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Brownstein And Armisen's Comedic Take On Portland

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen film their sketch-comedy show Portlandia in the summer, when Armisen is on hiatus from Saturday Night Live. During the rest of the year, they communicate through constant text messages, says Armisen. (IFC)

Soon after Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen became friends, they started making sketch-comedy videos.

"We would email a link ... to our friends, but they were mostly for us," says Brownstein. "It was very understated and silly, and we were just sort of reveling in the absurd."

But the videos began to attract viewers outside of their circle of friends. Soon, Brownstein and Armisen started putting them on a website they created called ThunderAnt. They also began thinking about doing something bigger.

The result — a sketch-comedy show called Portlandia — is now entering its second season on IFC. The show pairs Saturday Night Live's Armisen with Brownstein, a veteran of the band Sleater-Kinney, in a series of sketches making fun of Portland, Ore.

Why Portland? Brownstein says it's because of her hometown's "incessant optimism."

"There's a lot of other cities like Portland across the U.S., where people create these curated niche lives for themselves and they feel very special," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Portland, I think, is a city that feels very good about itself. But it's very sensitive, and people go to extreme measures to show how nice they are."

Portlandia makes fun — lightly — of Portland prototypes like freegans, local foodies and feminist bookstore owners, played in the show by the wig-wearing Armisen and Brownstein. The two explain that they based their bookstore sketch on an actual feminist bookstore in Portland called In Other Words, which contains a long list of rules on the wall for customers to follow.

"I liked how anti-customer it was," says Armisen. "But it's a store. They want you to buy books. ... So we thought, 'Well, what would the people who work there be like?' "

The resulting sketch features Armisen and Brownstein trying to enlighten others about feminism — even when it's completely unwarranted. They film inside an actual Portland feminist bookstore. And the mockery is gentle and affectionate enough, says Brownstein, that the store's staff don't mind their on-screen representations.

"The women and men who volunteer at that bookstore have a sense of humor, so we feel OK," she says.

Another sketch features Brownstein and Armisen doing color commentary at an annual allergy-sufferers parade, where marchers yell things like "Oy! Not soy." (Brownstein and Armisen both suffer from food allergies themselves.)

"I think a lot of what we celebrate on Portlandia is the fact that it's the inverse of the norm," says Brownstein. "All of the stuff that makes people different, that's the stuff that's celebrated. If you're normal — if you don't have anything wrong with you — then forget it, it's no fun."


Interview Highlights

On the feminist bookstore in Portland where they shot scenes

Brownstein: "A bookstore like that you think would be highly inclusive. But as we find with many of the characters on the show, sometimes the things that claim to be the most inclusive have all these esoteric rules to follow — in order to be part of that group — that it becomes so alienating or excluding."

On tattoos

Armisen: "I never got one."

Brownstein: "Telling people about tattoos is worse than telling people about your dreams. I have three tattoos, but I will only tell you about one of them. I was in this band for many years called Sleater-Kinney and we have an album called Dig Me Out, and I have those words tattooed on my side — like on my rib cage. Very painful spot to get a tattoo, it turns out."


On meeting someone who has a tattoo of you

Brownstein: "The reaction is to be flattered. You're thinking, 'That is a level of commitment that I've never made to anyone.' And you've made that to me, and we're strangers. So there's a real disconnect there. You are grateful but also a little weirded out. And you're thinking, 'Oh, that picture. That version of me.'

On Portland

Armisen: "For me, it's like a dreamy, solid place. I feel very safe there. I feel like all the buildings are all really well-built. And it's also overcast. So it's just nice walking around in a jacket and nice, thick shoes."

On being a rock musician

Brownstein: "It wasn't something that I thought about. I wanted to be an entertainer and a performer. I was always drawn to that as a means of escape and a means of accessing feelings or trying out emotions or experiencing situations that would make me a little less vulnerable. ... I think once I discovered guitar and punk music, that became the vehicle for what I wanted to say. I knew I wanted to be onstage, but it didn't become specific until I was 15 or 16."

On returning to rock after Sleater-Kinney stopped performing

Brownstein: "When Wild Flag played our first show in the fall of 2010, when I stood on stage, I realized I had not stood on stage in four years — and I almost fainted from fear. I put that guitar away after Sleater-Kinney's last show, which was in August of 2006, and I just did not want to pick it up. This sounds melodramatic, but it was almost like having a little urn. Like, here's this thing that embodies something that doesn't exist anymore.

"For me, music needs to have an urgency to it. I need to want it. I need to not take it for granted. So I had to put it away so I could rediscover it. I ended up writing for All Songs Considered, which is of course an NPR show and blog, and it was actually through writing about music and being engaged constantly with a really great community of listeners and readers of the blog that I was writing, that I started wanting to participate in music again."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new sketch comedy series "Portlandia" begins its second season tomorrow night on IFC. My guests are the show's co-creators and stars. Fred Armisen has been a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" for 10 years and has become best known for his portrayals of candidate and President Barack Obama.

Carrie Brownstein is a guitarist and singer who co-founded the indie bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. "Portlandia" is set in Portland, Oregon, where Brownstein lives, and satirizes people who are trying to do the right thing and live a healthy, environmentally correct lifestyle and keep the indie spirit alive but maybe take it too far.

This song will give you a sense of it. In this sketch, Fred Armisen's character has just returned to L.A. from a trip to Portland, and he's trying to tell Carrie Brownstein's character why Portland is so special. That description turns into a music video.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PORTLANDIA")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRED ARMISEN: Do you remember the '90s?

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yeah.

ARMISEN: You know, people were talking about getting piercings and getting tribal tattoos, and people were singing about saving the planet and one band.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah.

ARMISEN: There's a place where that idea still exists as a reality, and I've been there.

BROWNSTEIN: Where is it?

ARMISEN: Portland.

BROWNSTEIN: Oregon?

ARMISEN: Yeah. (Singing) (Unintelligible). Portland. Portland. Portland. Tattoo ink never runs dry.

Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep until 11 and hang out with their friends, when you had no occupation whatsoever, maybe you were working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop?

BROWNSTEIN: Right. I thought that died out a long time ago.

Not in Portland. Portland is a city where young people go to retire. (Singing) (Unintelligible).

GROSS: That's a song from "Portlandia." My guests are Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the creators and stars of the show. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

ARMISEN: Hi.

GROSS: Hi. So what does Portland signify to you? I mean, there are certain types of characters in the show. Portland isn't the only place that they exist, but what do you want Portland to signify?

BROWNSTEIN: I think Portland kind of encapsulates sort of this incessant optimism, and Portland's a city I think that is - that feels pretty good about itself, but it's very sensitive, and people go to very extreme measures to show how nice they are.

GROSS: And Carrie, you live in Portland, Fred you live in New York but visit Portland a lot. So what does it mean to you?

ARMISEN: I'm there really often. I'm there for all of the summer and for the past couple years. I've been going there for a long time. But to me it's like a dreamy, solid place. Like I feel very safe there. I feel like all the buildings are really just like well-built. And it's also overcast, so it's just nice walking around in, like, a jacket and nice, thick shoes.

GROSS: So in the song that we just heard, there's a line, you know, where the tattoo ink never runs dry. So I thought what a perfect time to get you both to confess about the tattoos that you have.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARMISEN: Oh, wow.

BROWNSTEIN: Oh my gosh, well Fred has nothing to confess.

ARMISEN: Yeah, I have zero.

GROSS: Really? You used to be in a band, Fred, you were a drummer.

ARMISEN: Yeah, for some reason I just never wanted to get one. I never got one.

GROSS: And Carrie, I guess you do have something to confess about.

BROWNSTEIN: I guess, yeah. This is - you know, I've never been asked this question. I do have - I have three tattoos actually. One of them, it's so - it's like telling people about tattoos is like worse than telling people about your dreams.

GROSS: Go ahead, just tell us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWNSTEIN: OK, one is - I have three tattoos, but I will only tell you about one of them. I was in this band for many years called Sleater-Kinney, and we have an album called "Dig Me Out," and I have those words tattooed on my side, like on my rib cage, very painful spot to get a tattoo it turns out.

I don't like tattoos where people can see them, which does - not to say that I want tattoos in really weird places, either. But I don't actually like seeing tattoos, like on me, next to like an outfit that I'm wearing. You know, it's so permanent.

GROSS: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: People just - that's a warning to people out there. In case you thought tattoos were not permanent, it turns out they are.

GROSS: You have a very funny sketch about that. Carrie, you play somebody who's been, like, seeing this guy, and then you notice - you know, you're getting to know him, and you notice he has a tattoo of Eddie Vedder playing two tambourines. And your reaction is oh, that's so high school, I got over him in high school.

And then you're seeing another guy and notice that he has a tattoo, oh, who is it, the tattoo?

BROWNSTEIN: Ani DiFranco.

GROSS: Yeah, Ani DiFranco with a nose ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And of course that guy is Eddie Vedder, the actor playing the guy is Eddie Vedder. So I thought that was very funny.

ARMISEN: It's a real thing. I mean, as we were doing research, we found online people have tattoos of everybody, you know, from...

GROSS: But the thing is that she can't date somebody who has a tattoo of an artist who she is not interested in, you know...

BROWNSTEIN: Actually, I mean, actually I am a fan of Pearl Jam and of Eddie Vedder. I think the idea is that people would like to think that they aren't shallow and that they don't have these deal-breakers, but something like a bad tattoo, it almost intrudes upon the relationship, and that's kind of what happens in the sketch.

And even though you might like the band and say - you wonder why would somebody get someone else's face tattooed on their body. That to me, you just, you think what in that moment were they thinking.

GROSS: Have either of you ever met somebody who had a tattoo of you on their body?

BROWNSTEIN: I have.

GROSS: Really?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah.

ARMISEN: Wow.

GROSS: Tell us about that. That's so weird.

BROWNSTEIN: It's one of those things because of course the reaction is to be flattered. Do you know what I mean? Like you just think that is a level of commitment that I've never made to anyone, and you've made that to me, and we're strangers. So there's a real disconnect there.

And you are grateful but also a little weirded out, I will say, And you're thinking wow, that picture, that version of me, you want to slowly update it. You're like oh, gosh, you got the hair wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWNSTEIN: Just go in there and just take a little pen and change it.

GROSS: So let's hear another sketch from "Portlandia," and the new season of "Portlandia" premieres this Friday on IFC. So two of the recurring characters in "Portlandia" are two women who own a feminist bookstore, and Fred, you play one of those two women. Of course, Carrie, you play the other. And they're very dogmatic.

And in this sketch, the air conditioning is broken. So the air conditioning repairman has come to fix it. He's an older man and doesn't really know anything about feminism or the language of feminism, as this sketch shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PORTLANDIA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Brian) OK, sweetie, you've got a burned-out condenser.

ARMISEN: (As Candice) Who's sweetie?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Brian) Well, ma'am, I can fix it, probably put a couple of new...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARMISEN: (As Candice) Sweetie? I have a name, and that name is Candice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Brian) All right, ma'am.

ARMISEN: (As Candice) It's not ma'am, it's Candice.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Tony) And I'm Tony(ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Brian) I'm Brian. I'm Brian, the air conditioner repairman.

ARMISEN: (As Candice) OK, Brian, we're going to lend you a book. I want you to read this. And it is a vivid, vivid description of what it's like to be a woman.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Tony) Which I think is something that you could benefit from, understanding a woman's journey, which is why I've also brought this book. Inside each of us is both a phallus and the opposite of a phallus.

ARMISEN: (As Candice) (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Brian) Oh no, I've never been that way.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Tony) What way?

ARMISEN: (As Candice) It's not this way or that way. We're all one way, and we're all human.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Tony) You, sir, have a feminine side, don't you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Brian) Well, I like gals.

GROSS: That's really funny. That's Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in a sketch from the new season of "Portlandia," and the season starts Friday on IFC. How did you create these two characters, the feminist bookstore owners?

ARMISEN: One of the first times I went to Portland, I just found this bookstore called In Other Words, and it was like - I remember on the sign, it said a non-for-profit feminist bookstore. And I thought - I thought that was a lot of words to put on a sign. And something about the place, there were just so many signs everywhere, and there were just a lot of rules for being in there that I just kind of liked it. I just kind of liked how anti-customer it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARMISEN: So - but it's a store, you know, where they want you to buy books. So little by little, that's just one of the first things we thought of to do a sketch about. We just thought, like, well, what can we do? What would the people who work there, what would they be like?

And then I remember thinking that a lot of - many people in Portland have let their gray hair fly. Like people are proud of their gray hair. It's kind of a really nice thing. So we just got these wigs, and that's - that was one of the first pieces we did, even before "Portlandia," in "Thunder Ant," this other project that we did leading up to it.

And then it just went from there. And then we actually shoot in the store, In Other Words. We're in the actual feminist bookstore, and they have been nothing but nice to us.

GROSS: They're not offended that you're mocking them, or at least they're the basis of your material, they're the inspiration?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, they're not. I think what we've kind of infused these characters with is, you know, they could really be anyone. We just thought, well, let's have these protagonists that are these awesome feminists. And they - you know, a bookstore like that you would think would be highly inclusive, but as we find with many of the characters on the show, you know, sometimes the things that claim to be the most inclusive have all these esoteric rules that you have to follow in order to be part of that group that it becomes so alienating and exclusive.

And so Tony and Candice to me just represent that completely, and I love how kind of complicated and nasty they can get. But they're also - you know, they're very fun. And also, you know, the women and men that volunteer at that bookstore, I mean, they have a sense of humor, so yeah, we feel OK.

GROSS: Now Carrie, you're actually an icon of female empowerment.

BROWNSTEIN: Oh no.

GROSS: So what are some of the books you've actually bought at this bookstore?

ARMISEN: Am I not?

GROSS: Sorry, Fred.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I bet you've actually bought a lot of books there.

BROWNSTEIN: Oh my gosh, I'm embarrassed to say I've not bought a lot of books there. I mean, I read a lot of books. I don't read a lot of feminist theory, I hate to admit. We should all bone-up now. Let's - yeah, I mean, I'm more likely to read Patti Smith "Just Kids" or Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather, James Baldwin or, you know, not a lot of Judith Butler.

At least I know her name, right, Judith Butler, come on, points.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, points for you. If you've just joining us, my guests are Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, Fred Armisen from "Saturday Night Live," Carrie Brownstein from the bands Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney. And they've been doing a sketch comedy show on IFC called "Portlandia," and that series has its season premiere on Friday. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guests are Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, and together they do the show "Portlandia," a sketch comedy show that has its second season premiere on Friday. How did you start doing sketch comedy together?

ARMISEN: Well, we became friends, and then I would go to Portland to visit Carrie, and somehow it just started happening, where - in the same way that some people would kind of get together to play music, we just thought, like, oh, let's just make videos. And that was as simple as that.

I mean, I don't think we even knew how or why it was going to happen.

GROSS: What did you do with them at first?

BROWNSTEIN: I mean, we didn't even have a website.

ARMISEN: No, we just kept - we just had them.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I think we would email, you know, a link of the video to our friends, and they were mostly for us. It was a very organic process and, you know, very understated and silly, and we were just kind of reveling in the absurd and these kind of moments of discomfort that were very sort of appealing and interesting to us.

Eventually we had a little website, and that's when we really started to get a sense of how many we had done. You know, eventually we had 10, 12 videos, and it really felt like something we wanted to pursue more deliberately, which is when we started thinking about "Portlandia."

ARMISEN: That was the thing about the early videos, too. It was nice not having the pressure of it having to be funny. I don't even know what kind of - what genre you could go in. It was more just odd, you know. But we didn't think of punchlines. We didn't think of what the joke was. The characters weren't that exaggerated. They still kind of sound like us.

So that was the one very liberating and fun thing about it is that we didn't know what it was.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another sketch from "Portlandia," and this is a couple at an organic restaurant, and who plays the waitress in this?

BROWNSTEIN: Her name is Dana Millican, and she is a local actress in Portland, Oregon, fantastic actor. We utilize about 90 percent local actors.

GROSS: OK, so this is at an organic restaurant, and this is from season one of "Portlandia," and the new season premieres Friday night on AFC. So here's Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PORTLANDIA")

ARMISEN: (As character) Hi, hello.

DANA MILLICAN: (As Dana) My name is Dana. I'll be taking care of you today. If you have any questions about the menu, please let me know.

BROWNSTEIN: (As character) I guess I do have a question about the chicken, if you could just tell us a little bit more about it.

MILLICAN: (As Dana) The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts.

ARMISEN: (As character) And this is local?

MILLICAN: (As Dana) Yes, absolutely.

ARMISEN: (As character) I'm going to ask you just one more time, and it's local?

MILLICAN: (As Dana) It is.

BROWNSTEIN: (As character) Is that USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?

MILLICAN: (As Dana) It's just all-across-the-board organic.

ARMISEN: (As character) The hazelnuts, these are local?

BROWNSTEIN: (As character) How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?

ARMISEN: (As character) I'm sorry to interrupt, I had exactly the same question.

MILLICAN: (As Dana) Four acres. Give me just a second? I'll be right back, OK.

BROWNSTEIN: (As character) OK. Fine, we're doing the right thing.

ARMISEN: (As character) I'm too apologetic.

BROWNSTEIN: (As character) You are.

ARMISEN: (As character) I drove way too slow here today, didn't I?

BROWNSTEIN: (As character) No.

ARMISEN: (As character) I'm so weird with that gas pedal. The thing just moves the whole vehicle forward, and...

MILLICAN: (As Dana) All right, so here is the chicken you will be enjoying tonight.

ARMISEN: (As character) You have this information - this is fantastic.

MILLICAN: (As Dana) Absolutely. His name was Colin(ph). Here are his papers, OK.

ARMISEN: (As character) That's great. He looks like a happy little guy who runs around. A lot of friends, other chickens of friends, putting his little wing around another one and kind of like palling around.

MILLICAN: (As Dana) I don't know that I can speak to that level of intimate knowledge about him. They do a lot to make sure that their chickens are very happy.

GROSS: It's kind of like you're adopting a child instead of having dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, and I'll point out, whenever people ask, you know, are you making fun of people, and we always say no, this is very much part of us. How emphatic was I about telling you how local the actors were right before you went into that clip? God.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWNSTEIN: What a horrible - I mean, I'm even worse than the sketch we just heard in terms of like - oh, Terry, we use local actors. They were born and raised in Portland. Jesus.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What are you like in restaurants?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, just watch out in a restaurant. I'm back there in the kitchen. I was like was this chicken born on this plate? If it wasn't born on this plate, I'm not eating it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And Fred, what about you?

ARMISEN: I'm definitely that way not in so much about being local, but I definitely - you know, you can tell at a restaurant when everything's very wooden, like a nice wooden restaurant, like all the tables. I mean, it's very, like, oh this is really nice. And whenever there's salmon, I don't know, I always have the assumption that it's, like, organic.

BROWNSTEIN: I think the most people are reading these days is on menus. You don't have to ask anything. There's like an essay, there's an essay that you read, and then you order.

GROSS: So let me play one more sketch while we're talking about food, and this is the Allergy Day Parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I think anybody who's ever had food sensitivities or eats with somebody who has food sensitivities will either really, really enjoy this or really hate you both.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Mostly I think they'll enjoy it. So you each play, like, newscasters who are anchoring this parade down a street with floats and everything, it's the Allergy Day Parade, and the bleachers are virtually empty.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PORTLANDIA)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARMISEN: (As Mark Gemmer) Hi, I'm Mark Gemmer(ph).

BROWNSTEIN: (As Linda Lawrence) And I'm Linda Lawrence(ph).

ARMISEN: (As Mark) And welcome to Portland's Allergy Pride Parade.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Linda) We are here to celebrate allergy pride.

ARMISEN: (As Mark) That's right. Some people called in sick.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Linda) Some people did, and we are here to celebrate them while they're at home.

ARMISEN: (As Mark) Oh, lactose intolerance, that's allergies from dairy. We have a little cow-guy. That's a good idea.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Linda) Yeah, how bad do cows feel? Little do they know they would cause such a problem.

ARMISEN: (As Mark) That's right. Coming up we've got people who are allergic to wheat. I would like to see a day, maybe 20 years from now, when an allergy sufferer will be sitting in the White House, 20 years from now, 30 years, who knows. Ah, and here we have...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible).

ARMISEN: (As Mark) Soy punks. These people are allergic to soy.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Linda) What are they yelling?

ARMISEN: (As Mark) Oy, not soy. And of course the perfect storm of allergies, Pad Thai.

BROWNSTEIN: (As Linda) Peanuts is a very common allergy. There's also shellfish, wheat, soy, really for some people a Thai restaurant is a death trap.

GROSS: I love that, Pad Thai, the perfect storm for allergies. So do you guys have food sensitivities? Have you kind of lived this?

ARMISEN: Oh yeah, and it's funny because I also feel proud of my allergies. But I'm allergic to avocado and walnuts and apples.

BROWNSTEIN: I'm allergic to soy and hazelnut.

GROSS: So you have to interrogate waiters at restaurants?

ARMISEN: Oh absolutely. And in fact, I get very offended, and I don't know why I get so offended when something is brought to me that has apples and walnuts on it. I'm like why? Why did you include this?

BROWNSTEIN: I think allergy sufferers, especially people with food allergies, they like that special attention. As an allergy sufferer, you have that moment at the restaurant where, you know, you get to tell your story, you get a little sympathy. Everybody else at the table has heard it before, they roll their eyes, but, you know, I think a lot of what we celebrate on "Portlandia" is kind of the fact that it's like the inverse of the norm.

Like all the stuff that, you know, makes people like different, that's the stuff that's sort of celebrated. Like, if you're normal, if you don't have anything wrong with you, like forget it, it's no fun.

GROSS: Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen will be back in the second half of the show. They co-created and co-star in the sketch comedy series "Portlandia," which begins its second season tomorrow night on IFC. Armisen is also a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," and Brownstein co-founded the bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. Here she is on vocals and guitar in Wild Flag. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. They co-founded and co-star in the sketch comedy series "Portlandia," which begins its second season tomorrow night on IFC. Armisen has been a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" for 10 years, and is best known for his portrayals of candidate and President Barack Obama. Carrie Brownstein co-founded the indie bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag.

So I'd like to talk with each of you one-on-one for a few minutes. So Fred Armisen, let's start with you. So as we established, you were in a band before "Saturday Night Live," a post punk-band called Trenchmouth. Why did you think of being a drummer in a rock band before you thought of comedy?

ARMISEN: It's two things. First of all I love the drums. I've always been a music fan. I've always loved playing the drums ever since I was a little kid. But to be honest with you, I think more than anything I just wanted to be famous. You know, I think that really, even before I was in a band I just wanted to be on TV. I think I wanted to be in a band so I could be on TV. And I really enjoyed it at the time but I remember when we would mix records I was so disinterested. To me it all sounded the same. I was like this sounds great. It was the record. And I think it was that haste that I maybe wasn't that I wasn't exactly the place where I was supposed to be and when I started doing comedy everything kind of came together for me.

GROSS: Were you ever the opening comic for your own band?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARMISEN: You know, I'll tell you something, in my band I had a microphone behind the drums and I just talked all the time. And I don't know if it might have been a little irritating to the rest of the people in my band, I don't know, they were all funny guys. But I remember really just thinking of the drums as an instrument to where I - because I wanted so much attention, it was such a loud instrument and I tried to play it as much as I could, like I tried to make a cacophony of noise. So I think that I was sort of somehow sort of on my way to doing comedy. Yeah.

GROSS: So you've become best known on "Saturday Night Live" for your impression of Obama.

ARMISEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you started doing him during the campaign and have continued to do him. So let's start with a clip. And this is a clip. It's kind of like a campaign ad but it's done as if it were a video. And it's a video about how cool Obama is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ARMISEN: (as Barack Obama) Hello. I'm Barack Obama. For the past few weeks, my transition team and I have been in Chicago laying the groundwork for my presidency. One thing has become clear: no matter the circumstances, I am going to keep it cool.

(as Barack Obama) Examples? Let's take Hillary Clinton. You remember her? She ran against me in the Democratic primary, and told superdelegates I couldn't win in a general election. Hey, she brought up William Ayres before anyone. Did I exact political revenge? Nope. I brought her in. Why? Because I keep it cool.

(as Barack Obama) I take my kids to school. I don't lose my temper. It's my only rule. I keep it cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Fred Armisen as Barack Obama on "Saturday Night Live." So what did you do to prepare? What did you look for and listen for in Obama?

ARMISEN: I looked at the pictures, the photos that were coming out of him. I try to look at pictures sometimes when I do impressions, you know, because they say a lot more than video. So I just, he just at the time I remember the one photo I looked at he looked very serious, the sort of eyebrows down. I looked at that, I mean this is when he was running. And then he had an audiobook on iTunes. I listened to that a bit and that was it. And then, you know, the hair and makeup did the rest. And there wasn't very much to do, I mean as far as makeup. They just put some plastic behind my ears to stick them out a little bit, so there wasn't too much.

GROSS: So one thing I think you try to get from President Obama is the way some of his words are really clipped?

ARMISEN: Yeah. There's a sort of like percussive right way at the end of some of his sentences.

GROSS: Oh speaking of percussive, you get his hands. His hands sometimes are on the table if he's sitting at a table...

ARMISEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and they kind of - he raises them up and down for emphasis and...

ARMISEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...kind of bangs against the table a little bit.

ARMISEN: Sometimes he does this blinking thing where like the blinks are like a little long. Eyelids shut for like a millisecond longer than usual. But at the same time I also infuse a little bit of myself too. I just I try make it easygoing, so it's partially just me too.

GROSS: How have you used your drumming on "Saturday Night Live?"

ARMISEN: I always think of the anticipation before I would go out and play music is the same kind before I go out and do a sketch. So I would do, you know, before I would go out on stage, you know, I would sort of be mentally prepared and it's the same kind of thing, especially if some sketches are like the same length as songs. And the thing is like I'll always think of myself as a drummer. I've been drumming for so long that even when I'm in a sketch sometimes - this is so pretentious - so sometimes I, like I'll think of myself as like a drummer in a sketch. You know what I mean? Like the drummer kind of like, I feel like because of the cymbals and the snare and stuff, they demand a bit of attention but at the same time they're keeping it all together. They're sort of setting the pace for everything. So as corny as it sounds, I do sometimes think of it that way, especially if it's a big group sketch, then I think like oh, I'll just, you know, if I'm the drummer in this, then great.

GROSS: My guest is Fred Armisen of "Saturday Night Live." Here he is in an "SNL" sketch set at a wedding reception. Armisen plays the father of the bride and has just taken the mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ARMISEN: (as father) Thank you, everybody. Honey, I know it's your worst nightmare, and I'm up here - your dad - and I just want to get the old band together, if that's OK with you. Do you mind, sweetie?

ABBY ELLIOTT: (as Madeline) No.

ARMISEN: (as father) All right, don't be embarrassed. Can I get the rest of the guys up here? Greg, Steve, Lyle - come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

DAVE GROHL: (as Lyle) Hey, go easy on us, guys - this is our first gig since, like, 1983.

ASHTON KUTCHER: (as Steve) Yeah, yeah. Well, hey, I'd like to say something.

ARMISEN: (as father) Hey, who's this old guy?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KUTCHER: (as Steve) You know, I can't believe we're up here after 25 years. We were very different guys back then.

BILL HADER: (as Greg) Oh, you can say that again. But this feels right, sharing our music with this wonderful young couple.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ARMISEN: (as father) All right.

HADER: (as Greg) Did this thing get heavier?

ARMISEN: (as father) All right, let's do this. Madeline - my little Maddy - I'm so proud of you. And I hope Daddy doesn't make too much of a fool of himself up here. All right, this is with all my love. You guys ready? Here we go.

GROHL: (as Lyle) One, two, three, four.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARMISEN: (as father) Yeah. (Singing) When Ronald Reagan comes around he brings the fascists to your town You think it's cool to be a jock. But we all get beat up by cops. It's a fist fight. Fist fight. Fist fight in the parking lot. Fist fight. Fist fight. Fist fight in the parking lot. I guess my mind's all messed up.

GROSS: That was Fred Armisen with Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters on drums. Armisen co-created and co-stars in the IFC sketch comedy series "Portlandia" with Carrie Brownstein, the co-founder of the indie bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. We'll talk more with Brownstein after break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I've been talking with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who created and star in the sketch comedy show "Portlandia." And the new season, season two, begins Friday on IFC. And we just caught up with Fred Armisen about some of his work on "Saturday Night Live." Carrie Brownstein is a guitarist and singer and she first became known in the band Sleater-Kinney and now in the band Wild Flag.

Let's hear a track from the Wild Flag album. And I'm going to play the opening track, "Romance," which is really propulsive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right. Do you want to talk about this song? You wrote this, right?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean the band wrote the music, but I wrote the lyrics. This song I think is kind of a reclamation of my what's turned out to be a lifelong affection and love affair with music. And I think realizing that that has been the most constant thing for me. And so really it's kind of a love song to music.

GROSS: OK. And this is Wild Flag. We'll hear Carrie Brownstein on vocals and guitar. Also in the band is Mary Timony, formerly of the band Helium, Rebecca Cole, formerly of the band The Minders, and Janet Weiss, who used to play in Sleater-Kinney. So here's Wild Flag.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMANCE")

WILD FLAG: (Singing) Hey, hey, can you feel it? The way it sways you. The hum in your chest? You make my feet move, you turn my head loose. That's why I love you the best. Hey, you fill up the spaces, those empty places. The corners and cracks. You kill my sickness, my only witness. You're all that I have. Hands down we like, we like what we like. Hands down we like, we love, we choose you. We've got an eye, an eye for what's romance. We've got our eyes, our eyes trained on you. You watch us dance, we dance 'til we're dying. We dance to free ourselves from the room. We love the sound, the sound is what found us. Sound is the blood between me and you.

GROSS: That's the band Wild Flag with my guest Carrie Brownstein on vocals and guitar. Carrie Brownstein also co-created and co-stars in the sketch comedy series "Portlandia," along with Fred Armisen.

So, did you dream of being like a rock musician when you were growing up?

BROWNSTEIN: Not particularly. That was not, you know, in the suburbs like being a rock musician was not really in my purview. It wasn't something that I thought about. I wanted to be an entertainer and a performer. And I was always drawn to that as a means of escape and a means of accessing feelings or kind of trying out emotions or experiencing situations in a way that would make me a little less vulnerable. It's like oh, OK, well, if I can play this role than I can explore all these sort of scary feelings or deal with my teenage life in a way that's kind of I have a little more sort of control over and agency in. And I think once I did discover guitar and punk music, you know, that became the vehicle for what I wanted to say. But I knew that I wanted to be onstage, but it didn't really become specific until I was about 15 or 16.

GROSS: You know, you're very uninhibited onstage and the music is really like, you know, assertive powerful music. So it interests me that you said you were feeling very vulnerable when you started playing. So what were you feeling, if I might ask, what were you feeling vulnerable about?

BROWNSTEIN: I mean I think just kind of the awkwardness of the teenage years and just a sense of I guess alienation. I, you know, it's very common, you know, teenage angst and feelings. But I just I think wanted to have a voice and be heard and music, you know, just took hold of me. And, you know, when you hear your voice or your guitar projected and it reaches the back of the room, when you hear that for the first time it's unreal. And I think it's just also a way of just kind of exploring like messiness and chaos and kind of going to places that are a little bit unexpected, and also that are not sanctioned in your everyday life. You know, I think I was a really angry kid. I was really anxious kid. But in music that can work. That can work in a way that's safe and actually can translate into something like interesting and powerful. You're kind of allowed to act that out.

GROSS: So, apparently during the four years between the end of Sleater-Kinney and the start of Wild Flag you didn't play guitar or sing, and I find that kind of unimaginable.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. Looking back on it, it is surprising to me as well. When Wild Flag played our first show in the fall of 2010, when I stood on stage I realized that I had not stood on stage in four years and I almost fainted from fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWNSTEIN: I could not believe it. I put that guitar away after Sleater-Kinney's last show, which was in August of 2006 and I just did not want to pick it up. I mean it was like - this sounds melodramatic, but it was almost like having like a little urn or something. Like here's this thing that embodies something that doesn't exist anymore. So we'll just set that over there and not look at it.

And also, for me, music is - it kind of needs to have an urgency to it. It needs to - I need to want it. I need to not take it for granted. And so I just - I had to put it away so that I could rediscover it, and ended up actually writing for ALL SONGS CONSIDERED, which is, of course, an NPR show and blog.

And it was actually through writing about music and being engaged constantly with a really great community of listeners and readers of the blog that I was writing that I started wanting to participate in music again. And I realized that was my most sort of meaningful place in music, was not necessarily to write about it, but just to play it, even just for myself.

GROSS: You know, the fact that you compared your guitar to, like, an urn, you know, made me think you were in mourning, too, for the guitar and for music.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, not - I mean, yeah. I wasn't, like, lamenting the death of the music industry or anything.

GROSS: No, no, but your band and your period as a performer.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, I do think anyone that's collaborated with someone else, especially in music - bands will always liken that relationship to a marriage or a family. That's just - that analogy always works. So I think when bands break up, I mean, it is very similar to a relationship ending. And it certainly felt like that, even though I'm very good friends with both Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss.

GROSS: So I'm really interested in your take on this. Like, when you were on stage, like, you're really powerful, but it's not about like look how sexily I'm dressed. You know, and there's so many, like, female performers now that are in, basically, S&M fetish garb onstage, and, you know, like, they're nearly naked. It's totally sexual. The power's supposed to be just, like, totally sexual in a literally sexual way. And I just wonder what you make of that.

BROWNSTEIN: I mean, in some ways, I just think to each her own. You know, that's one version of performance, and that's one version of being watched. You know, sorry. These kind of questions are always hard, because, like, you know, I mean, I don't think that it's necessary to perform in those kinds of outfits. I think, oh, that looks really uncomfortable.

But, you know, at the same time, you know, it's not for me to judge. But I think that, you know, the most amazing performances and performers, you know, it has nothing to do, obviously, with what they're wearing. They're just givers onstage. And I think that, like, you don't have to give, you know, your body onstage. You kind of just have to give your soul, which is a lot scarier.

So maybe these artists are, like, you know what? We are not going to give our soul on stage. We will give our bodies. It's a lot less scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So let me bring Fred Armisen back in the conversation. So the impression I get, Fred, is that during summers when "Saturday Night Live" was on hiatus, you'd go to Portland, and that's when you do a lot of the work on "Portlandia." How much in touch with each other you? How much work do you do on "Portlandia" when "Saturday Night Live" is on, or when Wild Flag is on tour?

ARMISEN: Oh, constant. We really do text each other and call each other all the time. Before bed, just during the day, it's just like this constant communication. And the thing about "Portlandia" is that we also have to do all the promotional stuff - or get to do all the promotional stuff on the other part of the year. So we do end up together, anyway.

But while Wild Flag is on tour, yeah, and while I'm doing the show - during the show, I text her.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: You have to remember to turn your phone off so it doesn't ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARMISEN: Yeah. Oh, you know, I always keep my ringer on off.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Anyways, I want to wish you both good luck with season two of "Portlandia," and of course with all your other projects. It sounds like you have a great relationship, you know, with each other and a great collaboration. So thank you both for talking to us.

ARMISEN: Thank you for having us.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, thank you.

ARMISEN: Thanks for having us.

GROSS: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein co-created and costar in the sketch comedy series "Portlandia," which begins its second season tomorrow night on IFC. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Anthony Hamilton's album of neo-soul ballads, "Back to Love." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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