Hip to Be Square
IFC improv series Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, may be a laugh-out-loud send-up of the city's über-trendy set. But don't get smug if you live elsewhere, the show’s creators say. Portlandia is everywhere.
After darting about New York City for days to promote the latest season of Portlandia — and sometimes coming face-to-face with their own images on IFC’s ubiquitous billboards — Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen still arrive precisely on time for a Manhattan lunch interview.
Squeezed into a restaurant booth — coincidentally hung with deer antlers, the kind you might see in an Oregon lodge — Brownstein turns to Armisen.
“Are you going to eat?” she asks.
“I’m going to eat,” he replies.
Without missing a beat, the two pick up their menus and chime, “I’m starving,” as though they rehearsed it.
They haven’t. But after 4 seasons of performing topical skits about quirky Portland, Oregon, couples, Armisen and Brownstein — though not a couple in real life — are in sync, much like the characters they lampoon.
“We are keen observers of how people perform their couple-hood,” Brownstein says. Besides, she and Armisen — creators, executive producers, writers and stars of Portlandia — are improvisers. They never rehearse before a shoot.
“We bask in its unsteadiness,” Armisen says.
One of IFC’s most popular series, Portlandia is a sendup of the attitudes and lifestyles of trendy, risible Portlanders — from dumpster divers and coffee shop loungers to diehard locavores and biking over-enthusiasts. The provenance for the show’s clever parodies, though, can be found farther afield. “There’s a version of Portland all over the place,” Brownstein says.
One new sketch this season touched on the growing share-economy that has spilled across the global internet. With an ironic nod toward such online ventures as Airbnb and Uber, Portlandia regulars Bryce (Armisen) and Lisa (Brownstein) perkily extolled the benefits of renting every last thing out.
Your personal toothbrush? “Rent it out!” they chirp. That extra fridge space? “Rent it out!”
Viewers have seen this fatuous couple before. In a previous season, Bryce and Lisa — who are drawn to one artisanal fad after the other — promoted pickling to an absurd degree. “We can pickle that!” they giddily proclaimed, scooping up discarded ice cream cones, broken heels and used Band-Aids from the street.
“We’re not hipsters — we’re squares,” insists Brownstein, referring to the defining element in all the goofball couples they’ve created. There’s Kath and Dave, for instance, gear-heads who don’t know how to chill.
“She’s a loose cannon,” Brownstein continues, citing a sketch in which Kath, in one of her self-righteous rants, gets so incensed at seeing a dog tied outside a restaurant that she lets it loose to wander off lost.
Toni and Candace, two cranky feminists who run the bookstore Women & Women First, are so sanctimonious that they scare off customers. When one patron points to a book she’d like to buy, Toni, played by Brownstein, brushes back her long locks and irritably exclaims, “Every time you point, I see a penis.”
Brownstein and Armisen are sometimes most effective when they exchange genders. When Brownstein applies a mustache and sideburns and glowers as tough guy Lance, her feminine self vanishes. Armisen, meanwhile, couldn’t radiate more sweetness and vulnerability than as Nina, Lance’s girlfriend.
In “The Pull-Out King,” one of their funniest sketches this past season, Nina timidly approaches Lance, revealing she might be pregnant. Lance blows her off.
“I’ve never gotten anyone pregnant,” he retorts. “Ask anyone. Ask Jessica. Ask Amanda. Ask Tonya. Ask Alice. Ask Karyn. Ask any of my exes. I’m the pull-out king.” When Nina remains perplexed, Lance yells to a neighbor, “Hey, Rick, who’s the pull-out king?” An off-camera voice shoots back: “You are!”
“The secret to Portlandia is the characters and their depth and how realistic they are,” says Jonathan Krisel, who created the series with Brownstein and Armisen, directs and is also an executive producer (Lorne Michaels and Andrew Singer round out the exec-producing team).
All of the characters, Krisel says, are spinoffs of people whom Brownstein and Armisen know or have gotten a good whiff of somewhere.
“Fred is a master at sizing up any person,” says Krisel, and by that he includes the crew, who are not spared Armisen’s astute impressions. “He just records people. He brings the ‘I know that guy’ quotient to every character.”
As a longtime cast member of Saturday Night Live, Armisen stretched himself into vastly different characters. His notable SNL impressions range from Barack Obama to Prince to Steve Jobs.
Brownstein, meanwhile, is more likely to play the straight one; if Armisen is channeling Gracie Allen, then she is tapping George Burns. “Carrie brings the reality to the show,” Krisel says. “When we’re laughing, going crazy because of Fred, she brings the sanity. She makes Fred shine a little bit more.”
Sitting side by side in the restaurant — eating eggs without first inquiring whether they’re organic and free-range — Armisen and Brownstein could almost be mistaken for siblings.
They exude a similar sort of cool-nerd élan. Between bites, each recalls the first time they realized they could make people laugh…
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