Portlandia: A Tale of Two Cities

TV Features Portlandia
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There are two Portland, Oregons. And a river runs through them.

The Willamette River separates East from West Portland, but in many ways also serves as something of a DMZ for the cultural divide that has long separated the city.

West Portland stands for Old Money: The tony West Hills, home to the private and exclusive Multnomah Athletic Club, the hillside majesty of Oregon Health Sciences University, Washington Park and its beautifully manicured International Rose Test Garden, the Saturday Market (where Westsiders can safely dip their toes in the boho pool before turning tail for home) and the more nouveau-riche Pearl District, essentially a gentrified conglomeration of condos, cafes and boutiques stitching together the city’s Old Town and the smelly former breweries that once dotted the northwest downtown core. It’s the part of Portland that is essayed in the New York Times travel section on Sundays; the cleaned-up My Little Town that Could, not quite Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. but a far cry from Bend. It’s the acceptable face of an otherwise shaggy Pacific Northwest: a cool, hoodie-flossing food-cart haven for urban hipsters who probably work for an ad agency or tech startup when they’re not effortlessly guiding a snowboard down Mount Hood each winter weekend.

East Portland, meanwhile, represents the Red Zone: the Free Speech-defending, #occupyportland-embracing, starter-kit-beard-wearing, stridently fixed-gear-bicycle-riding liberation (Timbers) army that proudly reminds visitors that “Pornland” has more strip clubs per capita than Las Vegas, plays host to the annual World Naked Bike Ride, sports a tattoo parlor on just about every other corner, and whose Eastside streets served as the seedy backdrop for some of the late Elliott Smith’s most emotionally desperate songs (“Now on the bus, nearly touching this dirty retreat / Falling out, 6th and Powell, a dead sweat in my teeth / Gonna walk walk walk, four more blocks plus the one in my brain / Down downstairs to the man, he’s gonna make it all okay”). The Oscar to West Portland’s more fastidious Felix, Eastside represents the part of Portland that Williamsburg residents embrace when they move here to escape their college bands and poor-paying service jobs to play in about six different groups with other Williamsburg escapees before heading off to wait tables at their locavore haven of choice.

Eastside Portlanders are living the utopian dream; Westsiders just like to think they are (albeit, a BMW-driving higher income-bracket dream than their Marx-reading neighbors across the river).

It is this part of Portland—the “slumming it” version of our town, which by any rational standard, is hardly slumming it at all—that serves as the backdrop for today’s Portlandia shoot, one of the last before the cast completes its second season’s worth of episodes, set to air this Friday on IFC. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein—the versatile Saturday Night Live cast member and former Sleater-Kinney/current Wild Flag guitarist who serve as the show’s ubiquitous stars—are standing in front of a prototypically trendy Portland Sunday brunch spot (actually the Good Neighbor Pizzeria on Northeast Dekum Street, in disguise) with actor Kyle MacLachlan, reprising his guest role as the fictional mayor of Portland. MacLachlan approaches the pair wearing a life vest, rolled-up khaki trousers and the yellow helmet-and-oar combination of an overly-safety-conscious weekend kayaker, raising a hand in greeting before realizing in his amiably bumbling way that they have missed the brunch window entirely and must now find an alternative location. The garbage can nearby, overflowing with coffee cups and the detritus of eat-and-run weekenders, evidently fails to set off the mayor’s “we’re too late” alarm bells.

Given that Portlandia is essentially a televised outgrowth of “Thunderant”—Armisen and Brownstein’s Internet-only sketch comedy series—there’s some meta-entertainment to be had in watching the scene evolve as director Jonathan Krisel gives the trio slight pivots in direction with each successive take. MacLachlan’s punchline changes ever-so-slightly, the intimate-couple banter between Armisen and Brownstein morphs a bit from shot to shot (interspersed with snatches of Armisen humming the Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It?” in between takes). It’s clear that they’re working within the confines of a specific idea, but otherwise, they’re finding their way through it together, playing off of one another like an improv troupe trying to dial up the proper ennui setting.

“This is just a little pick-up scene in a much broader piece,” Brownstein explains later over lunch at a converted firehouse just a few blocks from the shoot location (which also served as a location for a lost-dog scene in Season One). “Brevity is hard for us! But that’s just us trusting Jon. Sometimes there are these little pieces that we can’t make heads or tails of until we see the end product. ‘Put A Bird On It’ was like that,” Brownstein explains of the show’s first-season signature piece. “That was the first thing we shot together.”

“We had no idea what we were doing at all last year,” Armisen continues. “We don’t overthink it. The characters change so much from half day to half day. You put on a new wig, and suddenly you can’t remember what you did in the morning. Not in that pretentious ‘Oh, we can’t remember’ sort of way,” he laughs. “But it just goes by so quickly for us. We’re having a good time, then we’re in another scenario. We’re always moving to some house, coffee shop; it makes your brain think you’re in a whole new thing. It helps that we’re on location. If we were on a soundstage, it might feel like more of an actual job.”

“I learned last year that a lot of the time, the funniest things are the lines I don’t even see while we’re shooting,” finishes Krisel, rubbing his Buffalo Springfield-era muttonchop sideburns thoughtfully as he talks. “It’s only later, looking through all the footage… when you’re on set the funny things almost don’t work later. We’re leaving it loose so that we can discover what each individual person brings. They don’t have to fit into our little shoebox. I like that this show has a structure to get ‘funny’ out of everyone. It’s why it works. And to be clear: it’s also really loose and sloppy.”

Which, as it happens, is much like Portland itself.

The Drama You’ve Been Craving

Here’s something weird, but typically Portland: Portlandia, the sculpture, is the second-largest copper statue in the United States, behind only the Statue of Liberty in size. Not that you’d know it: the trident-waving, flowing-locked goddess sits grandly but discreetly above the entrance of the Portland Building downtown, and may be one of the lowest-key pieces of giant art extant in North America due to the rigorous intellectual property guidelines applied to it (Portlandia’s creator, Raymond Kaskey, has legally ensured that his work hasn’t been mass-produced in miniature and made available in every gift shop in town, for whatever obscure reason).

Portlandia, the show, shares some characteristics with its copper-plated namesake. It has bootstrapped something of a TV location profile for the city: Suddenly, it’s not that unusual to find a crew surrounded by trucks, lights and actors hanging out in some random corner of our town. On this day alone, Portlandia is wrapping up its work while Grimm is being shot at a nearby location, mere days after TNT’s Leverage has skipped town following its fourth season of episodes here. When you add the films of native son Gus Van Sant and the continuation of an indie-rock scene that first flourished back in the ’90s (Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, The Dandy Warhols) before giving way to a second generation of acts now based here (The Decemberists, The Shins, Modest Mouse, M. Ward, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, etc.), you have the makings of a town punching somewhat above its weight class, creatively speaking. There’s even a documentary—the knowingly self-mocking Don’t Move Here—devoted to Portland’s latest wave of indie-music phenoms. Not to mention the fact that the real mayor of Portland—Sam Adams—has an ongoing bit in Portlandia in which he plays an exasperated aide to the hapless MacLachlan.

It’s all so meta, isn’t it? Creatively-superior, but self-effacing. Crically-acclaimed, but with the tags left on. Up-and-coming, but with a wink and a nod. This is very Portland. And very Portlandia, a show that has built a considerable on-air and online following despite the rather smallish confines of its cable-network outlet.

Then there is the cavalcade of bizarro-world characters dreamed up by Armisen and Brownstein and unleashed in an endless stream of free-associating sketches: Toni and Candace, the fervently feminist clerks of Women and Women First Bookstore. Daniel and Meg, the ecology-minded dumpster-divers preparing a meal for their friends from the leftovers of the neighborhood garbage. The Harajuku Girls—Japanese tourists snapping photos of “Coffee Land” in an otherwise nondescript cafe to the utter bafflement of the locals who hang there. Peter and Nance, the cooing lovebirds asking about the precise provenance of their local chicken dish (right down to the diet and plot of land) over a dinner date. And of course Bryce and Lisa, the essence of Etsy, putting “birds on things” in a local boutique while all hell breaks loose around them.

Portland really does consist of people just like these, and many others; eccentric characters seem to materialize and fall out of the fir trees around here, and Portlandia makes every effort to document their existence right down to the smallest, most granular of details. As it happens, this is a source of considerable pride for Armisen (a frequent Portland visitor now seeking permanent digs here) and Brownstein (Stumptown denizen for more than a decade).

“Everywhere we go in Portland, people from all walks of life are supportive,” Armisen explains with some degree of wonder. “They have their favorite sketches, characters; they’ve welcomed us into their homes when we shoot. It’s been kind of hard to believe how nice people have been to us here. It’s like they’ve given us a backstage pass.”

“Living here year-round, it was very surprising that people embraced it here like they did,” continues Brownstein. “I probably had the most sensitivity to how Portlanders would feel about the show. For the most part, people got it. And not just here, but elsewhere: Austin, New York City. Fred gets recognized more for Portlandia than for SNL!”

But for those who are new to the show, the last thing Armisen and Brownstein want is for you to walk away from your viewing experience feeling like the pair’s characters are little more than a collection of oddballs and misfits who would foul out of reality anywhere else. “People always ask about where the characters come from,” Brownstein earnestly explains. “Every character is a relationship between Fred and I, and we start there and go backwards from that. We don’t start with ‘Who’s this person we can make fun of?’ That never exists. We are always asking ‘Who are Fred and I in this piece? How do we relate to each other?’ instead of just pointing at someone on the street and trying to imitate them. That’s not very interesting. You don’t get as far. It becomes inauthentic and insincere.”

“I want the characters to be whole,” adds Krisel. “They’re not cartoons. We’re hitting every generation of Portlanders in this show: campers, hikers, hippies. There’s a lived-in quality to these characters, they’re not just these wacky, over-the-top people. Yesterday Fred was wearing pleated shorts in one shot: that’s a very specific thing. So many times, coming out of makeup, these two would be ‘Oh, I know that guy!’ It’s like The Simpsons,” he finishes, another comedy based upon creator Matt Groening’s experience growing up in Portland. “We want to create the illusion that there really is a Portlandia, a whole universe to explore.”

“The more Fred and I live in these characters, the more we figure out who they are and what makes them work,” enthuses Brownstein. “It’s all the details you’d research for a film or recurring TV character, but within a split-second process: how a certain way they talk affects us, or bothers us, or makes us happy. You develop a language specific to that character, develop an affection for them, find more of yourself within them. We shot an allergy Pride Parade last week,” she laughs. “They were pretty basic allergies, with gay rights analogies: How far we’ve come. Everyone feels special. Fred and I played the commentators at the parade. I looked like a politician’s wife!”

“There’s a lot of gray hair here in Portland,” Armisen finishes tangentially with a laugh. “People really let their gray hair fly around here, of all lengths. It’s very sexy.”

Memorize Your Lines

Talk to any creative person here in Portland and you’re likely to discover someone whose commitment to the arts is nearly total. It’s not unusual to learn that someone plays in three different bands (bluegrass, indie-rock and an experimental electronic duo), is preparing for a gallery showing of their paintings this coming weekend, teaches music in a youth program to elementary-age musicians, just signed a book deal and shares a rental home with four other like-minded zealots.

In this respect, both Armisen and Brownstein blend into their soggy surroundings like the camouflaged hunters that prowl Oregon’s woods each fall and winter. The Long Island-raised Armisen attended New York’s School of Visual Arts before dropping out to begin a career as a rock drummer, playing first for the punk band Trenchmouth before catching on with the Blue Man Group in the ’90s. All the while, he was simultaneously pursuing an acting career, landing roles on Crank Yankers and Adult Swim before being added as a cast member to Saturday Night Live in the mid-2000s, playing a number of recurring characters that have included a Venezuelan nightclub comedian, one of Gaddafi’s trash-talking fictional childhood best friends, the vaguely European host of a foreign TV music show and, most memorably, David Paterson (the blind former governor of New York) and President Barack Obama. He was married to musician Sally Timms for a spell (they divorced in 2004) and seems never to have ventured too far from a stage since becoming an adult. It’s a grab-bag of experience that has nonetheless prepared him perfectly for Portlandia’s spin-the-bottle creativity.

Brownstein has had a similarly omnivorous approach to her creative endeavors. She was born and raised in Seattle’s Eastside suburbs and took guitar lessons at a young age from Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk, then went on to study at The Evergreen State College in Washington (along with future Riot Grrls Corin Tucker, Kathleen Hanna, and Tobi Vail), graduating with a degree in sociolinguistics before moving to Portland along with her Sleater-Kinney bandmates in the late ’90s. Since the iconic trio went on hiatus in 2006, Brownstein has pursued sketch comedy, authored an acclaimed blog (Monitor Mix) for three years while writing reviews for Slate and The Believer, and recently returned to music by forming Wild Flag with longtime friends/collaborators Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi), Mary Timony (Helium) and Rebecca Cole (The Minders). The band announced its existence on the web by enigmatically proclaiming “What is the sound of an avalanche taking out a dolphin? What do you get when you cross a hamburger with a hot dog? WILD FLAG,” releasing a promising debut album before galloping out of town to tour and repeat the life Brownstein once knew for the better part of a decade prior to Portlandia’s existence.

If this all seems a bit breathless from the outside, for Armisen and Brownstein, a liberal arts approach to their liberal arts pursuits fits as comfortably as hand in glove. “We all have a lot going on but I feel really lucky to have two things in my life that are both so creative,” Brownstein relates. “Both Fred and I have had to adjust to not relying on a live audience for feedback with Portlandia. Music is the same thing as SNL, that way: you gauge your effectiveness on whether or not people cheer, or laugh. Sometimes there are moments on set where people laugh and we have to remember not to count on that for a moment that will work in the show. It took a couple of weeks for us to remember ‘Oh right, we’re not trying to get a reaction from the gaffer today.’”

“One venue isn’t necessarily better than the other,” adds Armisen. “It’s so easy to indulge your ego when you’re the stars of a show. You have to reign it in and make it real. We police ourselves pretty well, we’re not that clowny about it. But you know who fixes that every time? It’s Jon. He reigns us in.”

“Plus, our crew’s very funny,” finishes Brownstein. “It’s like being in funny school. Everyone here is funny. We’re just not that special.”

As if to prove this point, we move to two more location shoots after lunch in which a brief interlude is filmed with a real police car (piloted by the similarly real PR chief for the Portland Police, putting in a uniformed cameo appearance) in a warehouse that smells vaguely of chicken ramen. Just as quickly, we’re off to a scene being shot in a cramped local church masquerading as community center where Armisen and Brownstein meet with the fictional chief of Portland Police at the request of the mayor, who believes (in the wake of a series of scandals) that the best solution for reconnecting with the Portland community is to redesign the force’s uniforms, including hipster-inspired ideas such as a navy-blue jumpsuit, a blue hoodie with the initials “PPD” stitched to it, and a blue ballet skirt. The crew—from the location scout to the key grip to everyone in between—is focused but cutting up with one another, contributing to the general air around the set as something of a comic family affair in which chores are getting ticked off the list, but not in any particular order or rhythm. At one point Armisen wanders by in between takes, asking if “Craft Service is taking care of you? Would you like some liquor with that?” Given that the last day of shooting for the season is tomorrow, there’s no air of nostalgia, no pretense, no tension of any kind. It’s like a community playhouse with no particular schedule or end-date to consider, filming on continuous loop just to see whether something funnier might pop up today than it did yesterday.

“It’s a lot more scripted this year,” Brownstein protests somewhat mildly of this observation. “I think that helps the production—the costume department, art department, location scouting—but doesn’t always serve us because of the specificity. We sometimes have to make some adjustments on the fly, just to loosen it up. I think we realized that some of the chaos and clumsiness of last season was actually auspicious.”

As the shoot wraps up, Armisen talks of his plans to return to New York City (he’s literally flying back the next day for rehearsals for Saturday’s show) while Brownstein discusses the upcoming Wild Flag tour of the U.S. and Europe—“I was feeling sorry for myself until Fred had to leave the very next day—no tears. But we do have separation anxiety.” Both realize that they’ve fallen into something very special, if difficult to define.

“There are so many TV shows that never even enter the [popular] conversation,” Brownstein says. “To be making something that people want to share or talk about with me is such a privilege. When we were writing these episodes in Los Angeles, two weeks before we came back here to shoot, you’d ride around on the freeway and see these billboards for shows that you’ve heard of, but aren’t something that mean enough to you to share with someone else. There’s not a day that goes by when we don’t walk around and people come up to us to quote lines directly from the show.”

“It’s not that long ago we were just hoping to get a pilot and get picked up!” chuckles Armisen. “It’s all about the experience in the present tense. Having real results doesn’t matter. All you need is ‘Fred, here’s the scene: you can’t find the restroom.’ And off we go.”