Tag Archives: Carrie Brownstein

Fred Armisen is, like, so mean. So mean.

[this post first appeared in Medium.]

A friend told me about seeing a freshman on a university campus in the UK. The kid was clearly in agony. And it was easy to see why. He had made a terrible fashion choice for his first day.

Over the course of his first hour on campus, this truth began to dawn. His choice was appallingly bad. Everybody thought so. He could tell.

The kid was now trying to keep his composure until he could get back to his room. He wanted to run, but a gentleman never bows before the ridicule of others. He holds his sangfroid. Otherwise, everything is lost.

It was, my friend said, going to be a close call. Would this young man make it back to his room before his nerve failed? Or would he break into a run?

Fred Armisen, the musician and satirist famous for his work on SNL and Portlandia, would love this dilemma, this struggle for aplomb in the face of self-reproach. But then Fred Armisen is, like, so mean. He helps himself to the human comedy with no trace of empathy or compassion. Our discomfort is his opportunity.

Take Globesmen, the mockumentary about door to door salesmen that Armisen did for his IFC series Documentary Now. Globesmen is about guys trudging suburban streets trying to sell something no one much cares about on the dubious claim that a good globe (or even one from Amalgamated Globe) will make your kids as cosmopolitan as a jetsetter and your living room glow with sophistication.

Globesmen is a world of cheap suits, crummy motels, bald faced lies, and an endless stream of indignities inflicted by indifferent heads of household, rock-throwing kids, and fire-breathing managers, the last actually threatening physical violence. Being a door-to-door salesman in this period was better the bagging groceries…but not by much. You got to wear a suit and carry a briefcase. Just about everything else about this job was designed as if to humiliate you.

Armisen loves these humiliations. He documents and savors them in Globesmen. You have to be cold hearted to watch this kind of thing. But to make it? You can’t have any heart at all.
But his heartlessness is also fearlessness. Armisen can take on anyone. He even takes on cool people. This is unheard of. Everyone knows that cool kids are above reproach. We learned this lesson in high school and we have lived its truth every day since. The cool kids stand above us in the social scheme of things. It is for them to judge us. It is not for us to judge them.

Which brings us to Portlandia, Armisen’s long running series on IFC. Portlandia looks at bike messengers, locavore chefs, book store owners, and other “hipsters” sworn to keep Portland weird.

For satirists like Armisen and his comrade in arms, Carrie Brownstein, Portland is what you might call a “target-rich environment.” Over 6 seasons, Armisen and Brownstein set to work. It’s not a pretty portrait. Take their running treatment of two women who run a bookstore charmingly named Women and Women First. The sketches open with Candace and Toni chatting behind the cash register. Candace (Fred’s character) usually says something that is vertiginously untrue. (“All of your nerve endings are in your fingertips.”) But the skits don’t really get going until Candace and Toni take umbrage. Eventually we understand that this is what the store is for. It brings them things to loathe.

In one sketch, Steve Buscemi plays a man who enters the bookstore not to buy a book but to use the bathroom. And this is so very wrong. The bathroom is clearly reserved for customers only. Candace and Toni now have him. He must pay for his error with a purchase. But he may not make a purchase because he is not worthy of any book or pamphlet in the store. So he can’t stay, but he can’t actually leave.

There are many other wonderful moments here. Candace asks an air conditioner repair man to make a contribution to the store “tip jar” so that there will be enough money there to pay him for the work he is doing. This makes perfect sense to Candace and Toni. And one of the targets of this satire is the hermetically sealed logic of Women and Women First. This is a world with its own cultural properties, so to speak. Language and logic work differently here. Candace and Toni have seen to that.

Surely, it’s not for us, craven members of the bourgeoisie, to take issue with any of this. Candace and Toni are way out there on the diffusion curve. They are the first to pull away from the gravitation of the moment. They are the first to see the future. We don’t have any standing here, as the courts like to say. We don’t have any credibility. We are creatures of the mainstream, the middle class and the moment, thoughtlessly captive of the conventions Candace and Toni fight at Women and Women First.

Armisen does take issue. He holds this up for ridicule. He dares to examine the absurdities and contractions lurking at Women and Women First. He reveals Portlandia to be a place that practices a vigilance that beggars NSA snooping, and wields powers of reproach of which the colonial Protestant church would heartily approve. (It turns out we want a guy like Fred on that wall. We need a guy like Fred on that wall.) Armisen protects us from zealots.

But there is still a problem here. Armisen doesn’t show any more compassion or empathy for Candace and Toni than he did for the globesmen. And empathy is clearly called for. It’s not much fun being Candace and Toni. Being hyper vigilant is intellectually difficult and emotionally taxing. It complicates both your personal life and your social life. It is demonstrably true (by which I mean, anthropologically verifiable) that sexism is deeply, often imperceptibly, embedded in our culture. Only acts of real determination can dig it out. So we need people like Candace and Toni. They are not shock troops at all but social reformers of the Jane Addams order, people who exert themselves to create the world without which we would, most of us, be miserable.

What Armisen’s ridicule misses are the unavoidable costs borne by some of the people rebuilding American culture. Self-righteousness is the secret of self-protection.

Armisen doesn’t care. No one is safe around this guy. He takes advantage of pathetic and the sad. He ridicules the keepers of our ridicule. Cool or cruelly put upon, Fred holds us all up for derision. No one can avoid this dark satiric mill.

Photo credit: “Fred Armisen at 2014 Imagen Foundation Award” by (and with thanks to) Richard Sandoval. Used according to CC BY-SA 2.0. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hispaniclifestyle/14810641332/

Post script: Thanks to Hargurchet Bhabra for sharing the story with which this post opens.

Vocal fry, and what we can do about it

maxresdefaultMany people have remarked on the inclination of some young women in the US to use “up-talk” in everyday speech.

You’ve heard this, I know. It’s that rising tone at the end of a sentence that turns an assertion into a question. So “I stand by what I said” becomes “I stand by what I said?” I have written about it here.

More recently, people are talking about the “vocal fry,” so called because the last word of an utterance is made to sound like bacon frying. The Kardashian sisters use the vocal fry a lot. Indeed, they’re seen to be largely responsible for its popularity. “I stand by what I saaaaid.”  See this treatment by Faith Salie on CBS Sunday Morning.

Here’s Lake Bell (pictured) on both up-talk and the vocal fry. See the 1:34 mark of this Youtube clip. (Also, please, see Bell’s recent film In A World which is, among other things, an examination of how Americans talk. Very funny.  Highly recommended.)

I assumed that both up-talking and the vocal fry were artifacts of a sexist culture that continues to diminish women by encouraging women to diminish themselves. Up-talking is clearly an act of self diminishment.  But when I thought about the vocal fry a little more, I began to wonder whether if it  couldn’t be seen as an effort to correct up-talking.

After all, up-talking makes us sound eager for other people’s approval.  But the vocal fry makes it sound like we couldn’t care less. We believe what we’re saying.  If people agree with us, fine.  If they don’t, that’s fine too. The vocal fry could be read as an expression of self possession, a certain detachment, a confidence that banishes fear of disagreement or disapproval.

And this would make the vocal-fry an improvement on up-talking. This is not to say that the vocal fry doesn’t have problems of it’s own.  The fry might be read as evidence of confidence but it doesn’t make us sound like a rocket scientist.  It’s like we have over-corrected, going from over-eager to too blasé.

So how about this?  We need a conference, organized by and for powerful women, who gather to define the problem, discover strategies to address the problem, and muster the resources necessary to launch a solution.

I am acting here in my capacity as someone who likes to think about how anthropology can make itself useful (aka “service anthropology”).  So with this post my work is done. I’m happy to participate in the conference, but, really, organization should fall to someone else.  Forgive my presumption, but Lake Bell has taken the leadership position, so I wondered if she isn’t the natural leader.

Presuming even further, I sat down with my wife Pam and  friends Cheryl and Craig (Swanson) and we came up with this list of the kind of people who might be appointed to the organizing committee.

Joan Allen, actress
Paola Antonelli, Museum of Modern Art
Ric Beinstock, documentary filmmaker
Lake Bell, film maker
Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia
Wendy Clark, The Coca-Cola Company
Emma Cookson, BBH NY
Nancy F. Koehn, Harvard Business School
Leora Kornfeld, Schulich Business School
Nicole Maronian, M.D.
Indra Nooyi, The Pepsi-Cola Company
Shonda Rhimes, Scandal
Gillian Sankoff, linguist
Amy Schumer, comic
Marta Tellado, Ford Foundation

[None of these names is used by permission.  I wanted merely to suggest the kind of people who might serve on the committee.]

Should Portlandia satirize Subaru?

Portlandia (Fridays, 10:00, IFC) has started its third season. Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) continue to search the city for satiric targets. And because satiric targets are one of Portland’s chief exports, the comedic opportunities are many: Bed and Breakfasts, knitting, pickling — and organic deodorant:

See the full post here.  

The genius of Portlandia

Portlandia (IFC, Fridays, 10:30) is funny, but mostly it’s daring.

Cultural innovators, like the ones who live in Portland — bike messengers, locavore chefs, and assorted others with nose rings — usually get a pass. The satirists leave them alone. The notion: if you are a rule breaker, you’re above reproach.

Satire, that’s for poor, rule-bound schmos. For them, satire is a mixed blessing from the avant-garde: a punishment for schmo-ish-ness, and an opportunity for liberation.

Making fun of a rule breaker — especially rule breakers who are so disarmingly earnest and serious? This is actually very rule breaking.

This is exactly what Portlandia means to do. SNL’s Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein take aim at the rule breakers of Portland. The reward is comedic riches. After all, no one’s working this territory. There’s satiric opportunity just about everywhere.

In one skit, Armisen and Brownstein scrutinize a restaurant menu to see if it is Kosher according to Alice Waters and the artisanal movement. Brownstein’s character wants to know, for instance, precisely how large the range is in which the free-range chickens are kept. The joke here is that restaurants are completely unsurprised and not even a little exasperated by this. They present a little dossier for the chicken-who-would-be-dinner. (His name is Colin.) But this is not enough for Armisen and Brownstein, who insist that the restaurant hold their table while they drive 30 miles to check out Kevin’s farm for themselves.

This the best kind of comedy, both broad and cunningly detailed. In the Adult Hide and Seek League skit, there are lots of little grace notes. Brownstein is completely preoccupied with the after party. Armisen tries to make “SEEK” into an acronym, and can’t think of a word for the second “e.” Armisen does a brilliant little Spider-man thing while hiding in a hall way.

The best piece takes place in a bookstore charmingly named Women and Women First. Steve Buscemi commits an error — he uses the bathroom that’s clearly reserved for customers only — and Armisen and Brownstein, the proprietors, have him. He must pay for his error with a purchase. But no, it turns out, Armisen and Brownstein are not going to let him make this purchase: he is not worthy. So he can’t actually leave. It’s a little anthropological study of what happens to commerce when freighted with morality. The anonymity, the choice, the freedom we look at with some suspicion actually begins to look OK. At least you can leave.

Armisen and Brownstein have managed a small cultural miracle. They found a way to make fun of those who are normally the agents, not the objects, of ridicule. They found a way to set up shop, comedically speaking, in a place more avant than the avant garde. Good going! Who knew there was a there there?

The big question: will Portland see the humor of Portlandia? The Women & Women First skit suggests not. The proprietors have no sense of humor. (And this is too often true of cultural innovators. They gorge themselves on moral certitude and righteous indignation.) And if Portland does not see the humor of Portlandia, well, there’s always hide and seek.

You might wonder what a post on Portlandia is doing at HBR.org (where it was originally published), instead of at Entertainment Weekly’s website or my own cultureby.com. Most corporations simply do not pay enough attention to contemporary culture — they react instead of respond. But corporations need to know about the slow food movement and why the hot color this season is a particular shade of blue — and about shows like Portlandia — because such intelligence matters for how they shape their products and interact with their customers. They need to see the early warning of changes taking place in American culture. (Plus, if nothing else, this gives you fodder for small talk at your next dinner party.)