Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein take pains to let fans of their IFC sketch-comedy show Portlandia know they aren’t a couple. But they’ve been friends since Armisen’s days drumming for the punk band Trenchmouth and Brownstein’s early days in the band Sleater-Kinney; their couple-like chemistry has been a big draw for fans of the show, which started as a series of online sketches the pair did under the name ThunderAnt. The other draw? Picturesque Portland itself, a perfect setting for the show’s offbeat characters, such as two women who own a feminist bookstore, a couple who try to recreate their home environment when they’re watching movies outdoors, and a mayor who looks a lot like Kyle MacLachlan. Season two, which began January 6, brings those characters back, along with new ones, and will feature guest stars Tim Robbins, Ronald D. Moore, Edward James Olmos, James Callis, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Goldblum, and Miranda July. Armisen and Brownstein recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about the second season, how Portlandia’s writing process differs from that of Armisen’s “other” show, Saturday Night Live, what about Portland appeals to them, and why Brownstein would be much more stressed if she didn’t have music and comedy in her life.
The A.V. Club: What’s the difference between seasons one and two of Portlandia?
Fred Armisen: I think in season two, we were able to do things based on the first season. We didn’t waste our time with what didn’t work the first time around, you know, just writing-wise, and most really, shooting-wise. We didn’t go into all of those tangents that can sometimes be time-consuming. So we were able to go “Okay, well, this is this kind of piece, so I think we can do it.”
AVC: What did you see that worked, and what did you see that didn’t?
FA: The stuff that didn’t work didn’t make it onto the show. It would be pieces that got cut, that we spent a lot of time on. Also parts of sketches that got cut. The things that kind of meandered into something that we just didn’t need to do.
Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, I think for the second season, we had more time to write. We’re more interested in story and character, and just making sure everything had an ending. Fred and I talked about it being analogous to a second album, where we approached it as a whole a little more than some of the individual pieces. I think that first and foremost, we needed every sketch to have a relationship between Fred and me, and a stronger context in which we could perform and improvise. But we definitely had a lot more time to write, and I think it’s a more cohesive show this year.
AVC: Where would the everyday fan see that?
CB: I think in terms of just the overall story, like in the wraparounds, for instance. It felt like [the wraparound sketches] “One More Episode” or “Cool Wedding” have a definitive story arc, but they still veer off into weird places. I think the characters in both of those are fairly strong, and that to me just feels a little bit more thought-out than the first season. Every piece has more of an ending this season, which I definitely notice as a difference.
AVC: Fred, does how you write things on SNL influence Portlandia?
FA: Well, the thing that’s different about writing for Portlandia is that it’s so collaborative with Carrie and John [Krisel], and this other writer that we have this year, that it becomes… that’s the voice that you hear, is everyone together. With SNL, it’s just a different set of writers. I think even timing-wise, the length of sketches is different. The live format lends itself to a certain kind of voice. So that’s how it’s different. But it’s still the same ideas that I’ll come up with for either.
AVC: What can you do on Portlandia that’s impossible on SNL?
FA: Wow, that’s really hard to answer. Because the moment I start thinking I could do something weirder on Portlandia, I remember that they let me do a lot of weird stuff on Saturday Night Live. So I think I don’t know either way. I think the opposite might be true, too, where I’ll try something on Portlandia and it would exist better on SNL. So I can’t really tell. We just try to come up with stuff, and if it works for John Krisel, our director, and if it works for Carrie, then we just do it, and that’s it. But the thing about Portlandia is that it’s heavily reliant on my relationship with Carrie. So it’s not like I could do some crazy character and just march forward and go, “Hey, this is the character I’m doing, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.” It has to make sense with what Carrie’s doing, and also with the show and the city, and also with what John wants. John’s very specific with what he wants the voice of the show to be.
AVC: What does John’s influence do to shape the sketches, and how has it influenced your writing?
FA: It’s almost like having OCD or something. While we’re obsessing about one area where the character should be going, he’ll kind of go “No, no, forget about that. It’s not about that. Just do this and that’ll be simple, and that’ll be funny, and maybe just leave it alone.” It’s that kind of thing. It’s almost like herding it. Also, I think that because we have limited shoot days and hours, we just can’t go way into the evening, so we try to find the things that are simplest.
CB: He has such a strong aesthetic sense. He certainly was the one that elevated the show from a disparate series of sketches to what it is as Portlandia, which has a through-line, even if it’s just aesthetic. Also, he was the one that really thought of the city as a third character in the show. And I think he’s such a good editor. We have really amazing editors. But he is a good editor, in terms of our writing. It’s really [about] collaboration between the three of us, first and foremost.
AVC: What’s a good example of where he’s helped you form characters on the show?
CB: I think a good example, would you say, Fred, is just like Bryce and Lisa?
FA: Definitely… That’s the one when they say “Put a bird on it!” We never had a sense of what those characters were. We were like, “How do we even talk? What do we do? I guess we’ll talk like ourselves, but pleasant? I don’t know what it is.” All the way through, we’d shoot it, and we’d say, “Put a bird on it!” Then we’re just printing it on cards and stuff. But we still were like, “What is this?” John didn’t join us in the “What is this?” He said, “Here, do the stencil, and then say ‘Put a bird on it,’ and now walk through this way.” All of a sudden, there was this piece that turned out really… I mean, I guess people really liked it. Or it looked really good. It was just about the concept, and John was able to turn it into something that was beyond us a little bit.
CB: He had these really strong ideas in terms of the style of the piece, and I think, you know, he said “Think of Charles and Ray Eames. Think of their specificity, and how fastidious and particular they are, and how they dress, and how they must have an internal logic that other people don’t understand.” He just applied that to Bryce and Lisa. Once I was thinking of Charles and Ray Eames, who I’m fans of as designers and furniture-makers, I could understand how they were sort of a world unto themselves. So that was an easier stepping-off point. Then in this season, I think in some ways, he gives these characters—not just Bryce and Lisa—he’s so concerned with it having varying textures and style within an episode. Sometimes when we’re thinking of characters, he’ll say, “Well, this is kind of a Captain Dave,” or a Peter/Nance piece, because of how he envisioned the pacing, or the texture of the piece. And then that, I think, helps us figure out how to relate to each other, how to relate to the sketch, because we do so many different characters in any given day, and then over the course of the season, obviously we do a lot.
AVC: What do you think of doing enhanced versions of Carrie and Fred? Is it strange?
FA: It’s actually kind of fun. I think it’s a good break, too, when people are watching, so everything isn’t just a character. I guess, going back to your first question, that’s one thing that’s very different than what I do on SNL. That’s something I haven’t really done. Also, it helps tell a story without us having to worry how we’re acting. We can just talk and try to make the story the more important thing.
AVC: Did you decide to do it because of your friendship, because of what you did with ThunderAnt, to have you two be recurring characters?
FA: It’s all of that. It’s definitely because of ThunderAnt, and it’s just really fun doing it.
CB: I think it personalizes that show. It gives people a way in. And Fred and Carrie are sort of a hybrid of who we are, but also everything we don’t have to be. We can infuse them with fictional elements. They seem a lot more gullible and nice than Fred or me. But I don’t know. I agree with Fred. It always seems like when a show is based so much on a relationship between two people, it’s nice to have a reset button. Carrie and Fred are sort of the reset button for the audience. You never lose sight of the fact that there’s actually real friendship underneath everything. So that way, when we’re asking people to believe that we’re this married couple, or this other married couple, or these other friends… somewhere in the viewers’ minds, they know there’s a veracity to it all.
AVC: Aside from Fred and Carrie, which characters are closest to your real personas?
FA: Sometimes we were a little bit like Peter and Nance, when we’re feeling emotional, when times are good, I guess? Sometimes when we’re in a rush, I feel like that may be a little Captain Dave, in a way. Those are the ones who are really… They’re a bit uptight, and they’re like a dog tied on a leash. And they’re really rigid, in a way, especially with travel arrangements—they seem to get a little uptight.
CB: Any of the characters that are sort of strict, like rule-followers, I always relate to, for some reason. Like in any character with this anger coursing right beneath the surface, I think we can relate to as well.
CB: I’ve always been an inherently sort of angsty, frustrated person. Fortunately, I have always had legitimate outlets for that, like music or performing. But I definitely think people that don’t have those outlets—I can think of people in my own family—I see them misapplying anger to things. You see it all the time, whether it’s in somebody’s driving, or the way they interact with a customer-service person. So I think a lot of our characters, a couple of them, at least, are just a few steps away from really being outlandish about their beliefs.
AVC: When your comedy fans meet you now, are they surprised to find out you were part of Sleater-Kinney?
CB: I guess maybe there’s an element of surprise, but I think people that know me, I don’t feel divorced from that self. I’ve always been a performer, and it’s just changing the intention of what I’m trying to do onstage, or in a performance. I guess it’s not bad to surprise people. Sometimes people apologize, like “Oh, I’m sorry, I just had no idea.” I said, “That’s okay.” It’s still rare to surprise anyone. Why not? I sort of enjoy it.
AVC: Carrie, what attracted you to Portland? Has it always been so quirky and earthy?
CB: Well, I think Portland’s always been a younger sibling to Seattle or San Francisco, and is a more curated city. So it learns from the growing pains associated with Seattle and San Francisco, that they both experienced during the dot-com boom in the ’90s. Both cities really changed pretty drastically. Portland didn’t get the benefits from that boom, but also didn’t get the effects of the eventual bust, the harsh and quick population growth, and traffic, and all the other pitfalls of living in that city. So meanwhile, Portland learned the lessons, in terms of the way the government works. It’s almost like they looked around and said, “Let’s take the best of every city. Let’s have an amazing public-transport system, let’s have every neighborhood be self-sufficient.” It has a strange… I think people are attracted to it, and I’ll say particularly white, creative people. It’s as if someone just spelled out all the things they want, and they put it here. It’s a city that is the inverse of other cities in that it caters to special people first. Or people that think they’re special.
AVC: Fred, what did you see in the city that made you want to start building a show around it?
FA: It’s just the physical attractiveness. I like the way everything’s built. It just seems utilitarian, and not ornate and cutesy. There’s something stern about the way all the buildings are that I really like. All the colors are kind of dark, and there’s green and brown. This is just so sturdy, and I just like it. Then on top of that, all the restaurants and shops are just very wooden. The whole place is like this nice, thick jacket. I just feel safe there. It feels like a city that cares about what it is, and how it looks, and how it feels, but doesn’t try too hard.
AVC: Do you think once you’re done with SNL, you might move there?
FA: I’m there so much anyway, you know what I mean? I’ve spent so much time there in the last few years that it’s almost like, aside from New York, it’s this other place where I am, on so many SNL breaks, and whole summers. I was there for four months this year, which is a huge chunk of time. So it feels like a home.
AVC: You said the city is obviously the third character. How have you decided to bring that out?
FA: It’s a good tool doing that, just showing the addresses and everything. We make it a point to mention a lot of places that are real. It informs a lot of the plot points. This season, there were some things that happened that could exist only in Portland as a location. Not just like the attitude or the style, but real physical locations. Like Voodoo Doughnuts. Without it, the piece could not work.
AVC: What do you think has been propelling people to come to Portland to do guest shots for the show?
CB: I think a lot of it boils down to the opportunity to just kind of play. People are really able to invent their own characters. We had Tim Robbins on the show. He brought his own wig. He flew with it on the plane, and called our costume designer with very specific ideas. People really invent a character, and then are able to create their own dialogue. I think there’s just a certain kind of playfulness and freedom that appeals to certain performers, and that includes musicians. I think with some people, though, we definitely aim high, but also at the same time, it ends up just being people that are like-minded, that are always drawn to something that’s strange or abstract, or have a similar sensibility. Sometimes it just ends up being people we’re already friends with. You know, people that we get on the show because Fred or I send a text message or make a phone call. So it has kind of a cohesion to it, and they all feel sort of from our world, even if they’re not people we’ve met before.
AVC: So if you start writing a sketch about two people watching Battlestar Galactica, does the sketch come first, or does the guest come first?
FA: Oh, that’s interesting! I think the guests come first, because then we start…
CB: Not to the sketch idea, though.
FA: Not for the sketch idea, but there’ll be an initial idea, but when we know what guests we’re going to have, we definitely change it up and gear it toward something that will work for them.
AVC: What was your favorite guest spot this year?
FA: For me, it was Steve Jones from Sex Pistols, because I really grew up listening to the Sex Pistols. And on Long Island, all my friends did as well. It was just this huge, far-away thing. It was exotic because it was from England. It was just amazing to get to hang out with him and get to know this person. So I was really excited about him. But I really mean it… everyone we had was just great. I was psyched to be around Ed Begley Jr., all these people.
CB: Tim Robbins and Eddie Vedder are two people I already have known in different contexts, but had never had the opportunity to act with them. Obviously, with Tim, he’s an amazing actor, an award-winning actor. Not that that really matters, but there was that first real moment of sitting across from him in this scene, and thinking I was really lucky to be able to actually see him at work. Then with Eddie, I’ve seen him perform in front of thousands and thousands of people. He’s so enigmatic that I feel getting to have a moment with him, where he could sort of be silly and charming, but that was more of a private moment, and not his onstage self—I felt really fortunate to do that too. But like Fred said, everyone brought something great to the table, and we enjoyed all of it.
Armisen and Brownstein appear live Jan. 18 at the Hideout as part of a promotional Portlandia tour.