The Null Device
There's an article in the New Yorker about the US television show Portlandia
, a sketch comedy show satirising the foibles of White People in bourgeois-bohemian enclaves (like the titular Portland, Oregon, which seems to be the Berlin of America or something), and the relationship between the two creators of the show, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (better known to some as a member of the legendary Pacific Northwest riot-grrl band Sleater-Kinney):
“Portlandia” presents a heightened version of the city’s twee urbanity: a company sells artisanal light bulbs, a hotel offers a manual typewriter to every guest, and a big local event is the Allergy Pride Parade. The mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan, becomes an object of scandal when he’s “outed” as the bass guitarist in a middle-of-the-road reggae band. (The real Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, who is openly gay, plays MacLachlan’s assistant on the show.) Armisen and Brownstein, wearing anthropologically precise wigs and outfits, portray most of the main characters: bicycle-rights activists, dumpster divers, campaigners against any theoretical attempt to bring the Olympics to Portland, animal lovers so out of touch that they free a pet dog tied up outside a restaurant. (“Who puts their dog on a pole like a stripper?”) Many characters recur, and, because they often seem to know one another, their intersections from sketch to sketch give the show the feel of a grownup “Sesame Street.” This childlike vibe has an edge to it, however; as an Armisen character explains at one point, Portland is “where young people go to retire.”
But the most palpable affection onscreen is that between Armisen and Brownstein, who have an unusually devoted platonic relationship. They met in 2003, when Sleater-Kinney was playing in New York City, and Armisen invited the band to an “S.N.L.” after-party. When Brownstein showed up, she found him wearing a Sleater-Kinney button with her picture on it. Their paths had probably crossed before: Armisen started out his performing life as the drummer in a Chicago punk band called Trenchmouth, and he was married for six years to the British singer and songwriter Sally Timms, from the Mekons. Brownstein says that she and Armisen likely slept on some of the same couches when both were touring. (“If you were in an indie band in the nineties, you slept on a lot of couches.”) After that party in New York, Brownstein and Armisen began building a friendship, but, given that they were living on opposite coasts, they decided that they’d have to work on something together. As she put it, when you’re not dating somebody, “it begins to seem kind of weird if you’re flying around the country to see him.”
Armisen and Brownstein text each other every night before bed. Brownstein says of their friendship, “Sometimes I think it’s the most successful love affair either of us will ever have.” Both claim that it wouldn’t work if they were romantically involved. “It would be colder, because we’ve both treated our romantic relationships in a cold way,” Armisen says. “Carrie and I are more romantic than any other romantic relationship I’ve ever had—that sense of anticipation about seeing the other person, the secret bond. But things don’t become obligatory. I’m not thinking, I’m doing this because you’re my girlfriend; I’m just thinking, I love Carrie.”
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