Carrie Brownstein, one half of IFC's hit show Portlandia and member of band Wild Flag (and, before that, Sleater Kinney) admits that she over-shares. She does it at the bank ("I even mentioned a doctor's appointment"), at Whole Foods, and at the dog park. Yet by tapping into this tendency to provide unnecessary information and elaborate explanations she and Portlandia co-creator Fred Armisen have populated a whole TV world with lovably neurotic, hype-conscientious and occasionally irritating characters. PAPERMAG caught up with Brownstein in between her Portlandia Live tour and the start of her Wild Flag tour to talk more about how she and Fred come up with ideas for the show, what Portlandia-esque things she does in her own life and why she has to justify her goodness to the grocery store check-out lady.
Since you live in Portland and Fred lives in New York, have you ever noticed regional differences between the different sub-populations -- hipsters, latte liberals, yupsters -- that you portray on Portlandia?
For the most part, what we found is just a similar sensibility. The content is relatable and specific enough that people see themselves in the characters in those worlds [and] in those situations. The shading can be a little bit different, the context can be a little bit different, the names of expressions might be different from city-to-city but I think the most overwhelming sense that we get is the commonalities not the differences.
So at the show last Saturday at the Bowery Ballroom, when St. Vincent came onstage and sang Pearl Jam, she kept asking the audience to sing along because otherwise it was "too embarrassing." Did you guys dare her to sing Pearl Jam?
I had heard that Annie [St. Vincent] had been a very avid Pearl Jam fan in high school and pretty much knew their catalog. So it was not a dare -- it was just a suggestion and certainly not an ironic one or even a humorous one. I thought it was wonderful. I think what's hard is once you ask the audience to do something [sing along], you want them to step up and not do it half-way. I don't think she was embarrassed to be playing Pearl Jam. She wanted the audience to join in because once you put it out there, you don't want to get stood up by the audience!
[Laughs] No, in fact I was just realizing that I must have an unsophisticated palate. I often find myself saying, "Here comes the pickle plate, it's beautiful." Everyone comments, "Oh, it's so beautiful" and I start eating it and I just find myself making a sour face and I always end up feeling like a child.
Weren't you saying at the live show something about how you have the tastes of a kindergartner?
Yeah I have a kindergartner's taste in foods. I actually do love great food but I find that there's a certain -- I think what I fall back on is very pedestrian.
When you and Fred first started writing and improv-ing together before Portlandia came into existence, what were the first characters that you guys came up with that then ultimately made it into the show?
Well certainly the "Feminist Bookstore" [characters] actually existed even before Portlandia in Thunderant. Honestly those were the only ones that existed before.
Did they provide the germ for the idea or did you come up with the idea for Portlandia first and then fill in the characters later?
I think that [it was] the sensibility that we started to notice as the common through line in Thunderant. It was a series of sketches that were so absurd, they were barely funny. If anything they were silly. But we did notice a certain, at that time, very tenuous thematic content, which were these characters whose belief systems were riddled with contradictions and that totally mirrored my and Fred's own experiences as people trying to live by these new rules of being eco-conscious and environmentally conscious but feeling flummoxed by that process. So we started to put together ideas for that but when we went in and pitched the show to IFC, we kind of had that sensibility in mind but we didn't go into the characters. So the show came first and then we sort of populated Portlandia with residents that we thought would function well inside of that world.
Among all of the different characters, are there any that you particularly identify with?
Almost all of them. There is not a person that I portray that I don't find some minute or very broad commonality with. Someone like Kath, who in the first season, her and her husband Dave are incensed by the dogs outside the restaurant and in the second season, they're the "A-Oh River" people. They can make having fun so stressful because there are so many rules to having fun but they're still enjoying themselves and we just don't realize. I definitely relate to that. And I think that's just being a slightly neurotic, high-strung person but I can suck the fun out of any situation by over-thinking it. I guess I relate to that and even the Jack McBrayer reusable bag sketch. I go to the Whole Foods near my house in Portland and I always forget to bring my reusable bag. I go through this whole performative [thing]. One thing I think we do a lot of on this show is people perform or enact these moments and you think "Oh, that seems heightened" but it's actually not. When I forget my bag, it's like I give a speech and I want to make sure that everyone can hear me. "Does everyone remember the last time I was here and had my bag?" It's like I want the cashier to validate my goodness as a person. There's very little in the show in terms of what makes the characters tic that I don't have some kind of similarity to.
What other Portlandia-esque things have you done recently in your own life?
Aside from that grocery bag incident, I definitely have some dog park moments I think that veer into the Portlandia world. I find myself speaking on behalf of my dog at the dog park in order for other people to understand [its] behavior. We're all standing around talking about our dogs as if their actions have a heightened sense of meaning and that we need to apply human traits and anthropomorphize [them]. It's a constant state of anthropomorphic behavior at a dog park. It's a constant stream of narration and it's so tedious. And I'll listen to other people do it and judge them and then do it a second later [myself]. [It's like] if someone's over-explaining, like if a dog is literally sniffing something and the owner will ascribe to that instance of sniffing some big meaning. "Oh, you know, Pickles loves to smell the feet of other dogs. He was rescued from a farm." You're just like, "What? Okay, he's sniffing, he's a DOG! He sniffs everyday, it doesn't have anything to do with his adoption story." And then literally three minutes later, I do the exact same thing and I literally just want to leave the park, I'm so ashamed. So that kind of over-sharing, I think, is a really common theme. It's a way of forging a connection with people but it's [also] a way of assuaging guilt and discomfort in a given moment. And I did that at the bank the other day too. I over-shared so hard at the bank, like I maybe even mentioned a doctor's appointment at the bank.
Right, and they don't care.
Yeah, they don't care! I feel like the show has a lot of over-sharing. A lot of the ways how the sketches become [generated] is a moment that has gone on far too long and has become so uncomfortable. But I find myself doing that all the time in real life and I think a lot of people do it. And then you leave and you're just kicking yourself the rest of the day. It's very hard to be as poised as you want to be or as you aspire to be.
So I know today you're heading off on a tour for Wild Flag. Is it hard to switch gears, to go from Portlandia live shows to Wild Flag concerts?
To be honest there is a certain code-switching, you could call it, in terms of a language thing. You're able to in some ways seamlessly switch from one set of rules and behavior to another just because you have to. It's like a survival instinct. But it can be jarring. But also I'm feeling more and more nomadic right now. I'm becoming more accustomed to a constant state of travel and I'm really enjoying it. I think there's nothing about it right now that I don't love. I feel like I have to, and I'm trying to, be very much in the moment with this. Both these things and both the fact that I'm engaged in two things that people care about or like or have any kind of connection to -- that can all end very quickly. It seems so rude or ridiculous to express any kind of complaint right now. It's very fun and it could all end tomorrow. Yes, I'm busy but I will survive.
Photo of Carrie Brownstein by Molly Quan.