The Portlandia Activity Book is 151 pages of activities—starter guides, craft projects, and prompts that require hand-eye coordination as well as other visual skills that have been languishing since your I Spy days. Inspired by the sketch comedy show Portlandia, these activities—to quote the text—are catered to the “Portlander within all of us.” I exchanged a couple of emails with Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen, and Jonathan Krisel, the multitalented creators of the show (the latest season of which premieres on IFC tonight). We had one of those normal conversations that revolve around cult affinities, activity books, and applying birds to things. — Sam Riley
McSWEENEY’S: Do you think that the McSweeney’s readership shares common ground with the Portlandia audience?
FRED ARMISEN: I think so. I’ve always been a fan of McSweeney’s—the aesthetic has definitely influenced some of the Portlandia artwork.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I do, in the sense that I am a McSweeney’s reader and I am also part of Portlandia. But my own tastes aside, I think that McSweeney’s and Portlandia share a sense of adventure, creativity, oddness, positivity and an interest in minutiae. We are all explorers.
JONATHAN KRISEL: McSweeney’s and Portlandia share common ground—they both got their start as esoteric bookstores, right? When I look at any McSweeney’s publication I think about someone curating the fonts. Portland itself is obsessed with good typography. There are aesthetically pleasing signs on all the storefronts. I feel like that attention to detail, the attention to the historical, and then a lot of the dry absurdity of some of their writers is very similar. Portlandia is almost a little paperback volume of jokes with a cool font on the cover. It barely feels like a TV show. They both have a niche audience who’s polite but likes to laugh. Even at themselves.
McS: The Portlandia Activity Book has the trappings of an activity book—the fill-in-the-blanks, the color-ins, the word puzzles—but it’s also a lush object replete with all sorts of design-inspired elements like perforated tarot cards, a die-cut bird stencil, and it’s brimming with illustrations. What did you guys like about the format of an activity book?
FA: That it invited the reader to really participate. Even if they end up leaving it blank, they can do the activities in their minds. To me, that’s just as engaging.
CB: I like the notion of participation and of being engaged. I was excited about the idea of furthering the way fans could interact with the material, the sketches, and the characters, sort of make it their own, interpret and deconstruct it.
JK: In school they used to call it a “workbook.” You’d get your dense textbook for school, but then there was a slimmer paperback buddy called a workbook. And that was where the assignments were located. An activity book is good for people who like projects—people who like to be busy all the time. I think Fred, Carrie and I are like that. Even in our spare time, an activity is good. I’ve never been a good relaxer It feels weird. Portland is full of little activities and events: block parties and group bike rides, camping trips, bar crawls, and scavenger hunts.
McS: One of the appealing aspects of the show is its un site-specific site-specificity, which is to say that there is a widespread Portlandia sensibility that makes the situations on the show familiar to people all over the country. What do you think comprises this “Portland state of mind”?
FA: If I were to pick out physical traits, I’d say: a street with band flyers posted on telephone poles, a bookstore with a coffee shop in it, a well respected record store, a playful bicycle rack built by local artists, a comic book store, and a normal taco place that looks authentic.
CB: I think a sense of wanting our spaces curated. Like the ways we set up our technological devices—our homepages, our screens—we want to be selective about what’s in front of us. It makes us feel taken care of. I think people want their physical space as finely curated, from their clothing, to the aisles where they shop, to the neighborhoods they live in. So, I think people relate to the lengths the characters go on the show to feel special and noticed. Then there are the characters who feel flummoxed by the hyper-curation, and that is relatable too. It’s about people trying to make sense of the contexts in which they live.
JK: These are worded as homages to Jeff Foxworthy, but they aren’t funny—just the best conduit for the explanation:
If you ever sent back a cocktail because it was too “alcoholly,” you might be a Portlandian.
If you ever planned a vacation around fine dining, you might be a Portlandian.
If you ever had a birthday, as an adult, with an itinerary, you might be a Portlandian.
You can probably think of more, but it’s more a state of mind than a place. Similar to being a redneck.
McS: Do you think this book aligns with the perspective of a particular Portlandia character—the feminist bookstore owners, the bicycle messenger, the mayor, for example—over another?
FA: I’d say Bryce and Lisa, the “Put A Bird On It” duo. Definitely in their world.
CB: I think this book is aligned with the entire sensibility of the show, but certainly some characters would be more excited about it than others.
JK: This book feels like it was created by an independent task force, created by the mayor. He, of course, would publicly fund an activity book. It would keep the citizens— and possible newcomers—busy when they were bored. The mayor always has the city’s best interests in mind and they usually go sideways from there. And by sideways I mean a great new book from McSweeney’s.
McS: Even though each of the Portlandia characters live according to their own personal life codes, it seems like they’d all get along. There’s a similar feeling with this book. I can imagine the Mayor hanging out with the characters from the “Get the Gear,” sketch, etc. And I can imagine people picking up this book without any interest in crowd funding their offspring, thinking, “I get that.” Do you think that there’s an unspoken solidarity there? If so, why do you think that is?
FA: Yes. There’s a sense of “let’s try to make this world into our kind of utopia”, with an emphasis on the word “try.” The most gratifying aspect to everything they do, is trying to make things better.
CB: Yes, I do think there is a solidarity. It’s all in the spirit of caring, of trying to keep cynicism in check, of being comfortable in the present tense despite all of the discomfort and awkwardness we constantly find ourselves in. It’s about navigating, seeking.
JK: Well, I think they all have strong opinions but they’re all equally passive aggressive and may not agree on the same thing, so it may result in a lot of polite smiles and inward annoyance.
McS: Can this book help me identify whether I’m in a cult or not?
FA: Why would you need help with that? It’s okay to not know.
CB: No. But, I can tell by your haircut. And your breath. And that email you replied to. You’re pre-cult. Try, post-cult, it’s more rewarding.
JK: It can actually. And don’t forget, you might be in a non-religious cult, like being a follower of Apple products. I grew up as an Apple follower. They were the higher quality, more useful/creative products for the outsiders (the McSweeney’s/Portlandia people). And it was a very cult-like following. But then Apple became number one—the most successful company—and then the blind faith had to get opened up again. There was some sketchy stuff. I remember thinking after reading Steve Jobs’s biography, Wow he made some cool advancements but Bill Gates actual seems like a nice guy who gave away a lot of his money to charity. Bill Gates’s products are crap, but he seems kind of dopey and nice. I still love all my Mac gadgets but I am free to leave the church of Apple if need be. Or that’s the definition of Stockholm Syndrome. They broke me.
McS: I’ve completed most of the activities in this book, and so far, I’ve found I’m now vaguely attuned to the word of artisanal things. I’ve got confidence in my bed and breakfast abilities, and I can see all of the psychic shops in my neighborhood with rejuvenated clarity. I can’t say life is any better, but I can say that things are impalpably different now. Does learning the craft of online reviewing or identifying the species in your terrarium equip you with applicable life skills?
FA: Yes, but there’s always room for more. What about doing all of this in a different language? Can you imagine how great you’d be, reviewing a Finnish movie in Finnish?
CB: If you live on-line or in a terrarium, then yes. But any skills can be applied to parenting. Kids are experiments that never go wrong, at least that’s what my six sets of parents told me.
McS: Do you think, now that these bird stencils exist, there will be more birds on things? Are there any bird-sized holes to fill left in the world?
FA: Let’s try for that.
CB: I can’t wait to put birds on birds.
JK: Putting birds on things will hopefully trickle down from decorative arts all the way to preschool art project and then go back up again.
McS: Did you guys really read the last issue of McSweeney’s? No worries if not, but I should say that it’s a really good time to renew because the next issue is full of Latin American fiction. And also, some info on me—I work in the marketing department here at McSweeney’s.
FA: Yes, yes. Renew. Please. Now. Can you do that for me? Thanks. Yes.
CB: It is a good time to renew. Hint, hint, reader. And a reminder to myself.
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