Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen are back with another season of "Portlandia" (Thursdays at 10 p.m.) on IFC, and if the promise of more great guest stars — Nick Swardson, k.d. lang, Silas Weir Mitchell, Michael Nesmith, Tuck and Patti, Jeff Tweedy, Olivia Wilde, Kirstin Dunst, Vanessa Bayer, Jello Biafra, and the return of Steve Buscemi, Jason Sudeikis, and Kyle MacLachlan — isn't enough to lure you in, the return of Brownstein/Armisen character duos like feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace and "Battlestar Galactica" lovers Doug and Claire should do it.
And then there are new sketches like "The Celery Incident," a vegetable-themed noir spoof in Episode 3 of the new season, which, guaranteed, will become one of your instant favorites.
Star Brownstein shared some scoop on Season 4 with Yahoo TV, and told us about her own TV binge-watching habits, who's still on her "Portlandia" guest star wish list, and just how much time she and Armisen and the crew spend cracking each other up on set.
The line, "It's me, Marty, from Celery," may just be the funniest line of the whole TV season so far.
[Laughing] Oh, thanks. That's Buscemi. He's just amazing.
What inspired "The Celery Incident"?
In the writer's room, we were talking about this phenomenon of having vegetables come back into vogue. It feels like there was something conspiratorial about it, as if there was some kind of lobby that was secretly pushing their agenda onto the masses or doing back alley deals with restaurants or chefs, and somehow changing the landscape of popular cuisine. We started thinking of that. Then we started talking about the film and the play "Glengarry Glen Ross" and about personifying each of these vegetables, and what kind of person each vegetable would be represented by. Suddenly we had this very noir ish story that was kind of a thriller, sort of a John Grisham paean. We pay homage to him at the end.
It became very labyrinthine and outlandish. We had a lot of fun with it. The thing we're most proud of is that the core of it is this social commentary, and also these interesting relationships, but it really plays out as a thriller.
Watch "The Celery Incident" with Steve Buscemi:
It could be its own "Portlandia" episode.
Separate from the miniversion of it that came out, it does act as a through line to the third episode of this season. We did think of it, at some point, as potentially being a full episode and expanding it to 22 minutes, but we actually liked breaking up the tone with other sketches, so when it airs on television or when people watch the full episode, there will be those interstitial sketches. There are actually a lot of episodes of the show that we probably could expand into something longer, but we find that being succinct serves the show better.
Does it get tougher, as you near the end of the season, to come up with ideas? Or do you have more sketch ideas than you have time to do?
In terms of the germ of an idea, we have a lot each season as we set out to write, but for us, characters are more interesting than concepts or ideas. Even if we have a sketch that seems funny, often that ends up being a mere joke in a bigger sketch. The harder part is making sure that the sketches have substance, that they have characters at the center of them, that they have endings. The bulk of the writing is trying to veer away from the singular idea that can sometimes feel flimsy once it's [filmed], and thinking, "Who are the people populating this idea? How can this idea be part of a story about a couple, or part of a larger narrative?" That takes more time, but this year we really gave ourselves a lot of time to write.
Who are your favorites among the recurring characters on the show?
I do have favorite characters. I think that throughout the course of Season 4, we pretty much wrote for the 10 or 12 characters who we feel the most kinship with or who we think are the most dynamic or interesting and whose lives we wanted to explore more deeply. Peter and Nance, Kath and Dave, Spike and Iris, Toni and Candace, Brendan and Michelle, Doug and Claire: All those characters come back and whether you recognize them by name or not you'll recognize them, I think, on screen by appearance and by former storylines. We really found it easier to write with a sense of character in mind, because we realized that that's what keeps people coming back to other shows. That's what makes things have a lasting, relatable effect.
Women and Women First bookstore owners Toni and Candace are classics. What will they be up to in Season 4?
We go on a feminist getaway weekend, out into the wilderness. They hold a fundraiser. They have a run in with the cops. And they go to a Portland Trailblazers basketball game. Four different adventures that they go on this season.
Aubrey Plaza guest stars in a Feminist Bookstore sketch:
Another fan favorite couple is Doug and Claire, whose lives spiraled out of control during their "Battlestar Galactica" binge. Do you binge-watch TV?
Absolutely. I don't know of anyone that hasn't binge-watched television at this point, especially with Netflix and other online streaming or just DVDs. "House of Cards," "Orange is the New Black." From a couple years ago, definitely "The Wire." But now I find myself doing that frequently because of my schedule. Sometimes I'm really busy, and I'm not really watching any television except online here and there. Then I'll finish a project and have a couple days off and want to reset and recover, and I'll sit and watch a whole season of "Veep," or a season of "Girls." And "True Detective" I've been really watching pretty religiously [lately].
Doug and Claire's "BSG" marathon:
The show is so pop culture aware, so aware of trends, is there anything you do specifically to keep up with everything?
That's an interesting question, because I think in some ways right now, it's about … we're finally curating and cutting out some of the white noise and some of the clutter. It's about defining our lives by doing things that are more minimal or understated and not just pure consumption. But I do try to read more than a headline. That's been a goal for me as of late, because I feel like we're in such an age of dabblers. It's so easy to just get a very cursory take on a lot of things. And I'm not applying judgment to that. But personally, I love to try to delve a little deeper. I will try to sit with the New Yorker or actually sit with the Sunday Times. I read plenty of things online. I look at BuzzFeed. I'll occasionally go to Pitchfork. … I think it's about limiting and then really exploring what you're left with. I don't feel the pressure to be an all knowing, all seeing person for the sake of the show. I'd rather experience life and then apply more meaningful experiences to the writing because I think those feel more authentic and rich.
[Related: Fred Armisen's Musical Background]
Especially since you and Fred are such good friends, is it extra difficult to play these "Portlandia" characters, and these situations, without constantly cracking each other up?
I'll say the most difficult thing is that, because it's not scripted, and we haven't done a table read, and we haven't gotten the jokes out of the way once or twice in order to not laugh about them, there are a lot of surprises and there are a lot of moments that catch us off guard or catch the crew off guard. And that includes the camera people who are in charge of getting a steady shot. There are definitely moments that just take everyone aback and make us laugh. What we have noticed though, and I think it helps us not get too gratuitous or too showy, is that often what cracks us up or cracks the crew up on set does not make it into that show. That feels good in the moment, but it just doesn't have legs, or it doesn't serve the story, or it lacks subtlety. I think if everything we did that was funny on set was getting onto the show, it would be a really horrible environment. Everyone would be hamming it up.
Again this season, you have a stellar list of guest stars. Who's left on the wish list?
The author Lorrie Moore is a really funny, witty person, whose great new book of short stories, "Bark," just came out. I think she would be really funny on the show. I think Robert Plant … we tried to get him on the show this year. We came so close, and that was very exciting, because I could not think of a time that Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin has been on any television show. We just like people whose sensibility is akin to ours, or who we can imagine being part of the "Portlandia" world. But sure, the wish list is probably really long. Werner Herzog, the director, is someone we keep trying to get on the show. David Lynch is another one.
You have begun writing your memoirs. What will you cover, what will you leave out, and when will we have the chance to read it?
Mostly it's the most important or significant moments of my life and how they informed me becoming a musician or working on "Portlandia." It's chronological, but it's certainly not from the day I was born up until today. It's episodic. And it will be out probably early to middle of next year.
Are you enjoying the process of writing it? It's obviously very different from writing the show, or the more journalistic writing you've done.
Most of my creative endeavors have been collaborative. Writing [the book] is obviously more isolated, has less immediate feedback. The rewards, as you probably know as a writer, are few and far between. You can massage a paragraph over and over again, and all you're excited about at the end is one sentence. It's just strange the way that, especially with a memoir, our memories are so multidimensional and they're very vivid. Then you go to write it and it just flattens out and you realize, "Oh my gosh, I have to build up everything through language," and this is arduous. [Laughing] Yeah, I find the process to be one of the most difficult things I've done. But when I read things back, and get [feedback] back from my editor and get a huge chunk under my belt, it feels like a good day or week. Then it is very rewarding. But I'll be happy when it's done.
"Portlandia" Season 4 premieres Feb. 27 at 10 p.m. on IFC.