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‘Portlandia’: How Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein Keep the IFC Comedy Fresh After 7 Seasons

The creators and director Jonathan Krisel reveal the organic nature of their writing process. 

Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein

Augusta Quirk/ IFC

If you make seven seasons of a show, change comes with the territory. It’s something that Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel, the principals behind IFC’s “Portlandia,” acknowledge fully. But the stars and director also point out that what’s made their extended run possible is their ability to play around with the show’s format.

READ MORE: ‘Portlandia’ to End in 2018: IFC Renews Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Sketch Comedy for Season 8, But That’s It

“We’ve had the latitude with which to be experimental,” Brownstein said to IndieWire during the Television Critics Association press tour. “To go from something that started out as pretty traditional sketch, in terms of laying the subject matter, and then working with longer narrative forms in Seasons 3, 4, and 5. And then this year we went back to sketch. So there is an elasticity that I think we really relish.”

“Yeah, I think we evolved, and then kind of came back, but in a different spirit,” added Krisel, who’s been directing “Portlandia” since the very beginning. “It always feels new and different. It doesn’t feel like we’re cranking it out again.”

The writing definitely benefitted as a result of those shifts. “I think we learned a lot about character by doing long-form stories,” Brownstein said. “So even as we were going back to sketch, it felt there has to be a relationship within this sketch. That’s what a lot of the tension comes from. The desire to experiment and keep pushing is how we’ve evolved. You know, just trying new methodologies.”

Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen

One aspect of “Portlandia” that has always been constant is the recurring characters who have appeared throughout the years. “It becomes easier to write for people who you know. And so we started to feel like certain characters represented a certain story or certain traits that we wanted to explore,” Brownstein said. “I think that just helps with the writing process. I think, okay, well, what would Kath and Dave do in this situation? What would Peter and Nance do? What would Toni and Candace do? It’s just a tool to use. When you’re actually dealing with character. You’re not starting from scratch.”

What this meant for Season 7, according to Krisel, is that they can still explore what’s possible with conceptual sketches, “but we can also explore the lives of these characters, because we’ve had these characters for so long. We’ve seen them have children and get married.”

That said, they’ve never felt beholden to make sure every character’s storyline tracks exactly — a choice Armisen compared to the way “The Simpsons” often resets the narrative.

For him, there’s a comfort in resetting certain characters back to ground zero, but “it’s also a little bit like not taking it too seriously. Just remembering that it’s like, a comedy and it’s okay for those characters to come back to where they were.”

Those comments speak to the spirit which has ensured a place for “Portlandia” as one of the great comedy series of the last decade, though Armisen admitted one concern about the process: “Sometimes I think that I worry that we overthink things and then, like last year, it was like we’re underthinking things. So it’s hard. There’s no rule about it. Every year it just changes. Every time I think we’ve got it down, there’s a new angle we should be taking. I keep learning that we keep learning. Because nowhere do we feel like, ‘oh, this is how it’s got to be done for the rest of the run.'”

The Season 7 finale of “Portlandia” airs tonight on IFC. The eighth and final season will premiere in 2018. 

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