Hyperreal Comedy and Real-Time Tragedy, With Carrie Brownstein

It’s been a couple weeks since Portlandia has peeked out from IFC. Its third season began with the righteous holiday episode “Winter in Portlandia,” whose reliably surreal comedy nevertheless found a nation gripped with real-time tragedy — including a shooting rampage in Portland itself. After that, and then Newtown, some of us needed a holiday from hyperreality.

But a new year dawns with two back-to-back Portlandia episodes, whose gifted co-star Carrie Brownstein isn’t going to let yet another deranged, estranged white male with way too easy access to warfare weaponry fuck up her program. The intrepid guitarist and vocalist for Wild Flag, as well as the hopefully reuniting Sleater-Kinney, has written a song or two about that.

No, to move forward, It’s important we celebrate our abilities to make each other love and laugh. Whether that’s at, and with, Brownstein and co-star Fred Armisen — as well as Portlandia season-three guest stars like Peace and Freedom party leader Roseanne Barr or Dinosaur Jr. rock influential J. Mascis — is up to whatever emergent viewers happen to tune into its explorations of character and absurdity.

But let us all enter the new year at least agreeing upon one shared truth: Twin Peaks utterly ruled.

It’s weird to talk about Portlandia now without talking about what happened in Portland.

Carrie Brownstein: It’s really shocking. Any community that suffers a random act of violence, especially a shooting in a public space, must have that same rude, horrifying awakening of not being special in its sense of safety. The realization is we’re not immune to violence. It’s very saddening. I’ve been to the Clackamas Town Center before, so it’s very surreal. My thoughts go out to the families. It’s a strange, sad moment to think someone was able to bring that weapon into a public space.

It might seem random but this is one of a series of violently unhinged shootings this year. Are you concerned that this tragedy is becoming less random and more predictable?

Carrie Brownstein: Certainly, that seems to be our deep-seated fear, that this kind of violence will become part of the fabric of our lives. That it is becoming less random, and we are becoming I don’t think inured to it, but that its elements of surprise and horror will be replaced by the sense that it is somehow common. Hopefully, that isn’t the case. But there is that underlying fear, as these happen more frequently.

Speaking of war and peace, I saw that Roseanne Barr, who ran for president in 2012 under the Peace and Freedom ticket, is guest-starring on Portlandia this season. Did you play with her presidential run at all?

Carrie Brownstein: We didn’t play with that, as we had very specific storyline for her, although it was political. But I didn’t talk to her too much about it. She was lovely to be on the set with, and I was honored. I’m a big fan of her show. I think more about how incendiary, singular and ahead of its time Roseanne was. Well, I don’t know about ahead of its time, but I don’t think anything has really caught up to it in some ways. We talked about a lot of things, but not her presidential run, although I was following her on Twitter leading up to the election. [Laughs] I felt like she was constantly talking to me during that election. [Laughs]

Any thoughts on a female president?

Carrie Brownstein: Of course it seems like a certainty at this point. But to say that we wouldn’t have these kind of violent episodes under a female president is an essentialist argument. I think we have a compassionate president, but I’m not sure having a female president would make us more compassionate. Who knows? There are plenty of other countries with female leaders whose people haven’t all of a sudden stopped carrying guns.

Another cool guest star is Dinosaur Jr. guitar virtuoso J. Mascis, who seems like too shy and reserved a guy for Portlandia.

Carrie Brownstein: Fred and I are both fans of his music. Fred and I had joined him onstage in Boston for one of our live Portlandia shows, and getting to play guitar with him was definitely a highlight for me. He has such great tone, he’s a dynamic, amazing player and such a special guy that we wanted to include him in any way we could. He was a bit shy, but he’s very funny and wry too. When we bring people into the context of Portlandia, we often get to showcase sides of them one might not see when they’re onstage or in their personas. It’s always nice to watch them transform, although J. is playing a musician! [Laughs]

As influential as J. Mascis is, I always feel he’s underrated.

Carrie Brownstein: It’s hard to say what constitutes recognition and influence, especially when it’s not immediately felt. Like you said, he influenced Sonic Youth, who influenced many, but it’s all part of the fabric of influence. It’s hard to draw a through-line from one artist or band to the next. It’s all a confluence of ideas and inspiration, and he’s certainly part of that.

When we last we talked for Portlandia‘s second season, you said you felt something like a comedy fraud, which I found hilarious, as you seem a natural. Are you feeling more comfortable in your skin?

Carrie Brownstein: [Laughs] Well, thank you for reminding of that! I don’t think I feel fraudulent, but I’m still aware of my slightly outsider status, having come in through comedy’s side door. But in some ways, I feel like that perspective lends itself to people’s fondness for Portlandia, and its uniqueness. I think they might even appreciate that more. Fred, Jonathan and I all come from a variety of peripheries, which conspire to make Portlandia different than other shows. So I’m appreciating that more, rather than feeling it’s a detriment or inauthentic.

Portlandia seems to be gaining momentum, rather than losing it.

Carrie Brownstein: It’s a fine line between confidence and hubris. Confidence definitely helps you take steps forward, but when it veers into territories where you feel entitled or too sure-footed, that’s when you know you have to undermine yourself again, and make things scary again, at least in terms of creativity. Although getting consecutive seasons for Portlandia is a huge source of pride for us, it still is the element of uncertainty that keeps pushing us to take risks. You always need balance, because it’s when you’re overconfident that you make mistakes.

How does Portlandia‘s risk-taking manifest this season?

Carrie Brownstein: When we were heading into season three, we were thinking about what attracts us to other shows, and keeps us coming back. And we realized that character is the core of that: People whose lives we could relate to, but also not relate to. We’re drawn to that sense of confusion, that sense of not being able to understand. So we decided in the third season to take characters we had introduced in a cursory manner and explore their depths, to find out what their relationships to other characters and the city itself were. We found stories to tell that would showcase their essential traits and highlight their internal conflicts.

In that way, I do think the show has grown. It feels richer. There are more ways to get inside the mind of the show because we’ve given you more characters to explore. And we’ve also started using season-long arcs, so that there are stories to be told. Portlandia now has sentences, instead of just phrases.

Tell me about them.

Carrie Brownstein: Well, Carrie and Fred have a roommate now, played by Chloe Sevigny, who sows some discord into what last season was a harmonious relationship. We also have a bed-and-breakfast storyline for Peter and Nance that takes place across the whole city. And then the Mayor, played by Kyle Maclachlan, has his own storyline, where his role as mayor is compromised and jeopardized, and Portland goes through a pretty large crisis as a result. So there are a handful of extended storylines that weave throughout the season.

I love Kyle Maclachlan in anything.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, me too.

Were you a fan of Twin Peaks?

Carrie Brownstein: I was actually a pretty big fan of Twin Peaks. I saw it when it was in high school, and all my weirdo friends — goths, punks, metalheads and all other kinds — sort of rallied around it. In fact, I had a handful of friends who started dressing like the female characters. One learned how to tie a cherry stem in her mouth like Audrey Horne, and wore similar sweaters. Twin Peaks was the first show that I watched which permeated the aesthetic senses of my friends, because it was so weird and surreal and nothing like the mainstream.

Also, we were growing up in Seattle while the show was being filmed in the Pacific Northwest, so it really spoke to us and the ways we felt about it. The Pacific Northwest has this mythical quality about it, as well as a frontier or outlier status that’s so burdened and jagged. So yeah, I loved Twin Peaks and I loved Special Agent Dale Cooper. Kyle was fantastic and funny. I actually rewatched the series last year.

With three seasons under its belt, Portlandia has now outlasted Twin Peaks. Think about that.

Carrie Brownstein: I know, that’s weird. But the first season of Twin Peaks is just stellar.

Have you and Fred considered importing other actors from Twin Peaks into Portlandia? Ray Wise would rule.

Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, we actually have. Catherine Coulson, who played The Log Lady, lives in Portland and is always doing the Shakespeare Festival down in Ashland, but that conflicts with our schedule. And there have been a handful of other actors from Twin Peaks we’ve considered for the show, to make that reference more absurd and pronounced, but we haven’t been able to coordinate any yet.

Twin Peaks pulled television’s margins to the mainstream, and Portlandia evokes its outlier status. Do you find something weird in that transition?

Carrie Brownstein: I don’t know. It’s one of those situations where trying to intentionally break ground means you’re already heading down the rabbit hole. I think you have to work on writing a good show and coming up with good characters, and hopefully create something unique, fresh and daring. If people deem it groundbreaking, that’s great. But to go in with that intention is to already not be groundbreaking. It’s such a contrivance, and so self-important, to think, “This is going to be groundbreaking!” [Laughs] Because that sense of self-importance is not groundbreaking: It’s the most normal thing you can do, and a common fatal error. You do the best you can, be fearless, and hope it will be good.