With the upcoming eighth season of “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are preparing to say goodbye to their IFC sketch comedy series. But just because these are their final episodes to offer commentary on buzzy topics like feminism, the place for a punk movement in today’s political climate, and how a company culture can be bad but that doesn’t mean the individual men that work there are, doesn’t mean the co-creators, executive producers, and stars approached the season any differently than usual.
“We were careful not to make it feel too much like a last season,” Armisen says. “Part of it is it’s a sketch show and people can watch in any order, and they do. But I remember when we were writing, we said, ‘Let’s make sure we are writing sketches that can last awhile.’”
When it came time to first talk about ending the long-running sketch comedy series, Armisen says the key things were to go out “while we were still enjoying it, while things were going well” and in a way that allowed them to have “control over how we could conclude the series.”
Armisen and Brownstein’s partners at IFC respected their wishes to make the eighth season the final one. With that decision made, the co-creators and stars set about crafting a final season full of sketches designed to leave audiences with the feeling of — as Brownstein puts it — “if that was the last time I ever saw that person, that could be all right.”
“We knew we wanted substance and closure for ourselves and our characters, but we didn’t let that lead the writing process. We always go in with the same goals, which is, ‘Let’s do something that’s relevant. Let’s make people laugh. Let’s do something that veers into a place of absurdity,’” Brownstein says.
The process for writing each season’s sketches has always been to start from the place of “putting forth all the ideas” first and then thinking about which characters would be the right ones to dive into those themes. While they never go in making a list of the “10 things we have to cover,” the conversations in the writers’ room always reveal patterns just based on what they keep coming back to.
“In the writers’ room, that’s where you can feel what has relevance and also shelf-life. There are so many things that may seem funny, but has it been done before — have we done them before?” Armisen says.
For the final season, something that felt relevant not only because of how it kept popping up, but also because of the times and culture, was anxiety and how the various beloved characters from the show’s run would respond to such feelings. While the show never set out to rip topics directly from the news ala “Saturday Night Live” — “Because it has to live on for a year until it hits Netflix and then even after,” says Armisen — they have still tapped into broader issues to make the comedy speak to more people.
“Some of these characters, they start off in this singular cell: here’s a sketch. And it feels finite, but then you end up wanting to explore their backstories and who are these characters? We did that with Toni and Candace, and we did that with Lance and Nina,” Brownstein says. “Sometimes the timing is just coincidentally relevant. We see that all the time in film and television. You can never predict that, and if you try, you’re already behind the ball.”
Through the years Armisen and Brownstein have noticed that some of their most popular sketches were ones that just featured themselves, which taught them to “have more faith” in themselves, as well as “the process” of the show. But when creating their final season, they knew they couldn’t just reach back for their greatest hits.
“As the seasons progressed, just an ethos we started to follow was, ‘Who’s enthusiastic about this? Who wants to be there? Who’s game?’ Those are the best ones to have on-set,” Brownstein says of guest stars. “You bring in people who are excited about the idea of improvisation and having agency and developing their own character. So we obviously returned to the people that we have come to rely on for those very things — Jeff Goldblum, Kyle MacLachlan, Kumail Nanjiani.”
But big name guest stars were just one part of the equation. The other, more tightly woven part of the fabric of the show, were the local Portland actors with whom Armisen and Brownstein developed such an important working relationship. “We were much more thoughtful about not doing another season without Chico or Ted Douglas or Jamie,” Brownstein continues. “Those were the people that feel like the supporting cast of the show in many ways. We wanted to make sure they felt like they were part of the sendoff.”
When “Portlandia” finally signs off, what is most important for Armisen and Brownstein is that the comedy can live on.
“With subsequent viewings or with fresh eyes [we hope] that people see themselves in the subject matter, in the characters,” Brownstein says. “It’s a way of understanding a time and a place, and there are new things to discover with each viewing. That is what I think creates staying power.
The final season of “Portlandia” premieres Jan. 18 on IFC.