Film & TV

Inside ‘Portlandia,’ an Absurdist Love Letter to Oregonian Counterculture

Film & TV

Inside ‘Portlandia,’ an Absurdist Love Letter to Oregonian Counterculture


Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen started working together in 2006 as ThunderAnt, a comedy duo whose videos soon became widely-circulated Internet memes. In January 2011, ThunderAnt evolved into Portlandia, a sharp-witted IFC sketch comedy series set in Portland, Oregon, where a recurring cast of righteous, lovably obnoxious characters indulge in all sorts of crazy: the feminist bookstore owners who won’t let a bathroom-using Steve Buscemi leave the shop until he buys something; the twee-as-fuck interior designers whose answer to everything is to “put a bird on it”; the fixed-gear enthusiast who declares staples of alt culture “over” at the first sign of non-exclusivity; the “freegans” (the anti-consumerist, and therefore free, vegans) who are horrified that anyone would ever throw anything away. Portlandia satirizes a place where the “dream of the ’90s” never died, but the series’ scope is broader than one town, parodying an inter-city array of hyper-contemporary trends, snide hipster elitism, and America’s tendency to take itself way too seriously.

Brownstein, a proud resident of Portland, is best known as a member of the revered band, Sleater-Kinney, and, more recently, the lead singer of post-punk quartet Wild Flag. Fred Armisen gained international notoriety for his spot-on Obama impersonations as a Saturday Night Live regular. “I think there’s a version of Portland in every city: Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, and even in towns like Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas,” Brownstein says. “They embody the same optimism and incessant ideology pioneered in Portland. Portlandia is a highly curated version of the city. We like to start at the point where one’s belief system can veer off into ridiculousness or self-righteousness—not at the point of reason, but at the point where ideals start to go off the rails.”

BULLETT: Are there aspects of Portland that you’re purposely not covering on the show?

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: My own house, my friends— although, wait, that’s not true. We have to put our friends on the show because we don’t have enough extras. The real Portland is more bizarre, more head-scratching, and harder to pin down than Portlandia. For example, if you’re going to be a Republican in Portland, you have to be really aggressive about it. I’ve seen some intense bumper stickers, like “Liberals are Terrorists.” As with any urban center, there’s also a mainstream component to Friday and Saturday nights in the city: horrible music, too-tight clothing. Portland has all of that, but it’s just not interesting enough to put on television.

FRED ARMISEN: I have a really utopian view of the city. There’s probably a world of drugs going on around me, but I’m not really a drug guy. It’s got a big Star Trek scene, but that’s been reported, I think. Really, as a tourist I don’t know any of Portland’s secrets. Oh, there’s one thing: There’s this casino area where they have all these national acts play. It’s almost like a small Atlantic City. No one seems to ever talk about it.

Armisen used to be in the punk band Trenchmouth. These are the punk bands that he used to listen toLungfish, Rites of Spring, High Back Chairs, Fugazi, Embrace, Jawbox.

Things that Brownstein might not want you to know: She was a “theater kid”; she started, and then stopped, writing a book (“It got horribly—no, wonderfully—derailed”); she dropped out of Bennington College’s MFA program.

Percentage of the show that is improvised: “60%?” —Armisen

Semi-disparaging remarks aimed at hipsters:

CB: “‘Hipster’ has this unattractive, disempowering blandness to it. It’s both very exclusive and overly accommodating. It’s too wayward. It’s like, just pick something. It’s too inert. It’s unfair to call certain people hipsters, but one hipster can’t change the world. The hipsters of Portland are unyielding in their desire to be good, but they’re also flummoxed by all the rules surrounding that.”

FA: “I’m not sure what the word ‘hipster’ means.”

Season Two of Portlandia Premieres on IFC Friday, January 6 at 10pm ET/PT