After two seasons, satirical sketch show Portlandia has attracted a cult following, besotted with its warm, sweet take on hipster culture and blinkered communities. Co-star and co-creator Carrie Brownstein (from the undeniable Sleater-Kinney) talks to Nathan Jolly about the show (and a little bit about Sleater-Kinney).
How did the concept of Portlandia take shape?
Andrew [Singer, the show’s co-creator] and I had been making a series of short videos and vignettes and putting them up online. We ended up with about 10 or 11 and we started to realise there was sort of a similar sensibility and that we were starting to develop a bit of a chemistry. We really liked working together and ended up bringing the concept to a production company, and in the process we met our director Jonathan Krisel and we just decided we wanted to set it in Portland, and make Portland a character on the show – so the three of us developed that further.
Was it a hard sell to a network?
I think we were just very fortunate. IFC just seemed to be pursuing original comedy programming and they were looking for a show, so I think we were just fortunate that things came together as they did. So, in all honesty, no, it wasn’t that hard.
There are numerous musicians who have had guest roles on the show. Is that an idea you conceptualised from the start or was it more about getting your friends to be in your show?
I think a combination of that. Fred and Jonathan and I are all music fans and Fred and I played music and music was such an important part of our lives. It’s the lense through which we see the world. Musicians are some of the people we look up to and idolise. One thing that’s wonderful about having the musicians on the show is that you get to see a side of them that you don’t necessarily get to see. The musicians we’ve had on the show tend to be ones whose music is very earnest and serious and if you get to see another side then that’s always surprising. For the most part, there are just certain people that we admire that we want to get a chance to work with.
Was that something that crossed your mind when making this show: that a lot of people treat Sleater-Kinney almost religiously and take it dead seriously?
I think that people are quite multidimensional and multifaceted. Most writers and musicians have a side to them that’s more frivolous. Sleater-Kinney is a very important band to me, and I do take music seriously. I don’t think I would infuse any of my bands with a lot of comedy, but I’m someone who tries to go through life not worrying about what other people think, and just tries to do things with feeling.
I think one thing about Portlandia is that even though it’s satirical and can be absurd, it’s not a cynical show and it’s not a crass show and it’s definitely a love letter to Portland. It has an earnestness to it that I think is common to any of the projects I work on.
Do you think this sweetness and earnestness is the reason people have connected with Portlandia?
I think that’s a part of it. It’s hard to predict what people’s relationship with the show is. We just feel lucky that people are watching it, and that it’s part of an ongoing conversation that people are having with their relationship with the place that they live, and the environment they set themselves in.
How far along is season three?
We’re just in the middle of writing it, so we’ll actually start shooting in a couple of weeks.
And do you find it easier or harder to write within the framework you’ve created as time goes on?
The part that becomes easier is that the nature of the show kinda reveals itself over one or two seasons, and you start to understand what the show is about. And then you’re able to write more of it. Here is the essence of Portlandia, and then you put all your ideas into it and can understand which ideas work and which don’t. But then, it’s always harder because you always want to push yourself and improve on what you did previously. I think between season one and season two we really worked hard on stories and made sure each character had more of a narrative arc.
For the third season we are really focusing a lot more on the characters. When we thought about the shows that we are fans of, we thought, ‘What keeps us coming back?’ and it’s the relationships you form with a certain person on the show who you relate to, or may even find repulsive, but are drawn to. I think that’s important to longevity; you cannot just be a conceptual show with ‘ideas’. Even though we’re a sketch show, we are trying to find ways to have characters that people can relate to. It’s more challenging then saying: ‘Here’s a funny idea,’ ‘cos it’s saying, ‘Here are these people, what’s a funny situation we can put them in?’
How does a television network compare to a record label. Is it a similar relationship between art and commerce?
I think we are very lucky in that IFC, our network, is very independent-minded and is very artist friendly and does give us a lot of creative freedom to make the show we want. They don’t push back too hard on ideas. There’s a lot of very helpful people there that give us feedback that does help clear up questions we might have, or to help us clarify things, but for the most part, we are kinda left alone out here, which is perhaps even rarer in television.
I will say though, it’s not always the worst thing to have someone provide a little resistance, in terms of the creative process. Sometimes you don’t want to go unchecked, even if it is just a speed-bump to force you to rethink something or to become resolute in your idea or decision. For me, it’s not that different a relationship, because I have worked with a lot of great record labels.