Posts Tagged comedy
In the latest issue of Triple J Magazine, I chat with Carrie Brownstein about her hit sketch comedy show Portlandia, her new band Wild Flag, and how comedy and music compare. She was so generous with her time, though, I thought I’d put up the rest of our conversation here. So go read the mag for Part One, and here’s Part Two…
My favourite thing about Portlandia is how it’s always entertaining even when I’m not finding it funny. The best sketch comedy is 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.
I love this analogy. So 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. So 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.
Last question: 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.
I bet we’ve been together for a million years. And I bet we’ll be together for a million more.
But I don’t know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs. They’re calling again.
Tell me why I love you like I do. Tell me who could stop my heart as much as you.
Every time I turn around, I see the girl that turns my world around. Standing there.
Charles in charge of our days and our nights. Charles in charge of our wrongs and our rights.
I’ll be there for you – and you’ll be there for me too.
Here’s my quick triple j magazine review of I Love You Phillip Morris, finally stumbling into Australian theatres after an embarrassingly long wait. I wish I could say I found it worth waiting for; the true story it’s based on is certainly a fascinating one.
I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS
Directors: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann
FYI: I Love You Phillip Morris isn’t viral marketing for cigarettes.
It’s a comedy featuring major stars that’s taken two years to get a limited Australian release. Why? Maybe because it’s about a gay romance. I wanted to fall in love with this movie on principle – but despite being fast and fun, it’s missing something fundamental.
Steven Russell (Jim Carey) is a con man who’s used to living lies. When he ends up in jail for insurance fraud – because “being gay is really expensive!” – he meets the softly-spoken Phillip Morris (Ewan Macgregor). They fall in love, and Steve promises that they’ll never be apart again.
In Phillip Morris, Jim Carey acts like he’s starring in a glib, old-fashioned farce. (Like Lisa Simpson says: “He can make you laugh with no more than a frantic flailing of his limbs!”) Unfortunately, Ewan McGregor plays his role as a real human being. Their two styles completely fail to mesh, and their romance seems like it’s between different cinematic species.
Other reviews this month: Biutiful and Brighton Rock in cinemas; Megamind, Unthinkable, and Doors doco When You’re Strange on DVD.
Issue #49 on sale now.
In William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, one chapter opens like this:
Hey, that’s where I live! Fitzroy represent!
When this unexpectedly appeared on the page, I felt that odd thrill of recognition. Because of our geographical isolation and limited media output, Australia is particularly susceptible to this. We don’t see our streets or landmarks or countryside on screen that often so there’s an excitement when we do. Somehow I doubt that, say, New Yorkers get the same buzz seeing their neighbourhood on Law & Order.
It got me thinking about the insidious pleasures of recognition. I’ve been there! I’ve read that book! I get that joke! It can be a powerful drug.
Sometimes the fun of recognition comes from encountering something that you feel is just for you. (Fitzroy! Woo!). Writing on her blog, Jane Espenson (Buffy, Battlestar Galactica) once explained the meaning of a “two-percenter”:
“A two-percenter, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, is a joke that the writers estimate will be understood and enjoyed by two percent of the audience. Sometimes the number cited varies, but the idea is the same, it means you’re dealing with a fairly obscure reference. As an audience member, when you’re part of the two percent that gets it, there’s nothing better than this kind of joke because it feels like the writer is reaching into your own personal brain. In a good way.”
Gibson’s mention of Fitzroy could be a non-funny example of this, as would every second brand name in the book. If the protagonist of his earlier Pattern Recognition was allergic to brands, Gibson is addicted to them. In his review of Zero History, Mark Feeney writes:
“The [brand] names aren’t simply showing off. Their role is structural, not merely cosmetic. They provide a kind of gazetteer of desire, an armature of possession. Products and companies fascinate and excite Gibson the way sin did Graham Greene and butterflies Nabokov.”
And while some of these brands are ubiquitous (Sony, KFC, iPhone) others are more unique. Two-percenters, if you like, for those familiar with them. One character’s outdated Neo phone is mysterious enough that this website, which tracks every object mentioned in Gibson’s most recent trilogy, had to guess at the Neo specs. If you recognised it? Imagine how special you’d feel.
Compare and contrast Gibson’s world, though with the movies of Jason Frieberg and Aaron Seltzer. Epic Movie, Meet The Spartans, Disaster Movie or Vampires Suck. These movies aren’t comedies; they’re barely even films. They’re more like secret psychological tests designed to make sure you’re absorbing an appropriate dose of popular culture. Recognition is their entire raison d’être.
When Meet The Spartans shows a bald, baby-crazy Britney Spears getting kicked into the pit from 300, it gives the same hit of pleasure. This time, though, it’s just a reward for knowing who Britney Spears is, and having heard the exact same Crazy Britney gags as everyone else.
Paris Hilton. Michael Jackson. Lindsay Lohan. It begins with jokes, but then the jokes fall away; audiences now laugh at the mention of their names. The jolt of easy recognition turns human beings into punchlines: ninety-eight-percenters.