When your burgeoning hit TV show gets renewed for a second season and wins an Emmy, you probably feel like kind of a rock star. But what happens if you already are a rock star? If you’re Carrie Brownstein, you take it in stride. “It’s good to occasionally feel that you can undermine yourself or be undermined at any moment,” the former Sleater-Kinney guitarist says. “Have you ever watched something where the person who made it felt content or entitled? It’s just so annoying.”
Last year, Brownstein stole the hearts of comedy fans with Portlandia, the lifestyle-skewering sketch show she created with Fred Armisen. Resting on her laurels afterward wasn’t even an option–her new band, Wild Flag, also had a debut album to record. While Brownstein may be used to gracing album-of-the-year lists, dealing with a hit TV show is uncharted territory for her. At the dawn of Portlandia’s second season, which recently premiered on IFC, she’s out to prove her success is no fluke.
If the Portland native experienced a career reinvention in 2011, it wasn’t intentional. “I’m just ill at ease with free time and uncertainty,” Brownstein says. “I tend to overcompensate so, in kind of a panic, we were pitching Portlandia while I was getting Wild Flag together. I thought one or the other would turn out okay, and it’s an embarrassment of good fortune that both did.”
One of the reasons Portlandia turned out okay (arguably better than okay) is the easy chemistry between Brownstein and Saturday Night Live‘s Armisen. The two longtime friends, who’ve been collaborating on sketches since 2006, have the kind of creatively fruitful platonic relationship pop culture has taught us is impossible. Through similar sensibilities, obsessions, and the same impeccable eye for detail, the two serve as springs and sponges for each other’s ideas, gleaned from the various people and situations they observe together.
“Most of our process is an extension of hanging out with each other. It has a very informal quality to it since we don’t differentiate much from our working selves and our non-work selves,” Brownstein says. “Because so much of the show is dependent on our friendship and affection for one another, we kind of just translate that dynamic onto the screen under the guise of characters and different permutations of ourselves.”
It doesn’t hurt that Armisen also has a background in music. Before he brought a grab bag of original characters and impressions to SNL, Armisen played drums for the punk band Trenchmouth. This mutual life experience partly explains why the two mesh so well and why music frequently factors into Portlandia sketches. “We just have this shorthand with one another, like a tacit agreement that we don’t have to over-explain everything,” Brownstein says. “It’s nice to have a shared language with somebody.”
Considering that the show is guided by its creators’ private rapport, that its subject is the esoteric world of Portland–as distinct from its spirit cities, Brooklyn and Austin–and that it traffics in uncomfortable moments that go on for too long, Portlandia shouldn’t be very accessible. The show is user-friendly, though; so much so that it quickly became IFC’s highest-rated program ever. Brownstein and Armisen have precisely recreated the world of Portland and transposed their own version of the city right on top of it. Somehow, audiences are lapping it up.
“Portland is a central character on the show, and we weren’t quite sure if the rest of the country would get its appeal, but it turns out that they do,” says Jennifer Caserta, executive vice president and general manager of IFC. According to Caserta, half a million viewers tuned in for last Friday’s premiere, a strong showing.
What’s even more impressive is that the show’s creators managed this feat without pandering to the public demand for generalized hipster jokes. They have no fear that people will be turned off by some of the not-yet-agreed-upon stereotypes the show astutely manages to unearth. “In some ways, the more specific we are, the more trenchant it can be, and the more applicable it is to other cities,” Brownstein says. “If you capture something in such detail, even though the occurrence may take place in Portland, I think you have a better chance of appealing to a bigger audience.”
Brownstein also compares Portlandia’s outsider appeal to shows like The Wire: “Most of us watching didn’t grow up in the drug-ridden part of Baltimore, but we fall in love with those characters and related to them anyway because there’s something believable and truthful about them.”
What rings true about Portlandia (apart from all the flannel and interesting hairdos) and what may have ushered the show along toward the zeitgeist is its intense interest in customization. All the characters on the show are living lives they’ve chosen and carefully designed for themselves, and they’re surrounded by businesses that applaud such decisions and offer even more. It’s a relatable phenomenon regardless of geography.
“I think in some ways, whether you’ve ever actually been to Portland, people definitely understand this highly curated niche lifestyle, because a lot of people are sort of striving for that now,” Brownstein says. “Or they’re hating on it.”
Another reason people are tuning in is much simpler: Each episode is packed with jokes. Brownstein and the show’s other writers are guiding Portlandia toward the same rarified territory occupied by shows like Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Community, and The Simpsons–shows famous for demanding multiple viewings. At any given moment, there’s likely to be a visual joke layered over a bit involving clever wordplay, all while the main storyline is developing.
If the second season has a pronounced increase in the kind of background humor and affinity for funny sign and list jokes associated with those last two shows, it’s because of a couple of new additions to the writing staff (which already included co-creator Jonathan Krisel). Karey Dornetto came to Portlandia direct from Community, and Bill Oakley is known as a key figure in The Simpsons‘ widely celebrated early ’90s run (and speaking of that Springfield-based show, Brownstein and Armisen have gained the honor of appearing on the next season of The Simpsons, as a cool couple from Portland).
While Portlandia’s first season had to be rushed in order to accommodate Armisen’s quickly impending return to SNL, he and Brownstein had more leeway the second season. “They had so much more time to incubate with the writing process and really think through the shooting and just give themselves a breather,” Jennifer Caserta says. “I think that made all the difference in upping the ante of the quality and the humor this time.”
One last change in between seasons is that the leads have begun testing the waters with live shows. “Portlandia: The Tour” was initially booked in seven major cities, and each of these sold out almost instantly (six new dates have since been added). The live show is a hybrid of comedy and music, but also a casual hangout with Armisen and Brownstein. It’s the first time the show’s stars have actually performed together on stage, and it’s also a culmination of everything they’ve done so far in their careers.
“Honestly, it’s the most nervous I’ve been in years,” Brownstein says of the three shows they’ve put on so far. “Every night is different. There are so many variables, it’s hard to just settle in and think ‘We got this.’ But luckily there’s been a generosity with the audiences so far. We’re not going into enemy territory.”
Despite adoration from both crowds and critics, Carrie Brownstein resists the urge to get too comfortable with her success, and instead hopes to build upon it. “The notion that you’ve arrived, I think, is–first of all, it’s probably false–but it’s also a bad place to make any kind of art,” she says. “To have a sense of yourself as an impostor or an outsider kind of pushes you to not settle for something.”