Carrie Brownstein may be better known now as the co-star and co-writer of the TV show Portlandia than she is as the guitarist for iconic rock band Sleater-Kinney. On the eve of her City Arts & Lectures conversation on Wednesday, May 14, we asked the one-time Berkeley resident how she and the show's co-founder Fred Armisen continue to lovingly spoof foodies, DIY entrepreneurs, bike punks, feminist bookstore owners, and the indie world, all while keeping the series fresh.
Do you see much similarity between Portlandia and San Francisco?
I think the difference between Portland and San Francisco is money. When you're in San Francisco or the East Bay, you're aware of the fact that there are a lot of people who are doing well ... But I [also] think that the Bay Area has always been ahead of the curve in aspiring to a certain level of progressive thought and politics and lifestyle, and Portland is just following in your footsteps.
To me, Portland is just a mindset, and that mindset exists everywhere. It's more about people in conflict. San Francisco is a perfect example of that. People have a kind of guilt about how their way of living in San Francisco is in conflict with their political beliefs. [There’s] an awareness of the privilege you have to have in order to worry about the minutia between organic and non-organic or between half and half and whole milk. These mock epic things become so elevated.
How has the storytelling in Portlandia has evolved over time?
Last season, we wanted to focus on longer narrative arcs, and so we had stories that tracked over the whole season. And that was rewarding but difficult and a slight strain on our shoestring budget show. So for this season, we were still interested in exploring the lives of the characters, but we wanted to make sure the individual sketches were biting and funny and could exist on their own. I think we found a really nice balance between writing more interesting stories and exploring the lives of the characters, but also giving people something they could enjoy in just a few minutes.
People have a kind of guilt about how their way of living in San Francisco is in conflict with their political beliefs. [There’s] an awareness of the privilege you have to have in order to worry about the minutia between organic and non-organic or between half and half and whole milk. These mock epic things become so elevated.
In the past, a lot of pieces were done improv style. Is that still the case?
We continued to do that, but I think we've gotten better at creating a scaffolding for the scripts and actually having all the scenes written out. The more work we do beforehand, the easier it is to improvise on set. That's why I think it feels sharper this year.
You've got some amazing guest stars this season. Do you write with someone in mind or do you come up with a character and wonder who would be available?
Well, both. When we're thinking about the sketches in the writers' room, sometimes it just seems so obvious. Like for “The Pull Out King,” Jeff Goldblum was the first person we thought of. And he killed it. He brings so much nuance and strangeness to any role. And the same with Steve Buscemi and “The King of Celery” – we needed someone who could portray the wilted, bearing-the-brunt-of-everything-on-their-shoulders guy, and Steve is so great at that. And then sometimes we look at the script and think what's a good guest role and who can we find? Sometimes it's somebody who reached out to us and said, “I'd love to be on your show.” Like Kirsten Dunst. It always feels like they fit into the world, it never feels too conspicuous, which is something we've been wary of from the beginning … I think the reason a lot of dramatic actors and musicians like to come on the show is that, yes, they want to have their work taken seriously, but maybe they don't always take themselves as seriously as we might think they do.
When you have screenings of the show, is there a groaning that goes on? Like, “Oh, man, that's me up there?”
I think there's a groaning of recognizability. And then the excitement of being noticed. As much as people cringe when they see themselves – when I watch the show I see myself – people don't feel targeted. Because Fred and I are approaching it like we know these people and we are these people.
Carrie Brownstein appears in conversation with Vendela Vida as part of City Arts & Lectures on Wednesday, May 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes Street (between Van Ness Avenue & Franklin), S.F.