Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, co-stars/creators of IFC’s Portlandia, discussed their creative process and the real-life inspiration behind the quirky show yesterday at South By Southwest Interactive.
“Portlandia: Behind the Scenes with the Creators” was easily one of the festival’s most anticipated panels, with hordes of badge-holders hoping to catch an exclusive sneak peak of Season 4 being turned away nearly half an hour before it even began.
The series lovingly mocks the hipster culture of Portland, Oregon, which Armisen and Brownstein say is also seen in cities like Austin. The “Fred and Carrie” seen on Portlandia are versions of themselves, they admit.
“I feel like they’re a lot more gullible,” Brownstein said. Armisen, agreed, saying the fictionalized versions are “a little dumb.” They sleep alongside each other in twin beds like Bert and Ernie, which Brownstein joked is “the only true part of it.”
Much of the series, however, is based on real people and experiences. For instance, Armisen said his favorite characters on the show, the “feminist bookstore ladies,” are based on the owners of the real-life “In Other Words” bookstore in Portland.
“It’s a real store,” Armisen said. “Everything you see is in ‘In Other Words.’ That whole set is a real place.”
As for new characters, Armisen said he’s excited for the debut of “The Storyteller.”
“You know how when you go to a dinner party — you 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?” Armisen said. “‘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). 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.”
The pair is just as funny and likeable in person as they are on the show. Even the people they mock seem to love Portlandia, they say. Brownstein said most of the hate they receive is online, perhaps because people are braver in anonymous comments sections. However, they do know the show is not for everyone and that some Portland locals do not have a sense of humor about it.
When writing to fit the show’s quirky and sometimes dark tone, they sometimes have to take an idea and make it a little more strange. For example, a sketch idea for the first season involved a party where the guests are wine connoisseurs, but it was too obvious. They brainstormed different flavor profiles people obsess over, and settled on chocolate and cacao.
“We just kept adding to it,” Brownstein said. “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 not communicating with each other? And then we had this really messed-up, surreal, mustached sketch.”
Those who were lucky enough to grab a seat for the packed panel viewed two sketches that will debut in the fourth season of Portlandia. One involved Brownstein dating a tax lawyer who decides to take up playing bass, ending in an intervention with several famous musicians. The other focused on the inability of a timid, hippie version of Armisen to drive Brownstein to the hospital after she breaks her ankle.
At the end of the panel, Brownstein said she and Armisen appreciate that viewers feel a sense of ownership with the show and that it is 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,” she said.