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the synth players, macchiato makers, and craft crackers of urban America—were lockstep anachronisms, full of outdated idealism.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 itbecame 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.

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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