It doesn’t take a lot of dot-connecting genius to figure why music was a crucial component of “Portlandia,” which recently wrapped its eighth and final season. The host city is a rock town, but more than that, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein came of age in the punk scene, although that was her initial claim to fame and his secret identity. They incorporated so many original songs into the IFC series that you could just about make a claim that it beat “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” through the gate as a major weekly musical-comedy series.
In honor of eight seasons, Variety asked Brownstein (also of Sleater-Kinney fame) and Armisen to weigh in with four highlights each from their show’s substantial library of original tuneage. Some of the duo’s choices involved famous guest stars from the music world (Henry Rollins, k.d. lang) or fellow cast members (famously, Kyle McLachlan), and in some cases, Armisen chose tunes primarily written by the other partner. Their picks:
“Mayor’s Song for Portland” (2011) with Kyle McLachlan
BROWNSTEIN: The final beat of that wrap-around sketch was that the mayor would sing a love song to the city. We had the music. We didn’t really have the lyrics. And a lot of things we do on the show, especially early on — and that was in the second season — are improvised. Kyle listened to the song before we shot, and wrote down some very silly lyrics that sort of evoked like a Tom Jones kind of character. It was very strange and surreal. He was nervous. He took it seriously, which I love. Kyle always relishes the opportunity to demonstrate I think his breadth as an improviser, and also has eccentricities that I think obviously were mined early on and fomented by David Lynch, but it really is part of who he is. He’s so sophisticated, and then also there is a silliness to him as well. That song somehow embodies these seemingly disparate qualities in Kyle — this suaveness, but also a clumsiness, or fecklessness, I guess. So that one definitely has a life of its own, like, I think, anything that Kyle McLachlan does that speaks to his uniqueness.
“Animal Parade” (2013) with Matt Berry
ARMISEN: Squiggleman was a character (played by Berry) who was a popular singer of children’s music. When our characters, Brendan and Michelle tried to make some more challenging music, the kids in the crowd were not interested. “Animal Parade” seemed like a perfect — and hopefully accurate — depiction of that genre. The lyrics are about a parade or animals and the sounds they make, but then all of a sudden it was about a dump truck.
“I Refuse” (2018) with Henry Rollins, Krist Novoselic and Brendan Canty
BROWNSTEIN: It was undeniable, the excitement that all of us felt — cast, crew, writers — to be able to put together a group, Riot Spray, consisting of Krist from Nirvana, Brendan from Fugazi, and Henry Rollins from Black Flag and many other things. That was so unique to the world of “Portlandia,” that that could coalesce in the context of a comedy. Fred wrote that song and it was perfect in terms of the era of music we were trying to portray. Fred and I both come from punk and indie bands and certainly lionize that genre as very formative for both of us. That song and that sketch were about the exploration of, like, how does outrage age? How do we reconcile that with the desire to live comfortably? We believed in this thing when we were young, which was sort of anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, and then eventually we wanted to take care of ourselves and our family and our city and our country, so sometimes that means compromise and being open instead of being closed. And a character like Spyke, who Fred plays, is the last one to kind of deal with those things, so he sees his friends as traitorous.
“She’s Making Jewelry Now” (2015)
ARMISEN: It was a statement we were hearing a lot around then. Carrie wrote it and we did it live a few times, which I really enjoyed.
“Two Bananas” (2014) with Maya Rudolph and Tuck & Patti
BROWNSTEIN: That really encompasses the absurdity of our show that we were always trying to get at. It’s just such a ridiculous idea, lyrically — really shoehorning a metaphor into being workable. This idea that somehow two bananas are akin to a man and a woman, and that is somehow how the romance works and the fire stays lit, is a really tenuous concept. But it’s sung with such sincerity by Maya Rudolph and Tuck & Patti and then Fred and I.
“Going Home” (2014)
ARMISEN: From a sketch called “The Best Part is Going Home.” It’s us going out to see a band and experiencing all the things in a night that make it kind of exhausting —standing in different lines, getting pushed, having to stay for multiple encores. This sweet voice comes in as we start the best part of the night: going home.
“What About Men?” (2016)
BROWNSTEIN: “What About Men?” is a song that keeps coming back into the conversation. It’s a video people will send each other when something comes out in the news that reminds people of the desperate plight of the straight white male. Because of the nature of “Portlandia,” we’re interested in taxonomy, so even with satire, it’s still an explanation of who these characters are and not an indictment of them. Instead of just pointing a finger and saying “That’s ridiculous that you should feel that way,” by pairing it with an anthem, we’re saying, okay, we might not agree with the men’s rights movement, but it’s interesting to explore the reasons behind something and do that in a way that is about trying to gain comprehension and understanding. And when you reach the result of your exploration, you might still be in a place of disagreement, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying to understand people’s motivations.
“Down to the River to Pray” (2014) with k.d lang
ARMISEN: Even though this song being sung by k.d. lang out on a country road is the last scene of season 4, I like to think of it as the last scene of the whole series. My assumption is that people watch the show out of order, and this is such a perfect tone for the ending: an optimistic spiritual sing-along.