An Interview with Carrie Brownstein
Please tell me Kyle Maclachlan is exactly the same in real life as he is as Portlandia‘s mayor.
Okay. He is exactly the same.
That fills me with joy.
I know. But just for Kyle’s sake, I will tell you that Kyle is a smarter guy than our Mayor. He’s just as lovely and optimistic and eager as the Mayor, but with more intelligence and street savvy.
Everyone loves Portlandia and everyone loves Wild Flag. Is this a good year for you?
Yeah, I’m having a pretty good couple of years. I have nothing that I should be or could be complaining about. You just never know what’s going to capture somebody’s imagination when you put it out into the world, so I feel very lucky that I happen to have two things right now people seem to be enjoying. I’m also aware of the fleeting nature of it all, so I’m trying to enjoy it too.
Because you don’t come from a comedy background, did you feel like you had something to prove when Portlandia started?
I think people should feel like they have something to prove all the time. Especially people that are endeavouring to make something other people are going to watch, or look at, or listen to. I don’t mind feeling like I have something to prove — if only to myself. And I don’t think people judged me any more harshly. In fact, they might judge me more if I had years and years of experience, because they’d think: “Shouldn’t she be better?” So all we could try to be was honest and truthful.
Do the years you spent performing give you the same armour stand-up comedians have?
Oh my god. Stand-up is so much harder. If I’d played with an acoustic guitar I might understand better what it feels like — but I’ve always had the benefit of volume. All stand-ups have is their voice and a microphone, whereas I can just keep turning up that amp and drowning everyone out. I have tons of respect and admiration for stand-up comedians. It can be a very isolating experience up there if it’s not going well.
My favourite thing about Portlandia is how it’s always entertaining even when I’m not finding it funny. The best sketch comedy’s always weird little short stories, right? It’s great when there are laughs, but laughs aren’t the only thing…
I find that too. I went back and watched Kids In The Hall, and I sometimes found that I wasn’t laughing. When you think of something being funny, you think: “This must be something that makes me laugh.” But I realised that wasn’t the only way I was responding to the show. I think our intention is not always to make people laugh — we’re okay with sometimes making people feel a little uncomfortable, or making something last a little too long. I appreciate what you said in terms of ‘short stories’. There are moments of surprise or entertainment or discomfort. You’re not just laughing. You’re going on a little journey. We credit that to our director, Jonathan Krisel, who approaches everything like we’re making a bunch of short indie films.
Can you predict the scenes or characters or lines that might explode in popular culture? Or is it always a surprise?
It’s a surprise, of course. I don’t think you can go into a creative endeavour with any kind of assumption about how other people will understand it — or whether people will understand it. I don’t think that’s a good place to start. It’s a backwards way of looking at it. You have to go in knowing your intentions, having a point of view, and then all you can do is hope it will capture the imagination of others. We never go in thinking: “This is a phrase people will quote back to us!” In fact, one of the most pleasant things about meeting fans is how everyone has an individual experience of the show. Even though ‘put a bird on it!’ might be the most ubiquitous line, others will come up and repeat back an obscure line from some sketch we’d nearly forgotten about. That’s very rewarding. Not only can you not predict what people are going to enjoy, it also really differs from person to person. Even sketches you think weren’t as successful as you wanted them to be — somebody finds them applicable to their lives.
You’ve also managed to avoid the thing that kills so much sketch comedy: when something is successful, running it into the ground. How do you resist the urge?
I’ll tell you. We fight against the network. We have a wonderful network in IFC, and they give us a lot of creative license and freedom — but everyone gets excited about something and wants that thing to keep happening. You just have to convince yourself and others that it’s best to keep it rare, and try for something new instead of repeating the old. I think that’s something I learned and remembered from music. You don’t want to just keep putting out the same album. Actually, as we went into the second season and now the third, the analogy we used was a record. Your first album can be a series of singles — like “here’s our opening thesis” — and you have a couple of hits. It might not be cohesive as an album, but we had ‘Dream of the 90s’, or ‘Put A Bird on It’. And then, for the second record, it’s okay if it’s a little more complicated. It fits together better as an album but might not have the same sort of singles. We talk about that all the time, and it’s very intentional not to go back and retread territory we’ve already gone over.
Does that mean we’ll soon get Portlandia‘s ‘difficult’ album? Just weird instrumental tones for hardcore fans or something?
Hopefully not yet. That’ll be a spin-off show. But let’s see — traditionally, the third album tries new things. And the third album is a good one because you can mine some of the things you know how to do, but you can hopefully do them better. And people also allow for some experimentation, some artistic deviation, from what you did on the first and second records. I know we’ll be trying some new things this season.
You once said that you didn’t want to keep climbing up on stage and “mimicking your younger self”. How is that different now with Wild Flag? How is this Carrie different from that Carrie?
That’s hard to say because I’m just myself. But I do think that having a new relationship to something, having the actual endeavor be new, helps you get out of any nostalgic sentimental trap. Nostalgia can be so comforting — but then you realise it’s actually a deceptive feeling because you feel almost dirty afterwards. Stuck in a weird loop of sadness. A weird, dreamy melancholy. The person I am on stage with Wild Flag is just someone trying to enjoy it, in the moment, feeling connected to it. Not trying to emulate or repeat something I did in the past.
Is Portlandia in part addressing that kind of nostalgia?
A little bit. I think the cycle of nostalgia definitely gets shorter and shorter. It used to feel like the cycles came further apart — like we were mining something twenty years ago, then ten years ago, and all of a sudden you almost feel nostalgic for yesterday, or this morning. There’s something about that sense that yesterday might have been better, or our childhoods better than now. I think a lot of the characters on Portlandia are grappling with that. Trying to find meaning in the here and now. But now I’m talking really big — obviously we’re not a drama! We approach a lot of our themes in a really absurd way, but I think the grounded premise is often: “Who are we? Who are we supposed to be? Are all the choices I’ve made the ones I intended to make when I was young? Am I doing what I set out to do?” That’s part of what ‘Dream of the 90s’ is about.
And talking about choices made when you’re young — you once said that punk was a “salvation” to you. What’s comedy to you now?
I’d say comedy is a way of getting out of my head. Music is as well, but comedy’s a way of embracing frivolity that music can’t be for me. I take music very seriously. Obviously there’s a lot of joy and elation surrounding music — but I don’t find it funny, and I don’t necessarily like ‘funny’ music. Comedy sometimes stems from dark inclinations, but I love trying to find the levity in a situation, and having that be the way to tell a story. Finding something surreal or absurd about something serious. It’s definitely a good outlet for me, I think.
Earlier you mentioned the restlessness you have, always looking for what’s next. So… what’s next?
I’d like to continue to do more writing. There’s a book I’m working. It’s more of an isolated pursuit, but I do really enjoy writing, and I’d like to do more of it. But for the time being I’m trying to just be in the moment with music and with Portlandia, and to embrace it as long as it will have me. And then, once it spits me out, I’ll find something else to do.
Maybe you’ll be the one to spit it out instead.
Yes, that’s a good way of looking at it. I will reject it, just like a relationship. I will reject it before it rejects me. A preemptive rejection. I’ll break my own heart. That’s what always happens.
First appeared in Triple J Magazine in July 2012.