AUSTIN, TX: Tuesday was “convergence day” at SXSW — the one day when the music, film, and interactive conferences all overlap and intertwine into a big, beautiful bowl of geek. So it was the perfect day for Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to front a big panel discussion and celebration of Portlandia, a show that positions itself smack dab in the middle of that particular Venn diagram; there was certainly an audience for “Portlandia: Behind the Scenes with the Creators,” which took up one of the Austin Convention Center’s biggest venues and was still turning people away nearly a half hour before it even started. Your correspondent was literally the second to last person admitted; here are a few things I learned about the show from my seat in the back row.
1. Fred and SXSW go way back. Fred was in a punk band that wasn’t going much of anywhere the first time he came to SXSW in 1998, but he did make some noise with an improvised video shot here. “The way I started was, I would interview people as a German guy, or a mentally disabled person, and that tape just kind of made the rounds, and it got me into doing comedy. So SXSW was a real catalyst for my whole comedy career.” Brownstein noted that they tried to resurrect that character in the first season of Portlandia, “and it did not work.”
“Didn’t work!” Armisen quickly agreed.
2. The similarities between writing songs and writing sketches. Since both stars come from a music background, moderator Matt Braunger asked about composing for both music and comedy. “I think between Jonathan [Krisel, co-creator] and Fred and I, we all grew up with music, and that was such a formative experience for us, and in some ways it’s still the lens through which we see a lot of the world. So we approach the show in terms of rhythm and pacing and the editors have a very percussive quality to the way they edit.”
Armisen concurred: “You know how, with music, you listen to a song over and over again? I think we want this to be that kind of thing, where it’s so enjoyable that even if you know the joke that’s coming at the end, visually you can watch it over and over again, like you’d watch a song.”
Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and Matt Braunger. Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire
3. The similarities between themselves and the Fred and Carrie on the show. The characters on Portlandia that share their names are, Brownstein says, “a version” of themselves. “I feel like they’re a lot more gullible,” Brownstein added, and Armisen agreed that they’re “a little dumb… And also the idea that they sleep like an Ernie and Bert,” in twin beds — to which Brownstein joked, “Well, that’s the only true part of it.”
4. This season’s new characters. There are several new characters in Season 4, but Armisen has a particular fondness for “The Storyteller.” Here’s how he explains it: “You know how, when you go to a dinner party — y’know, a party for grown-ups — and there’s that guy who’s sort of planted in a chair, and he loves telling a story. ‘So a buddy of mine’s coming down the river…’ And his wife is sort of like the audience that moves the story along —”
“An enabler,” Brownstein interjected.
“An enabler!” Armisen agreed. “And the story is always, like, life and death. Like, ‘Oh my God, you survived!’ And in my mind, I’m always like, well why did you go river rafting? Like, yeah, you had an accident.”
“And you can, like, leave a room and come back, and it’s still the same story,” Brownstein explained.
5. Portland’s locals (seem to) love the show. The show’s ribbing of its title city is mostly good-natured, and it doesn’t seem to bother the people there — many of whom appear on the series as recurring extras or in small roles. “People have been nice to us!” Armisen said.
“I mean, it’s always like that,” Brownstein shrugged. “I feel like hate is always fomented online, in like, anonymous comments sections, which you always ignore. In real life, people are a lot less brave, you know. So if I don’t like something, I’m not gonna go up and tell somebody. That’s just, like, rude.” But they do know the show’s not for everyone, and some locals may not have much of a sense of humor about it — for example, Armisen says, the feminist bookstore ladies “would complain about Portlandia.”
6. What they like about Portland. “I think Portland is the Greatest Hits of cities,” Brownstein theorized. “It’s like the city planners went around and looked at what the urban growth boundary is, or what’s wonderful about Copenhagen, or what’s wonderful about New York or Chicago, and then they come back, and they say, ‘This is what we’re gonna do,’ and they make this city. It does sometimes feel like you’re in a Best-Of record.”
“Or a museum about cities,” Armisen added.
7. Sometimes sketches just aren’t weird enough. In the writing process, they’re mindful of the need to make certain sketches just a little strange — and Brownstein gives, as an example, the first season “Cacao Sketch.” “The original idea was wine tasting, but it was gonna be really boring — it was just this party where people are wine connoisseurs, and we realized that is very obvious. And we thought, what’s another thing that people get obsessed over, and start to get into the minutiae of content and flavor profiles, and we thought, chocolate and cacao. And again, we just wanted to move away from what it was, and we just kept adding to it: what if it’s a safe word, what if the couples switch gender, what if cacao becomes a whole way of telling a story about a couple that’s just not communicating with each other? And then we had this really messed-up, surreal, mustached sketch.”
8. What they’re thankful for. Near the end of the panel, Brownstein had this to say: “One thing that Fred and I truly appreciate is the fact that people feel a sense of ownership with our show, and that it’s so participatory. I don’t think we could have asked for anything greater from people that watch our show, that you feel such a part of it. So thanks, and this is a reminder of that.”