Since its debut two years ago, Portlandia has steadily evolved from a quirky takedown of hipster stereotypes to an award-winning hit series that made “Put A Bird On It” part of our national lexicon. Such a combination of street and suit cred ensures a bevy of star cameos in season 3, and tonight’s double-episode premiere “Take Back MTV” and “Missionaries” includes guest appearances by Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, Matt Pinfield, Chloë Sevigny, and everyone’s favorite mayor Kyle MacLachlan. I recently spoke with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein about writing the newest season, collaborating with their long list of guest stars, and the most “Portlandy” US cities that aren’t Portland.
So how did you approach season 3?
Fred: When we did the “Brunch Village” special last season, that was already kind of a new thing for us – not just thinking of it as little sketches on their own. We thought why not push ourselves a little bit and have more long form sketches that go from one episode to the next? We hadn’t really done that before aside from the mayor, so that pushed us in this direction.
How do you decide filming locations for sketches? Do they play a part in the writing?
Carrie: We don’t really know the location beforehand. We’ll know it’s going to be at a coffee shop or a scene at a restaurant, but I think the things we were looking forward to were certain scenes like when we were going to go out to this farm or out into the woods and shoot stuff with the mayor – I was really excited to see what the production design team was going to do with those areas. You just kind of know there’s going to be these certain sets and moments you’re going to walk into that are going to really bring the script and the show to life. Sometimes it’s the more elaborate scenes like that where you’re not really sure what to expect, but you know there’s going to be this world created for you. It’s really fun, and everyone’s excited to get outside the city for a second and be in some surreal, naturey place.
Fred: I would say the same. We shoot all day in the city almost every day, and whenever there was like a weird farm we’d have to go to or a forest, that’s a little field trip for everyone. We’re like “Wow, we’re going to go out and do something.”
I remember reading about how Tim Robbins brought his own wig and character ideas for “Brunch Village.” Is it the same for any guest stars this season?
Fred: Some of the music people – like we had J Mascis come up and do something, and Dirty Projectors – brought their own guitars. It’s not the same thing, but it’s the equivalent. [to Carrie] Did J bring his own outfit? I can’t remember. But I felt like he definitely brought his world up to Portland.
Carrie: We definitely get a lot of people who bring their own ideas. I mean, we’re kind of requiring people to make that leap of faith, and we obviously give them a basic character sketch, but for the most part, the actors work with our hair and makeup department to come up with a look and everything from the character accent, the cadences in how they speak and their nuances – that really is something that each performer brings to the table, and we really relish the idea of them creating something for the character.
How does the writing process work? Has it evolved?
Fred: It’s actually very traditional, and it’s only evolved in that we’re just good at knowing what the other person is saying – we’re more shorthand, whereas before we didn’t know quite what the show was yet. Now we’re able to say “Let’s do this kind of sketch.” We call some sketches ‘energy pieces’ – they’re less about a beginning, middle, and end and more about motion.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re interested in inventing a new type of entertainment that blends comedy with something else. Is Portlandia part of that?
Fred: Definitely. There are times where even though it’s comedy, there’s some [sketches] that are starting to become this thing where it’s not necessarily comedy and it’s not necessarily drama, it’s just something in between. That was the main idea behind ThunderAnt, so that’s starting to seep in a little bit.
Carrie, since you live in Portland year-round but have also done tons of touring with Wild Flag, have you found hidden Portlandias in other cities?
Carrie: Last year I found myself in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I had never been before. I went to a wonderful coffee shop that had a list of amazingly esoteric rules by the register that we actually ended up writing a sketch about. I will emphasize they had great coffee. Also, all over Tulsa are little pockets of collectives and boutiques and artisan bakeries. It’s the same with Birmingham, Alabama – repurposing warehouse spaces into multi-use living and work spaces, you know, just revitalizing the downtown in a very considered way that caters to the creative class and the people who want to have a furniture-making studio – as this kind of return to trying to sustain a local condensed economy that values authenticity and craftsmanship. I feel like that is popping up in so many cities, especially in places like Birmingham or Tulsa where there was a time where those downtown areas were somewhat abandoned and people moved to the suburbs. And so now you have all this empty space that is able to be reimagined and reconstituted, and those areas feel really Portlandy. It’s amazing to have some of the best coffee or best sandwiches I’ve had in the last year in those cities. So yeah – I see Portland everywhere.
Okay, last question. If you had to spend a weekend in Portland with any of your characters, who would you choose?
Fred: I’d wanna hang out with Nina and Lance, the cacao couple. They would know the best places to go.
Carrie: Um, maybe I would hang out with Doug and Claire because that’s half my friends anyway – like the slightly more slacker guy and then with a girlfriend that has it just barely more together. But they seem fairly easygoing, and they’d be up for at least some amount of fun. So I’ll just go with what I know.
Portlandia’s third season premieres tonight at 10:00PM on IFC.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.