In the surreal first episode of IFC’s Portlandia, an enviro-yuppie orders chicken at a restaurant and asks, “Is that USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?” From there, co-creators/stars Carrie Brownstein (also of the indie-rock band Wild Flag) and Fred Armisen (also of Saturday Night Live) mined the town’s preciousness ad absurdum. This season, they’ve raised the stakes by getting down with the City of Roses’ eccentricities, while making good use of countless cameos (Kristen Wiig, Ed Begley Jr., Tim Robbins, Sex Pistol guitarist Steve Jones … ). What’s left to spoof? Vulture chatted with Portlandia’s cerebral stars who speak in the earnest, enunciated tones of NPR commentators — but are totally game to also elaborate on the finer points of sex scenes and the creative crush on Werner Herzog.
Because you were renewed, does that mean you had a bigger wig budget?
Carrie Brownstein: We were still operating under the sense that we had to make do with very little. Which I think helps the spirit of the show.
Fred Armisen: But this season we did try to concentrate on having very good quality wigs. We got someone from SNL to help us out. What’s my favorite wig? In the knot-shop [skit], there’s this one that does not look like me at all. It’s curly and reddish. And it’s not just unkempt; it explodes upward.
Brownstein: It’s like a little Q-tip head! My favorite is the one from the “No, you go” skit. I have this very small head. So when I put this giant, light-colored wig, it just took on its own character. She needed a loud personality to match that hair.
You also have arguably the most awkward sex scenes on TV. What are your reference points for them?
Brownstein: [Awkward pause.] Our own sex lives, I think, really inform them. Oh, I don’t know that I want to go into that.
Armisen: But it makes perfect sense to us. It makes so much sense that we’re never like, “Hey, this will be awkward.”
Describe the first time you two met.
Armisen: I felt like I’d known Carrie forever, immediately. I was a fan of her band, and we had a lot of mutual friends. We kinda knew each other a little bit.
Well, you have had similar careers: You’re a band guy who acts; she’s a band gal who acts.
Brownstein: [Giggles.] I was just laughing because it sounded like you were writing a treatment for a screenplay. Borrow freely from our life story! I think Fred and I both have the sense that we had known each other before we had even met. We probably slept on the same floors, you know, when you tour the way that each of us did — in vans across the country. We just share a common language.
Armisen: There wasn’t a time ever when I was like, “Carrie, these are the bands that I’m into. These are the movies I like.” It was already a conversation, as opposed to a sales pitch.
Brownstein: We met in 2003. My band [Sleater-Kinney] was coming through New York. It was Saturday, so Fred invited us to the SNL after-party.
Fred, wouldn’t it have been great if Sleater-Kinney actually played SNL?
Armisen: Amy Poehler had a joke. This is such an inside, weird thing. We would sometimes go up on the SNL home stage and joke around what it would be like if we hosted. And Amy Poehler went, “And musical guest … Sleater-Kinney!”
Brownstein: That’s nice. I never knew that story. That’s better than playing the show: just Amy Poehler saying our band name on the SNL stage.
Carrie, did you write that bad fake Pearl Jam background music for your Eddie Vedder skit?
Brownstein: [Giggling.] Oh no, oh no. Oh God, Fred. We don’t know where it came from. There’s a lot of audio, sonic jokes that they put in during the editing process. And they will not give away their secrets.
Armisen: They won’t tell us!
Did Eddie, who cameos, hear it?
Brownstein: God, I hope not. I’m sure Eddie has suffered through many iterations of, like, hearing people trying to sing like him. This adds insult to injury.
Armisen: Not that it needs any defending, but it’s kind of like what Carrie’s character thinks Pearl Jam music is probably. I’m just saying that to myself.
Which guest star would be your Holy Grail?
Brownstein: Werner Herzog.
Armisen: We tried to get him the whole writing session. “C’mon, we gotta get him. Where is he?” “He’s in Russia now.” Herzog was one of the people we were so excited about this season, but it didn’t work out.
Do you know if you have any conservative fans?
Armisen: Oh, wow.
Brownstein: There was a moment this season that I thought maybe a more politically right-leaning person could look at this and see it as fodder for mockery. But I just don’t think it comes across like that. I think the reason people relate to it is that it’s an earnest show. And I think that that kind of gotcha politics is a very cynical viewpoint. Because the show lacks cynicism, I think it’d be hard for it to be used against the people we’re portraying.
What’s on your list of things to parody in the future?
Armisen: There’s something really easy and just somehow un-crowded about the Portland airport. Every time I go there I’m like, “Why is this so easy and sweet?”
So is there anything not twee about Portland?
Brownstein: We filmed at the Burnside Skate Park under a bridge. We had to have a liaison to help us access the park. It’s a group of true punks. It’s not an aesthetic; it’s a real lifestyle. That was incredibly badass. Portland has changed a lot, but if you think back to a Gus Van Sant movie, like My Own Private Idaho or Drugstore Cowboy, that was the Portland of fifteen to twenty years ago. There is still a seedier underbelly to the Northwest in general that you just can’t get rid of. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.