An Interview with Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein

So, listen. Carrie Brownstein is one of the stars of Portlandia, which is on IFC and now in its third season. If you’ve never seen it before, let me try to explain Portlandia to you: it’s a half-hour series of sketch comedy, but what you end up seeing are a rotating cast of characters that Carrie and Fred Armisen (you know him, of course, from Saturday Night Live) play, like Nina and Lance, Iris and Spike and the ladies who run the women’s bookstore, to name a few. A lot of the characters are hipsters, but that’s okay; this is comedy – satire at its best!

I had a chance to speak to Carrie recently. There’s so much I wanted to ask her… I mean, she was in Sleater-Kinney! So here it is.

So now we are on season three of Portlandia. That’s exciting!

I’m excited about the new season. We had a lot of fun filming it over the summer. I think we were able to explore some of the characters we really liked and tell more about their lives and figure out who they are. There’s a lot more stories that unfold over the whole season instead of individual sketches so I think there’s a lot more for people to discover this season.

Your costumes are amazing. I would love to be able to wear some of those outfits. Do you design them?

I don’t. We have a really wonderful costume designer named Amanda Needham. She shopped for the characters as if she was filling up an entire closet for them. Instead of just what they would be wearing for a specific sketch, she thinks of them as real people and really tries to imagine what their closets might look like. And she shops at a lot of thrift stores and vintage stores. I think she really approaches it in a very dynamic way. She really helps develop the characters through the clothing and she keeps them really specific and reality based. If the character is not supposed to be glamorous she doesn’t try to make them too glamorous. I really like it. It means that we don’t get to look great on the show all the time but it helps make it more real.

The pedicab guy that Fred plays is so fun.

I really like Fred’s moustache and his little haircut in that one.

So I’m wondering about these characters and how you come up with them.

Well, a lot of times they’re based on people we know or just certain parts of a personality that we want to explore and maybe highlight more and make a little more extreme. As the seasons have gone on, I think we realized that you know in each sketch its more important that me and Fred’s characters have a relationship to one another, that they’re kind of placed in conflict either with each other or with some other circumstance. Often we try to think of people who we think are interesting, like what kind of person overly cares about what kind of food they eat? And often, it’s just a matter of finding a really great wig or really great shoes and just try to put them together and make them seem very particular or specific.

In my sketch class at school, it took us forever to get one sketch written. How do you do so many funny sketches?

It takes us a long time too. Often to get one and half to three minutes of material, we’re shooting for four or five hours. It’s really crazy that all of that work and all of that improvisation or dialogue or writing is just reduced to a minute or two but often that’s the only part that’s  funny or that’s the only part that makes sense. It’s always surprising how much more work goes into that than what appears on-screen.

Have you always been a comedy writer?

Well I always really loved writing when I was young. It was a strength I had in junior high and high school and in college. I started writing for NPR and I wrote about music for them. Occasionally I tried to infuse more humor into that writing or make little videos to put up on their website. So it was always an interest of mine but it wasn’t until I started working with Fred and we used to make these videos to put online—before we did Portlandia—and we really just developed a certain style of writing and a kind of dynamic that he and I share. So a lot of my writing for comedy really just started with working on Portlandia.

Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag are both such cool bands.

Oh, thanks.

What part do you enjoy the most of being in a band?

I think the main part of being in a band that I love is getting to perform onstage I think there’s something really special about music in that the rules are different for the kind of behavior that’s acceptable onstage; you get to perform at being angry or there’s a wildness to it and it’s all sanctioned on stage. There’s a lot of really interesting things you get to explore when you’re performing that in regular life would be deemed very inappropriate

What are some of your favorite songs that you’ve written?

My favorite song I wrote is called, well I guess I have two (from Sleater-Kinney): “Jumpers” is one song. And another song is “Modern Girl”. And from Wild Flag, probably a song called “Romance”.

You’re so inspiring: you act and you create music and you do all this stuff that is so creative. I love that.

Oh, thanks. I don’t think people should limit themselves to one thing. It’s a good way to explore different sides of yourself or to express different things. I think it’s really amazing how a lot of people are doing work in multiple areas and its great to see the ways that they’re similar but also the ways that people are different you know in one aspect of their lives than another. So I think if you have multiple interests, there’s no necessary reason to limit yourself to one thing.

I agree. I also feel very strongly about being a feminist.

I definitely would consider myself a feminist. I just think it’s so important that girls grow up with a sense of unlimited possibility and that they see themselves represented in all facets of life—whether that’s creative life or professional life, whether it’s their sexuality or their ethnicity—that they just feel validated and safe. And that they feel an infinite sense of empowerment and freedom and that that sense of self-confidence empowers them to be gracious and generous and caring towards other people too. I just think it’s really an important thing. I get frustrated when people are unwilling to embrace the term feminism because to me it does not have a negative connotation.

Me too. I see it sometimes and it’s so frustrating to me. I mean, I believe girls and boys are of equal value, that’s what feminism is to me.

Of course and that’s a great way to think in middle school or any time in your life, that people should be equal. I agree.

I feel like you and Fred are the kind of best friends that compliment each other.

Whenever we start to get annoyed with each other one of us just makes the other person laugh and that just breaks the spell. Fred has a very positive energy. I sometimes get frustrated with myself or with the process and Fred is really wonderful at being encouraging and making me laugh and just adding an element of fun and of optimism; I can be prone to cynicism. He really just has an infectious energy and I love that about him. Sometimes at the end of a long day of working together, it’s that positivity that keeps me going.

I get cranky after a long day. So, completely different subject, it’s been so cold here and I’ll like wear a skirt and it’s like, what is going on with the weather?

It’s hard when your style is in conflict with your environment.

Sometimes I curl my hair and if it doesn’t look good with the outfit, I have to change the outfit.

Oh, do you change your hair over your outfit, so you match your outfit to your hair instead of vice versa?

Yeah, totally. If you have ruffles and your hair is curly, it just doesn’t work.

It’s like too many waves. It’s like everything’s wavy. You have to have some clean lines if you’re going have curls.

Yes! It would be great if I could just spend my whole day in sweatpants and put my hair in a ponytail.

Well, you should come and hang out in Portland. Then you just can dress casual all the time.

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