Funny Smart People
The Connecticut Forum, Saturday, May 4, 8 p.m., The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, (860) 509-0909 or ctforum.org for tickets
In honor of this month's Connecticut Forum on the subject of creativity, let's discuss satire. One of the forum's panelists, Carrie Brownstein, co-creator of the IFC show "Portlandia," is a modern master of the form.
So the thing about "Portlandia" is that if you're a fan, you've probably seen some caricature of yourself on the show. It's a little like a variation of "you might be a redneck." You might be a certain kind of overeducated, underemployed, trust-funded white liberal if you're psychotically interested in the origins of your poultry, if you've ever fantasized about opening a bed and breakfast, if you've ever thrown an elaborate birthday party for yourself, if most of your conversations center on the climactic plot points of popular television shows.
The satire in "Portlandia" may not always be gentle on its subjects, but it's also rarely, if ever, unkind. If you're comparing it to the Seth MacFarlane or "Tosh.0" camp of blunt, mean-spirited satire — which tends to be more cruel than critical — the styles of contemporary satire start to distinguish themselves from one another. There's smart and there's snarky and there's stupid and there's nasty. There are also the confusing fake news sites — The Daily Currant, for example, is now notorious for tricking the Washington Post into believing Sarah Palin had joined Al-Jazeera and The Borowitz Report also hits close enough to home to be confused for real news. So when is satire good or effective?
"I think satire works well if it's trenchant and can reveal a truth about a situation," Brownstein says in a recent phone interview with CT.com. "It always walks a fine line because it has to do with people's taste and people's ability to poke light at a situation and look so squarely at the sort of literalness of something to be able to appreciate how odd it also is."
A 2012 New Yorker profile of Brownstein, who is a producer and writer of "Portlandia" along with Fred Armisen, described the show as "an extended joke about what Freud called the narcissism of small differences: the need to distinguish oneself by minute shadings and to insist, with outsized militancy, on the importance of those shadings."
Brownstein will appear at the Bushnell in Hartford as part of the Connecticut Forum on May 4, with humorist and "Daily Show" and New York Times Magazine contributor John Hodgman, along with comedian, author and blogger Baratunde Thurston of The Onion. The event is called "Funny Smart People," and the panelists will likely try to make sense of how humor, absurdity and wit work.
"I think that so many of the characters just feel like permutations of myself or some kind of heightened version of who I am or who I could be," Brownstein says. "I don't feel too far removed from the people who we critique."
Along with writing and producing "Portlandia," Brownstein is working on a book about the relationship between musicians and fans in the 21st century, drawing on her own experience playing music in the bands Sleater-Kinney and, most recently, Wild Flag. According to Publishers Weekly, the book, titled The Sound Of Where You Are, "will describe the dramatically changing dynamic between music fan and performer, from the birth of the iPod and the death of the record store to the emergence of the 'you be the star' culture of 'American Idol' and the ensuing dilution of rock 'mystique.'" That isn't to say that any of those changes are necessarily bad, though.
"I think it's dangerous to accuse or apply to technology the idea that technology cheapens [art]," she says. "It's difficult to kind of qualify or quantify what exactly has value, [but] the quickest way to cheapen something is just to make it bad. So if the quality of something is good, whether it's on Twitter or it's a TV show or a humor essay or a standup comedy routine, it has value."
Juggling as many creative pursuits as Brownstein does can be tough, she says. She has to try hard to push herself not to become too absorbed in just one thing.
"One challenge [of working creatively] is to try to balance work with real life and not to focus too squarely on just being industrious. You have to try to maintain relationships and friendships and to live a little bit more in the moment. I can tend to work project to project and kind of forget to enjoy what's going on in the here and now," Brownstein says. "And as you get more comfortable and confident you still have to find ways to undermine yourself."
It's also important to Brownstein that "Portlandia"'s style of satire stays open and inviting to its viewers. Which isn't to say the writers on "Portlandia" are exactly nice about things. Characters on the show often reveal and ridicule certain uncomfortable truths about the nature of a certain kind of person — two bookstore owners are shocked by a poor online review of their shop; a couple just returning from a vacation in Spain lectures everyone on the inauthenticity of a local tapas place; a group of parents take misguided interest in the music their kids listen to; a local Web celebrity is famous for his sarcastic replies to e-vites.
But, Brownstein says, for the most part the "Portlandia" writers strive to be accessible. "I work with very sensitive people," she says. "I think all of us operate from a place of earnestness... I love someone like Louis C.K. because there's always just this graciousness and there's this honesty to his writing. You can't beat that. He's talking about things that are dark [but] not at the expense of anyone but himself."
Antagonistic or aggressive satire tends to make people shut down, she says. Great satire is about seeing something for its many dimensions and thinking critically about the way those dimensions overlap and interact. "You can be trenchant and incisive without being derisive or cruel. If you're alienating people by bludgeoning them with grotesqueness they miss the point because they're on the defense... If you're not being mean, you're allowing an open space. It's nice to let people discover things on their own."