TV

Carrie Brownstein And Fred Armisen On How The Final Season Of ‘Portlandia’ Won’t Be Filled With Doom


IFC

On January 21, 2011, the series premiere of a new IFC sketch comedy series called Portlandia opened with co-creators Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen exclaiming “the dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland” while surrounded by hipster types. Seven seasons, two Emmys, and one Peabody later, the brainchild of the Sleater-Kinney band member and the Saturday Night Live alum is coming to an end. The eighth and final season of Portlandia premieres this Thursday at 10 pm ET/PT, and judging by what Brownstein and Armisen told Uproxx, it sounds like business as usual for the team.

Except, of course, when it’s not. Between recent pushback from local businesses, the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the Oregon wildfires that were raging nearby during our visit, everything seemed far from “usual.” All of this weighed heavily on the minds of the Portlandia team members, just as the ashes from the fires weighed down foliage and traffic lights. Yet despite what Brownstein called the atmosphere’s “underpinning of doom,” she and Armisen agreed that Portlandia had been a wonderful thing for everyone involved and that audiences wouldn’t be disappointed with its final season.

How has the city of Portland changed, in terms of what inspired you over the past seven seasons?

Fred Armisen: It’s changed a lot. As the show has gone on, it feels a little bit like it’s been less about the city specifically and more about the characters getting to know each other. As the years went on, it became a little more internal, more about relationships. Portland served as the framework for the show in the beginning. I mean, it still is. You might see it on screen, and things might look a little different — some new condos here and there.

Carrie Brownstein: Everyone is dead and pregnant. No, but seriously, one nice thing about sketch comedy is that you don’t necessarily need… Like, the expectation isn’t the same as it was for, say, The Sopranos, Girls, Six Feet Under or anything else like that. But we did take it into consideration. We do have one episode that, I think, is a summation of everything that has some sentimentality to it. Though we didn’t want anything that would feel too on the nose.

Armisen: It should still be a show that you can watch any season of, whenever you want, interchangeably.

Has this show changed your relationship with this city?

Armisen: It has intensified it. I mean, we’re in people’s homes. When I first came here, I never knew what it was. I was like, “What is this?” “This is Northeast.” I didn’t know what that meant at first, but now I recognize it. I know what part of town I’m in when I’m in it.

Brownstein: Right. It has definitely intensified my feelings of protectiveness for this city. I grew up in Washington state and I have lived here in Portland since 2001. There are just so many things that are unique and wonderful about this city. I’ve been able to explore that in a very literal, tactile way with this show. Like Fred said, we’re in people’s homes and businesses. As someone who is an introverted hermit, it has forced me to go out into the community and I value that a lot. As things have changed so quickly with how we all communicate with one another, I feel so fortunate to get to interface with the people here directly. This has instilled something lasting in me, about being among actual people. That’s the thing that feels the most significant, and it’s what I want to protect and nurture so dearly. How you get to know people and how you come to understand different points of view. You don’t necessarily get to do that when you work on a show that doesn’t shoot on location. I love this city more than I ever have.

What effect, if any, do you think Portlandia has had on Portland?

Armisen: I have no idea. I can’t measure what a TV show on cable has on a city. It’s hard for me. I don’t have that information in front of me to be able to answer you accurately.

Brownstein: It was interesting hearing there were actual statistics because I never think about it in a quantifiable way. I think part of the problem is that most people don’t experience things in terms of quantifiable sums. Instead, they think in terms of qualifiable things, and when people look out and they see the differences in the city, our show becomes an easy target of blame for what has changed. I think that is a sort of paltry way for assessing how Portland itself has changed. When you look at San Francisco and other cities on the West Coast, it was inevitable that Portland would suffer — if you want to use that term — or benefit from the same growths and depressions they’ve encountered. We’ve been a focal point for people in this, and because it’s a show that is in conversation with the city which is in conversation with itself, it’s hard not to think there’s an immediate connection.

As someone who was here before the show even began and during its production, I can’t really tell. Though I don’t think the condos are because of us. It does affect tourism quite a bit, but I think the city was well on its way to changing before we came along. I didn’t know if anyone would have understood “Dream of the ’90s” when we first did it, but everyone got it. They got it because it already existed. We didn’t introduce that concept. Our show started at a time during the Obama administration when it felt like we were living in a post-whatever society. Post-race, post-gender, post-everything. That was the house we built the show on. All we had to do was decorate it. Now it seems that may have been a terrible foundation.


Regarding the “summation” episode you mentioned, will that be the last one to air?

Brownstein: You know what? Probably.

Armisen: Probably, but you never know. We’ve switched stuff around before that somehow makes more sense in different spots, so maybe. Most likely. But who knows? I’m sorry but that is the real answer.

Is this really the end, or will there be more Portlandia in the future? After all, revivals are quite popular at the moment.

Armisen: Every time someone announces the end of anything, it’s the worst. Because there they are five years later, doing some other version of it. There have been so many shows like this, even if all they do is a special somewhere. Announcements like this are the worst. It’s like, “This is it!”

Brownstein: Yeah, you don’t want it to become a “hell freezes over” kind of situation and then we’re back, you know? Even LCD Soundsystem is back now, so I don’t know. The only reason to bury something is to resurrect it, but if you just get out of that cycle, then you can do whatever you want.

Obviously, the urge to want to continue doing something like this is strong, but after visiting the set today, this definitely feels like the end.

Armisen: Yeah, so that’s very literal. It just feels about right. Eight seasons is a lot and we were lucky enough to make it this far. That’s a lot of television. We want to have a little bit of control over how a season or series can end, as opposed to everything going off the rails. That’s all it is, with the addendum that who knows what the future holds?

The show prides itself on its DIY production — especially during the first few seasons. Between the Peabody and a few prime-time Emmys, however, I suspect things became a bit more comfortable in the end.

Brownstein: Our budget has grown in a very incremental and significant way, but I think having parameters is a good thing. That is, having something to push up against. Coming out of the music scene, it was very much about being irreverent. The minute something feels like it can’t be done, we have to circumvent that obstacle. I think so much of how we operate as a show is by this tenant. It fosters everybody’s creativity, but it also wears everyone out. But we have a very nimble crew that’s excellent at working together to make something that perhaps, with a bigger budget, would have been farmed out to one person. Instead, we have to pool our resources. Those sorts of limitations have actually served the show really well.

Is there going to be political content in this season?

Armisen: Only! Mostly speechifying. Just us talking straight to the camera.

Brownstein: It will be very didactic.

In all seriousness, you’ve covered highly political topics before. I’m thinking of last season’s men’s right satire, or the disaster preparedness sketch we watched you film during this set visit. How do you approach tackling such ideas, especially when they might not be as timely by the time the sketch airs?

Armisen: It’s tricky. When we’re in the writers’ room, we often have to remind ourselves that we can’t be too topical because of the timing. So some of it’s a gamble, in that sense, but we try to step back just enough so that it doesn’t seem too specifically connected to any one time, place, or event. If that happens, sometimes it turns out okay anyway. The “What About Men” sketch is a good example of that.

Brownstein: With a show that doesn’t air nightly or weekly, you run the risk of having something come out that’s already too late or irrelevant. Thinking about the political climate, which we do every day in the writers’ room… I mean, who isn’t entrenched in the current political climate? If anything, it was a challenge to not be too on the nose with these things and try to think about how this toxicity affects a person, a relationship, or a city — instead of naming exactly what that toxicity is. You can feel the weather changing. It changes on a cellular level. So how do we infuse that into a certain character dynamic or a sketch without it being so obvious that it’s about the leader or North Korea. That’s the challenge, and it’s hard. We’re porous people and even if you don’t put it in there, the audience is looking for it all the time. We’re all searching for ways of explaining and understanding these phenomena in everything we consume right now. We can’t avoid it, so we might as well not avoid it.

Have you thought about what it’s going to be like to wake up after the last day of shooting? What you’ll miss about the process?

Armisen: The drives home are pretty. I get very wistful when I see the nice trees and turn on the radio to some sad song. But during the day, we try to make the sketches work. We still want the show to matter and to be funny and relevant, so I’m mostly focusing on that at the moment. We don’t really have the time to get too nostalgic during most shooting days.

Brownstein: We definitely can’t coast yet. There have been moments, like when Kyle MacLachlan was here about a month ago for his series wrap. We put him in a lot of sketches this year. So he was here for about five days, which is as long as anyone ever comes on to guest star, and he was very sentimental. He kept tearing up during the scenes and for the two of us, who were still very much in the middle of production, that was very hard. In a wonderful way of course, but it was definitely the first time we kind of stepped outside the moment and really got a sense of the loss before us. For the most part, like Fred was saying, it’s just the day-to-day stuff and the logistics and the work of it all. You look around and see 60 to 100 people on the set who are working really hard, and there’s not really any time to languish in that yet. But we’re all feeling it. There’s a lot of eye contact with crew members during which you’re like, “Not right now. I can’t.”

Given what you said about rearranging or rethinking sketches, have you ever felt that you went a little too far? Or made a change you’ve later regretted?

Brownstein: I feel like we’re not a show of going too far.

Armisen: Yeah.

Brownstein: I feel like we sometimes didn’t go far enough, or something we did in this vein just didn’t work. But we never do anything with some kind of litmus test in mind. We’re more concerned with whether the beginning, middle or end of certain sketches were solid enough, and I think we had a pretty good approach to that. Usually, things we thought were problematic were nipped in the bud early in the process. So if it’s something that’s too derisive or something like that, it usually never even makes it to the script.

Armisen: The editors are really good at helping us with this, too. If something just doesn’t feel right, they’re great. Though I will say there’s one thing I really regret, which is the Netflix sketch we did back in the days when they were still delivering DVDs to your door. They were just on the cusp of streaming everything online, and we missed it. We jumped the gun on that.

Brownstein: Yeah, but happens all the time.

Armisen: Sure, but I was like, “Dammit!”

Other than the summation episode, can you describe any themes for this season or tease out any character stories?

Brownstein: Oh yeah, there’s a marathon.

Armisen: Yeah, there’s a Portland Marathon.

And they run in it?

Armisen: I don’t know. I don’t know if Candace drives instead. Also, there are horses.

Brownstein: Horses?

Armisen: Heavy use of horses.

Brownstein: You know, I remember when we were looking up at the board we put all of our index cards on, separated by episode and sketch, and there was a permeating anxiety in so many of them. We were like, “Just cancel it. Let’s give up.” Remember that day when we were just going through it and just, oh my goodness… Inadvertently, without having looked for a coherent theme, we figured out there was definitely an underpinning of doom. For sure. It is the end of the dream, this season.

Why do you think there is a sense of impending doom?

Brownstein: You don’t feel any impending doom?

Armisen: Everything points to it. This week in nature even. The fires we’ve had here.

That’s why we need comedy.

Armisen: I’m gonna stop doing comedy.

Brownstein: No, we’re not going to stop doing comedy. But it’s been the most intense thing, and it’s what makes me the saddest. With just the life cycle of a show like this, obviously things come on to the scene and if you’re lucky, what happens is it becomes part of a cultural conversation for a moment and then people kind of ignore it. Which is totally fine. But in the last year, I’ve had more people than ever thank me for making them laugh. People need that now. That’s the only thing that kind of hurts about going out, but we’ll continue to do other things.

Armisen: People approach us in different ways now that the show’s ending. I get a lot of hand-touching.

Brownstein: We used to get it from individuals and, without betraying any of their stories, people who were ill. They’d say things like, “My mother, sister, or friend was going through cancer and the only thing that made her laugh in the hospital was your show.” Now it feels like there’s a cancer in America and all of a sudden people are saying, “I guess we just really need to laugh.” I feel the same way. That’s why I love shows like Broad City and Veep. It’s that feeling, that physical feeling, of relief that they give me. It’s a momentary distraction. So even though I said the dream was dead, there is still so much laughter and silliness in this season. Nothing we do is ever separate from that sense of absurdity and the desire to look at things through a silly lens.

Obviously, the both of you will be moving forward with new projects, but looking back on seven complete seasons of Portlandia, how do you think it has defined you?

Armisen: Huge. I mean, wherever I go and whatever I do is how people will define me. That’s the only thing they see in me, so I don’t like to use the word “pride,” but that’s what I feel for this. It’s a pillar of my life, and as far as its possibly affecting my next thing, I think that truth speaks for itself.

Brownstein: I think what people have connected to, and what I would want to take away from it, is the idea that this was an extension of our friendship. There’s an earnestness to this show and to the entire endeavor behind it that I want to continue, and I feel like that’s what people are drawn to in art and music right now. Something that aims to reach people in a way that’s sincere and ironic. Hopefully, that will inform my next thing. I won’t do something unless I love it. For most other shows that people love right now, there’s this intention that’s very — for the lack of a better word — pure. I want to do that again.

No need to spoil it, of course, but do you have a final scene in mind? And if so, how long have you known what it would be?

Brownstein: It’s planned, but I don’t know if…

Armisen: I don’t know what the very last shot would be, though. Oh no, I do. Nevermind.

Brownstein: It’s planned, but it’s hard to tell. And if it doesn’t work out, we’ll completely get rid of it.

Armisen: Which happens sometimes. We have this intent to make it something a certain way, but sometimes we change it — a shot or a joke — at the last minute.

It doesn’t have to do with the aforementioned sense of doom, does it?

Armisen: It’s not something like that. I’ll say this. The scene is highly pornographic, and I use that word highly heavily.

Brownstein: We would never leave anyone on a down note. That would be cynical. This show is not cynical.

Armisen: It’s still a sketch show until the very end. That’s the most important thing to us.

Brownstein: Yeah. I feel like cynicism is pretty toxic and it’s harder than ever to circumvent it, so I would hate to inflict that upon an audience just for the sake of being high-minded or poignant. We’ll leave people feeling good.

The eighth and final season of Portlandia premieres Thursday, January 18th at 10pm ET on IFC.

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