As writers, stars and producers of the sketch comedy series “Portlandia” — which just launched its 4th season on IFC — Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen are now the go-to satirists of the post-liberal-arts-college set. They’re also indie rockers extraordinaire, and Fred just landed a gig as band leader on Seth Myers new late-night show. But this week, they capped off their careers with a pair of truly enviable achievements: they became the first duo to appear in our show’s Guest of Honor segment, and the first to then stick around to answer listener’s etiquette questions. Congratulations Fred & Carrie — you’ve at last left an indelible mark on American culture.
In this Guest of Honor interview, the two muse on the ephemeral nature of virality, explain their shift from trend pieces to character pieces, and then divulge weird facts about each other.
Brendan Francis Newnam: One of the striking things about “Portlandia” is how viral some of these sketches have become online. “Put a Bird On It” would be the obvious example; even my grandparents have heard of that one, and they’re dead.
Carrie Brownstein: Did you put a bird on their coffin? Retroactively?
Brendan Francis Newnam: I went and did; I did that afterwards.
Rico Gagliano: It was so charming, you guys.
Carrie Brownstein: That’s sweet.
Rico Gagliano: But our question is, after doing this for three seasons — this is your fourth– do you have an idea of what goes viral?
Fred Armisen: Oh, it’s hard to predict. We couldn’t have predicted “Put A Bird On It,” and even so far, the first episode that we had out, the thing that I keep seeing is the “Date Fact-Checker.” And you know, I wouldn’t have guessed. You just have no idea.
Rico Gagliano: It actually doesn’t surprise me that that one was the breakout hit.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s also a tidy concept.
Carrie Brownstein: It is.
Rico Gagliano: But it is true that not all your sketches are traditional set-up/punchline comedy.
Carrie Brownstein: Yeah. We want there to be an accessibility, but I think people’s take-away from it, we’re not trying to prescribe. So I don’t necessarily need somebody to laugh at it. Sometimes I just want someone to feel… anything! Just to feel that they’re participating or that there is something relatable about it. Even if it’s a little melancholy or sad or awkward.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So I saw something the other day in New York Magazine. Hipsters are dressing like normal people, and a trending agency called this “normcore.” Basically the woman’s like, “I’m walking behind people on the street, and I can’t tell if they’re my parents’ age, and they turn around and they’re young and hip.” And I’m thinking this is perfect Portlandia material, but also… do you ever fear Peak Trend?
Rico Gagliano: Yeah; if we’re becoming normal, will there be anything for you to lampoon?
Carrie Brownstein: Well one thing that I think helps us is that we started to focus on characters.
Rico Gagliano: You’re not satirizing trends so much as a type of person.
Carrie Brownstein: Yeah. I think we’re just more interested in ‘who.’ Who is the kind of person that would embrace normcore? And also, it’s not in a derisive mocking way. It’s like, what’s lacking in their lives? What are they trying to say by doing this? By eating a certain way or dressing a certain way. It’s a genuine interest.
Rico Gagliano: Do you think there’s a demographic outside the “liberal-arts” demographic that you’re skewering, who’re watching this show?
Fred Armisen: Oh, absolutely. I see them every day. We’re here in New York right now and I’m always amazed at the very, very New York-y people who will say to me, “Hey: Portlandia!” And I grew up here and that, to me… I can’t imagine how they connect to it. Because I’m talking about New Yorker-New Yorkers.
Rico Gagliano: But then there’s almost a weird responsibility. You may be defining that whole chunk of society for people who are not a part of it.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That was a public radio question: “What’s your responsibility.”
Carrie Brownstein: Yeah. It really was. You know… I agree with Fred; we have kids and then we have grandparents that watch the show. In Salt Lake, the Salt Lake City airport, there was a guy that lived 40 miles out of the city in rural Utah that watched the show. And I feel like they’re not watching it to be mean or to make fun of. I think it’s almost like anthropological for them. Where they’re like, “Who are these people and how can we get to know them better?”
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right well, look, you guys have both been guests of honor on our show, and we’ve asked you our two standard questions. So we’re gonna do something a little bit different here: We usually ask you to tell us something we don’t know, something you haven’t talked about in interviews, so we’re gonna ask you to do that about each other. So, Fred: could you tell us something about Carrie that we don’t know?
Rico Gagliano: Make it juicy, because she’s gonna.
Fred Armisen: Well, I don’t know how much you would know this, but one thing is she is very sensitive to cold. She has this sense of coldness in a room. She’ll often enter a room and say, “Brr.” And she’ll ask this question: “Does it have to be this cold?”
Rico Gagliano: So you’re in New York right now — how are you possibly dealing with this, Carrie?
Carrie Brownstein: Well, I would say, “Brr! Why does it have to be this cold!”
Brendan Francis Newnam: And she is wearing a scarf and a jacket and several layers.
Carrie Brownstein: I am.
Fred Armisen: But it’s always directed at other people. It doesn’t mean, “Why did nature make it so cold?” It’s more like, why is this room, does this movie theater…
Rico Gagliano: “Why aren’t you helping me?”
Fred Armisen: Yeah! It’s like, “Is there a reason it has to be this way?”
Carrie Brownstein: It’s very true. I would rather be flaming hot — flaming, flaming hot. We had to get into a really cold pool on set last year. My teeth were chattering.
Rico Gagliano: The scene that happens in the hot tub?
Fred Armisen: It was the hot tub scene.
Brendan Francis Newnam: But it wasn’t hot?
Carrie Brownstein: No, it was freezing. And it was evening.
Rico Gagliano: Why didn’t they make it hot?
Carrie Brownstein: They tried.
Fred Armisen: They thought they were. They had some kind of plastic blanket over it that heats the top of it and they were like, “It’ll be warm.” And I have to say, I will agree with Carrie; it was ice, ice cold. You can see it. If you look at it, you’ll see our body language is, “We have to get this scene done quickly.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: So maybe the steam coming off it is actually—
Carrie Brownstein: The steam was probably in post, because there was no steam coming off that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: CGI?
Carrie Brownstein: It probably was! I’m sure it was.
Rico Gagliano: They’ve got the money for CGI steam, but not a heater?
Carrie Brownstein: Can you believe it?
Rico Gagliano: That’s not cool. All right, so vice-versa, Carrie: What do we not know about Fred?
Carrie Brownstein: Okay… Fred gave me a look like, “What are you gonna say? Don’t tell them–”
Fred Armisen: No, I don’t care!
Carrie Brownstein: Well, I was gonna say something about an allergy, but I’m going to say this thing that I actually — I love many things about you, Fred — but I actually find this very clever and practical in a certain way. When Fred travels, instead of doing laundry, he will ship, FedEx, his dirty laundry home, and go and buy fresh underwear.
Brendan Francis Newnam: But you don’t throw away your underwear, you FedEx it home? That’s kind of creepy.
Carrie Brownstein: Which to me, yeah, I always think it does seem weird that you get home, and you open up a box of stinky underwear. But then you just do the laundry there.
Rico Gagliano: I thought you were gonna say that you were shipping it home to your mom.
Carrie Brownstein: That’s beautiful. That’s sweet.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Can you explain why?
Fred Armisen: I’m a master at traveling. I really make sure that I always pack lightly. It’s just a little bit of carry on luggage. Minimal, minimal. So clothing weighs it all down. So socks and everything else, when I’m done, I ship it all back.
Brendan Francis Newnam: But I don’t understand. It probably costs just as much money to ship underwear across the country FedEx as to buy a new pair of underwear.
Fred Armisen: I’m loaded.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, that’s right! That’s true.