Interview: Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein dissects the show’s characters
January 24, 2013
Written by Roman Gokhman
Imagine: Williamsburgia – a community of progressive, ecologically conscious, left-leaning DIY-ers leading kooky lives in a hyper-reality.
When Saturday Night Live actor Fred Armisen and Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein pitched a sketch comedy show about several sets of characters to IFC, they didn’t think the cable network would approve the filming of the show in Portland, Oregon.
“From a logistical standpoint, we assumed a television network would want us to shoot in L.A. or New York,” Brownstein said recently. “We wanted to shoot in Portland, but the show wasn’t called Portlandia.”
Fans of the Peabody Award-winning series, which Armisen and Brownstein created along with Jonathan Krisel, can get to interact with the stars Wednesday at the SF Sketchfest‘s Tribute to Portlandia at the Herbst Theatre. The show will include an audience Q&A, a selection of clips and an interview.
The series originated out of a set of videos Brownstein, a Seattle native and Portland convert, and Armisen, an East Coaster with a romantic concept of an overcast Northwest where everyone dresses in layers, filmed for their friends.
“A lot of our sketches were about people’s relationship to context, and that context happened to be Portland,” Brownstein said. “When we pitched the show to IFC, they were really excited about us keeping the show there, because it had a certain specificity to it. They liked the idea about exploring someone’s relationship to where they live.”
Now in its third season, the series is a part of the pop culture lexicon, with reoccurring personalities such as uptight Dave and Kath, lovers Nina and Lance, hipsters Spyke and Iris, and “characters” Carrie and Fred.
While the cult show has a unique blend of viewers, Brownstein said she, Armisen and Krisel had no target audience in mind.
“You just have to make the show that you want to watch, and then hopefully there are likeminded people out there,” she said. “It’s up to the network and the advertisers to worry about those things. Our job is to create something that people can hopefully relate to.”
She also doesn’t buy the idea that Portlandia caters to hipsters – nor the concept that there is a single, common, definition of “hipsterism.”
“Most of these (characters) are not chic or stylish – most of them are wearing cargo shorts and sandals,” she said. “They are pretty average people who aren’t thinking too much about how they dress as long as they are comfortable. None of these people would end up in the pages of a style blog or fashion magazine. They are mostly khaki-pant-wearing men and women.”
Brownstein’s favorite characters are Peter and Nance. She said the loving, “quaint” couple is the polar opposite from herself and Armisen in real life. While Peter and Nance are completely in touch with one another and openly show their affections, Brownstein said she and her costar have problems showing so much public emotion and that level of closeness.
The characters truest to the actors’ real-life personas are Fred and Carrie, but even those are twisted in such a way to make them more entertaining. They are much more naïve and gullible, Brownstein said.
Every character on the show has some peculiarities of the two, however, and Brownstein said she sometimes catches herself falling into the habits and attitudes of the people she satirizes. That loop comes full circle when she uses that to come up with new sketches.
“There is this kind of interdependent relationship where I can’t tell if what I’m doing is from a sketch or that the characters I’m portraying are seeping into my real life,” she said. “I definitely do a lot of inadvertent oversharing; or I don’t bring a reusable grocery bag to the store.
“I find myself broadcasting, at a high volume, my current excuse, or trying to get the cashier to vouch for me that I brought it last time – as if I’m on trial,” she said. “It’s so easy to fall into these patterns of feeling guilty for things that we may not necessarily need to feel guilty for.”
And at the dog park, she verbally narrates her pooch’s activities for all to hear – something she finds annoying in other people.
“That’s one reason the show has a kindness to it and it’s not mean-spirited, because we know who these people are,” she said. “We’re not separate from them. We’re not putting them up as targets.”