Carrie Brownstein & Fred Armisen
Guitarist Carrie Brownstein and comedian Fred Armisen met in 2003, becoming instant friends. After making online sketches as Thunderant, they co-wrote and starred in acclaimed sketch show Portlandia, which affectionately satirizes the hip counterculture of Portland, Oregon.
~ 5,500 words ~
Originally published in Mustard #08
Part I: Fred Armisen interview
(including questions from Matt Berry, Stewart Lee, Sam Bain and Rich Fulcher)
Part II: Portlandia characters
Part III: Portlandia guest stars
Part V: Carrie Brownstein interview
(including question from Stewart Lee)
Hello Fred, greetings from across the pond.
Fred: Hi! I just want to start by saying that I love Britain. All the biggest influences in my life came from your country, especially the music, which I grew up listening to very intensely. And all the stuff that Carrie and I do in Portlandia is very much inspired by British comedy and music.
That's very interesting – I heard that Mighty Boosh was a big influence?
Definitely, in a big way. We loved how experimental the show was, plus the dynamic between the two of them; this duo with different personalities but the same sensibility. I liked their style, and something about it pushed me to put Portlandia together in the way that we did.
Then, aside from Boosh, my other big influences are Steve Coogan and Matt Berry, who we've had on the show – I'm a big fan of what they do.
Well, that leads nicely into our first Question Tag – as is Mustard tradition, we have a few questions from previous interviewees, and here's one from Matt Berry...
No way! He's so great.
Oh, imminently! Yeah, very soon. It was a real highlight of my life to get to work with Matt and I can't wait to do more. We're starting to write season 4 right now, I'm going to the office right after this. Then we'll start shooting in about a month and a half, if everything goes to plan.
(laughs) Yeah. He was even more mean than that with us; he made us follow him around all day, but he also ignored us. He would say, “Come follow me, follow me,” and we were like, “Okay, what is this?” Then he would completely ignore us, in a very cold way. That's a very special kind of cruelty.
Did it feel more cruel because he's English, and we're always the villains in Hollywood films?
Yes, yes. And also because of the way he is, he can do, like, heightened ignoring. (Laughter)
So, you co-write the show as well as playing most of the recurring characters; which do you find more rewarding, the writing or the acting?
I'd say the acting, because we pretty much just write guidelines, a sort of vague texture of what the sketch is going to be. But when we're actually on set, that's when we shape it.
So a lot of it's improvised?
Yeah, mostly, but we'll write a script to say, 'This is where we're headed.'
You have an ending in mind, but you find your own path there in the moment?
Yes, that's exactly right.
Can you give me any examples where you've ended up in a different place because you were taken in another direction when you were doing it?
Yeah, let's see, a lot of those Feminist Bookstore sketches. Once we're in the space and shooting, we realise that it's something else entirely. I remember, in the one with Steve Buscemi, we were supposed to kick him out, but we came up with this idea that he gets locked in the store while he's in the toilet. That seems like a small change, but to us it was like, “Oh we have it wrong,” you know, “We wrote it down wrong.”
We start by writing guidelines, a vague texture of what the sketch is going to be. When we're actually on set, that's when we shape it.
How do you divide up the writing; do you and Carrie write together? What about the other writers?
There's a group of us together: Carrie and I, Jon Krisel [co-creator, co-writer and director] and usually two other writers. It's kind of traditional: we sit in a big meeting room, and pitch ideas to each other. And as one becomes more formed, it becomes a note card that we'll put up on the board, and we'll just keep, you know, extending it, or seeing if it could work or not.
So we do just sit around a table looking at each other and talk all day.
So you have an American-style writers room, as opposed to the English style where, for example, the Pythons would go away and write in pairs or on their own, then bring them in to a sort of show-and-tell session.
Wow, it's very interesting hearing about their method, but yeah, it's less like that. Although, towards the end, right before we shoot, we'll grab a card and say, “Okay I'm gonna write this one, you write this other one.”
You and Carrie met and bonded through music. So how did you end up collaborating in comedy?
The easiest thing would have been to form a band and just jam, but that seemed predictable and not very challenging, you know? There was something weird about saying, “Why don't we make videos?” Neither of us quite know how to do it, which kind of put us on an even playing field, and it just really worked for us, as people wanting to do projects together...
Which of the characters that you personally came up with are you proudest of?
That's a tricky one, because even if I come in with an idea for a character, I kind of need the other writers to say, “Oh, maybe he has a beard,” or, “Maybe he wears a sort of cowboy shirt,” and then someone else will suggest an affectation. I need everyone to help, and we write it together. That includes the wig designer and the costumes person. No matter how much you think you have a handle on the character, they make it so much clearer. So it's more of a group creation thing.
And these characters were all new – none of them were ones we had done before in stand-up or in another show.
Plus, our characters aren't really that crazy, we don't do a lot of big voices and accents. Mostly it's a wig, an affectation, but basically very much like ourselves. Apart of course from Nina and Lance, where I play the girl and she plays the guy!
The show has very high production values; it looks beautiful. Were you aiming for a particular aesthetic?
Yeah, that's something that I have to credit to the vision of Jon, our director, and Bryce Fortner, the director of photography, who made it physically happen. We wanted the show to have a very warm, dreamy feel to it. We wanted to make Portland look orangey, like a sunset. Even the theme song, we chose for that washed out, melancholy feel.
How important was it to you that you filmed on location rather than in a studio?
It was important to the authenticity, for it to look real, shooting on location definitely helped that. The other thing is, we're in Portland, Oregon, and there aren't really any studios here, so we don't really have a choice; if we want a scene in a house, we have to go to a house.
Yeah, the show definitely comes from a place of affection. We love the people here, and it's certainly done in a respectful way.
Where's Stoke Newington?
It's in North East London. Although I've also heard people say that Portlandia's UK equivalent is Brighton or Glastonbury – and I'd say Shoreditch, which is a very hip area of London. Recently, I've been working for an ad agency in Great Portland Street, so I've been thinking of it as Great Portlandia Street.
Wow, that's funny! Yeah, the ad company in the Portlandia sketch is real; that's their actual building, with ‘the nest' meeting room and everything.
The place I'm working at has meeting rooms named after things from Room 101: Clowns, Spiders, Comic Sans (laughs). “Meet you in Sharks in 5...”
That cannot be real! (Laughs)
So do you get that a lot: people from different countries saying they live in their equivalent of Portlandia?
Yeah, it's something that I really like hearing. When someone first mentioned Brighton to me I was curious about where that was, and I hear about parts of London. It's crazy. It's been a little geographical education. I went to Sweden for a promotional thing, and it was incredible, there were parts of Stockholm that were absolutely Portlandia.
Do you think it's universal, that there's Portlandias everywhere?
Yeah! I'm sort of curious about, you know, even further into Asia, do they have an equivalent?
Right. Are there Lithuanian hipsters?
Yeah, there's gotta be. Their version, at least.
Has the show increased visitors to Portland?
Tourists, definitely; I've bumped into people who've come to visit because of Portlandia. People have also told me they've moved here because of the show, although I can't quite believe it.
How much of the inspiration for characters comes from real people in Portland? How much do you have to exaggerate?
We exaggerate a little bit sometimes, but a lot of the time they are just real Portland people, it's pretty much what we see.
The feminist bookshop that you film in is an actual feminist bookshop, right?
Oh yeah, that's a real place, and the sketch came from me having visited that bookshop, back when I hadn't even understood the concept of a ‘not-for-profit' shop. Little by little we developed a sketch about it. Then we went to the actual place and they were really nice about us shooting there, so that worked out really well.
Are the characters based on the people that actually work there?
No, they're made up. Although, one thing about Portland is that everyone who has grey hair reeeally lets it grow out, you know what I mean? They don't dye their hair here – if you have grey hair you just let it fly. So for my character, I wanted her to have a big thing of grey hair. But no, the people who work there aren't really like that.
Do people come into the shop expecting to meet the characters?
Apparently tourists do come and take pictures of it and… (laughs) the actual shop, they're so nice there… I'm just glad it's in business!
I've got another Question Tag, this one's from Sam Bain the co-writer of Peep Show and Four Lions.
Oh man, goddammit, how great is Four Lions! When I saw it I thought, ‘Of course! Why hasn't anyone made this movie yet?'
When I walk around the city, people do come up to me and say nice things. They seem to recognise that we don't do it from a mean point of view, you know?
So no-one's come up to you and started shouting at you in the street, you don't get hate mail or anything?
Not yet! I'll let you know. It'd almost be a funny thing to happen.
Do you see the show as a comedy or a comedy drama? Do you start by looking for dramatic situations or for jokes?
It's something in between. I've always wanted to do a type of show that existed in that place between comedy and drama. Not ironic or such, just some kind of other thing. Sometimes the sketches don't have big joke endings, they're just left as it is.
What lessons did you learn from doing the first season that you took into the second?
I learned to keep things simple. And that sometimes you don't know what something is until it's done. It wasn't until we watched it that we knew what the show was.
Sometimes you don't know what something is until it's done.
Just moving to your other shows for a moment: you also do Saturday Night Live, where amongst other things you play Barack Obama. How did you get that gig, because you're, you know... white (laughs)?
Right, right. That was an idea from Lorne Michaels, the executive producer and creator of the show. He said, let's give it a try, see what happens. Because SNL is a sketch show, it's not about anything other than the sketches being funny and relevant or topical. It's not a question of perfect accuracy, because it's not a drama. So they gave me a wig and stuck my ears out a little bit. A million things came together at once to make it happen.
I did it for four years, Obama's first term, and it was lots of fun. Really, my job was to be an actor and serve the writers, because I don't know how to write political sketches myself.
When Tina Fey played Sarah Palin, it gave 30 Rock a boost. Did a similar thing happened with you and Portlandia?
I think it probably does increase awareness, or give some kind of legitimacy to the performer. But I have no idea, because I don't know the science behind it. That stuff is complicated: who knows why things happen the way they do?
You don't have suits running up to you waving papers, saying, “Look at the overnight numbers!”
No! I'm sure it's available to me, but even when I've heard about numbers it doesn't mean anything. I just watch TV shows because I like the show or an actor, you know? I became a fan of Matt Berry, for example, not because I'd heard his shows had good numbers or he was on some hot list, but because your friends say, “Hey, you gotta check this out.”
Who did you prefer impersonating more, Barack Obama or [This American Life presenter] Ira Glass?
Oh, I loved doing Ira Glass because we did it together, where one of us would start a sentence and the other would finish it. It was a sort of audio experiment, which was really fun.
If Barack and Ira swapped jobs, who do you think would do better?
Wow, that's an interesting question, because they're both really good speakers. So I think they'd really excel if they switched positions; it would be seamless. Barack Obama in public radio would be amazing. And Ira Glass as president? I would love it! It would be our first official nerd president.
One final Question Tag:
Aww, that's really nice. That sketch came out of a weird twisting and turning of ideas. We started with the idea for a sketch about wine, because there's so much of it in Oregon. But when we started writing, it was really boring. So we were saying, maybe it's something else, maybe chocolate? And Carrie bought up how people are always talking about the cacao content, so then we had these chocolate tasters, but it still wasn't working.
Then all of a sudden someone said, what if it was just a safe-word for sex: “cacao”? You know, if it's too rough or whatever? And we all laughed, we were saying that's kinda funny, but we can't really do it. But it just stuck. Then Jon suggested that, when we play the couple, we reverse the genders, just to keep it interesting. And it all flowed from there.
I've got a question here from one of our readers: what was it like working with Lil' Bow Wow on Like Mike?
(laughs) Oh, that was one of the first movies I'd ever done. So at the time I didn't even know what being in a movie was. It was early in my comedy career. I remember a lot of people around him, taking care of him and making sure that it was a good movie.
It was a good entryway into film making, because I could see that people were trying their very best. I liked seeing that this was a real movie. I didn't actually get to interact that much with Lil' Bow Wow, but he seemed nice, and was a hard worker.
When did you feel like you'd finally made it in the entertainment world?
That's a good question. There are little plateaus, little things that make me feel that way. The first one was when I did did stand-up on my first ever talk show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and the red light went on over the camera. That made me feel like, “Oh this is real, now I'm actually doing it.”
Even today, when someone says my name, or just makes a passing reference to Portlandia in an article, that's a definite level, another plateau.
It's been said that all comedians want to be rock stars and vice versa – so have you hit the double jackpot?
Yeah, (laughs) I feel very fortunate.
Which feels like more you: the musician, comedian or actor?
I would say that I have to honour the comedian part, because that's also allowed me to make music the way that I'd wanted to.
That seems like a great point to end on, especially as it's time to call Carrie now.
Right, okay! Well, thank you very, very much. I love England!
Some of our favourite Portlandia inhabitants:
Combative Earth-mothers Toni and Candice run Portland's feminist bookstore “Women & Women First”.
Spike the Cyclist
Militant cyclist Spike “Cars: WHYYY?”, with his huge ear gauges and bushy chin hair, is a dedicated nonconformist.
Whilst validating the local origin of a cafe's organic chicken, this couple end up married into a farm's bigamist cult.
Nina & Lance
Fred and Carrie switch genders to play this suburban couple who hit trouble after using “cacao” as a safe word.
Put a Bird on it!
The show's breakout sketch: artisans Bryce and Lisa improve everything by adding brightly coloured bird shapes.
These drop-outs become amateur sleuths when they uncover an ancient lost cat ad hidden on a flyer-covered pole.
Teen Japanese girls wearing harajuku (‘elegant Gothic Lolita') fashions are delighted by a Portland coffee shop.
Overzealous couple try to ban records from their kids' library: “Mike & the Mechanics is a gateway to mediocrity!”
Just a few of the big stars who have appeared on the show:
Appears regularly as Portland's mayor.
Joins a book group at the feminist bookstore.
Owner of ‘Knots', a shop selling artistic knots.
Demented warlord of local hotspot Brunch Village.
Fails to buy a book at the Feminist Bookshop.
Gets hired by Fred and Cassie to be their cleaner.
Crazed stalker who kidnaps local band Cat Nap.
Is unimpressed by their Battlestar Galactica script.
Hi Carrie! Before Portlandia, you were already well known for your bands, Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. Are you recognised more now for your music or comedy careers?
Carrie That's a good question. It depends on the context, but I'd say overall it's for Portlandia right now.
I want to get your thoughts on a couple of questions I've already asked Fred. Firstly, do you think of yourself primarily as a musician or comedian?
I think in my mind it's not as compartmentalised, so I don't really lean heavily in one direction or the other.
So, you don't sort of put on your 'comedian hat' when you sit down in the writers room?
No! I wish I did literally put on a comedian hat, which would probably really bother everyone in the room. Although I do think there's a certain kind of intentionality, and definitely an organisational aspect, where I need to focus on one thing or another. If I'm doing too many things at once then they can all suffer. So it's nice with Portlandia that we carve out a specific amount of time to focus on each.
Do you prefer the writing or the performing process?
We actually just started writing this week for season 4, and I do love the process, because you have a blank canvas. But after a while, once you're in the thick of it, I really do look forward to performing.
So it works out well that, right when I'm getting tired of going over and over scripts, we transition into performing. I feel very lucky. I definitely enjoy the rigours of both, but there's something very kinetic and energizing about the performance aspect that's always a relief to get to, for sure.
There's a balance, but I think the stranger you go, that's when you can give people something unexpected.
Which characters that you wrote are you most proud of, and which of the ones that Fred came up with do you most enjoy playing?
I think a character that I am quite fond of is Kath, from Kath and Dave. In the first season they're the couple who get incensed about the dog being tied up, and they're the river rafting couple in the second season. Kath is one of those people who performs her opinions to an audience, because she feels they're important, they need to be heard, you know? There's this thread of self-righteousness, everything feels very extreme. It's like she's got a rock in her shoe 24/7, she's just right there at the point of irritation. But I do love her dedication; she's fervent about everything. I appreciate the Kath and Dave characters for that. I feel very happy in that world, they're really fun to write for.
As for characters of Fred's, I would say Peter and Nance, who go to the cult farm in the first season. I love that kind of syrupy clawing that they have with each other. That imperfect boundary between two people where they just seem to be melting into one another is an interesting dynamic to explore.
Some of the sketches take a premise and just keep pushing it down the rabbit hole. How do you know when to end a sketch, and when to keep pushing and twisting it?
We do generally start with a relatable premise, then take it somewhere absurd or even surreal. I think if we could figure out that trajectory for all of our sketches, they would be the most successful. Those are the ones we're most proud of.
But in terms of knowing where to stop – we don't always, you know? We're always seeking that balance between pushing the boundaries and using restraint. Certainly there've been times where we haven't pushed things far enough, and also times where it's just gotten too weird. But I think the stranger you go, when we do it successfully, that's when you surprise people, that's when you give them something unexpected.
So I'd rather not have limitations, and instead just think about where we can keep going. Although we do try to avoid having one ending followed by another and another. You can do that once or twice, but you risk missing the heart of the story.
There's one sketch where you start with the couple feeling old, then cut to them on motorbikes, then meeting some swingers – you can see that trajectory – and then the guy can't remember where he was on 9/11 (laughs)...
So, what was going on in the writer's room on that one?
We were just talking about this yesterday, actually. When we were writing that sketch, we'd got to the swingers part, and we were thinking, 'Well, what happens now?' You don't want to write a scene with all the swinging or awkward sex stuff, that's all been done before.
And we had a separate card up on the wall, one of Fred's cards, that said 'A guy who can't remember where he was on 9/11' – it's such a ridiculous, offensive notion.
I think I just said, let's use that to turn a corner there at the end. Often it can work, and I think it did work in that instance, where we thought, 'What if we tacked this on?' Sometimes it can be too Frankenstein-like, where you're just putting together a disjointed monster, but sometimes I think it works as a character tic. And again it's that surreal, surprising moment – those are my favourites.
There's also a running theme of people with strange hobby-jobs. Is that a particular Portland thing?
Like the “She's Making Jewellery” song?
Yeah, but also the glass blowing, the knots shop...
Yeah, it's harder for that to exist in big cities like New York, London and Tokyo. But people move to places like Portland so they can pursue a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, to work less and have a less structured, corporate kind of schedule.
It's called the ‘creative class': people who are making a go of turning their art or hobbies into semi-viable careers. You don't have to make as much money here to have a good quality of life, so you have a lot of people doing old fashioned, crafting, ‘working with your hands' jobs. I don't really think of it as weird, but I suppose it might seem kind of bizarre.
As is Mustard tradition, we have a few questions from our other interviewees:
Probably hearing their first album, Before Hollywood, which really floored me. Their strange song-writing, their amazing sense of melody, the beautiful contrasts between Robert Forster's and Grant McLennan's voices – one so beautiful and heartfelt and the other so intelligent and wry.
Another great memory is when I was with my old band, Sleater-Kinney, flying back from Japan and landing in San Francisco. When we got there we realised that Robert and Grant were playing at the Great American Music Hall that night, so we got on the list. It was just the two of them, they weren't totally back yet, they hadn't made The Friends of Rachel Worth.
We went backstage afterwards and met them, and it turned out that they knew of Sleater-Kinney, which was just so flattering. We had made a record, a couple years before, called The Hot Rock that had been very influenced by their music and their guitar playing.
We ended up having such a wonderful night with them, we went to a liquor store, got some whiskey and we all went back to their hotel room, sat around and talked and played guitar. Grant showed me the chords to Love Goes On! which is from 16 Lover's Lane, a record that I really loved. It was one of those special nights that you could not have predicted, you wouldn't have wanted to predict, it just happened spontaneously.
And after that night, our drummer Janet ended up drumming on their Friends of Rachel Worth record. That's one of my favourite memories, it was one of the best shows I'd ever seen, getting to hear those songs in a small setting. They're a great band. Grant is sorely missed.
It's surprising how many big-name guest stars you had, especially in the first season, when you'd only just started.
I think it was a combination of luck, people knowing Fred from Saturday Night Live, and having Lorne Michaels as our executive producer, who has a certain amount of cachet. I think Fred and Lorne provided an implicit level of trust. And we were also able to show people the pilot, which already had Kyle MacLachlan in it.
There are a lot of actors and musicians who are looking to do something that's different, to get to play against type or showcase a sense of humour. They are drawn to sketch comedy as a way of making fun of themselves, to show they don't take themselves too seriously.
Also, because the show is highly improvisational in nature, we're really giving people carte blanche to create their own characters. That's a certain of kind of freedom that a lot of performers don't get – to go and play and have fun. For season three Tim Robbins flew in to Portland with his own wig, you know? He created his own aesthetic for his character.
Then once people saw the first season, it was easier to convince people for the second season, and so forth.
Kyle MacLachlan, as the mayor, seems not so much a guest star as a recurring character.
Yeah, at this point I think of him as a cast member. He's become a friend. He's a very dear person, a wonderful actor and very, very funny.
He's great in Portlandia. Although whatever he does, to me he'll always be Dale Cooper. Were you a fan of Twin Peaks?
Absolutely! And Portlandia is definitely inspired by that Lynchian world of Twin Peaks, where this little town had a mythical, mystical quality, you know? That very surreal, dream-like atmosphere, with its verdant colours, was such a great way of transforming the landscape of the Pacific North West into this other-worldly entity. Plus, it's just such a cool, weird show, there's never been anything like it.
Another big guest star episode was in season two, where your characters hire the Battlestar Galactica actors to make a new episode in their kitchen. Did that come from you being fans of their show?
Actually, that sketch started with a conversation about being in a difficult relationship, but then you have a moment where everything feels good because you're really getting into a TV show. Like you're bingeing on the series, and everything feels really great in your relationship, you feel close to the person and it becomes sort of addictive. And then we started thinking about, well, what would happen when that TV show ended? So we had them having to distract themselves by writing more episodes.
We wanted to use a show that had been a cult hit, that people felt very protective of, and a sense of ownership with. Battlestar was definitely one of those shows. We couldn't believe it when we got Edward James Olmos, James Callis and [the show's writer] Ron Moore, that was so surreal.
Having Ron Moore play a jobbing actor is a bit like how Portland's real mayor sometimes appears as Kyle MacLachlan's mayor's assistant.
(laughs) Yeah. And it was so wonderful, because those actors and creators of shows like Battlestar, I'm sure they get asked all the time to do events or appearances together. That sketch was the first thing they'd done in the name of Battlestar Galactica, so we just felt so honoured that they would come in and participate.
I'll ask Fred if he's stalking me.
If so, the show's over.
Is there a guest star that you've been trying to get on the show but you haven't managed yet?
We have actually tried to get David Lynch a couple of times, and he's always been busy. Werner Herzog, the director, as well. I mean, we don't tend to just make a list of great actors; we really try to think of roles that would be great for them.
There are amazing A-list actors that I love seeing in films, but who aren't necessarily people that we think are really going to fit into this world. We'd always rather go for someone a little bit more unexpected. That being said though, to conclude contradictorily to what I just said, we do say, ‘Oh, let's get Cate Blanchett!'
It must be hard to resist just geeking out and trying to get your favourite people on the show.
Yeah, but then our favourite people tend to be, like, Tom Hulce from Amadeus. Our tastes are a bit on the periphery, a little bit more obscure.
You want the best actors, but at the same time, that can feel like conspicuous, stunt casting. I remember in Extras, it was just like ‘oh there's Kate Winslet'. It was very cool, but not everyone fits into the world of Portlandia like, say, Matt Berry does. So if all of a sudden Brad Pitt's on our show, it could seem weird. Not that we're gonna say no to Brad Pitt, though!
Fred has said that he's always been a huge fan of your music, from before he met you. Is it possible that he's über-stalking you, via the sneaky method of co-creating a hit comedy series?
There is, I suppose a small chance that he could be ‘über-stalking' me (laughs). He would definitely be playing the long game. Also, he would have already won, for sure, because at this point he practically knows everything about me. So, yeah, I will ask him today if he's stalking me, and if he says yes, then the show's over.
(laughs) Oh man, I'm really sorry I brought it up!
Yikes, actually I need to get to work now, I'm supposed to already be there.
Okay, thanks, this has been brilliant, we appreciate your time.
Oh no, I appreciate it, these were great questions. Thank you so much. Bye, England!
Carrie Brownstein & Fred Armisen interviewed by Alex Musson
Fred Armisen & Carrie Brownstein