Written By February | March 2014 : Page 42
Creators Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and Jonathan Krisel make Portlandia rock.
Welcome to Portlandia, a whimsical town filled with wonderfully irksome people. Cuddly Peter and Nance are adding just the right number of creepy teddy bears to the décor of their new bed-and-breakfast. Toni and Candace wear their strident feminism like a crown of thorned vaginas while running the Women & Women First bookstore. In the park, the ever overprepared Kath and Dave drag their entire living room to an outdoor movie, while in an indoor living room, Claire and Doug forsake all others as they marathon-watch Battlestar Galactica.
All of these Portlandia citizens are played by show creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, as are Fred and Carrie, super-friends who sleep side by side in separate beds and are called upon by Portland’s mayor for urgent assignments, such as luring people away from the nefarious Seattle or coming up with a theme song for the city.
“They’re playing the same characters in every single piece: people who are anally thinking about everything in their lives,” says Jonathan Krisel, the sketch show’s director and third creator.
Portlandia isn’t just a riff on Portland, although the show is written and filmed there. Its populace can be found anywhere that raw, organic, artisanal objects are sold. Or better, bartered. And for all its hipster-pisstaking and absurdity, the show is ultimately centered on relationships. That’s true of the show’s origins as well. Portlandia arose—yes, organically—out of the real-life, super-friendship between Armisen and Brownstein.
The two meet up for an interview on the morning of the Emmys, calm and quiet amid the hubbub of a Hollywood hotel café, not long before they’re to be done up for the awards show. The following morning, they’ll head back to Portland to continue shooting Season 4, which premieres February 27. Emmy-nominated a second consecutive year for both Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series, Portlandia didn’t win those Emmys, nor did they expect it to. But the show already has racked up a Peabody and the Writers Guild Award for Comedy/Variety Series and is Guild-nominated again this year.
Armisen had flown in from New York the night before, after spending an evening with two of his musical heroes. As Ian Rubbish, a character he created at Saturday Night Live, he interviewed Paul Simonon and Mick Jones of The Clash before playing a song with them. He’s still coming down off the thrill of that.
The duo had traveled in the same music circles for years before they finally met. Famous for his 11-year stint on SNL, Armisen was previously a drummer in the post-hardcore band Trenchmouth. Brownstein is an indie rock star, first with the Riot Grrrl band Sleater-Kinney and now with her group Wild Flag. Armisen, a huge fan of Sleater-Kinney and friend of their drummer Janet Weiss, invited the band to an SNL afterparty in 2003. He and Brownstein hit it off immediately.
Because she lived in Portland, he would come from New York to visit her. They started making video pieces together, just for fun. They could just as easily have been jamming on their instruments, and in a way they were. “Fred would fly to Portland for two days, and we’d think of ideas the night before and shoot it the next day,” says Brownstein.
In their first sketch, Brownstein played a cable access host interviewing Saddam Hussein, played by Armisen as an aging British rocker. He had no idea she could do improv until the camera started rolling. A natural, she named the fake show Boink, off the top of her head. “I knew right away, This is going to be great,” Armisen says.
Calling their video project ThunderAnt, they posted the sketches online. “ThunderAnt was a very tenuous idea,” says Brownstein. “A concept, and then maybe a couple ideas and beats, and that was it. It was really improvised.” But it sowed the seeds of Portlandia, even originating bookstore proprietors Toni and Candace.
They pitched the series to Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video production company, which quickly came on board with Michaels as an executive producer. The group then brought it to IFC. “IFC liked the idea of it being site-specific and having a sensibility and an aesthetic that would look different than other shows,” says Brownstein. “Portland is such a good shorthand for progressive, well-meaning, well-intentioned living, that it was kind of the perfect city.” She and Armisen credit Krisel with being the “big picture guy” who thought the city should be another character. “He elevated the show aesthetically,” she says.
Krisel found inspiration from Summer Heights High, an Australian show that aired on HBO, in which one character played three different roles at a high school. “It seemed like if we could just cohesively put Portland as the central reason why all these sketches are existing together, they’d create the tapestry of a town, a world where the characters could intersect, and that community could be the show,” he says by phone from the Portland set.
Michaels also weighs in with sage advice. “He’s given us important, lifelong notes,” says Armisen. Like: “‘Don’t overthink it.’ That’s worth a lifetime. You could build a career on that.”
Adds Brownstein: “That helps because you tend to get into these long-winded conversations overanalyzing something, overediting yourself too early on, overworrying. So his advice usually cuts through all of that static.”
Working on the pilot, the three creators came up with a sketch that had entrepreneurs Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman putting a bird on every item imaginable, satirizing a crafting trend that has, in turn, become part of the lexicon. “The weekend before we shot ‘Put a Bird on It,’ my wife, who’s a supergenius, was like, ‘This piece is all about their relationship,’” says Krisel. He realized that was the key to all of the sketches. “Usually the conceptual joke is over in about five seconds. You go, ‘Ah, that’s interesting.’ But it’s the dynamic between the people that we can mine for the comedy.”
They invented a backstory about how the couple started putting birds on things so they could tell their cups apart. They didn’t even use the information in the scene, but it helped shape their characters. What did arise during shooting was the idea that Bryce was a wimp who kept getting hurt as the scene progressed. Even a dust mote incapacitated him. “The characters weren’t just serving the premise,” says Krisel. “That’s why this show works, in a different way. It’s not SNL where there’s something in the news, and we’ve got the impressions. It’s always about the two of them, no matter what.”
The Rhythm Section
In the transition from ThunderAnt to Portlandia, the performers maintained their easy chemistry, imbuing the characters with a wry combination of fervor and nonchalance. The scenarios have become more thoroughly outlined, but all dialogue is still completely improvised. Sketches have a deliberately scruffy quality. “You listen to an album by a band that you love, the first album is a sloppy mess of greatness,” Krisel says. Then as the years go by, the band gets more polished, adding better backup musicians, “until by the sixth album you’re so bored. I like all those mistakes. It’s more fun. If someone trips or messes up something, I always try to use it. When things get tightened up, they lose their energy.”
Not surprisingly, Brownstein and Armisen share Krisel’s melodic view of the work. “We all came up with music as such a force in our lives, we often think of things through that lens,” says Brownstein.
Armisen concurs. “Sometimes it feels a little bit like there are even verses and choruses in the actual sketch.”
They liken their seasons to albums. “The first season— that’s the album you put out first,” says Brownstein. “It has a couple singles on it, and it hopefully burst onto the scene, but when you look back on it, you think Well, the singles are good, but is it actually a great album? I don’t know. And then for your second season, like a second album, you continue with what works, and you don’t change the form too much.”
Armisen nods. “But you’re really that band. By then you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what the group is.’”
“Exactly,” agrees Brownstein. “Then with the third season, like the third album, you are allowed to experiment a little bit. You confound some people. It’s artistically difficult but ultimately fulfilling. And in the fourth album you’re like, ‘Yeah, we can do whatever we want.’ That’s where we are right now, and it’s very freeing. We got the difficult third season out of the way.”
She and Armisen then offer up bands whose output they find analogous to their seasons. He suggests The Police, listing their first four albums, and she responds with The Clash.“Their trajectory to me is a good overall artistic statement.” Armisen agrees: “It’s perfect.”
For the first season, the creators brought on one additional writer, Allison Silverman, who could hear the musicians at work. She quickly realized that “even when Fred was pitching, there was something musical about the way he’d approach his characters. He’s hearing the way people speak as a tune and then he finds a way to make it his tune.”
Working in Harmony
Brownstein and Armisen recall how generous Silverman was in sharing her vast experience with them (her credits include head writer on The Colbert Report), but she demurs. “It’s interesting to think of myself as the most experienced,” she says, because the room was like nothing she’d worked in before. “It was such a small group, and it was so informal. We didn’t have an assistant in there. We were just coming up with ideas. There wasn’t a structure, in that one of us was the head writer or anything. It was loose in that way.”
Since that first year, they’ve added a writers’ assistant, Alice Mathias (now also a co-producer) and moved the writers’ room from Los Angeles to Portland. There the writers find it helpful to immerse themselves in the environment—eventually. But the tendency is to spend the first couple of weeks putting off work, “just talking,” confides Armisen. “It creates the vibe of how things are going to be, how we interact with each other.” After that, the lists come out. “The feeling is kind of like, ‘Do you know what I’m seeing a lot of?’” If someone else picks up on the idea, they expand from there. If not, it quietly dies in the room. “Nobody’s going to be attached to anything, which is nice.”
“Krisel was good at cultivating a collective room compass,” says Graham Wagner (The Office), who came on for Season 4. “If anyone said, ‘I don’t know about the sketch,’ it was reason enough to drop it. Everyone liked everyone, so when someone you like says, ‘I don’t like that,’ you don’t react by saying, ‘Your taste is wrong’; you say, ‘Oh, well, I like you so you’re probably right.’ I know I’m describing a cult. But I think with every show you have to get into the cult of the show. And it’s a happy cult to be in.”
They’re even encouraged to bring in their best friends. “We all had dogs in the room,” says Karey Dornetto (Community). “Fred doesn’t have a dog, but he’s an uncle. We’re very animal-friendly.”
As the ideas are bandied about, Mathias writes them out on cards and puts them up on the board. After a few days of talking, “suddenly you’ve got 80 ideas up there,” Wagner says. “Krisel would casually put the ideas up that people seemed to like a lot. He’d divvy them up—here’s 10 episodes, loosely there’s going to be eight sketches an episode.” Usually the concept comes first, and then the writers decide which character should run with it.
Each season is written out before production begins, so the actors and director never have to leave the table to shoot. “There’s no game of broken telephone,” says Wagner. “Bigger shows are all about mitigating against that, passing pages from room to room, hoping everyone else is in the same mood you were when you wrote it. Portlandia was just that much more contained.”
After figuring out the beats to each piece, the writers break the work into sketches rather than entire episodes. But they don’t break out of the room. Instead, they all sit around the table and write. The scripts are completed in a few days. “If ever there was a bump, you’d just lift your head up and be like, ‘I’m having a problem here,’ and people would be like, ‘What about this?’” says Wagner. “It was very collectivist.”
Positively Portlandian. “Sometimes I’ll look at a script and won’t know who wrote it because we think so much alike,” Armisen admits.
The process is so loose and open, they often find the point of a sketch halfway through shooting it. “The tangent becomes the center, and then it’s about something else,” says Brownstein. “The more infrastructure we have, the easier it is to deviate from it and feel like you have scaffolding, so you can use that, find the essence of the scene and then leave it behind.”
In the Season 2 opener, Kath and Dave, who go through life believing that the couple with the most gear wins, head out on a river-rafting trip. The scene was supposed to be about the acrimony between rafters and tubers. Then Dave decides they need to come up with a signal in case one of them gets in trouble on the water. Kath responds with the nonsensical “A-O River!” That’s all Krisel needed to hear. From there on out, the call of the A-O River took over, as Kath floated a few feet away from a hapless Dave, howling. “Whenever they have a lot of energy toward something, that’s an exciting moment,” says Krisel. “That’s what it’s going to be about.”
Krisel and his editing crew continue shaping the scenes in postproduction, which is considered a final writing pass. “We edit it almost like a documentary,” says Krisel. “We look at all the footage, and stitch together the funniest, best moments.” And once more, they do it to the beat. “In terms of the rhythm of our performance, the way that Jon and the other editors think about timing and pace is musically driven and influenced,” says Brownstein. Moments are slowed down, film speeded up, and goofy sound effects added. “We’re unafraid of heightening through editing or making it sort of jarring.”
The Concept Album
Each season has ended with an episode that brings all the characters together in a single story. Season 2’s finale, “Brunch Village,” featured the entire populace waiting in a line that ran the length of the town—and the length of the episode—to try the hottest new café. When Season 3 began, the writers created more stories with longer, encompassing arcs. “I didn’t even want to do a sketch show,” says Krisel of that time. “I wanted to do Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.” One throughline featured Carrie and Fred both dating their new roommate, Chloe Sevigny. Another had the couple Lance and Nina inviting most of the other couples to a nightmarish birthday extravaganza.
“I’m glad we did it, but it was trying on our tight schedule, shooting a bunch of little short films,” says Brownstein.
“It’s easier for us to just go into a location, get the story out, and be done with it.”
For the fourth season, they did just that. “This season I just want to do Season 1, do what we know how to do, the best version of what a normal Portlandia is—don’t do anything fancy,” says Krisel.
Dornetto wrote on Season 2, returned for a couple of weeks on Season 3, and came back for all of Season 4. “Everything was so smooth,” she says of this latest season. “It was like being in a band that’s matured.” She sensed a greater confidence than in previous seasons. “What was also easier from 2 to 4 is knowing what characters we wanted to write for. I feel like we got to go deeper with some of them.”
Even though most of Portlandia’s couples are wildly aggravating, they manage to avoid annoying each other. “It’s not completely acerbic,” says Brownstein. “The audience has something to discover. We’re not just yelling at each other. That has a distancing quality.” Their amity creates an element of sweetness that permeates the show. “I know nice is such a light word, but it’s just nicer for the day to have a couple that loves each other,” Armisen says.
For Krisel, that’s what the town is all about: “Everybody’s bending over backwards to accommodate everyone else and not judge anyone, and that produces a lot of comedic fodder.”
Brownstein’s favorite character continues to be Nance, Peter’s lovebird. “It’s such a strange version of a couple to me. They’re so cloying, they’re so syrupy, and they exist in their own world. When I see couples that are like islands, it’s so the opposite of how I am in real life,” she says. “I love the way the different relationships have allowed me to explore different dynamics that in the rest of my life I would either be uncomfortable with or judgmental of.”
She isn’t the only one to learn about relationships from the show. Just about every media reference to Portlandia has mentioned, with a kind of wonder, the intense-yet-platonic bond between Brownstein and Armisen. Their friendship might be the most original of all their creations, and the most powerful. After all, it brought Portlandia into existence.
Jonathan Krisel and his editing crew continue shaping the scenes in postproduction, which is considered a final writing pass. “We edit it almost like a documentary.”
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