An Interview with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen
The stars of Portlandia on doing small things that matter
Portlandia’s Portland both is and is not the same as the city in Oregon: It’s at once smaller and larger, and some of its choicest gags can ricochet back to make the real-life city seem like a parody of itself. The IFC sketch comedy show is the brainchild of guitarist Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and comedian Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live. Since 2011, their Emmy-nominated show has poked goofy, well-honed fun at the self-righteous habits and precious quirks of its title town—and, by extension, of every city where people try to live a hip, conscious, yoga-and-almond-milk kind of life.
Was there a sharper critique at work? It certainly could feel that way. “The dream of the ‘90s is alive in Portland,” a chorus of zombie-like hipsters sang with an undead fervor in the series premiere, seeming to suggest that Portlandians of any city—especially the synth players, macchiato makers, and craft crackers of urban America—were lockstep anachronisms, full of outdated idealism.
Then there was the implication, elaborated in sketch after sketch, that these idealists did things that were asinine (“Did [our chicken] have friends on the farm?” asked a diner concerned with his soon-to-be main dish’s former quality of life); counterproductive (two drivers at an intersection deferred infinitely to each other: “No, you go”); and every drop as predictable as the commoditized mass culture they set themselves against. It’s telling that the chirruping craft mavens’ “Put a bird on it” became the catchphrase of that first season: It charged that indie culture could be just as formulaic as what it meant to oppose. For anybody who prided him or herself on homegrown tomatoes or Howard Zinn books, Portlandia felt complicated. Was the show just a way for normal people to laugh at us? Or a nudge for us to laugh at our own norms and to take our stratagems less seriously? But where could any of us go from there?
The dream of the ‘90s may still be alive in Portland and elsewhere, but it’s a dream under duress these days, as the show smartly reveals. The real toll of financial insecurity and the wealth gap have made for some of the show’s most cutting recent sketches: A pair of artists think a broker must be kidding about how much a loft space rents for these days; a civic crisis reveals that Portland’s mayor (played by Kyle MacLachlan) has been funding the city with largesse from his parents all along.
Over sandwiches in an Airstream trailer, in the middle of a busy shooting day, I asked Brownstein and Armisen about the critiques at the heart of the show.
Carrie, in an interview with The Oprah Magazine you mentioned Candide. That ends with Candide deciding the only thing any of us can do is to cultivate our garden, and Portland’s a city of Candides, tending their gardens. But there’s something ridiculous there. It’s not purely noble; it’s laughable.
Brownstein: Our characters on the show—some of them lack that awareness and that’s what’s funny about them. And I know people that lack awareness and I sometimes lack awareness, too. But I think that the way people relate to the show is being able to laugh at themselves and be like, “Oh yeah, that is—“ You know, there is a silliness to these false utopias. And Portland is a silly place.
The “Rent It Out” sketch is a wonderful example of something that was both really silly, while at the same time, it’s very sad. There’s darkness in the middle of it. It’s like, this is our economy, right? People have to rent out their extra room, their car, their toothbrush, because they need extra money, but they’re going to make it cut and pretend that it’s fun. Or believe that it’s fun.
Brownstein: Absolutely. I know a single mom in Seattle who just lost her job. And she started working for Lyft, you know? That’s a real thing! Like, who wants to actually be a cabbie—I loved that part in “Rent it Out” where it was like, “Oh, I guess I’m actually a maid.” But if it’s a cute website, it’s not menial labor, it’s about something else. And the ways that we trick ourselves into thinking things are ok is something we talk about a lot in the writer’s room.
You talked about optimism in a couple of interviews, that Portland’s optimism is something that’s ridiculous or what makes it a good topic. How does that optimism manifest itself?
Armisen: I think optimism is purely very straight American. And that’s one difference between here and England, is that it’s just such an optimistic place. Portland is a focused version of it. But I really feel like there’s still something optimistic you don’t see in many other countries. In Sweden a little bit. Maybe like Japan in a way? Sometimes I think that Portland is similar to Japan. I just think that America is a pretty optimistic place.
Optimistic like, “I can’t make my rent? That’s great! I’ll have a website and rent out a room?”
Armisen: Yeah! It keeps just marching on. It’s sort of like, “We’re gonna do it!” I don’t know what the end result of it is; I’m sure there are plenty of numbers that would show that that’s not the case. But from what I see, there’s still a lot of celebration.
So much of the show pays attention to the ways that groups of people who are trying to be united on something can police themselves, or create institutions for themselves that are limiting as the things they are reacting against. Do you think that’s also a danger in creative collaboration and creative communities?
Brownstein: Well, I think that the exact same things help foment a point of view. You have to tune out chatter in order to really have a point of view. Your point of view can change, but I think that you do have to create a bubble. And I think that anything that’s really been powerful starts with people ignoring the consensus and just focusing. Eventually that view might become consensus, but you don’t want to start out taking in all of it.
Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the root of worrying about plastic bags, or about organic versus local: Maybe this is the political action of people who feel powerless to affect anything on a larger scale. Do you think there’s anything to that?
Armisen: Wait, powerless? Are you saying that people are ineffective by doing those smaller things?
Brownstein: She’s just saying people are doing this because they feel powerless in society. So the way we feel disenfranchised now from government, people are like, “What am I supposed to do? How do I make big change?” It’s like, “Well, I can’t make big change, so I’m going to focus on the little things.”
Armisen: I think it’s the only thing that is effective—the little things. It’s the only thing we really have power over anyway. So I think it is effective. The only things you can control are the small things around you.
Brownstein: We had this whole thing in the writers’ room about how daytime drinking was big now. Like, is that because America’s this fallen empire, the way Brits day-drink all the time—these former superpowers? I do think there are these signifiers of success: People don’t buy houses anymore; they aren’t aspiring to certain things because they can never afford them. So all of a sudden, people are really into bicycles and Instagramming food. The level of achievement has totally changed. I think it’s really interesting how—I mean, in some ways it’s not terrible that everyone can’t afford a car and everyone’s buying nice bikes, or being like, the meal is the end-all, so I’ll Instagram it. I sort of like it! But it does, I think, speak to a feeling of disempowerment—we’re just never going to hit this upper echelon that other generations thought we were going to be able to get to.