The Backstage Beat has been HUGE fans of IFC’s show Portlandia since we first heard it was coming out, 2 years ago.
We have had the pleasure of talking with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein several times since and it is always a hoot.
The new season is starting on January 4th! We will be dropping some sneak peaks at that as well in the week to come!
For now, we give you Fred and Carrie:
Hello, hey, I’d like to learn from both of you guys about the MTV episode. Did you guys both grow up on MTV, or were you big fans of the original version of MTV and what’s your view of the transition of MTV over the years?
F. Armisen Absolutely, I grew up on MTV. I remember even as far back as when it first started, and I was addicted to it. I watched MTV all the time and it was a huge part of my life. I remember all kinds of shows like 120 Minutes and The Cutting Edge and stuff like that. All through the years, I was really addicted. So the transition is fine. I don’t subscribe to things were better then. It’s just it’s a different kind of channel, but for people who were growing up on it, I’m sure it’s great for them, so the episode is not a judgment call on it at all.
C. Brownstein Yes, certainly MTV was an important part of my childhood and it helped kind of nurture and augment my obsession with music as a kid and I loved watching videos. I don’t begrudge or have any negative feelings towards MTV as now. I think it’s kind of a different time and a different era, so it’s fine.
Okay, now I’ll just ask one other thing about that. Kurt Loder, I actually didn’t know Kurt doesn’t do anything at all for MTV anymore and kind of when you suggested this to him, what was his attitude?
C. Brownstein Everyone was really on board with being on the show and it was actually one of my favorite days on the set. It had such a strange kind of nostalgic feel for me since I had watched all three of those guys when I was a kid. Yes, he was really excited to be part of it. All three of them were very gracious with their time and very game.
I was wondering what keeps challenging you about portraying these characters?
F. Armisen Trying to find, trying to do more things that are a little bit beyond the surface of what we’ve been doing already. Not just repeating ourselves, but finding a new angle, trying to make it seen fresh and new to ourselves. So I would say that’s probably the biggest challenge with it.
C. Brownstein Yes, I think just finding ways of making the characters more multi-dimensional, figuring out who they are and how to write for them is a challenge. But it also becomes easier as the seasons go on because as we figure out what makes these people tick and what their essential traits are or their essential characteristics. It’s easier to put them in conflict with the environment and to create situations for them that kind of bring to the surface who they are. So it’s challenging, but it’s becomes more rewarding to create the world through these characters and stories for them.
And what do you think it is about Portlandia that continues to make it such a fanfare program?
F. Armisen I think that maybe people are reacting to because it’s a very affectionate show and warm. It’s definitely a positive, so maybe that’s something. There’s an optimism to it that I think maybe people react to. I mean I honestly don’t know. You never know why someone likes something. There might be a million different reasons, so I also, I’m not sure.
We enjoy having you, Carrie, on Twitter. I’m hoping that you’ll join, too.
F. Armisen Okay.
C. Brownstein Thank you.
You both have such an awesome sense for comedic timing. What do you feel – is there maybe a certain formula for good comedic TV or is that not the case?
F. Armisen Well, I think there probably is some really complicated formula that no one really knows how to find exactly. For as long as comedy on TV has existed, there’s been so many successes and failures that it probably just changes from minute to minute. So there’s some kind of complicated formula, but I don’t think anyone will ever know exactly what it is.
No, probably not. So for both of you, you have other projects going on and music going on, what does work on Portlandia fulfill for each one of you on a creative level?
C. Brownstein Well, for me it’s an opportunity to get to hang out with and collaborate with Fred and with our director and co-writer, Jonathan Krisel. It’s a very specific chemistry that we have, it allows a certain kind of frivolity and certain kind of performance like comparing to absurdity, but also kind of dealing with the awkward moments and I really love that. It kind of allows, with all the sort of observations that I make throughout the year, to get to write those ideas down and bring those to fruition. I’m really just grateful actually that we only do it five months out of the year, because I think we never take it for granted. We come to it hungry and eager and with a sense of enthusiasm that I think is really important and infectious. It comes from a labor of love, which it very much is, so I think even just that it provides that for me. It’s just something that I am very appreciative of and grateful for.
Great. And Fred?
F. Armisen It’s almost like it allows me to just kind of keep moving forward. Like I don’t like stopping for any reason, so it’s a kind of like I look forward to every year. On a very immediate level, it allows me to hang out with my friends and to be in a beautiful city that I love and then I like that it’s not always easy. We make little changes just so we’re not repeating ourselves and that’s kind of hard. If we let it sit back and go like, this worked before, let’s just do this again, it wouldn’t be as good. But that once there’s this new, we just kind of make these little like walls, you know like okay, let’s try to jump over this one and see what happens.
Okay. And the other thing I wanted to ask you about was this “Winter in Portlandia” episode; I don’t think we’ve seen Portlandia in winter before. What was the inspiration for that, or was it a matter of, did you plot out doing a winter episode first; or did you suddenly find you had a collection of skits that worked for a winter episode? How did it come together?
C. Brownstein Well, we knew we had an 11th episode that we were going to make and that it was going to air in advance of the regular season, so that it will operate as sort of a special. And with it airing in December, we wanted it to be distinct from the rest of the season. Because with season three, we really wanted to go deeper into some character development and have some people on there to…, and we kind of needed it to be a standalone thing.
So as you mentioned we never really show Portland as the rainy city that I sometimes see with, clouds overhead and the dreariness, so we did deliberately write for that episode and come up with ways of having the characters kind of deal with the darkness and the kind of dreariness as winter, so all the scenes kind of in storyline surround that. There’s some holiday stuff in there as well, but because we have never shown the rainy season in Portland, we thought that that would an interesting way of making it distinct from the rest of season.
My question is that I see that Carrie is going to have a new roommate. Can you talk a little bit about how that figures into the show?
F. Armisen Well, we just wanted it to, like the characters of Fred and Carrie we didn’t want it to be the same thing where they’re just doing tasks for the mayor. So we thought let’s put another person in with them, who is close enough that it can actually have an effect on their friendship in some way. So that’s kind of the idea behind that was. It wasn’t just that we wanted to have a roommate. We just thought like would that be something that we can get to know the Fred and Carrie characters a little better.
That sounds exciting to see another dimension. Now you’re on location there. What kind of ideas do you get from living there?
C. Brownstein Well, I mean I think it does help sometimes to be immersed. I live in Portland, but we do some of the writing in Los Angeles and then when the production gets going in Portland, it does help to be in this immersive environment, because it just lends itself to authenticity and also just kind of remembering the ways to keep the show kind of feeling real and textured and varied and not to become a caricature of itself. There’s just an unabiding fondness that we have for Portland. So I think actually to be on location, it also I think reminds us that it’s not specifically Portland-based. Like we still need to focus on character and story and so it’s just, it kind of just helps kind of shape and contextualize the show. It doesn’t really help in terms of material, but we’ve been very deliberate about not having the show be concept-based. People want to have emotional attachment to conceptual ideas. They’re drawn to something because of a story or a character, so Portland just kind of functions as this lyrical backdrop for what we’re doing.
Hey, guys and excuse me if you’ve answered this question a million times, but I’m wondering what city would you like to give the Portlandia treatment to and would that ever happen as far a special Austinland or LAville or something like that?
F. Armisen Well, we’ve thought about it a little bit. I don’t know that we want to necessarily go to another city. We talked about it the other day privately, but when a show goes to another city sometimes it’s a little risky. Like for us, it’s fun, but for the viewer, they’re like where are we. But with that said for some reason I feel like there might something to explore in like Pittsburgh or I don’t know why. I don’t know what my backup for this is, but like Detroit seems like a weird and interesting city, because I feel like it goes through so much hardship, but so much great stuff comes from there, so I’m like what’s that about? Minneapolis, for some reason might be fun.
C. Brownstein Milwaukee.
F. Armisen Milwaukee, Milwaukee is like a major city, but it’s like just personally I just want to explore what that would be about.
And one other quick thing, if you guys can just share your favorite local Portland response to the show, if it’s someone coming up to you saying oh my God, I have the best idea for skit or someone who is maybe insulted, just your favorite local response.
F. Armisen Well, my personal is that I was at the movies and this girl came to me and gave me a big loaf of French bread, so I took it to the movies with me. So that for me was like very, you know it was nice and it was strange.
C. Brownstein Did you say weirdest thing?
Yes, the weirdest response or your favorite response. It might be the same.
C. Brownstein Okay, well, all of those really stem from my experiences at the grocery store, but I was in line behind this guy who had some nuts from the bulk bin and the cashier was laying them up and when he typed in the code, it came up as Brazil nuts and the guy said, “Those aren’t Brazil nuts. Those are macadamia nuts!” And the cashier was like, “That’s fine. I’ll just charge you for the Brazil nuts”, but he was so insistent. He was actually about to save literally $20, but he was so insistent that everybody knew this wasn’t the kind of nut he was getting and he wanted to pay for it. It was just strange and weird.
Great, so how do you plan out story arcs for all your characters and decide about what wraparound should go on and that?
F. Armisen It’s kind of a very traditional thing. We have a writers room and a bulletin board and we have the big cards. We really do sit there all day and just keep proposing things: what if this happened, what if Nina wanted a wedding, okay, no, let’s change it to a birthday party. It’s like then we look at the whole board of the season and we’re like, okay, well, how can we have the characters of Fred and Carrie expand a little bit, so it’s not just the same thing. What can we do with the mayor?
So that is the part that is most kind of work heavy, where we really do have to like try to come up with a storyline that is interesting to other people and us. That’s the part that where we just sit there all day saying you know that’s not a bad idea or that’s great or like you know, that’s how we do it.
So what have you both found has changed from the first season to now in terms of creating sketches and your work flow?
C. Brownstein We definitely, I mean to Fred’s point that character and you did say production of work flow where we spend a lot more time writing for sure. We spend a lot of more time being deliberate about endings and really making sure that there is a story. What we learned from season to season is that the characters have to have a relationship within the setting. We can’t just be a situation or a concept. There has to be stakes. There has to be something that brings tension to the scene.
Those are all the basic tenets of good story or good writing, but I think sometimes when you’re doing a sketch and you can kind of forget that that fully exists, so we really have worked on having arcs in place and endings in place and really building this infrastructure in which we can improvise because the dialog is mostly improvised. We’ve really worked on that scaffolding within the scenes and within the story, so that we know where to go as we improvise.
I think that that helps make the show richer and it’s becoming less and less like a sketch to me. Like the first season seemed a little bit more like that, but still some hybrid and now it’s seems even less like that and more like the lives of these people moving forward.
So Fred, the bike messenger’s ears, what makes that skin around the gauges, how is that achieved? How is that achieved?
F. Armisen That’s all prosthetics. It just that we have this really talented makeup artist who kind of pulls back my lobe and my lower lobe and then kind of pulls back behind my ear and then a fake one is attached underneath it, so that’s how she does it. She’s really good at it. She’s really great at it.
Yes, it’s like terrifically real, especially with the door lock caught in his lobe that first season.
F. Armisen Oh, yes.
Yes, all right, great, thanks so much for taking the time to talk and good luck with everything, both of you. Thank you.
C. Brownstein Thank you.
F. Armisen Thank you.