Fred Armisen may have gotten his big break on "Saturday Night Live," but it's his collaboration with fellow comedy genius Carrie Brownstein that has turned IFC's comedy sketch show "Portlandia" into the critically acclaimed hit it's now become. With the fourth season of the Emmy-winning series having premiered last night, co-creators/co-writers/co-stars Armisen and Brownstein recently appeared in New York at the 92nd Street Y to discuss their humorous work and just what exactly they have in store for their audience this season. Here are seven highlights from their discussion:
The origin of their partnership. "Originally, Fred had been approached by an organization to do a comedy video for the John Kerry campaign in 2004," Brownstein elaborated. "Fred played Saddam Hussein, and when Saddam Hussein was discovered in the bunker, Fred's idea of what he would look like was like an aging British rock star. And I was this young girl from Ohio running a cable access show out of my basement that got the first post-bunker interview with Saddam Hussein. So we made this video and the show was called 'Boink,' and then every year we started making these little videos for really no one else but ourselves and our friends. We had a chemistry and we had a sensibility."
The universality of Portland. "[Portland] is everywhere. In other countries." stated Armisen. "It's just something that has always existed before that. I lived in Chicago for a while and it was very much that world, and New York, obviously." Brownstein added, "I was in Columbus, Ohio and I found a coffee shop (I lived in Brooklyn) and I was like, 'How did I find the most Brooklyn coffee shop in Columbus, Ohio?'" Armisen concluded by stating that "we all just kind of gravitate towards it. It's our embassy."
How the sketches are pitched and created. "We all do different kinds of pitches," revealed Brownstein. "Fred is very character-oriented, and he'll often come in with an observation about a person. Like men that use bass guitars as a security blanket. You know, like that guy in his 40s who's like, 'Oh I feel unsure of who I am. I know! I'll get a bass guitar!' You know, so we all come in with these really keen observations about people and then sometimes we build a sketch around that person. Other times, it's something from our own lives or a situation or an altercation that we had."
Guest stars get a lot of creative input. "We try not to overwork anything," began Armisen, "so instead of trying to come up with what their character's going to be like, it's just nicer for the work day to say 'Just go crazy, do it however you want to do it.'" Brownstein also pointed out that "a lot of people gleam a lot of enjoyment from building a character from the ground up, especially the musicians that get to come on the show or the actors that are known for more dramatic work. They get to revel in this playfulness and people get to see another side to them."
There are more guest stars to come. "We have Jello Biafra, who was in a punk band called the Dead Kennedys." Brownstein informed the crowd. "He was psyched. He took the role very seriously, more seriously than anyone." Armisen also revealed that "we have K.D. Lang, she was great. We were so lucky." Though Brownstein was quick to admit that "[Lang] lives in Portland, by the way, so it's not that weird." She also mentioned that "Olivia [Wilde] is a friend of ours and we also had Jason Sudeikis on the show, and so they came out together and it was a fun weekend. It was wonderful."
Wigs are a big part of the show. Brownstein confessed that "this season, there's a moment where I just have [Toni's] wig on and no shirt. It was so freeing. It was like all of womanhood was being wrapped around me. It was an Afghan, it was a mother's hug, it was a puppy." But Armisen assured that "the hair designers really work hard on making the wigs look real, because we don't want it to look too jokey. Even though it's funny, we want it to look believable, that that could be somebody's head."
A possible "Portlandia" feature. "I think we like the scope of the show and how creative it can be," Brownstein asserted. "But I do think that we want to expand what we do together. I'm just not sure what that would be."
Check out the full talk below.