Portlandia: The Tour

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

‘Portlandia,” the IFC sketch-comedy show starring Fred Armisen (“Saturday Night Live”) and indie rock stalwart Carrie Brownstein, was maybe the biggest surprise in television last year. The show seemed to emerge fully formed, with an oddball comedy style built around the quirky hipster culture of Portland, Ore., and the strong chemistry between Armisen and Brownstein.

Significantly, both performers stared their careers as musicians – Brownstein was one-third of the trio Sleater-Kinney, and Armisen played drums for the punk band Trenchmouth. As a sketch show, “Portlandia” has a loose, playful and musical feel to it – it’s the comedy equivalent of a jam session. With season two under way on IFC, Armisen and Brownstein are hitting the road with “Portlandia: The Tour,” coming to the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Wednesday.

Armisen recently spoke about the tour show, the challenges of writing sketch comedy, and the importance of wigs.

Q: You and Carrie have such a strong chemistry together as performers – how did you meet up in the first place?

I think it was 2003. I knew Sleater-Kinney and they came to an SNL show. I think I invited Janet (Weiss, drummer), and she brought the band. I met Carrie and we had a great time. Right away, we just became instant friends. It doesn’t always happen that way, but this was one instance where I met a person and just know – “Oh, this is my friend.”

Q: What are some of the changes you made between seasons one and two of “Portlandia”?

I think, having seen season one, we thought about what we liked the most and also what we didn’t want to waste our time doing again. In season one, we had no idea what we were doing. We were really in the dark. By season two, we were able to use our time a little better.

The other thing is we have more episodes, so the work was a little more intensified. When there are more episodes, there’s more of everything. It’s not a huge budget, so we have to schedule pretty tightly. Then there were little things, like, I wanted the wigs to be better. That was a real concern of mine. I got kind of obsessed with that. We wear a lot of them, so they have to, like, really kill.

Q: One thing I’ve noticed about the sketches on “Portlandia,” they tend to have really strong endings. They seem very deliberate or they go in unexpected directions. Is that something you focus on?

Yeah, and unfortunately, it’s not an easy thing. Endings don’t come very easily to me personally, as a writer. So we had to think about them a lot. What’s going to be funny, but not too heavy, not too cynical? What’s going to be musical, in a way, so that it ends on an up note? It took a little bit of work, but we put some thought into that.

Q: I read once that the Monty Python guys did those interstitial animations and weird cutaways mostly because writing endings for sketches is so hard.

Dude, it’s so hard. That was the biggest surprise about getting into comedy writing. Endings are just the hardest thing. All these elements have to come together. It’s funny, just sitting here talking about it, I can feel I’m starting to get anxiety.

Music and guests

Q: What does the “Portlandia” tour show consist of?

Basically, it’s a mix of us talking, showing some clips from upcoming episodes, and playing some music – we have a band with us. We do a Q&A with the audience, which is a lot of fun. The way we’ve been describing it is, it’s like visiting us in our living room. It’s almost like coming to hang out.

Q: You’ve been known to bring surprise guests on stage – is there anything you can tell us about the Durham show?

Well, we’re bringing Eleanor Friedberger (of the Brooklyn-based indie rock band The Fiery Furnaces) on tour with us. So she’ll be on the show, she’ll do a couple songs. And we’ve had a lot of last-minute additions to other shows, so maybe we’ll get lucky again.

Q: Comedian Mike Birbiglia came through town a couple of weeks ago and said that taking a comedy show on the road has a particular appeal, because each night has a different flavor. Do you get a sense of that touring the “Portlandia” show?

Oh, totally. I love it. Things like the shape of the stage, the sound quality – it sounds pretentious, but those things all make a difference night to night. But number one, we get to actually see the people who watch the s

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