“We believe in a beginning, middle and ending,” says Fred Armisen. He’s explaining the decision to pull the plug on Portlandia, the critically acclaimed sketch-comedy series he created with Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! alum Jonathan Krisel, after its upcoming eighth season. (The first of the final 10 episodes airs on IFC on Jan. 18.) “We’re such music fans,” he continues, glancing at Brownstein, who’s sitting beside him in a West Los Angeles bar. “When bands say, ‘This is our last album,’ there’s a sense of control. The show didn’t get away from us.” Brownstein nods toward her friend. “We wanted to go out while we still appreciated it,” she adds.
Portlandia debuted in 2011, six years after Brownstein released what she thought was the final Sleater-Kinney album. At that point, Armisen was still an integral part of Saturday Night Live, which he was on from 2002 to 2013. Though Brownstein, 43, and Armisen, 51, made an unlikely pair, their passion for absurdist humor and Pacific Northwest satirization (Armisen has lived in Portland, Ore., while Brownstein grew up in Washington State) brought them together and struck a chord on cable. Successive seasons saw the IFC show’s ratings increase, and eventually viewership leveled out at a little under half a million, while Portlandia went on to secure a Peabody and four Emmy Awards.
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on treating each season of Portlandia like a different album: “Is it The Clash Sandinista! or Talking Heads Remain In Light?”:
“A lot of shows have a ‘room bit,’ meaning a room full of comedy writers will be laughing, but it’s too weird or too small to put in the show,” says co-writer-executive-producer Graham Wagner. “Portlandia is 90 percent room bits.”
Portlandia was a harder left turn for Brownstein, who, like Armisen and Krisel, writes, occasionally directs and executive-produces the show. Brownstein entered the comedy world in 2004, when she and Armisen formed their online sketch-comedy duo ThunderAnt. There, they introduced what have become their most famous characters: feminist bookstore owners Candace and Toni, caricatures of shrill, easily triggered second-wavers. It was a far cry from performing in a band borne of the ’90s riot-grrrl movement. “Obviously Sleater-Kinney was very edifying, but there was so much momentum that we became less individuated,” says Brownstein. “The allowance for absurdity [in sketch] was very freeing.”
More crucial, though, is Armisen and Brownstein’s chemistry that plays out on and offscreen: The pair say it’s an organic process in the writers’ room, where they can throw half-baked ideas up on a board and hash them out together.
“Fred is more visceral, and Carrie is more intellectual,” says Wagner. “When a sketch works, it’s tied to a phenomenon, but also to human behavior. Fred could make nothing into something funny, but Carrie makes sure it’s not nothing.”
Coming from Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein widened the lane for other indie musicians to test their comedic skills. Portlandia became the de facto outlet for artists like Glenn Danzig and Run the Jewels to relax their postures and commit to off-kilter, self-effacing sketches. In the upcoming season premiere, which Brownstein directed, Spyke, one of Armisen’s recurring characters, tries to get his Reagan-era punk band Riot Spray back together only to watch in horror as his bandmates — played by Henry Rollins, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Fugazi’s Brendan Canty — want to go antiquing.
“A lot of musicians are seen as a certain thing, and people will jump at any chance to demystify that,” says Rollins, best known for his Black Flag days. For the new sketch, most of the old-fogey dialogue — Rollins’ character asks for throat-coating tea and praises Bruno Mars — was improvised.
Portlandia has spent years lampooning a city that prides itself on aspirational liberalism, lovingly poking fun at its artisan-food demand or petty competition to appear au courant among peers. Were its creators worried that, given a charged political climate, Portlandia’s brand of humor wouldn’t fare as well under the Trump regime? Brownstein and Armisen exchange looks, and she thinks for a moment before fielding the question. “We definitely felt the sadness and anger of Trump coming into office, [and] we can’t necessarily be topical when the news cycle changes tweet by tweet, but we never tied ourselves to something so specific anyway,” she says. “Generally we try for a timeless feel. But I think we wrote some of that ambient anxiety into the dynamic between characters this season.”
Armisen, the more gregarious of the two, describes their relationship as “a classic soul-mate friendship.” It was Armisen’s love for Sleater-Kinney that led to their collaboration: “It was like, ‘How can I do something with them?’” he recalls. Brownstein’s work with Armisen involved her taking what ended up being a decadelong hiatus from the band, then at the height of its popularity. (In 2015, Sleater-Kinney released and toured behind No Cities to Love, its first album since 2005’s The Woods). “Fred pulled up in this white van and said, ‘Get in,’” she jokes. Brownstein continued to play guitar between Portlandia seasons, notably in the one-off, all-female supergroup Wild Flag; meanwhile, Armisen joined Late Night With Seth Meyers’ in-house band. Together, they wrote music for their show, including the lo-fi fan favorite “Portland, Oregon (You’re My Home)” in 2011.
In addition to directing her first feature film, Fairy Godmother, due this year, Brownstein recently returned to the studio with Sleater-Kinney bandmates Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. She throws up her hands defensively when asked about a timetable. “Now, just so you know, we’re going to do this very slowly,” she says. “It’s an ongoing conversation.” Meanwhile, Armisen, whose mother is Venezuelan, wants to branch into Spanish-language programming. The accomplished drummer is also doing a stand-up show for Netflix called For Drummers Only, a routine focused around, and performed in front of, drummers. “It’s not as esoteric as it sounds,” says Brownstein, jumping to Armisen’s defense.
But neither expect their creative partnership to end with the show. “We talked about doing something live where we got to travel around and get onstage,” says Brownstein. “Not necessarily music, but we both love the interaction with a live audience.” Gesturing to Armisen and herself, she adds, “This is not specific to Portlandia. There’s always a connection between us.”
ON A LIGHTER NOTE…
Throughout Portlandia’s eight seasons, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen invited a range of friends to bring musical laughs to the small screen.
“Catnap,” season two (2012)
Kristen Wiig, who spent seven years with Armisen on Saturday Night Live, plays a crazed fan named Gathy who doesn’t want her favorite band, Catnap, getting too popular. Brownstein says of Wiig’s creation, “Gathy was complete improv.”
“Getting Away,” season four (2014)
The cast escapes to New Beavertown, and k.d. lang sings the spiritual hymn “Down to the River to Pray” as they walk back to Portland. “For me, this serves as the very last sketch of the whole series,” says Armisen.
“Run the Jewels Album Drop,” season seven (2016)
Hip-hop duo Run the Jewels revealed a Portlandia origin story, with A&R execs played by Armisen and Brownstein. “They were able to make fun of themselves,” says Brownstein, “which is such an important trait in our culture.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of Billboard.