Feature

Portlandia Exposed

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein take us on a guided tour of their hit IFC comedy show, which celebrates (and mocks) every PC hipster who's sipped a chard-ice cocktail

Image credit: ILLUSTRATION BY NAZARIO GRAZIANO

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein

Where exactly is Portlandia? You could say that there's a little part of it inside all of us, but you'd be wrong: It's located in the restless minds of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Their shared vision of a bohemian, anything-goes utopia has made the sketch series so powerful that people in certain circles are no longer able to ''put a bird on it'' without eliciting giggles.

For the show's fourth season (premiering Feb. 27 on IFC), Armisen — who left SNL last season — was able to give Portlandia his undivided attention. ''Without a doubt, I feel more focused,'' he says. ''I have the right kind of energy for it.'' (He must be eating a lot of kale, because he just added Late Night With Seth Meyers bandleader to his schedule.) We asked Armisen, 47, and Brownstein, 39, to tell us the stories behind their favorite sketches and characters — plus an unaired sketch that was too weird, even for them. And if their faves are also your faves, just wait until the show returns. ''This season, we put our favorite characters up on the board and delve deeper into their lives,'' Brownstein says. ''It's so rewarding to write for them.''

One Moore Episode
A couple binge-watch Battlestar Galactica so obsessively that they sacrifice their friends, jobs, and sense of well-being.

Armisen This has some of my favorite things that Carrie's done. That scream that she does is one of my most favorite things ever.

Brownstein I like it because life imitated art here in that a lot of the crew got very obsessed with the show because we bought all the seasons on DVD — multiple copies. The crew kept taking them home and bingeing. By the time we shot the scenes with [BSG showrunner] Ronald Moore and [star] Edward James Olmos, there was extra frenzy and fervor because we had legitimately created obsessive Battlestar fans on the crew.

Alexandria
Fred and Carrie simultaneously date the same person — their manic-pixie-dream-girl roommate, played by Chloë Sevigny.

Brownstein It's almost like this Truffaut, Jules et Jim, French New Wave moment. I love any opportunity for the editors to shift the style. It's a visually interesting one. Wardrobe was really excited to put us in these strange little French outfits and set a picnic up in the park. We shot bows and arrows and rode bikes. It was a very magical summer evening.

Armisen Chloë's perfect. A lot of our guests, we just text to get them to do the show. Like, Aimee Mann was a matter of texting, and Eddie Vedder. But Chloë was something we did through the talent department; it was a little more official.

The Studio
An audio enthusiast shows off his home recording studio to a visitor, eventually conjuring the spirit of hipster deity Jack White.

Armisen This is one that I feel like was a victory of just getting something on TV. Just the idea that recording-studio humor could end up on TV? Like, microphone humor? There's something very satisfying about that. And all those Pet Sounds references he makes — everybody does it! Every recording studio I've been to, they tell you about Pet Sounds, or how few tracks they used on Sgt. Pepper. ''Do you know that was only eight tracks?'' It's [based on] a lot of people I've known over the years. And Jack White doesn't even say anything. He doesn't have to!

Aimee
Fred and Carrie come to the uncomfortable realization that their housekeeper is none other than folk-rocker Aimee Mann — and their gardener is Sarah McLachlan.

Brownstein This one's perhaps my favorite. Aimee is so dry and witty — she played it so straight and perfect. It's tricky because it's based on a true story. This actually happened to me. I mean, it wasn't Aimee Mann obviously, but it was a very uncomfortable situation. So you don't want to make the viewer too sad. We've all been in that position, especially in the creative world. We didn't want to make the audience think, ''Oh my gosh, I haven't seen that person for years. Maybe they really are cleaning houses?'' But Aimee, I think people are aware enough that she's doing pretty well. And Sarah McLachlan came down too. It was just one of those surreal days. It's been a continual benefit of the show, realizing how self-aware people are, and their willingness to poke fun at themselves. Sarah McLachlan was the first example of that, because we weren't sure; she's obviously very earnest, and her fans take her music very seriously. But she was completely willing to come down and play, like, a gardener. And that's been a theme throughout the show — a lot of people wanting to come on the show and demonstrate another side of themselves.

Cat Nap
An indie band recruits a cat to join its ranks.

Armisen Ever since me and Carrie have been into music, there's always some new angle on having a band. I don't like to use the word gimmick, but there's always some new thing that people talk about that doesn't always have to do with the music. When the Polyphonic Spree came out, the way people would discuss them would be ''Oh, do you know this band that has, like, 20 members?'' That's what this was about.

Brownstein We were trying to think of what would be the ultimate novelty in an absurd way, but still be something people might actually be interested in in real life. I think a cat perfectly represents that — I wouldn't at all be surprised to hear that there's a band touring with a cat. Cats are such huge superstars in digital media. If you combine that with a band, it would probably break the Internet.

Zero Rats
A stop-motion sketch where three rat roommates discover a no-packaging grocery store.

Armisen These are really fun. If I remember correctly, we were reading an article about a grocery store where there was no packaging — I think everything was in bins or out in the open. And one of our writers, Karey Dornetto, was like, ''Oh my God, the rats are gonna love that.'' Which is true! That's not good for sanitary conditions. So we knew we wanted to do something about that.

Brownstein Doing animation kind of comes down to budgetary issues. We'd love to be able to translate some of our ideas into other formats; it really adds some texture to the show, to take a break from live action and move into something else. There's a lot of time and money that goes into animation, so it's not always feasible. But it's definitely something we'd like to do more.

Their Favorite Residents
Peter & Nance
Bohemian couple
Brownstein We just know who these people are. They're this cloying, overaffectionate couple. So we love to put them in situations that challenge their closeness.

Kath & Dave
Inept adventurers
Brownstein Everything is such an extreme moment for them! They're like a kernel of corn right on the verge of popping all the time. It's fun to put them in situations that are going to set them off.

Toni & Candace
Feminist-bookstore owners

Armisen
For me, doing Candace is very easy. It's a good workday because the outfit is easy to put on. Then we're just kind of talking a lot, and we're usually indoors. I think I like that the most.

The Unaired Sketch
Armisen Sometimes you do one that's good on paper and all the elements are there, but for some reason when you watch it, you can see why it doesn't make it. We did this one where we're both ambulance drivers. I kept telling Carrie a story, but I couldn't finish it because we kept getting called in to go to the same bar. It's all for this girl who...you know those people who always create drama in their life, and they always, like, need an ambulance or whatever? Like, ''No, you have to call an ambulance.'' So we kept going back to this one bar, but this girl was just okay. It seemed like such a good idea on paper; we were so excited about it. But it just didn't work. Things that seem clear to us in our mind, sometimes when they're on the screen you're like, ''What is happening? What am I looking at?''

Originally posted Feb 13, 2014 Published in issue #1299 Feb 21, 2014 Order article reprints
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