Toni and Candice

Who: Brownstein’s repressed Toni and Armisen’s militant Earth mother Candice run the "Women and Women First" bookstore, where they don’t want top-selling authors… they want bottom-selling authors. The duo have been featured in sketches that date back to the precursor to Portlandia, web series Thunderant.
M.O. Combative and aggrieved, Candace is a bit more reactionary, with a tendency to reach for a gas can when set off by guests like Steve Buscemi, Aubrey Plaza, and Penny Marshall.
Key sketch: Season 1, episode 6's visit from Heather Graham, who ends up tempting Toni.

Dave and Kath

Who: These high-strung married dorks are way into gear, looking like highly determined tourists everywhere they go. Frankly, they make piss-poor outdoorsmen, though.
M.O. Despite how knowledgable they profess to be, the two exhibit a staggering lack of common sense sometimes (Kath needs to remind Dave that a hat is "a circle with a half-circle attached to it") and have a tendency to panic easily.
Key sketch: Season 2, episode 1's ill-fated rafting exhibition.

Nina and Lance

Who: Perhaps Fred and Carrie’s most drastic costumes overall--she plays a greasy guy’s guy, he plays a fuschia-haired girly girl--Nina and Lance are a sexually adventurous couple on the brink of functioning.
M.O. Brownstein’s voice is distorted to sound the way that kidnappers’ voices sound over the phone in movies. Her Lance has a good heart, but he’s rough around the edges. Armisen’s Nina always tries to get Lance more involved with the stuff of coupledom, but he remains resistant.
Key Sketch: Season 1, episode 2's "Cacao" sketch, in which the couple invents a safe word and takes it outside of the bedroom.

Peter and Nance

Who: This couple is always up for trying new things around town (badly), while curly-coiffed Peter second-guesses himself constantly.
M.O. Peter has a trademark stutter that comes out at least once per appearance, although nobody ever seems to comment on it. According to IFC’s Debbie DeMontreux, in season 3, "Peter and Nance open up a bed and breakfast and it’s a story that comes back over a couple of different episodes."
Key sketch: Season 1, episode 1, in which the couple orders organic, local chicken, prepared in a very specific fashion.

Spike and Iris

Who: Quintessential grizzled slacker Spike has cuban cigar size ear gauges and a big bush of chin hair. He and his girlfriend Iris are nonconformists to a ridiculous degree.
M.O. The character Spike was introduced on his own in season one, but later he was revealed as half of an intentionally difficult duo that’s getting married. (They explain to their unflappable wedding planner, “If there’s anything you’ve already done, we don’t want to do it.”)
Key sketch: Season 2, episode 3's cool wedding.

Malcolm and Kris

Who: This older couple has gone gray, but they’re still trying to maintain some edge.
M.O. In addition to trying to make the most of their approaching golden years, Malcolm and Kris also find time to stick up for their fully grown adult child.
Key sketch: Season 2 Episode 2, in which the pair decide to build a fire pit.

Melanie and Jason

Who: These friends who live in L.A. seem to always reconnect whenever faux-hemian Jason returns from a visit to Portland.
M.O. The series Portlandia kicks off with an ensemble number Jason leads about a certain area of Oregon that’s keeping the dream of the '90s alive, a place "where people in their twenties go to retire." He and Melanie return for a twist on the song in season two, and another one in season three.
Key Sketch: Season 2, episode 5's tribute to the long beards and Luddism apparently now keeping alive the dream of the 1890s in Portland.

Brendan and Michelle

Who: Michelle and Brendan are new-agey, upwardly mobile helicopter parents.
M.O. Their take-no-prisoners approach to children’s education manifests itself in many hilarious ways, including an attempt to ban certain records from their son’s school library because "Mike & the Mechanics is a gateway to mediocrity."
Key sketch: Season 2, episode 4, in which the couple overachieves in getting their son Grover into a promising preschool.

Doug and Claire

Who: This couple is entertainment-obsessed, but like everyone else in Portland, they are also interested in things like a package-free grocery store.
M.O. Seemingly susceptible to falling into media k-holes too easily, these two are almost saved by Claire’s attempts to lead a more productive social life.
Key Sketch: Season 2 episode 2's excursion into the deep trenches of Battlestar Galactica DVD-marathoning.

Fred and Carrie

Who: Fred and Carrie frequently play themselves on the show, or versions of themselves anyway.
M.O. The show’s creators often emerge in sketches where they mingle with the mayor of Portland, played by Kyle McLaughlin--who always looks like he’s having a ball. In the second season’s finale brunch episode, it’s revealed that Fred and Carrie sleep together (though in separate beds.) When not helping out the mayor, these two have a recurring bit where they chafe against the modern era’s many tiny, but labyrinthine bureaucracies, as embodied by the hilarious Kumail Nanjiani.
Key sketch: Season 1, Episode 4, in which the duo are tasked with retrieving the mayor, who is missing.

Co.Create

Fred Armisen On The Multi-Faceted Residents of "Portlandia"

Fred Armisen discusses the difference between creating characters for SNL and for "Portlandia." Also, a rundown of all his and Carrie Brownstein’s recurring roles on the show.

Fred Armisen is master of characters but he’s not quite a chameleon. Rather than blend in seamlessly with his surroundings, the comedian’s distinctive flavor always seems to rise to the surface when he takes on a new character--something that he does with increasing frequency.

on SNL as Michael Bloomberg

The Saturday Night Live vet has augmented his decade-plus stint on that show by slipping into plenty of additional personalities for IFC’s manic sketchfest Portlandia, which he created with rocker Carrie Brownstein. One of the cornerstones of SNL has long been its steadily replenishing supply of catch phrase-spawning characters. It’s an element that Armisen has also brought into his new venture.

“I think it was understood when we started writing Portlandia that there would be recurring characters," he says. "This is a thing that makes a show have some life to it, and some recognition, so it sort of went without saying. Our characters have catch phrases too, which is a nice thing—it’s like having a hook in a pop song.”

While both of Armisen’s shows share a basis in sketch, there’s a world of difference between them. Over the course of Portlandia’s first two seasons, its writers and performers established an impressive knack for the kind of well-observed lifestyle details stemming from a geographical setting that nurtures individuality. Also, whereas SNL incorporates music by having guests play songs each week, sometime-drummer Armisen and Wild Flag leader Brownstein bring a music-honed sense of timing to the art of sketch, in addition to thrusting guest stars like Aimee Mann and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis right into sketches. Naturally, the creation process for the two shows is rather divergent.

"It’s a much smaller group, and we’re primarily writing for just Carrie and me. So we have a different kind of focus," Armisen says. "Also, since SNL is a live show that’s much more topical; with Portlandia, it doesn’t air until six or seven months later, so we keep it a little more general."

Unbound by current events, the writing staff on IFC’s breakout hit is free to pursue any number of targets ripe for satire, including a host of uber-twee services indigenous to towns like Portland--the kind that offer to pickle just about anything or put birds on things. In these sketches cloaked as ads, the show’s stars don aprons and at least one fake mustache to play local hucksters Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman. And like much of the food in Portland, apparently, the inspiration for such creations is arrived at organically.

on SNL as Carlos Santana

“You see a wig or a costume you like, and you kind of figure what the character must be or what the person is like," Armisen says. "You hear a song and you imagine what the person singing it is like. It comes from a million different things.”

However Armisen and Brownstein arrived at the characters they created for the show, it looks like we’re about to see more of them than before. According to Debbie DeMontreux, IFC’s SVP of original programming, one big change this year is that there are a few characters’ storylines that carry through the whole season. The episodes can stand alone, but there are some storylines that pass through until the end. You don’t have to have watched previously to follow along, though."

If you missed the first two seasons, catch up on Netflix Instant where they’re both streaming. If you’re really keen on saving some time, though, simply sift through the slides above for our guide to the recurring characters you’ll see in season three, which began this month.

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3 Comments

  • Mike Potter

    You do realize that Portland is in Oregon and not Washington, right? (see melanie and jason slide...)

  • RoycedaVoice

    You do realize that the caption says Melanie and Jason are "Friends who live in L.A."?