Even During the Current Culture Wars, Carrie Brownstein Says 'Portlandia' Will Put Absurdity First
"Portlandia" star and co-creator Carrie Brownstein is still invested in exploring the absurdities of hipster culture -- especially now that she feels we're living in "the vernacular of the absurd."
At the ever-popular IFC Emmy and Peabody Award-winning sketch comedy series nears to a close of its seventh season, Brownstein admits that the show's trademark off-kilter, often outrageous sensibility that both affectionately and savagely critiques a certain urban, socially sensitive lifestyle and philosophy may have an extra significance in the current historical moment characterized by culture wars marking the deep divide between left- and right-leaning Americans.
But the absurdist humor, perfected by Brownstein and Fred Armisen, she promises Moviefone, is here to stay, because as she sees it, "it's kind of the only way to make sense of everything."
Moviefone: So I'm curious: seven seasons in, I feel like maybe behind the scenes you do it either exactly the same as it's always been, or you threw yourself some curve balls. Which was it this time around?
Carrie Brownstein: I think there's a bit of both, because I think we value a certain insularity in the process of the show. We know that it functions with a certain kind of specificity, with a certain kind of clumsiness, with a certain marginal outsider feel that we try to maintain.
So yeah, we're very nurturing about that, and kind of keeping that process the same in terms of writing and really trying to not take it for granted, because we do so many other things throughout the year. But then I think it's important to have a sense of growth and dynamics, and bring a new perspective. You don't want stasis.
So it is kind of this balancing act of sort of keeping something that just feels solid, something from which to deviate, that is essentially your point of view or your sensibility, but then making sure that from that, that the choreography can change.
At this point, what's the ratio of concepts that are like, "That's a version of something that really happened," and "That's just an idea that we ran with because it made us laugh just talking about the notion?"
Often it starts with something that we've culled from real-life observations. But I think there is a real value that we place on imagination in the writers' room, and being able to get to a place of absurdity or surrealism. So that kind of illogical, sometimes irrational thought, I think we really try to let that flourish in the room.
I think there's a checks and balances system. Some of our writers are much more logic-, story-, narrative-based, and then you have Fred, who is a real champion of the tangent, and champion of the oddities. So I think it works. We try to do both.
Is there anything in the current season where the actual story that inspired it is maybe even funnier than the sketch version?
I don't know if it's funnier than the sketch version, per se. You could talk about our men's rights movement, and think that, I don't know if the real life is funnier, I think it's somewhat more tragic. That to me seems just almost stifling, and the reality of it is stifling and more dangerous, and kind of more far-reaching than I think anything that we were even grappling with.
And a totally opposite thing, Laurie Metcalf, who's such a brilliant, funny actor who did two sketches on our show, which is amazing -- that bathroom soundproofing thing, which is a weirdly relatable office culture situation, that was based on the office that we wrote in. Only Fred would get a writers' room with a bathroom in the middle of the room. So I think that in some ways was funnier.
I think if you could see inside of our brains, I bet we were thinking about the bathroom like three hours out of the day, just out of discomfort. Anyway, I don't even really love bathroom humor, but that really was ridiculous.
Over the course of the season, when you were working on writing this, we've seen all these crazy socio-political divisions that have come up. Certainly, people want to put "hipsters" and "liberals" and whatever they feel about that culture into a certain box. Did that affect the way you were writing in this particular season? Is it going to affect the way you're writing?
It's definitely something that Jonathan Krisel, our writer/director, brought up earlier. I do think that we've always thought of the show as having an earnestness, and not being mean-spirited, because we see ourselves within these characters. To me, it's an exploration of identity, exploration of place, and the ways people discord.
We do feel, I think, protective in some ways of just who we are and sort of seeing this weird, highly partisan kind of culture war right now, and you I think are more aware of vulnerable populations, and what people are fighting for, who feels disenfranchised. So I think there's that as kind of a thinking, feeling person, but in terms of comedy, I was just re-reading Sontag's "On Camp" and thinking about dethroning the serious, and just getting to a place where you can be serious about the frivolous, and frivolous about the serious, and it's OK to get in there.
And to be honest, I feel like we are in the vernacular of the absurd right now. So, to me, I don't necessarily want to let up on being pithy or let up on pointedness for the sake of sincerity, because we've always incorporated heart in the show. But perhaps the characters, through them we can elaborate on some of our own fears and anxieties right now. But I don't want to forego humor or absurdism now, because in some ways, it's kind of the only way to make sense of everything.
I imagine with that affectionate satirizing that you do of the "Portlandia" culture, you don't want the affection that you have to enable somebody else's anger towards it.
No, not at all. It's really hard to sort of keep that in consideration. I think in some ways, we just have to keep approaching it from a creative standpoint. Our mission is to make a good show. I don't necessarily think that we can completely upend what we do. I'm excited, I guess, for the journey.
With the guest stars you've got this season, how many were recruited by you guys, and how many came to you and said, "Can I please come play?"
It's always a mix of both, and unfortunately, it just comes down to logistics. I run into people all the time that say they would love to be on the show, and that we would be honored to have them, and then everyone's busy, everyone's on three shows. That's not even hyperbolic.
Yeah, but we've always been lucky in terms of guest stars and collaboration, and people wanting a milieu in which to improvise and play. We continue to just be fortunate in terms of who we get. Someone like Claire Danes or Laurie Metcalf. Or we have like Damian Lillard from The Blazers, or the band Run the Jewels. It's all over the place, but they all sort of make sense in our world.
Is your collaboration with Fred, is it a safe constant, or does it evolve? Have you found an evolution in the way you guys work together?
I think any partnership has to evolve. Change has to be part of the equation. I don't know. Stagnation just feels pernicious in terms of oneself, or any kind of relationship. But again, I think you're always trying to sort of solidify the foundation.
So you kind of have to go back and make sure that's solid, and then from there, I think it's a real trust fall to get to experiment and grow with someone. So we definitely try to evolve, but only because we kind of keep going back and making sure that we're good. OK, there's solid ground there. It's an interesting balancing act.
Is there something that you know you can do to make him laugh hard, and vice versa?
Yes, any time I raise my voice or scream, he finds that very funny. I don't know -- I feel like Fred can make me laugh almost all the time. But he has some fallback bits that he does, that I think he knows I laugh at because I'm half annoyed that they still get me to laugh, yeah.
What's been taking up your time away from this show? Has there been something front and center on your plate?
I wrote a memoir the other year, and now I'm writing a series of essays. And I've been directing more. I just finished one TV show, and I'm about to direct "Casual" at the end of this month. So I've really been enjoying that process as an extension of what my sort of writer/producer sort of skill set or interest. Directing to me is really wonderful and challenging.
Have you ever gotten any hint that you might come back to "Transparent"?
I don't think so. Who knows? I feel like the Pfeffermans, they really bring people through their meat grinder and spit you out the other side. Who knows? But I would love to. But I also feel like Jill [Soloway] and all the writers are all so good at being true to the narrative of that show, and the growth of the characters. Sometimes I think when they say goodbye to people, that's a permanent door-close.
Have you had much room for music?
Yeah. Sleater-Kinney put out a record I guess in 2015. We did a handful of shows in 2016, but mostly now I'll just start writing. So I always try to keep that as part of my life.
Is that a simple pleasure in your creative life?
Oh, it's definitely not simple! Playing live maybe has a sort of ease to it, even though the stakes always feel high. But writing is just as challenging as anything I do.
"Portlandia" airs Thursdays on IFC.