Portlandia: A brief oral history of 'Put a Bird On It!'
Before Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s IFC sketch series Portlandia wraps up its seventh season tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT — and ends its entire run next year — let’s get a bird’s-eye view of the bit that helped it soar: “Put a Bird on It!”
Portlandia flew onto the sketch-comedy radar, somewhat literally, in January 2011: Its second episode offered up a deft, daffy dagger to hipster-craft pretension with the part-commercial, part-outtakes masterpiece “Put a Bird on It!” Cheery how-to artisanal gurus Bryce Shivers (Fred Armisen) and Lisa Eversman (Carrie Brownstein) visit a Portland store to transform teapots and totes into art simply by affixing bird images to them. But when a real pigeon flaps into the store, things devolve into ewwws (oh, the irony!) and utter chaos and destruction. Here, the Portlandia players relive the sketch that began on a wing and a prayer.
FRED ARMISEN (star, co-creator): As we were coming up with ideas [in 2010], Carrie made this observation that birds are everywhere. It’s shorthand for “This is artistic.” We had a big laugh—I thought those people were such dummies—and I went back to my apartment, and my doormat had a raven on it. I was first in line of being a sucker.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN (star, co-creator): I remember going around to little boutiques in Portland, and I felt like it was kind of an insult to my intelligence that just because there was a lampshade with a bird stencil on it, that somehow elevated it to a place of art. There was a craft explosion, and birds did seem like a shorthand: “This isn’t your average piece of paper — this is stationery now.” Or: “Now that there’s a bird on it, you should put a frame around it.”
Cracking the hosts’ passive-aggressive relationship was key to the sketch—and to the show. It happened late in the planning stages.
BROWNSTEIN: At first we were thinking of a more low-key artisan couple. Then we realized that we wanted it in a slightly Wes Anderson [vein]…
JONATHAN KRISEL (Co-creator, director): A little more twee. That they were a little more controlling of things. Right before the shoot, we talked about “Yes, this is a really good conceptual observation, but what is this weird dynamic between the people?” That became the formula for all the sketches. Here’s these two characters that are presenting “Put a bird on everything,” but then the mantra of the piece that Fred came up with was, “What happened to my cup? What did you do with my cup?” Which never made it into the actual piece. That became, “You’re blowing that in my face,” and he was really annoyed.
BROWNSTEIN: Put a crack in the veneer of preciousness…. People are trying to live these certain lives, and the same way that we present ourselves on social media is just this very small view, and it seems very perfect. We’re trying to show the underbelly of that. Those characters are a really good example. They are really buttoned up and fastidious, but they’re secretly rage-filled and angry.
The shoot, which took place on the very first day of production for the show, was somewhat a leap of faith.
KRISEL: That was for the first episode we made. We didn’t even really know what the format was going to be. I remember thinking, “Let’s try a commercial-y thing—but as if one of those Beatles movies made a commercial—stop-motion, jump-cut.” The piece has a very chopped-up feeling, so I remember thinking, “This is nothing.” It felt like this didn’t work, but I knew it was going to all be put together later and would work. I was crossing my fingers.
ARMISEN: I wasn’t used to Jon as a director. This was all brand-new. “Put.” “Put.” “Put.” He wanted us to separate the words. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I trusted it. … The person who played the shopkeeper, Katie O’Grady — a Portland resident who we still use in the sketches now— her performance is very positive. Never does she play the usual part in a sketch where they’re going, “Who are these crazy people?” She was actually along with us, which really is a theme that’s stayed through the show.
BROWNSTEIN: I remember the pigeon handler. The button is the irony of us being grossed out by a little bird. It’s just a weird animal to have on set.
KRISEL: And it wasn’t a professional movie pigeon. It was just a guy like, “You want my pigeon?”And the pigeon was good… Once we submitted the first cut to the network, [then IFC development and production VP] Dan Pasternack was like, “Is there some way you could end this? Just give it a button?” And I was like, “Okay, I have this crazy idea…”
DAN PASTERNACK: That’s when he came up with Fred throwing a vase and it strikes the bird, which falls to the ground, dead. [Note: It involved digital-editing magic, not animal cruelty.] And the button was Carrie vomiting because then Fred went, “Ew, gross!” So I said, “Put the “gross!” back at the end after they kill the bird, so they’re saying “gross!” to the bird.
KRISEL: It looked good enough that you kind of get the idea. So that was awesome to just get that little note to push it over the edge.
PASTERNACK: The fact that “Put a Bird On It!” was shot on day 1 of the Portlandia pilot, to me, speaks to how clear the vision for that show was from the outset.
The sketch became a signature bit—see: the bird perched atop the show’s logo—and took hold in the vernacular and in knockoff-merch form. It even re-entered the zeitgiest last year when a bird landed on Bernie Sanders’ podium during a campaign speech in, yes, Portland. (“What are the odds of that?” raves Armisen. “That was indoors! That was so crazy. And right on the podium.”)
ARMISEN: We were really happy with [the sketch], but it wasn’t until a year later when people would say to me, “Put a bird on it!” that I realized it was something.
BROWNSTEIN: People yelling it.
ARMISEN: They still do. All the time. It’s the best.
PASTERNACK: [The popularity] made absolute sense to me because it was as specific and as unique to what would be great about the show as any single sketch we did in the first season. [“Put a bird On it!”] is repeated the number of times in the sketch, and one of the things that often helps a catchphrase become a catchphrase is something that gets said over and over. I suspected the same thing might happen with the Spike character when he was screaming “Bicycle rights!” I thought, “Oh, that’s sort of a thing too.” But “Put a bird on it!” rose above to become emblematic of exactly what was special about the show.
JENNIFER CASERTA (IFC president): It truly was the identifier—you didn’t even need to say “Portlandia.” It really was the beginning of something special for us.
BROWNSTEIN: When I post on Instagram, there is inevitably a comment no matter what I post that says “Put a bird on it.” It’s always incongruous. I could post a picture of a family member in a coffin, and someone would put, “Put a bird on it!”
KRISEL: I remember in season 3, we would go to this restaurant and we’d get the salad, and if you wanted chicken on it, [the menu] just said, “Put a bird on it,” That was how you would order it.
BROWNSTEIN: I have illustrator friends that felt more self-conscious about putting birds in their illustrations. And I feel too self-conscious wearing things with birds now. So it’s ruined birds for me.
Portlandia airs Thursdays on IFC>