Portlandia, Population One
Photography by Jeaneen Lund
In a recurring sketch on IFC’s hit comedy series Portlandia, Toni and Candace, the owners of the fictional feminist bookstore Women & Women First, never actually sell any books (or any of their leopard-print vagina pillows, for that matter). Instead, the uptight ideologues — played by the show’s creators, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen — seize any opportunity they get to chastise customers for their so-called patriarchal behavior: “Every time you point, I see a penis,” huffs Brownstein’s Toni in one episode, reproaching a college co-ed for motioning to a book she can’t reach. Fanatical and absurd, the pair are not only Portlandia’s best characters, but also the perfect embodiment of its underlying theme: Try as we might, our endless quest to be open-minded, righteous, and cool will inevitably breed new restrictions, elitism, and hypocrisy.
“We’re all trying to follow these lives that are about benevolence and improvement, but the rules are very confounding,” says Brownstein, seated in a booth in the lobby of Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel. “The goalpost keeps moving. Local food used to be the state or city you lived in, but now you have to be foraging it from a neighbor’s yard.” Depicting a cartoonish version of Portland, Ore. — known for its alternative culture and slightly twee sensibility — Portlandia has lampooned everything from free-range chicken to mixology to the recent pickling craze (in that sketch, Brownstein and Armisen portray a couple so obsessed with brining that they pickle a broken high heel they find on the sidewalk). Guest stars frequently get in on the joke: Kyle MacLachlan is the mayor whose “desk chair” is a bouncy exercise ball, and the series’ new season features cameos from Kirsten Dunst, Maya Rudolph, and Steve Buscemi, playing a struggling ad guy who, after the huge comebacks of Brussels sprouts and kale, must try to rebrand celery.
Brownstein and Armisen draw their ideas from various sources: headlines, friends, personal observations — Brownstein spent a decade living in Portland and only two months ago began splitting her time between there and New York. Oddly, the inspiration for their booksellers came from their days in the ’90s indie punk-rock scene. Brownstein immersed herself in the Olympia, Wash., riot grrrl movement and was a singer–guitarist in the trio Sleater-Kinney for 12 years; before joining Saturday Night Live in 2002, Armisen was a drummer for the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth. “You’d think punk rock would be an inclusive group because it was about letting people in who felt like outcasts or misfits, but there were so many rules about how to behave — what bands you should or shouldn’t be listening to, what you should or shouldn’t be wearing,” says Brownstein, dressed in tailored black pants and a black wool sweater, its jagged collar the only semblance of anything “punk” about her.
That’s partly because Brownstein, who eschews labels when addressing her sexuality, didn’t have a conventional upbringing. Her mother left when she was 14, and her father, a lawyer, raised her and her sister, only to later come out to her in his fifties. His straight brother, Brownstein’s uncle, has been one of the foremost sexual reassignment surgeons in the U.S. since the 1970s; he was responsible for Chaz Bono’s surgery.
“My whole life has been indicators — here are the expectations of what a childhood looks like, then that sort of gets upended, taken out from underneath you,” she says. “I’m not interested in being normal. I don’t know what that is.”
With the fourth season of Portlandia underway, Brownstein is working on a memoir and a new album with an undisclosed group of musicians (her most recent group, the all-female indie-rock outfit Wild Flag, announced they were on hiatus in December). What she won’t necessarily be doing, though, is hunting for material for Portlandia — even when she’s in Portland for half the year. “I think people see me as a sort of documentarian, so if someone approaches me they have this weird, heightened sense of reality — like, ‘Oh, are you looking for something in this moment?’ ” she says. “The truth is I’m not. I’m just trying to go to the bank.”
Season 4 of Portlandia premieres Feb. 27 at 10 p.m. EST. Watch a clip from the new season below: