Making 'Portlandia': Brainstorming, basketball, improv
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LOS ANGELES — The "Portlandia" brain trust is gathered to hash out another round of endearingly goofy tales set in a mythical (sort of) Portland.
Laptops dot the conference table where stars Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen sit with fellow writers of the IFC comedy. Their modest office is in a gentrifying industrial section of Los Angeles with the whimsical nickname Frogtown — so perfectly "Portlandia," now in its seventh and next-to-last season.
The story currently under discussion: What the mayor's wish to secede from the United States could mean for the Oregon city (see the result at 10 p.m. EST Thursday, with Kyle MacLachlan back as the mayor and Kumail Nanjiani as an unyielding bureaucrat).
"I just want more Saturday and Sunday. Two each," one writer suggests as the mayor's vague intent.
"He keeps saying, 'I just want the weekend.' And Fred and Carrie are like, 'What does that mean?'" another scribe chimes in.
"Shorts. Flip-flops. Eating a banana on the front lawn," is helpfully offered.
This group stream of consciousness meanders delightfully on. The mayor wants to set up a tax shelter to attract billionaires. Or maybe he went to Iceland and realized countries outside America are OK, too.
But what about the downside of secession? Portland's split from the U.S. would be treated like a cable customer trying to end a contract, and it wouldn't be pretty. There are the penalty fees, of course, and demands for return of federal equipment including flagpoles and court gavels.
And how would a Portlander cross the border to see, say, a Beyonce concert? Would a passport be required?
Most TV writers' rooms feel like creative conspiracies, but this one even more so. Brownstein and Armisen conceived the series with fellow executive producer Jonathan Krisel, and the two of them play various and sundry characters.
Ideas and notions are thrown out casually, to be either built on or supplanted by the next creative burst of thought. Only Brownstein's determined effort to work pianist-composer Dave Grusin into an episode provokes gentle teasing, until she finally surrenders.
"I'm willing to let Grusin go. I'll just hang out with him in LA," says Brownstein, whose fame pre-"Portlandia" was musical, including as a founding member of the rock band Sleater-Kinney. She and former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Armisen, himself a musician, are longtime friends.
Also on hand this day for idea-swapping and a lunchtime game of basketball — an outside hoop is the big perk — are writers Alice Mathias, Graham Wagner and Karen Kilgariff. But the script that emerges is only the beginning of what viewers ultimately see, a "loose blueprint" for filming in Portland, as Krisel puts it.
"The shooting becomes our rewriting ... because it's so heavily improvised," he said in an interview. "And that's kind of the secret of the show, that once you've got this simple premise and you've brainstormed it and written it, then on the day (of taping) you can just have fun with it."
He compares the show to an art project, such as a painting or sculpture, which ultimately finds its own final shape.
"You don't try to micromanage it," Krisel said. Except, it seems, in the editing room, where the goal is to cobble together the very best, "laugh-out-loud funny moments" out of the many takes done for each segment. That can even require a "Portlandia" version of computer-generated special effects, such as moving coffee cups around to preserve continuity.
"The end goal is to make a piece that everybody has ownership over and everybody's proud of because everybody contributed to it. I think there's a communist, socialist vibe to 'Portlandia' to make it work," Krisel said, with a laugh.
The comedy does revel in its own brand of leftiness. Brownstein once compared Portland itself to "more a mind-set than a place," telling The Associated Press in a 2014 interview that it's "an exemplary city in how befuddled it can sometimes be by its own attempts at progressiveness and kindness."
For Krisel, the flaws-and-all depiction in "Portlandia," although affectionate, led to a brief crisis of confidence after the presidential election.
"We were making fun of ourselves and we thought it was funny, and the world was, 'Actually, we hate those people,'" he recalled thinking. He felt an urge to protect "Portlandia" by halting it, but decided instead to stick with what he calls "just a funny show."
"It's like candy to watch. People have said they're going through something difficult and they put on 'Portlandia' and it's a breath of fresh air," he said. "Sometimes the world is so scary, as it is now, and you just need something to make you laugh."
This story has been corrected to reflect that the writer's name is Mathias, not Mathis.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.
In Focus: Richard Crouse