Insight Joke

01.06.12

Portlandia, 2011–, still from a TV show on IFC. Amber, Toni, and Candace (Amber Tamblyn, Fred Armisen, and Carrie Brownstein). Photo: Scott Green/IFC.


IN PORTLAND, OREGON, where I’d gone to attend an old friend’s wedding a few years ago, I witnessed two hipsters in their natural habitat, just around the corner from a Stumptown coffee shop on Belmont, silently and with great efficiency performing what can only be described as a dance ritual (on weathered fixed-gear bikes, natch). Not a word was spoken, but this streetside roundelay was pregnant with pointed looks, twitchy body language, and, of course, the mutual sizing up of clothes, hair, and accessories. The boys were impeccably styled—Williamsburgers would abandon OkCupid and chuck their iPhones into the East River in a New York minute if it meant they could look like these waifish specimens of the haute hipoisie—but they somehow managed to seem unstudied.

They were there to staple band flyers to a redwood-size telephone pole, already cocooned by a dense palimpsest of the ripped and rotting remains of hundreds of other gig flyers, all held together by an anarchic network of rusty staples. A number of obscure, solemn protocols were being followed in this exchange: who would get the best spot on the pole; which old flyers were OK to cover with new ones; could two copies of the same flyer be posted, or would that be uncool? I felt like I was watching an old nature show—let’s call it Mutual of Oregon’s Wild Kingdom—where the narrator says, sotto voce, of the cheetah stalking a wildebeest, “And now there can be but one outcome . . .

This is the type of scenario mercilessly yet lovingly satirized in Portlandia, a sketch comedy show focused on Portland hipsterism, now entering its second season. The show was created by and stars actor Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and musician Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag), real-life friends who for years had been creating comic videos under the name ThunderAnt, many of which were set in Portland and addressed similar themes. SNL producer Lorne Michaels picked up on the pair’s proposal for a series, which would be directed by cocreator Jonathan Krisel, and the show quickly acquired a cult fan base. If you yourself are a hipster or have ever lived in Portland, Seattle, or the Bay Area, the show’s targets will be instantly familiar—the obsession with food provenance, the testiness of doctrinaire feminists, the aggressiveness of goat-bearded bike messengers, the mischaracterization of crafts as art, the pursuit of being “different” in one of several preapproved countercultural ways, etc.

The earliest episodes, while charming, were little more than discrete skits strung together, with Armisen and Brownstein inhabiting different characters. As the first season progressed, and some of the characters were reprised, it felt more like a narrative show. The second season ups the cohesion, making Portlandia something like a satiric soap opera for a narrowcast audience, with the two actors accounting for most of the leads, like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Some of the jokes are a bit late—rejecting a promising paramour for being a Pearl Jam fan is so 1992—but Eddie Vedder is gracious enough to make a cameo appearance as himself, humbly acknowledging a prejudice that has dogged him for two decades. Aimee Mann’s first-season turn as herself (reduced to housecleaning in the wake of illegal downloading) more subtly referenced the songwriter’s bitter diatribes—in songs and interviews—against the music industry, but one would have to be fairly intimate with Mann’s work to get the gag in its entirety.

This is the conundrum of Portlandia: Its audience is limited by design to the members of the subcultures lampooned on the show. While plenty of hipsters have a sense of humor about the absurd extremes and “We’re all individuals!” paradoxes of their chosen lifestyles, many are as sanctimonious as Armisen and Brownstein portray them to be, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. It’s hard to imagine the most committed eco-warriors and feminist bookstore clerks finding the broad yet incisive parodies of themselves and their pet causes funny, yet they’re the only ones who would catch all the semiotic sight gags and insider slang so ably prepared and delivered by the show’s creators. One could see fast-food eating, plastic bag using, politically incorrect anti-hipsters tuning in to confirm their animus, but some of the subcultural references in the writing and production design are so cleverly layered that they’d be invisible to outsiders, even haters who’ve been paying attention.

Still, as a Seinfeld for slackers, Portlandia is a rare and welcome addition to the largely moribund field of contemporary sitcoms. Put a bird on it and call it art.

Andrew Hultkrans

The second season of Portlandia begins Friday, January 6, on IFC.