‘Portlandia’: Emmy-nommed Creators Build Laughs From the Ground Up

Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein & Jonathan Krisel on engineering a comedy

The program relies heavily on improvisation, while making do on a limited budget. Most episodes consist of short pieces, but this season, the program tested a story arc in which the two main characters, who normally pal around like Ernie and Bert from “Sesame Street,” consider romance.

Carrie Brownstein, creator-writer-actor: “I think (for) the writers and the director on our show — and it’s rare for television — it’s just about developing your own language that functions well for the show and for the context in which you work, and for us, really. I sometimes think we’re these engineers who have to figure out what kinds of scaffolding we need, what kind of infrastructure we need for each piece.”

Jonathan Krisel, creator-writer-director: “There’s a tricky balance of telling in this very funny show that we’re going to try to throw a monkey wrench between these two characters who are just existing to tell jokes, but what if there was a rift between them? (Reactions included) ‘You can’t upset the balance of the show!,’ ‘Can we make it lighter?,’ ‘Can it not be about sex?’ ‘This love triangle, it’s going to be funny?’” So that was a fun challenge.”

Fred Armisen, creator-writer-actor: “The challenge is we never really know what the episode is going to be until afterwards. It’s kind of like in the editing, kind of later on, we realize what we have. We put our energy into making each scene funny for ourselves, and then we just never know how it’s going to come together until we see it.”

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