When Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen first met at a “Saturday Night Live” afterparty in 2002, Brownstein never imagined they’d wind up doing sketch comedy together.
“We just had an instant connection,” she says of their initial encounter. “He was wearing a button with my face on it – which can be either creepy or flattering.” It was the latter.
The seemingly unlikely pair, who both grew out of the DIY and punk scenes of the 90s, forged a bond over their mutual love of music and art. (Brownstein is the former guitarist/vocalist for the influential band Sleater Kinney, and SNL cast-member Armisen used to play drums in the punk band Trenchmouth.)
“We decided we wanted to work on something together,” she says. “I assumed it would be music, but he flew out to Portland and said, ‘No, we’re going to film something.’”
What resulted was a series of absurd, self-deprecating Internet videos under the name ThunderAnt. “We were really just doing it as an excuse to hang out,” she admits. Soon, they developed a cult following. “I think we ended up with 12 or 13 videos on the ThunderAnt site before I started realizing that we were amassing quite a bit of content.
“It was so organic and relatively underground that it kind of took us by surprise there was actually thematic content and it had a specific feel to it.”
They decided to pitch IFC a show based on their collaboration, and the indie cable channel bit. Tonight at 10:30/9:30c their series “Portlandia” premieres.
The show’s characters, who Brownstein admits “are in a constant shame spiral,” range from self-important but misguided feminist bookstore owners to a couple obsessed with putting birds on things (you’ll just have to watch). The musical influences are also present, as evidenced by a mercilessly catchy song that opens episode two titled, “Dream of the 90s.”
A Pacific Northwest native, Brownstein is petite, friendly, and possessed with a mighty wit. She recently took time out at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California to chat about the show.
Although the setting for the show is ostensibly Portland, this place Portlandia could be anywhere.
Yeah. We aimed for a specificity that would make it feel authentic and true, but I think that the more specific you get the more you sort of strangely draw on universal themes. I think there is a Portland in almost every state in the U.S.. Or if there isn’t a Portland, there’s people that wish Portland was a part of their city. That dynamic exists everywhere – Brooklyn, or Austin, or San Francisco, or Boulder. We wanted it to appeal to everyone. We’re trying to draw upon a sort of more magical idea of what a city like that is, instead of just, This is Portland.
Magical in what way?
I think people’s idea of what Portland is or what Portland symbolizes is actually a far richer, more gratifying experience than the actual city of Portland. When you’re dealing with comedy and fiction it gives you license to have a level of absurdity or surrealism that we wanted to do in this show.
One of the funniest sketches involves Fred freaking out over an overabundance of technological options. Thematically, technology frequently pops up. Why did you want to explore that?
I think a lot of is it is actually not so much technology but how technology has come to represent communication or a lack of communication — or an overabundance of communication therefore resulting in a miscommunication. Fred and I are always pedaling in these awkward moments. We like to take a moment that’s awkward and uncomfortable and we try to stay in it for as long as possible. I think a lot of our characters are fumbling around in these moments that they’re obsessing over. And then I think the other bigger thematic content is that there’s these sort of ideologies, or people or communities that are aspiring to these very inclusive lifestyles, but they make these rules that are really hard to follow. Like our feminist bookstore characters. They really want to be inclusive of everyone and want to be progressive, but then they make up all these rules that actually just alienate everyone. Fred and I, we’ve been part of communities – like the indie rock community…I can’t think of a more elitist community that also wants to be really inclusive. So you’re always walking this line of this in-group, out-group, and I think a lot of characters in “Portlandia” are on either side of that. They’re the ones who are making these crazy rules, or they’re the ones just outside of it, trying to figure out how to operate within this set of rules.
Watch “Dream of the 90s”:
How did the process of you guys just goofing around in front of the camera have to shift to fit the format of a 22-minute TV show? How much did your style or structure change?
We wanted to formalize the process but not lose the essential qualities of our dynamic or the show. A lot of it is just about Fred and I and our friendship. A lot of our characters are just parts of who we are. But then Jonathan Krisel, who came in as our director, really was crucial in elevating the show from a series of disparate Internet sketches to having an overarching theme and narrative. He has a creativity that is endless. It’s very contagious. He was the one who said, ‘Let’s create a world where the characters relate to each other.’ There’s cross references so you really feel when you’re watching the show, that it doesn’t have to be Portland, Oregon. Portlandia is a world unto itself. If you went there you could go to the feminist bookstore and you could have the sense that somehow Toni or Candice might know the bird couple – so it creates these layers of familiarity. What we really wanted to keep was the dedication to the improv and letting there be room to explore. It was a struggle for some of the people who were coming from more structured television shows. It’s a testament to how nimble and trusting our crew was. We would get to a location and our production design team would have set up and they had to trust that we would actually use their stuff. We did 68 locations in 22 days. I think the most exciting stuff comes from a place of spontaneity and really just trusting that something would come from the improv. We would have these loose scripts, which we never had before — we never used scripts — but IFC needs to see scripts. But the journey of getting there always deviated very far from what we were planning.
With both of your backgrounds in touring, would you ever think about taking this show on the road? Or is that so far afield?
I mean, some of these characters just don’t travel well [laughs]. If there’s not a hummus backstage I don’t think we can get there. I think that the hardest thing for me and Fred is just our schedules. He works on “Saturday Night Live” 9 months out of the year, and then hopefully if we get a second season then our summers are spent working on “Portlandia.” Certainly I think any opportunity we have to work together and dedicate ourselves to the show we want to. If that means doing some live things, we would. It’s funny because I’ve been on stage and I’m more comfortable with that, but then doing the comedy stuff on stage live is really new to me. We did one or two things in New York because I was living there for half a year last year.
Was it nerve wracking to perform comedy on stage?
Yeah, it was a little more nerve wracking. I’m used to having some volume behind me. If something dies on stage you just say, ‘I’m gonna play a really loud chord!’ And then it decimates everything. But Fred is really comfortable up there. I’m comfortable up there with music, just not so much with this.
You’re a writer, you’re doing comedy, and you have a musical background. Do you feel equally comfortable occupying all these different spaces?
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly have a fair amount of insecurity and self doubt. But I do recall as a child I had this sort of intrepid, careless sense of myself as a performer. I never took dance as a kid but I would make my neighbors and my family watch me do ballet. I just did not care that nothing I was doing counted as ballet. There’s part of me that can be fearless, and I think that that has been good and bad, but in terms of motivating myself and trusting that I can achieve different things, it helps. I think back to who I was in my 20s starting in Sleater Kinney and I was…being in that band has helped me gain confidence. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of these other things when I was 22.
How has fearlessness been a bad thing for you?
I guess I don’t mean bad, I just mean ultimately any kind of art or music always walks that line. It’s always daring or takes a risk. I think that’s good. You also take the risk of falling flat on your face, but I’d rather take that risk.
Is there anything you can’t, or won’t do?
Yes! [Laughs.] I’m really bad at math. Obviously just statistically you’ve left millions of careers I couldn’t and shouldn’t have. I am not a good dancer and I am not a very good visual artist. I don’t think I should have a visual art show anywhere.
Maybe you could do it in character.
That’s a really good idea! Then it can just be awful, like granola pasted on a piece of paper. I think writing and performing are probably my strengths, and any way I can explore those two things I feel comfortable. I’m not going to go to med school.
So that rules out becoming…a veterinarian.
Yeah. But if I could do it all over again maybe I would. I still work at the Humane Society in Oregon. You know how everyone has the, If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing that thing? In a separate life I would just work there.