Portlandia is an agonizing comedic parody, with characters so readily identifiable that it makes you constantly question how your own outward appearance intersects or departs from those trendy doofuses on the show. Am I really that concerned with the environment? Am I that preoccupied with Vegan dog cuisine? Do these shoes make my jeans look ironic and do I even want them to anymore?
Fans of the show know what I’m talking about. Although I really don’t want to use the word “hipster,” Portlandia specializes in gently skewering hipster types–those teched-out, bicycle rights advocates who only eat free-range chickens with first and last names and who work at relaxed, graphic design studios making bird-themed greeting cards.
The characters resonate. They could easily be found in any section of Philadelphia and probably any other city in America for that matter. That’s what makes the show so popular. It’s also what made me so pumped (and somewhat nervous) to interview the show’s stars before the Portlandia Tour comes to Philly this weekend.
But calling this post an “interview” may be a bit misleading. In actuality, my “interview” with Portlandia stars Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen was a “media conference call.” For the uninitiated, media conference calls are exactly like those non-stop, TV interviews hosted by Byron Allen which usually air around 3:17 in the morning to promote Jack Black’s next failure. The only difference is that the entire debacle takes place on the phone and is rife with inaudible Q’s and misinterpreted A’s.
Basically, a flock of reporters join the conference call, raise their hands (i.e. press *1 to ask a question) and wait for their line to be switched on so they can be heard. You have no idea how many people are on the call or how many of them are in line before you. So after I listened to 45 minutes of long-winded reporters asking every single question on my notepad, I told myself to hang up after the moderator chose the next caller.
Fortunately, that next caller was me. Unfortunately, all my questions had been asked. Nevertheless, here is my brief but pleasant exchange with Fred and Carrie, complete with mental notes [in brackets] and all of my hastily conceived questions.
Amusing highlights of the entire two-hour call to follow.
Moderator: Okay, our next question will be from Chris from AroundPhilly.
Chris: Hi, how are you doing, guys?
F. Armisen: Hey, Chris.
C. Brownstein: Good. How are you?
Chris: Good, huge fan. [Why'd you say that? Everyone says that!] I’m wondering—you spoke earlier to the enclaves of each city where, I guess for a lack of a better term, hipsters coalesce. How did you guys decide to focus on Portland? Was that a conscious decision, or did it come after the idea for the TV show? [Ok, not bad, but never use the word "enclave" again.]
F. Armisen: It was just convenience, and it’s where Carrie lives. So, it was where she lived. So, when we first started doing these pieces, that’s just where we shot it on location, and then little by little, it became evident that it was a really good background and framework for the show.
So, it was as simple as that. It was like right there for us. But that said, I don’t think it would have been the same if we had shot it in some other cities. I’m really grateful that it was Portland.
Chris: Have you gotten good reactions from locals? I know another person asked that. [Then why did you ask?]
F. Armisen: No, they’ve been incredible. I know Carrie deals with it more because she’s there all the time.
C. Brownstein: Yes, everyone’s very nice, generous, complimentary. We shoot in almost 200 locations a season, and those are real people’s homes and businesses and the city hall and the police department. We actually need the city to be cheering us on in a way. So, we feel like we definitely have a good relationship with Portland
Chris: Cool. [Don't geek out, Chris.] I’m wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about how you get guest stars on the show, especially Kyle MacLachlan as the mayor. Can you tell me how that came about?
F. Armisen: That was like a total show business regular—through the regular channels, which is kind of nice. Sometimes, I’ve always thought about that as another world, but then, we were writing the show, and we were in LA and we’re like okay, we need someone to play the mayor. I don’t know how it came up, but we’re like who could it be, and I’m like maybe like a Kyle MacLachlan type, but then, we’re like wait.
We’re in Hollywood, literally. What do you do? Just call their agent, and you say can you do this show. Then, he said yes. So, it was as simple as that. There wasn’t any inside track or anything.
It’s not like we knew him before. We met with him, and then, he was perfect. He is exactly as you see him on screen. That is his personality.
Chris: Sorry if these are a little disjointed here. I don’t know if questions were asked. [That can't really be what I said.] I’m wondering, of the characters you play, is there one that you guys think is most recognized by fans or most requested by fans? [Nice save.]
C. Brownstein: Definitely feminist bookstore characters, I think, are still the most popular and recognizable characters, I would say, in terms of the specificity of it. There are other moments. There are other sketches that people talk about, but character-wise, I feel like it’s those two women.
Chris: Do you guys remember how those characters came about or how they were created?
F. Armisen: I visited Portland once, and I just was walking down the street, and I saw this store called In Other Words, and on the front, there was a sign that said the nation’s only or first or whatever non-for-profit, feminist bookstore. I just looked at that sign, and I just thought, wow, that’s a lot to say in a sign. Then, I went to Carrie’s house, and we were just thinking, okay, what can we do. I just thought well, what if we’re people who work there. That’s how it came about.
Chris: That’s great. They’re great characters. [Everything is just great, isn't it?]
C. Brownstein: By the way, the real store, In Other Words– we actually shoot at that feminist bookstore, and we’ve done benefits for them, and they’re big fans of the show. So it’s certainly not an antagonistic portrayal or anything like that. We do a lot to support those guys, and they help us out a lot.
Chris: Great. That’s all I have to ask. Thanks again. I’m a huge fan, guys.
C. Brownstein: Thank you
F. Armisen: Thank you.
J. Sullivan (of JimSullivanInk.com): One thing I wanted to ask Carrie, I think, people obviously know Fred’s background in comedy, and I know also music too, but Carrie, you’re known for Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, which I saw last time you came through town. It was terrific, but I think people who just know Wild Flag do not perhaps know about your sense of humor or your acting, writing, etc. Can you explain a little bit to people how you got into that and how easy or difficult that was?
F. Armisen: Well, Carrie got lost.
J. Sullivan: She’s gone.
F. Armisen: But I’ll pretend to be her. “Well, I just got into it because it seemed like something fun to do,” and I don’t know. I can’t. She’s been asked before.
F. Armisen: Hi. How are you? You’re from the Catholic University Paper?
D. Barclay: The Catholic University of America in Washington DC.
F. Armisen: Wow.
J. Axelrod (of College Magazine): You both are there, good. So, you can both answer this question. So, Portlandia, I know, celebrates in lampooning hipster culture a lot. On a scale of one to ten, where would you guys say you rank on the hipster scale?
C. Brownstein: I think I’m a ten on the preppy scale. That’s about it. That’s the only scale that I can measure myself by. I feel like a Bay Day prep.
J. Axelrod: You said that you’re kind of an uppy scale?
C. Brownstein: Yes.
F. Armisen: Preppy.
J. Axelrod: Preppy, I didn’t think I heard that right. Okay.
F. Armisen: With that said, I would say I’m a five on the puppy scale.
A. Hussey (of The Daily Tar Heel- yes that’s her real name): Carrie, this is one for you in particular. As a woman, especially somebody who was so heavily involved in the third-wave feminist movement, how would you respond to people who say that women can’t be funny?
C. Brownstein: It’s like I don’t even want to take … to that question. It’s just not even—it’s just such a ridiculous thing to say. I don’t even want to honor it. It’s so …. It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous.
Fred and Carrie will be at the Trocadero this Sunday, February 19th. Tickets for the late show are still available right here.