Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein write and star in the new sketch comedy series Portlandia, an affectionate skewering of the young people's bohemian paradise that is Portland, Oregon. Fred and Carrie began making web videos together as the group ThunderAnt.
Fred Armisen is a longtime cast member (playing many beloved characters) on Saturday Night Live. He started his entertainment career in the late 80s, playing in the punk band Trenchmouth. Carrie Brownstein also comes from a musical background, as a guitarist and vocalist in the highly acclaimed (and Portland-based) indie rock group Sleater-Kinney.
Portlandia airs Fridays at 10:30pm on IFC.
JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guests on the program are Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. They’re the co-creators and stars of the new IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia. Fred Armisen is, of course, well known for his sketch comedy work; he’s been a cast member of Saturday Night Live for many years now; Carrie Brownstein, not so much. She was one of the founding members of Sleater-Kinney, the indie rock group of the 1990s and 2000s. It turns out Fred Armisen has his roots in music as well. He had a ten year music career before he even tried his hand at comedy. Their new show is an affectionate look at Portland, Oregon; that refuge of the creative and place where people go to not have jobs. Here’s a clip from a sketch on the show that’s almost a thesis statement for it. It’s a song called “The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland.” In this scene Fred and Carrie are discussing Portland while standing on the streets of Los Angeles.
JESSE THORN: Fred, welcome back to The Sound of Young America; Carrie, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.
FRED ARMISEN: Thank you for having me and us.
Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
JESSE THORN: I want to talk to you guys a little bit about your careers before comedy, each in turn. Fred, I know you started recording with the band Trenchmouth in the late 80s, and you didn’t even do any comedy until the late 90s. Did you always aspire to do something besides music?
FRED ARMISEN: I think secretly I did. For some reason I remember seeing Bill Murray as a guest on David Letterman, and there was something about the way - - I just remember thinking, I want to be a guy like that. A guy who does comedy. I’ll never forget that that’s something I aspired to. I always wanted to be on TV and I thought maybe it would be through music, and then little by little it became obvious or it became - - it was apparent to me that it was going to happen through comedy.
JESSE THORN: Why did you want to be on TV?
FRED ARMISEN: When I was a kid, the things that mattered most to me were the things that were on TV. I remember watching Devo, they were on a show, and it just made me happy to be alive. It was like, I want to be part of whatever that is. Whenever bands made a TV appearance that’s when they really meant something to me. I remember The Clash were on a couple of shows and I was just so moved by that. But for some reason Devo was the one that really stuck out as a good television band.
JESSE THORN: The band that you were in, Trenchmouth, could loosely be described as art punk. That’s not generally the type of music that you want to make if your objective is to get on TV.
FRED ARMISEN: I know! Thankfully it didn’t work out that way, but also if I went back in time and gave myself advice, I’d be like, Fred, you’ve got to make something a little more accessible. I don’t know what I was thinking or what we were thinking. But for some reason it some kind of sense to me, like if we made this really crazy music we could be on TV.
JESSE THORN: In 1998 at the South by Southwest music conference you made this comedy video that I’ve heard you described, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, as the first actual comedy thing that you’d ever done.
FRED ARMISEN: Yeah.
JESSE THORN: I want to play a little bit of that video, this is you as a - -
FRED ARMISEN: Whoa, how did you get it?
JESSE THORN: It’s on the internet. Everything’s available on the internet, Fred!
FRED ARMISEN: That’s right.
JESSE THORN: This is you as a sort of German television reporter of some kind interviewing Janeane Garofalo.
How did you come to this decision to spend your time at South by Southwest not networking with record executives or whatever you’re supposed to do at South by Southwest?
FRED ARMISEN: I was there to play with some bands, Jon Langford’s bands. I was there with Sally Timms who was my wife at the time. I had to play some sets with them, and I got a book that was a guide to the whole thing. It was all seminars on how to make it in the music business, and I thought it was so - - how can you have lectures about this? I think South by Southwest is great, but at the time I think I was just frustrated. There’s no science to it. I went out and bought a video camera and I was like, why don’t we go just interrupt these seminars and I’ll just interrupt everything and ask these silly questions. And then that’s what it was.
A friend of mine edited it together, Sdid the camera, and before I knew it there was a tape that existed with me doing different characters, and it really made the rounds. I ended up showing it at night clubs and stuff, and traveling with it, and I would sort of show up to these clubs - - I’d book these shows where I would just play the video, and more people would turn out than would turn out for Trenchmouth, and I would get more press than when I did Trenchmouth. It was a very immediate thing. All I need to do is bring this video, and it’s less stuff to load in. That was the moment that I thought this is what I should be doing.
JESSE THORN: That led pretty quickly, at least in show business years, to Saturday Night Live. You did a show with Bob Odenkirk that was a pilot for Fox that didn’t end up going. As I recall Fox chose “Cedric the Entertainer Presents” over it and decided they could only have one sketch show at the time.
FRED ARMISEN: Lucky me.
JESSE THORN: You ended up doing these characters on Saturday Night Live.
JESSE THORN: Carrie, I want to ask you a little bit about your music career and how you came to do other things. Did you have aspirations beyond music when you were in the enormously successful and acclaimed band Sleater-Kinney?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Sleater-Kinney was a highly consuming and very fulfilling experience and creative endeavor. But I think there were moments as we got further along in our career that I wanted to do something else or that it’s just in my nature, I think, to have other outlets. At first that was writing, and that became something else I did besides the band. People would ask me to contribute essays to books or to magazines, and they’re mostly about music. Then I occasionally would act in a friend’s indie film or short film. I guess I just always had other interests. I started Sleater-Kinney when I was in college. Even though it was everything I wanted to do, I didn’t necessarily expect to be doing that. Once I was entrenched in it, it was like I hadn’t even realized that that was the path I was going to take even though it was very exciting.
JESSE THORN: How did actress/comedian get added to the list of musician and writer?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: In terms of the comedy stuff it was really just connecting with Fred, and our friendship in figuring out a way that we were going to have a project together. Our dynamic as friends is - - we get obsessed about certain subjects and we feed off each other’s neuroses. It’s a very close friendship. I just think the videos were a natural extension. We started making these videos for ourselves called ThunderAnt. That was what fostered this idea of this part of you that was doing improve and making these shorts. It didn’t start out as intentional, it started out as organic as when you’re in high school or college and you say, who do I want to play music with? The natural thing is to play with friends. I think for Fred and I it was just as easy as that.
JESSE THORN: Here’s a clip from ThunderAnt, the sketch comedy duo that precipitated Portlandia. In this clip, Fred and Carrie are Jaymi and Chrysh, introducing some of the most adoptable dogs from Portland’s Pet Haven.
More with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the creators of IFC’s new sketch comedy series, Portlandia. It’s The Sound of Young America from maximumfun.org and PRI, Public Radio International.
It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guests are the co-creators of the IFC sketch comedy series called Portlandia. It’s set in Portland, Oregon. Portlandia is produced by Broadway Video, which is Lorne Michael’s company which also produces Saturday Night Live. As I’ve read it’s part of the premise of you being able to make another sketch comedy show, in a funny way in competition with Saturday Night Live. That’s what Lorne Michaels talked about when he talked about why he thought it was appropriate to be making these two shows at the same time.
FRED ARMISEN: Right.
JESSE THORN: What do you see as being different about this show from SNL?
FRED ARMISEN: I don’t mean this as a joke, but the fact that there’s no live audience. It’s very much short little films. We don’t even like to think of it as sketches, even though in reality I suppose that’s what they are, but it’s not that kind of a thing. It’s just little pieces that we put together and Jonathan Krisel, our director, has a big hand in that. He wrote a lot of the pieces, too. There’s a different sensibility, and also the main difference, of course, is that Carrie is in it, half of it is Carrie Brownstein. That will give it its own voice, and that’s what I love about it.
JESSE THORN: Carrie, what did you learn most in the process of becoming a comedian?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I think I reached a level of exhaustion that I had never reached before. And I do think that the most obvious thing was in terms of the energy level. It was more funny when we were not trying to be funny. Like when we were trying to be serious. I felt like the more specific we got and the more detail oriented - - I think I just needed to find the thing that worked for me, and I think a lot of it was driven by my characters or driven by internal conflict, specificity, and anger. Just learning how to trust my intuition and be confident enough to not be looking for an immediate reaction. That was hard for both of us, to trust the process. Like Fred said, it’s not in front of a live audience, and I’m used to a live audience for feedback, too, with music. It was a lot about just being really present with Fred and with Jonathan and just trying to keep things insular.
JESSE THORN: I want to play a clip from the show. In this clip Fred Armisen, one of my guests, my other guest is Carrie Brownstein; together their show is Portlandia which is about to premier on IFC. Fred plays a member of an adult hide and go seek league who is hiding in a public library and being lectured by an older lady who finds him under her reading table.
Portland is this really specific place, and Carrie, you have been a Portlander for many, many years. I don’t know if you’re still living full time in Portland - -
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I am.
JESSE THORN: There are few public figures more associated with Portland than you as a member of Sleater-Kinney; one of the Portlandiest Portland things that there is, right up there with Clyde Drexler. Did you think of Sleater-Kinney as being a Portland band?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Well, we started out in Olympia, Washington, and then ended up in Portland for the last seven or eight years. I definitely think that I came of age in a time when music was contextualized by a community. It didn’t exist in the compartmentalized ethereal places like the internet where music can be from anywhere, so in some ways it feels like it’s from nowhere at all. I came of age when you were surrounded by other artists making music and you felt like there was a sense of place that was informing your songs and your philosophies. So in that sense, certainly, I felt like Sleater-Kinney was a Portland band.
JESSE THORN: What’s funny to you about Portland?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Mostly that it takes itself so seriously. I think all the things I find funny about Portland are the same things that I love about it, and I think that’s true of a lot of Portlanders. A good example, there’s this coffee shop called Courier Coffee. They make their own beans and they deliver their beans by bike. They ride their bike up to 25 miles in either direction, and I’m sure as the bicyclist is going they pass 18 Starbucks and a Stumptown delivery truck passes them, but they’re so earnest about their endeavor, and they know it’s kind of silly and I know it’s silly, but I still love it. And I would fight for it. I think that that kind of self-righteous passive aggressiveness that just permeates Portland is kind of funny.
JESSE THORN: What do you like about Portland, Fred, as an outsider; as a New Yorker and former Chicagoan and Angeleno?
FRED ARMISEN: It’s just physically beautiful. There’s something very sturdy about it, all the buildings seem to be well built. It’s overcast and dark green, and I like walking around there. I like going into Stumptown, and I like that I have to wear a jacket all the time; it just looks amazing. It’s also unlike any other city, and I can’t describe how. Whenever I go there I immediately feel great.
JESSE THORN: Portland is such a wonderful place, and I’ve spent a lot of time there myself and really agree with you guys about all those wonderful things. It also has this other side to it which is - - I think a lot of people move there form California or wherever wanting to live this bohemian lifestyle, and then they find that everybody else also moved there to do that and they can’t get a job. Tell me a little bit about that kind of scary dark side of Portland.
FRED ARMISEN: I remember that was happening when I was in Trenchmouth. People were moving to San Francisco all the time. I remember in Chicago people were like, I’m moving to San Francisco. I don’t know if that’s really a dark side, I think that’s more of people just exploring. It’s almost like - - you know that phenomenon where after college people go to Europe? They backpack through Europe? Maybe it’s just a part of life, that thing when you’re in your early 20s, like, I’m moving to another city and I’m really going to do it. It’s that, and right now it seems to be Portland. Or maybe you see it differently, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily dark. I think people just figure, oh, maybe I should get some kind of career going.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I think there is something in the pioneer spirit that still exists in places like Portland where it just feels like this outpost, and there’s a slight refuge quality to it, and I think any time you have people congregating for idealistic reasons, there’s the flipside, which is that those dreams aren’t realized. I think people carry that around with them there, too.
JESSE THORN: I want to play a bit of this sketch that was released on to the internet, “Did You Read?” This is my guests Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein sitting in a café.
I know that you guys have shown this show in Portland; you did a Portland premiere where you screened a couple of episodes in a movie theater. What was the reaction like?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I think for the most part it was a really positive reaction. When we were filming the show there was a spirit of benevolence; afterwards, there was a skepticism that I wasn’t surprised about, being such a skeptic myself. But I think now that the show is done and people have seen the work it speaks for itself. I think a lot of people in Portland do have a sense of humor and do think about the contradiction or the love-hate relationship they have, or at least the questioning relationship they have with - - our lifestyle, and the way we’ve chosen to go about things. It was really fun. I was a little scared.
JESSE THORN: Were you scared you were going to get your Portland passport revoked?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: A little bit. I don’t have many other cities that I would want to live in, so I guess I should start looking at apartments in Salem and Eugene. But if I can just get through the next couple of weeks I think I might be able to stay put.
JESSE THORN: Well Fred and Carrie, thank you so much for taking this time to be on The Sound of Young America, it was great to have you on the show.
FRED ARMISEN: Thank you, thanks for having us.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Thanks Jesse!
JESSE THORN: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are the stars of the show Portlandia. Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure I do host a show on IFC, but Fred’s already been on the show and I invited Carrie on the show one time before I was on IFC, so that’s not why they’re on the show.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for pointing that out.