Get an inside look at the new season of the hit IFC show
On February 27, lovers of sketch comedy and all things Portland received a belated Valentine when Portlandia returned to IFC.
Starring the dynamic duo of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, fresh off his departure from Saturday Night Live, the fourth season features the return of beloved characters and familiar themes—but it also delves into uncharted territory for the series.
“We have a distinct style. People will say, ‘It was like a Portlandia sketch’ to describe certain situations. People know what that means and that’s really cool, but this season we tried some new things,” says co-creator and director Jonathan Krisel. “For example, a horror film opens the first episode of the season, and we have a big film noir sketch that takes its roots from a ‘traditional’ Portlandia topic dealing with the popularity of different vegetables, but it goes off the rails to become like a John Grisham novel.
“Thematically we’re always on the Portlandia topic. We’re very specific about what we’re making fun of, but we can attack it a few different ways.”
This includes different types of storytelling. For instance, Armisen and Brownstein have always appeared in sketches together, but this season, a few of the episodes feature separate storylines for the pair; Krisel has dubbed these storylines “the Fred Chronicles” and “the Carrie Chronicles.”
Another tactic the Portlandia team used to shake things up this season was to add new writers to the mix. “Usually we bring in one writer, but this year we brought in three,” says Krisel. “Having different voices in the process really helps a lot.”
Portland-based producer David Cress has been with the show since the beginning. Likening his role as a producer to that of a general contractor, Cress and his team handle the technical aspects of the production: “We hire the crew, budget for the show, schedule it, and put it into action, and hope it all comes out right.”
He credits the creative team with keeping Portlandia fresh.
“That trio of people—Jon, Carrie and Fred—they’re kind of brilliant,” says Cress. “They’re really the birthers of the show. I do as much as I can to support them, but they’re making the magic.”
He continues, “There’s always sort of a fear that there’s a limitation of material. But there is a lot of inspiration, lots of great ideas. I think they really found their voice. In a sense, I almost feel like it’s the same show but ‘more’ this year.”
“Since we’re a satire show, in the year in between seasons, there’s so much new material—social trends are an unending source of raw source material—to draw from,” explains Krisel. “This season we took on the ‘anxiety’ theme: people e-mailing you constantly, texting, always on the hook to be available, which is kind of a new thing.”
He adds, “The first storyline of the season is about people sharing their finances, a couple joining bank accounts. It’s so simple, but I’m curious to see if it strikes a chord with people. I think it’s really funny. Whenever you’re tapping into the way people live, and identifying that and then satirizing it, it’s really exciting. The topics sound mundane but these are things that haven’t been used as a source of comedy yet.”
Each season of the show thus far has boasted some great guest actors, and that is one thing that has remained the same for season four. This season features appearances from Kirsten Dunst, Maya Rudolph, Olivia Wilde, Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Duff McKagan (Gun N’ Roses), and Paul Allen and the Portland Trail Blazers, in addition to returning guest stars Kyle MacLachlan, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Begley Jr., and Steve Buscemi.
“The word is out that the show is fun to work on,” says Cress. “Fred and Carrie allow them to come in and improvise, so that’s exciting for actors. It’s very loose and improvisational. Jon grew up with this style and taught us; I hadn’t seen that style before. It allows us to be inventive and work off each other. We used to have to rely on Fred’s and SNL’s connections and now people just know the show and like the show and want to be a part of it.”
One of Cress’ favorite guest stars this year is McLachlan, who has played Portland’s mayor since the first season. “He has a real love of improvised comedy,” says Cress. “You can tell he enjoys doing it and is really good at it. That’s one of my favorite characters.”
Krisel, meanwhile, is particularly impressed with the improvisational skills of singer/songwriter k.d. lang, a first-time guest star.
“We tried to get her last season but the scheduling didn’t work,” he says. “This year another role came up, so she agreed to come out and do it. She’s one of those artists that is so genuine, so when she came to set, it was like, ‘OK, what’s this going to be like?’ Her performance was so natural. She took it to a very funny place. I’m excited to see how it turns out. It’s easy to be over the top and crazy, but to act natural is hard.”
In addition to the actors and musicians who have guest roles this season, there are many local politicians who also make appearances.
“David tries to keep us in good favor with the community, especially with the film incentive,” says Krisel. “David worked closely with a lot of politicians, so their appearance on the show was a thank you. That tax incentive makes a huge difference, so it was a way for the crew, and for Fred, Carrie and me, to meet them and say thank you.”
Indeed, the tax credit has been a boon to not only Portlandia, but to several other Oregon-based productions, especially television shows.
“When Vince (Porter) first became film commissioner, he and I sat down and talked about the state of film in Oregon,” says Cress. “He thought one of our problems was that the modest incentive would draw one big film, which would drain it, and then there would be a slack period. TV fits us better because it goes on for a longer period. That really helped build our industry and infrastructure.”
Other shows that have taken advantage of the incentive include Grimm and Leverage.
Cress continues, “Even though they’re different genres and different formats, I think that the shows have all benefited from each other. The talent base has grown a lot in the last decade. I think it used to be hard for an actor to stay in Portland. There was a limited number of things to do. Now with TV, the possibilities have increased.”
These possibilities have likewise benefited Oregon’s crew base: Portlandia’s crew is made up of 99 percent locals. Add to that the supportive nature of the community—from bars and restaurants letting the show film in their establishments to the city and state helping in any way they can—and it’s no wonder Portlandia keeps coming back.
“We couldn’t do the show anywhere else,” says Krisel. “We couldn’t pay for it anywhere else, and the town has embraced us. It feels very grassroots in a way. We’re stretching the dollar as far as it can go, and what we’re able to achieve is awesome.”
The 10-episode fourth season of Portlandia premiered on February 27 on IFC. Visit www.ifc.com/shows/portlandia for more information.