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Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein on Her Friendship With Fred Armisen and Comedy Versus Music

Carrie Brownstein. Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty

Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein met at an SNL after-party on a weekend Brownstein’s band Sleater-Kinney was playing New York. It’s unknown who made whom laugh first. Now, four seasons of co-writing and co-starring later, both of them have characterized their platonic friendship as “more intimate than marriage.” (We spoke to Brownstein the morning after we spoke to Armisen, and at times, it felt like being on a conference call with a weird 16-hour delay; they are that in sync.) Here, Brownstein discusses her desire to date somebody with a 9-to-5, taking music more seriously than comedy, and Duff McKagan’s gravitas.

Who came up with the tax lawyer sketch? One of your characters is dating a tax laywer.
That came from an experience that I had with — I guess it was a real-life experience — with going on a couple dates with someone who had a very professional job that required years of schooling, but was more interested in doing less, working from home, freelancing. And I was horrified. Because I was very excited to have found someone with a very opposite kind of lifestyle and profession and livelihood from myself. And by the second date, he was playing me a Ramones song on a stand-up bass. And that was it! That was the last date we went on.

That’s sad. You were looking for another early riser like you.
Right. I thought that maybe that would work out. But most people want to sleep in, I guess.

You had St. Vincent in that skit. Are people asking you guys to come on, or did you ask her? How does that work?
Well, with a lot of the guest spots, it’s definitely a combination of people reaching out to us, and then Fred and myself making a list of people whose work we admire and who we’re interested in seeing in a different context, and giving them an opportunity to revel in the frivolity and absurdity of the show and perhaps showcase something a little less serious than what their music aligns with. Annie is a friend of ours. Fred and I actually made a music video for her years ago, from her album Actor. So we had collaborated before, and we’re mutual fans of one another.

Are you friends with Duff McKagan as well?
[Laughs.] You know, Fred is friends with Duff and he was one of the kindest, smartest people that we’ve had on the show. He’s a really interesting person. He’s very humble, he has great stories. He just has a gravitas that I was not … that I was very impressed by.

I want to talk about the differences and similarities between comedians and musicians. Fred told me that the comedian has a much more specific job than the musician. I think he was talking about how the comedian is going for laughter while the musician is going for a broader range of emotional reaction. Now, there are clearly are funny musicians. Who’s the funniest musician you know?
Well, Jon Wurster is a musician. He’s a drummer in a variety of bands: Superchunk, Mountain Goats.

Yes. He is one of the funniest people of all time.
I agree. So I would go ahead and posit John Wurster as the funniest musician that I know.

You met Fred at an SNL after-party. And somebody must have made somebody laugh. I always thought your lyrics were funny, but more on the smart or trenchant side; now in Portlandia, you’re being expressly funny.
True. I think music took hold of me and captured my imagination at such a formative age that I ascribe a mysteriousness to it and I exalt it and take it seriously in a way that I think has just permeated my life ever since. And I’m less interested in music that is novelty or jokey or ironic. Even though I can appreciate that, I think I always liked the more magical, earnest, or just mystifying elements of music. I just take it quite seriously. So I never really approached it in a comedic sense even though I’ve always had a sense of humor.

And I guess I never thought about it in terms of anything absurd. I would say absurdity is the missing element. Because, actually, now that I’m talking about it, I like comedy that’s dark and strange. I maybe disagree with Fred! I think of comedians like Mitch Hedberg or even Bill Hicks that have an element of danger to their performance, and kind of veer right on the edge of making you feel nervous or making you laugh. I think there’s a lot of wonderful comics that leave you hanging in a state of apprehension or anxiety before alleviating that tension with a joke. And I would say the most exciting music does that to me as well. So, I don’t know, I guess I’m completely retracting everything that I said at the beginning!

I think you’re right, especially with the kind of music you were doing. It seemed to me that the tone of Portlandia and that these episodes were a little more biting in their satire of white privilege. Are you feeling more aggressive this season?
I do think there is a pointedness to this season and an incisiveness. Yes. I suppose it’s intentional, but it’s also a byproduct of the fact that we focus on character. And I think when you delve further into personhood and personality, you can capture a darkness or capture something that’s more acerbic without being pedantic. Because it’s couched in a study of people. And people possess all these contradictions — levity mixed with things that are a little more scary or biting. And I do think it can come across as, yeah, potentially more satirical, slightly less optimistic. Perhaps there’s a skepticism that’s creeped in. Or as we grapple with the meaning of living these kind of progressive lives, we’ve finally hit upon something that feels unnerving or perhaps less positive than we thought.

You’re kind of making fun of people who are making conscious decisions about their moral impact. The people that have these different mind states on the show, they do mean well, don’t they?
Absolutely, and I’m not separating myself from the characters on the show.

Yeah, you seem like you’re one of them in some ways.
Thanks. I don’t know if that was a compliment or not.

These people are well-meaning, but they’re very comfortable. They have this middle-class security. So do you ever feel guilty about making fun of these people that mean so well?
No. There is a certain comfort that comes from feeling intellectually apart from phenomena. That you have the luxury of time to reflect or apply scholarly thinking to art and culture. And I feel alright in acknowledging the level of privilege and detachment that comes from privilege. That intellectual detachment that allows for observation. And the result of that is of course a feeling of slight superiority that somehow by being apart we are objective, when what I fear is that we’re actually out of touch. That we’re not objective. We’re just clueless. So I think it’s trying to find a way back into not only meaning, but experience.

The experience being laughing at yourself?
Or just living it instead of analyzing it. Getting back into the mess of it. It is about trying to reattach to our own lives and our own sense of personhood and meaning. So, I don’t know, I think that the reason that I don’t feel bad kind of approaching the show like this is that it’s part of my own self-critique and analysis … I think that art, and making music or comedy, is a way of positing yourself on the map and then trying to find other people out there with you.

Fred is one of the people you’ve found. Now that you’re in a different scene than making music in Portland, has Fred been a gateway to other kinds of people?
Yes, Fred is my gateway drug to other brilliant weirdos. Yes. Certainly. And I find a lot of similarities between comedy-writers and comedians and musicians. We’re all dealing in the same anxieties and trying to be forceful in a way that propels us and hopefully inspires other people. And yeah, I feel very lucky to be part of another milieu of people that are exhilarating and ambitious.

You talk about your friendship with Fred as being such an important, intimate thing even though you guys aren’t dating. Did meeting Fred change who you are or strengthen things about yourself? How did it change your life?
That’s a very sweet question. I do think that Fred has a very unwavering optimism that is infectious. He’s very kind, very generous, and I think more than anything, Fred says yes. And there’s something about punk rock that always said no. And I love saying yes. I think it’s an important step in human growth. Just an openness. And if there’s anything that I’ve learned from my friendship with Fred, it’s just voicing an openness for possibilities and not being afraid of them.

Carrie Brownstein on Comedy Versus Music