chat room

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia’s Evolution and Whether Fred’s Life Merits a Book

On the occasion of Portlandia’s sixth-season premiere — one packed with guest stars like the Flaming Lips, Zoe Kravitz, and Steve Buscemi — longtime friends Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein connected with Vulture to reflect on a busy year, one that pushed the IFC show farther down on their increasingly crowded résumés: Brownstein, 41, authored a biography about her years in Sleater-Kinney, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, returned for season two of Transparent, and cameoed in the Oscar-nominated Carol. Armisen, 49, co-created the IFC mockumentary series Documentary Now! with Seth Meyers and Bill Hader, and recently kickstarted a new digital channel for Latino comedy creators called Mas Mejor. Here the multi-city dwellers discuss Portlandia’s evolution, when exactly is the right time to write one’s life story, and the magic of Paul McCartney.

Over the last six seasons, Portlandia has evolved into being less about the city itself and more about philosophical musings on urbane living. Has this been an intentional shift, or a natural evolution of the show?
Brownstein: I think both. We’ve always felt that Portland was just the setting for a certain mind-set and a place to have a conversation about how people relate to where they live. As the show went on, we wanted to speak more in sentences rather than phrases. Ideas are always served by longer narratives and more developed characters.
Armisen:We also didn’t want to start repeating ourselves. When it comes to writing about just one city, how much more can you really say that’s new?

Carrie, you recently moved from Portland to Los Angeles. Does this mean you’re committing more intensely to acting in features and other series? We’ve not only seen you in Transparent in the last year, but you also had a small part in Carol.
Brownstein: I mostly want to focus on writing. Writing the book was a big accomplishment; I felt immense relief when it was over and said, “I’ll never do this again!” But within a couple weeks of finishing the tour, I thought, Okay, I need to continue writing! It a common through line in everything I’ve done. I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years. I also hope to do more acting, but being in L.A. for now is mostly about positioning myself in a different context, including in a much sunnier place. [Laughs.] And being around people who inspire me. I’ve loved doing Transparent, and getting to work even a little bit with Todd Haynes. I’m also so proud of Fred for everything he’s doing! I think when we step away from Portlandia and do other things, it allows us to not take it for granted.

Fred, did you read Carrie’s book?
Armisen: Are you kidding? Did I read Carrie’s book?
Brownstein: I’m interpreting that as, “No, I didn’t.”
Armisen: [Laughs.] It’d be so great if I were adamantly like, “No way did I read it.” Of course I read it. I’m such a huge Sleater-Kinney fan. I took the book very seriously It was clearly written just for me. There was so much I didn’t know!

Like what?
Armisen: Like how many drummers you guys had. I thought there was only one before Janet [Weiss]. I also knew very little about the Australian aspect of the band. And I never knew about Matador! [Note: The band had a meeting early on with Matador Records, which at the time also had Liz Phair and Pavement on its roster.]
Brownstein: That was so embarrassing.

Fred, did reading Carrie’s book inspire you to want to write your own biography at some point?
Armisen: I don’t think that’s in me yet. I don’t have enough experience like that; a separate life entirely, like Carrie had with the band. My showbiz career started with SNL, and to write an SNL book … well, there are already enough of those.

You’re also too nice to spill dirt on any of the people you worked with, which is entirely why people want to read those books.
Armisen: Yeah, I’d never do that.
Brownstein: For the record, my book was low on salacious dirt! Fred, I do think you have plenty to write about. Maybe you’ll change your mind when you’re 70?
Armisen: Or maybe in ten years I’ll have more to say.

You have plenty keeping you busy in the meantime, with your other series on IFC, Documentary Now!; and the just-announced Latino digital-comedy-channel collaboration with Horatio Sanz and Broadway Video, Mas Mejor. What are you biggest goals with the latter in the short run?
Armisen: Right now it’s a matter of finding Spanish content creators and comedians who have something interesting to say, and then helping them do that. I went to Mexico City recently and saw so many great performers there. This whole thing began as more of a curiosity, this feeling of, Okay, what are the possibilities?

The two of you toured together between seasons one and two of Portlandia, doing a live version of the show with improv and music. Would you ever tour again, but this time as a band?
Brownstein: I think so? We realized we could only do that iteration of touring once. It had a haphazard quality. We’d have to amplify production value in a big way.
Armisen: I think I would call our band Paul McCartney.
Brownstein: I think Sir Paul McCartney is much better. Actually, the real Sir Paul knows about Portlandia. One of my most surreal moments of the last few years was doing a small guest-spot on SNL in the sketch “What’s Up With That?” and Paul was the musical guest that night. He turned to me and said, “Hey, I know you from TV.” And I said, “I know you from my entire life!” I’ve never known a world without Paul McCartney. I hope I never do.

Armisen, Brownstein on Portlandia’s Evolution