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Will the Real Fred and Carrie Please Stand Up?

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 12.23.45 PM.pngOf all the couples Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play -- the gently fussy Peter and Nance, the erotically fussy Lance and Nina, the suffocatingly fussy Kath and Dave -- it's the fictional Fred and Carrie who give Portlandia, now in its fourth season on IFC, its most brilliantly surreal moments. On the surface, they're just as calm and well-spoken as the actual Fred and Carrie were when we called them up last week. But calm, well-spoken people usually don't sleep in adjacent twin beds with their initials on the headboards, or form doomed love triangles with a strange Seattleite (heartbreakingly played by Chloë Sevigny, in several Season 3 episodes) or teeter on the brink of insanity after choosing to go offline and live in "social bankruptcy."

Now that Fred's busy leading the Late Night with Seth Meyers house band and Carrie is finishing up her first book, we thought it would be a good time to look back on the wildly popular series (someday soon, every last iteration of human neurosis and naiveté might have its own easily shareable Portlandia clip) and figure out just where the real Fred and Carrie end and their characters begin.

Are you guys together right now?

Fred Armisen: No, I'm in Los Angeles.

Carrie Brownstein: I'm in Austin, Texas, doing some edits on my memoir.

FA: How does it end? Do you have an ending for it? How does it end?

CB: That's a great question. [Long pause.]

Carrie, is Fred breakable, or does he go so deep that he never cracks up mid-take?

CB: No, Fred is breakable. There's ways I can break him. Any time I'm angry or scream, Fred will laugh.

And Carrie, your ability to switch from total poise to screaming lunacy has become one of your signatures. Fred, what's your first memory of Carrie unleashing the beast?

FA: It was immediate. Our first ThunderAnt video we did, without warning, she came up with the name of the show and then her character -- not asking me, "Is this the way it's done?" She immediately commanded the sketch. And then we went out to shoot something where she's cleaning up graffiti on the street, and just the way she did it was the perfect combination of surprising and also there was an edge to it, a little bit of anger that right away I was really into.

Tell me about the Chloe Sevigny storyline from Season 3. The dynamic between the three of you was one of the most poignant things you've ever done on the show.

FA: I think we just wanted to throw something into the relationship between Fred and Carrie that sort of tested their friendship -- sorry to use them in third-person, but that's the only way I can think of it -- so we just wanted something to shake that up. Otherwise it would have been more of the same for that season. We just thought, "Let's put it to the test." And then, for Season 4, we wanted it to be its own thing. It was good for a runner for Season 3, but for Season 4 we want to have a fresh start.

What was your vision for Season 4?

CB: I think we did want to focus more on character. In terms of the writing, it just seemed like a way of opening up the possibilities where it was less concept based. We realized that people and their lives are more interesting than ideas. We thought about all these characters we already felt affection for and who the audience related to, and we realized that there are whole worlds that we could explore, in terms of who they were and what they've done in the past and what makes them tick and what puts them in conflict with their environment. So that was a motivating factor and really drove most of the writing for Season 4.

How clear is division between you Fred and Carrie and third-person Fred and Carrie?

FA: The first thing I can think of is that the Fred and Carrie characters are just a little more dumb. Not really dumb; just moments where they can't think very clearly. They become obsessed, like when they didn't want the Olympics in Portland. That's all they thought about the whole time. I don't know what to call that, but whatever that is, it's different than what we really are.

CB: I guess there's sort of a gullibility.

Do you ever struggle to decide whether to use Fred and Carrie, Dave and Kath, Peter and Nance or any other Portlandia couple in a given sketch?

CB: I think we work to make them distinct enough that we know which material and stories will suit them best. Sometimes we do have debates within the writers' room, trying to determine whether a certain character might bring out a more interesting dynamic for a story or might get to the center of the situation or expose a certain kind of truth that other characters might not if the characters are too broad, or... you know, we try to figure out which characters would make the situation the most relatable.

If you had to describe each other to a stranger via one Portlandia sketch, what would it be?

CB: That's an interesting question. I mean, I think in some ways I might choose when Fred plays himself. Gosh, I don't know which sketch captures Fred! No, I take that back. I would probably choose the "Feminist Bookstore" sketches. In real life, I think Fred has that intensity and also that ability to surprise and be tangential and funny, and I think that would be a good way of showcasing Fred. Although he would be a woman, but that's fine.

FA: I have the benefit of getting to think about it for longer, but definitely I would say -- we did these little interstitial pieces called "The Milk Advisory Board," and there's something about the way that Carrie is in that -- facing ahead, straightforward, just making comments -- that to me seems like the real her: intelligent and factual and then able to say these funny things, but without drawing attention to them. A very subtle and direct way of talking. Something about that struck me as very much like the real Carrie.

Who would you most like to have as guests on future episodes?

CB: It's difficult, because we can rattle of a lot of interesting actors, artists or musicians, but the people we end up getting on the show are the people that are supposed to be on it. We've just been so lucky. I don't really know who'd be the one person that I'd love to have on the show. It's like, these are the ideas that stem from the material, like Jello Biafra [in the Season 4 episode "Pull-Out King"], and then it just feels like it was an inevitability the whole time.

FA: I want to add to Carrie's point that we never would have guessed that Martina Navratilova would have been so perfect for the show, but she was ideal, and we never would have guessed that from, like, a list of our heroes. So that's what we still hope for: those surprises.

Portlandia airs Thursdays at 10 pm on IFC.

Below, ThunderAnt pays a visit to Glenn Danzig in a video the debuted on Papermag.com in 2009.

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