as the city’s mayor), but “Portlandia” is ultimately centered on the interplay between Armisen and Brownstein. In one sketch, they take turns swapping voice mail, brainstorming extravagant and odd ideas for a song.
Throughout the show, music is central. It’s woven into the episodes (Brownstein and Armisen recorded much of the interstitial music themselves) and sketches include an already viral music video touting that “the dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland,” a city “where young people go to retire.”
On “SNL,” Armisen has proven one of the show’s most versatile performers, perhaps best known for his impressions of President Barack Obama, New York Governor David Paterson and Prince. Many of his most memorable sketches revolve around music, such as his recurring “Weekend Update” routine with Kristen Wiig where they play an unprepared singing duo, improvising lyrics as they go.
Armisen’s comedy debut came in 1998 with a well-known video he made at the South by Southwest music conference, skewering the industry gathering. His comedy, though, always bears a quality of warmth. He typically admires those he parodies — he’s a huge Prince fan, for example.
“He’s probably one of the least jaded people I know,” Brownstein says. “He actually gleams true enjoyment from what he does. He loves working. Sometimes, I feel like a rain cloud next to him.”
Neither of the two quite remember how they met (“sadly a hazy memory for both of us,” says Brownstein). They had several mutual friends, and had often traveled in the same circles. Armisen was an “obsessed” fan of Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein, a Portland resident, knew Armisen only for his music, not his comedy. They became friends in the early 2000s.
Since Sleater-Kinney amicably disbanded in 2006, Brownstein’s career, she says, has been one of exploration and growth. She has dabbled in acting, spent time volunteering for the Humane Society and been a popular blogger for NPR.
When Brownstein and Armisen first began making videos in 2005, they didn’t have a website and just passed the videos out among friends.
“I don’t even know why we started; it was just kind of an activity,” Armisen says. “I thought it was a better alternative than playing music. I didn’t want to be like, `Hey, let’s start a band’ because I’m a comedian.”
Their first video was in the style of a public access show with Armisen playing Saddam Hussein being interviewed by Brownstein. At the time, Armisen thought Hussein looked like an aging rock star, so he played him that way.
“He was so angry and so well dressed,” says Armisen.
Armisen quickly recognized that Brownstein had a talent for comedy.
“It was something that was immediately clear to me and I don’t know why,” he says. “She’s exactly the right temperament. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. She just made me laugh.”
Brownstein says that that music-related beginning speaks to the old adage of start with what you know.
“It’s hard for Fred and I ever to divorce ourselves from our affections for music and the way it’s really ruled our lives,” she says. “We both came of age at a time where punk music and indie and DIY were very revered.
“If we had a series of outtakes from `Portlandia,’ they would be every single character having an insane amount of knowledge about obscure punk: `Wait, how does this hippie person know about the Minutemen?’”
The two hope “Portlandia” gets picked up for a second season. Their schedules might be slightly harder to make overlap, though, since Brownstein has returned to music, forming the band Wild Flag. Armisen and Brownstein don’t discount the possibility of taking their show on the road, and bringing “Portlandia” to rock audiences.
Regardless, the show is a culmination for a unique friendship that developed despite bicoastal lives, the two drawn together by the common bonds of music and goofing around.
Says Brownstein: “I guess we were able to marry our two loves.”
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