Talking to Carrie Brownstein About Portlandia’s New Season

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Few figures in the entertainment industry embody the intersection between rock music and comedy better than Carrie Brownstein. Brownstein has conquered both those worlds, splitting her time between serving as the front-lady for the band Wild Flag and her duties on the IFC comedy Portlandia, which she writes, produces, and stars in with Fred Armisen. Portlandia’s second season debuts on IFC tonight, and I recently chatted with Carrie Brownstein about what to expect from the Season 2, her and Fred Armisen’s writing process, and pleated khakis.

What’s the reaction to the show been like from people in Portland?

So far, I think it’s been a mostly positive reaction. We definitely count on the auspices of the city in terms of filming and logistics. We shoot over 150 locations, so it’s a little bit like having an official key to the city [and]… being on a tour of Portland. We need their support and enthusiasm because it’s so integral to the filming process, and I think that spirit and generosity while we’re filming carries over into people’s reaction towards the show. We feel like it’s part of the fabric of the city a little bit. So, I haven’t felt a lot of tension or animosity.

Have you had any encounters with people who have seen the show who are very similar to characters that you’ve played?

I think in general, those characters are people who I know or traits that Fred and I embody, so it’s not that strange for me to run into someone that embodies those traits or seems like our characters. Certainly, just being in Portland, there’s certain specificities in terms of the way someone might dress or certain traits or habits that I see that we’ve portrayed on the show… It’s very particular and specific, but for the most part, it’s a world that I definitely know and am familiar and don’t feel separate from. I don’t wear a lot of pleated khakis or anything like that. In an alternate universe, I would. If I never was gonna get my picture taken, I would wear pleated khakis all the time.

So, when did you and Fred first come up with the idea for the show, and how did the concept kind of evolve since you first conceived it?

The show started out as an extension of a project that Fred and I were doing - and the word “project” lends a formality to it that never existed - but we made a series of little vignettes and videos under the moniker Thunderant. And eventually, we had compiled about 10 or 11 videos that started to feel they did have a throughline and a sensibility and a certain aesthetic that we felt could be elevated and made more coherent and turned into a TV show. So, it was two years ago that we started to figure out how to pitch it as a show and what we could add to it and change about it to make it work on television instead of a series of very disparate sketches. We took it to Broadway Video, which is Lorne Michaels’s production company, and we pitched it to IFC.  A big part of the transformation of Thunderant into Portlandia was Jonathan Krissel, who’s our director on the show. He really thought of it from a grander perspective and really thought of Portland as not just a context but a character on the show, so he was really integral in that too.

Has it been much easier to attract guest stars this year now that the show is established?

Yes and no. Certainly yes, in terms of more people have seen the show, and even if they haven’t, we’re able to send them something and say, “This is what it is. This is the nature of the show and what you’d be doing.” For the most part, we’re still reaching out to people whom we admire and whose work we really like and have not necessarily done a lot of mainstream things. We don’t want to do any stunt casting. We want it to feel like this person might actually be in a place like Portlandia. It’s still us, making phone calls to people we know or friends of ours. It’s still kind of an organic process even though we’ve reached out to bigger people. We feel very fortunate with the guest stars that we got this year and last.

Yeah, you have a lot of great people on the show this year.

Yeah, it was surprising.

So, which character were you most excited about getting to play again this season?

Kath and Dave. Last year, they were the couple who became incensed over the dog being tied up outside the restaurant. They also went to an outdoor movie where they staked out like a huge area. This year, we did three different sketches with them. They’re a couple that very much performs their relationship in public and has this sense of injustice and also entitlement. There’s a lot of speeches. Kath is a very stentorian person. I love Fred and I in that mode together because it draws upon the thread of anger and aggression that both of us can have sometimes when we’re made too uncomfortable. Of course, you keep that part of you in check. You just take a deep breath and don’t go there, but this couple goes there. They have this self-righteousness, and it’s fun to go to a place that’s just so ridiculous.

I love those guys. I always love Toni, my feminist bookstore character. Just very comfortable clothing, and there’s just this sleepiness. It’s as if I lower my blood pressure and heart rate when I play Toni. She operates on this mellower level than I ever exist on, so I like embodying her for a little bit. Those are probably my two favorites, but we have a lot of new characters this year who I love as well.

What’s your favorite of the new characters?

I really like this woman named Chris Singer. She’s in the one with the firepit. She’s also in a helicopter parent one… She really reminds me of people, like parents that I grew up around. I grew up in a suburb of Seattle, and I’ve had other friends from Portland and Seattle tell me that those characters, Malcolm and Chris Singer really look like and really act like just this kind of Northwesty, middle-class couple, who are very well-intentioned and well-read but still have that little rugged strain that people kind of have up there. I really like playing her too. And also, Claire and Doug from the Battlestar Galactica episode. I love playing Claire and Doug, and those guys come back a couple times this season.

What’s your and Fred’s writing process like? You have a small staff, how do you split up the work?

At the beginning of the writing process, we each just come in with ideas that are just a concept or an idea or character. Then, if it gets past the initial “Hey, what if we did this?” and we get a little laugh or we kind of agree, it creates a wall of ideas. We start to go through each one and figure out what it is, what the beats are, what the story is, who the characters are within that scenario. Once we do that, and we feel like it still has legs and operates on a level above conceptual, then we actually split up the task of writing out the scripts. Depending on the piece, sometimes it’s just an outline. Sometimes it’s more just to make sure, “Okay, well we need a scene in this part of the house.” You kind of write out the story structure with some loose dialogue. The most improvisational part of the show is the dialogue, itself. We rarely follow the script on that, but the script definitely is helpful for providing an infrastructure in which we can act and improvise and whatnot.

Portlandia debuts tonight on IFC at 10/9c.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.