Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein spoof off in the Pacific Northwest
BY Dave Hoekstra Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org January 16, 2012 8:12PM
Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, stars of “Portlandia,” are taking their show on the road.
‘PORTLANDIA: the tour’
† 9 p.m. Wednesday
† The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia
† Sold out
Updated: February 18, 2012 8:05AM
Like paddling upstream the Willamette River, ”Portlandia” was launched against mighty odds.
The TV show is focused on a specific location. It is on the Independent Film Channel (9 p.m. Fridays). The budget for the first season was less than $1 million, and actors share dressing rooms.
But urban pretension travels well.
“Portlandia’s” satire of locavores, entitled bicycle riders and Women-and-Women-First bookstores are spot-on. Season two, which premiered earlier this month, depicts hipsters enjoying the river in an inner tube — pulling along a keg of (craft?) beer. The city hosts an Allergy Pride Parade.
“Portlandia” lives in parts of Austin, Texas; Brooklyn, N.Y., and our own Bucktown-Wicker Park. The stars are Carrie Brownstein, best known for her bands Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney, and Fred Armisen,a former doorman at Lounge Ax in Chicago who went on to star in “Saturday Night Live.”
They roll into town Wednesday for “Portlandia: The Tour,” at where else but the Hideout — the hippest, most Portland music club in Chicago. The show sold out in a minute.
“Portlandia” outtakes from the second season will be shown, Armisen and Brownstein will take questions and they’ll play live plugged-in music. They consider themselves musicians first. Armisen was drummer for Trenchmouth and last month covered the Beatles’ “Blackbird” as the opening act for Wilco at Lincoln Hall. Brownstein’s power pop band Wild Flag appears April 5 at the Metro.
“Portlandia” comedy moves fast, like music videos or short films.
“In terms of pacing and just how we approach a scene, it has a musicality and particularly in editing there definitely is a rhythmic quality,” Brownstein said in a recent conference call with Armisen. “As we’re putting together the episodes we think of it like an album where there needs to be shifts, and change when you know you can slow things down. But if you’re going to do that, the next piece has to accelerate again.”
Brownstein plays her characters with wide-eyed ’90s idealism fueled by a jolt of organic coffee. The episodes are heavy on improvisation, which creates a kinetic dynamic. Brownstein and Armisen assume several characters willing to let their inner flannel show.
“Even in terms of improvisation, I’m unafraid of letting things kind of fall apart, knowing that we’ll find a place where it coheres again. And just that kind of spontaneity is somethig I’m used to from music. All three of us — and I also mean Jonathan Krisel, our director and producer — come from backgrounds where we either played music or music informed so much of our sensibility it was the lens in which we looked at the world.”
The trio also writes the loose scripts. “SNL” founder Lorne Michaels is the show’s executive producer.
The rock music ambiance has attracted second-season guest stars including Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Pearl Jam guitarist Eddie Vedder, who appears in a bit with a talking tattoo.
“Eddie is a really funny guy,” Brownstein said. “Most of the musicians we love might be serious or even have a darkness or forcefulness to their music, but that’s only one aspect of who they are. In some ways I think that’s why a lot of people say yes, just an opportunity to have this playfulness they might not get otherwise because the show has a loose, casual structure. So Eddie was totally game. And we noticed that last season with Sarah McLachlan, who people thought, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s this very serious singer-songwriter,’ but she was the first person to be able to make fun of herself and the image that she has.”
Brownstein and Armisen’s characters knocked the stuffing out of a McLachlan pinata. Aimee Mann, playing her out-of-work self moonlighting as a house cleaner, refused to clean up the mess and discussed the pinata with the yard worker next door: McLachlan.
Brownstein, 37, was born in Seattle but came of age in Portland, where Sleater-Kinney was formed. Her roots are as a writer. She profiled Vedder and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for “The Believer” magazine and contributed to the National Public Radio website.
The City of Portland has a sense of humor about itself.
“Portland is definitely an analytical city and a self-reflective city,” she said. “And also a sensitive one. For the most part people have been supportive, and we feel like we’re being cheered on as we run a marathon. We film in people’s homes, local businesses and in government offices, so we need the support of the city. And they’ve come through.”
Portland Mayor Sam Adams played a mayor’s assistant in season one and is on board for season two. Elected in the spring of 2008, Adams is the first openly gay mayor of a top 30 U.S. city. He is an amateur beekeeper and urban chicken rancher.
“The show does a great job hiring locals and showcasing how much talent we have here, myself not included,” he said in an email. “It’s a bit strange when I’m changing planes in an airport and someone asks, ‘Aren’t you on Portlandia?’ ”
Portions of season two will be shot in the mayor’s office. Somehow that is hard to imagine in Chicago.
The political correctness of “Portlandia” also hits on common urban themes, such as the young upscale couple liberating a docile dog tied to a lamppost.
“I feel constantly flummoxed in situations,” explained Brownstein, who still lives in Portland. “Recycling is definitely true for me. Coffee shops here break down recycling and compost into five or six different categories, and it really brings out the contrarian in me where I just want to throw everything on the floor or in the trash. I also have a Whole Foods near my house and I do have a reusable bag, but I always forget to bring it. Even though I should just not care, I end up buying another reusable bag and make a big performance thing out of it like, ‘Hey everybody, I’m just buying another reusable bag!’ So now I’m a hoarder of reusable bags because I buy a new one every time I go.”
Armisen added, “For some reason I always feel bad for people like cab drivers. They’re apparently doing fine, but I’ll pay cash instead of a credit card because they probably could use the cash. It’s this false sense of being responsible for everybody in the world and feeling bad for everyone, which is not even asked of me.”
The show gets its name from a 1985 sculpture above the entrance of the Portland Building in downtown Portland. Brownstein wrote “Portlandia’s” theme song, “Dream of the ’90s,” calling out Portland as a place “where young people go to retire.”
“Nostalgia is a pervasive element of our culture right now,” Brownstein said. “As much as people are embracing the technology that permeates our lives, part of that technology allows us to go back — like that Woody Allen film ‘Midnight in Paris,’ which I didn’t necessarily love — but it’s very common to exalt and romanticize previous decades in times that are sort of dark.”
“Portlandia” has been the tonic to lighten up.