First published on 12 Jul 2012. Updated on 22 Feb 2013.
On paper, it really shouldn’t have worked – alt.rock goddess and Saturday Night Live star make an entire series based on the seemingly one-joke premise that Portland, Oregon, is a bit arty and alternative. And yet Carrie 'Sleater-Kinney/Wild Flag' Brownstein and Fred 'SNL/Anchorman’ Armisen’s Portlandia has been one of the surprise comedy success stories in the US, and is finally on DVD locally.
The show grew out of a series of web sketches Brownstein and Armisen did under the name ThunderAnt, expanding from a single sketch into a world of often grotesque characters – op-shop staff, bike couriers, vegan café patrons, proprietors of craft shops entirely dedicated to stencilling birds on things. Almost all are played by Armisen and Brownstein and all live in a fictionalised version of Portland.
Hold on: sketch show, town filled with caricatures, all played by the performer/writers… sounds kind of familiar…
“Well, The League of Gentlemen is just genius,” Armisen says, laughing. “That show is incredible and it was definitely one of my inspirations. The Mighty Boosh as well: a lot of British shows I think have just really done it right.”
It’s a tricky balance though: it must get hard to know where the series will take the characters, especially as the pair are about to start work on series three. “We never really know in advance what the end result is going to be and we try not to think about it too much,” he explains. “We didn’t really know what series two was going to look like and then when it was done we were like, ‘Oh, I think this is what it is.’”
Doesn’t that risk running into problems down the track? “For us it’s better to not think too hard about it, and if something happens and we paint ourselves into a corner, well that’s fine: we painted ourselves into a corner.”
He’s equally laissez-faire about how he and Brownstein balance what seems, on the face of it, to be an insane amount of work between their many creative projects. “Somehow everything works out. We just make it a priority and in the back of our heads we know that our whole summer is going to be Portlandia. In a way it’s easy in that it’s time set aside.”
As is always the case, there are whispers of "feature-length film", and Armisen isn't about to quash them – “I think that might be a fun thing to do and an excuse to stay in Portland and make some more Portlandia sounds great to me.” But one important question remains: how long did it take for the novelty of constantly getting gifts with birds on them wear off?
“It never wears off, because a bird is such a sweet image,” he insists. “Birds are so pretty that I’m like 'Oh great, give me something with a bird on it and I’ll gladly take it.’”
I guess it’s better than something like cock and balls.
“Exactly. We could have easily come up with something not as pretty.”
Portlandia: the complete first series is out August 1 through Umbrella Entertainment.