The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Earlier this year on January 21st, the Paley Center hosted a panel with the stars of Portlandia, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, moderated by former Paley Center employee and host of the fantastic podcast How Was Your Week, Julie Klausner. However, this isn’t any ordinary panel discussion. From the very beginning, the discussion feels much more conversational, more like an episode of Julie’s podcast than a discussion held in a building previously known as The Museum of Television and Radio. In that light, for this article I’m going to focus more on the trivial than the behind the scenes (though there will be some of that too).
Immediately, from Julie’s introduction of her guests, we are introduced to what the tone of the afternoon will be. She gives a little background information about the show, mentions that she will be speaking to the two stars of it and then states that she “will introduce them… now.” At which point Fred and Carrie, without being named, stand up and take their place on stage. Julie announces that she will ask her first question, and in doing so, adopts a very serious tone before asking, “how about this snow?” To her surprise, Fred actually has something to say about it. “I came prepared,” says Fred, showing off his new boots. “Portland has lots of very good outdoor stores.” Which then paves the way for a discussion on the differences between shopping in New York City versus shopping in Portland. According to Fred, in Portland everyone is very friendly (“Yuck.” - Julie Klausner) and ready to guide you to the right boots for you. Carrie, however, appreciates how succinct people are in New York, adding, “In Portland it probably took you four hours to buy those boots.” Fred confirms this.
Later, we learn a little more about these two while in a discussion of the first Thunderant video Fred and Carrie made, which featured Carrie interviewing Fred as Saddam Hussein, who he played as an aging English rocker. At this point Julie asks Fred who his favorite demented Englishmen are and he responds as if he’s been waiting for someone to ask. “That’s so easy. Captain Sensible. The guitar player for The Damned. Mick Jones from the Clash. Hugh Cornwell from the Stranglers. Keith Moon is the best drummer ever.” The idea of Moon’s insane, larger than life personality is discussed and the question is posed if this type of personality works for sketch comedy. The three agree that there is some room for a person with so much presence, but on the whole, one has to work well with others, and give the stage to your fellow performers.
Julie, world famous animal lover and cat-person, is immediately intrigued when she learns that Carrie has a dog, and suddenly the focus of the interview swerves. Name? Toby. Personality? Very smart. Physical quirks? “He has a very little beard. Beards on dogs make them smarter.” Later in the interview a clip from Season 2 is shown in which Fred and Carrie find themselves in a world of DJs. Shot like a horror film, the clip shown to the audience cuts off before the sketch ends, and Fred and Carrie seem rather rattled by this. As the lights come back up, Fred is shouting “No, no! There’s more! Who’s doing the AV? Where is the feed coming from? That’s not the end.” Adding, after a pause. “Let’s not move on.” Julie takes the reigns and begins to ask a question about a different sketch but she can tell that Fred isn’t exactly paying attention. “Are you still thinking about the clip?” she asks. Fred replies that he is and that he’s going to “check really quick,” at which point he walks off stage and out of the room to go find the rest of the sketch. Carrie seems a little uncomfortable being there alone, but Julie rolls right along with it. “This is fine, because the rest of my questions are about Toby.” (Just so you’re not left in suspense, Fred comes back having learned that the clip was presented as edited by IFC. He goes on to describe the rest of the sketch to the audience.)
Okay, so don’t worry, there was talk about the behind the scenes of Portlandia during the panel. For example, one person that they wanted to get on the show was Werner Herzog who couldn’t do it because when they contacted him he was literally on a train in Siberia. Other folks on the list include the Griffin Dunne, Tom Hulce and the log lady from Twin Peaks. The majority of the other actors in Portlandia are local actors from the town. For example, the guy who played the fake Ron Moore in the last season’s Battlestar Galactica runner was the brother of a guy who went to an open casting call and had no acting experience. While he was waiting for his brother to audition, the casting director asked him to give it a shot and he got the part. Fred and Carrie reveal that they’ve never gotten into a fight, but the closest they’ve come is a heated argument they had about different interpretations of the Eddie Vedder sketch. (Fred thought that when Vedder appears at the ending, that was simply Carrie perceiving her boyfriend as the singer, whereas Carrie interpreted it as her actually dating Vedder. Ultimately they decided that Carrie was right since Fred isn’t in that scene.)
While the conversation rambles and goes from topic to topic very quickly, there is one key lesson that seems to jump out to sketch writers and performers over and over again throughout the discussion (besides the fact that Carrie really liked Homeland). Work with people that you like. Find someone that you’re compatible with and who has a similar sensibility. Fred says when describing their relationship that it was more than just him finding her funny. When he invited Carrie’s band Sleater Kinney to visit the set of Saturday Night Live (it was the Jennifer Garner/Beck episode, for the super nerds) he was drawn to Carrie immediately. They had compatible interests, they worked well together, and Fred shares that they even had the same views on relationships. This compatibility clearly shines through in this panel discussion, and even more in their work on Portlandia. Any grouping of people can make a TV show, but when you can have fun doing it like Fred and Carrie, you’re making something special.