Portlandia, the best city since Cicely, Alaska

Pickle Sketch

You'll be in a pickle watching Portlandia, the show for canners with a sense of humor. Image: IFC.

Portland, Portland, Portland.

It seems like Portland’s all we ever hear about when some great new thing is happening in the world of clean energy, proactive government, mass transit, holistic health, spiritual wellness, social innovation or cultural offerings.

It’s like Portland is God’s own petri dish for hatching the best of the best, the most progressive of the most progressive.

Sure, we envy Portland. Sure, we want to be Portland. But all that fantastic ahead-of-the-curve prescience can get a little annoying, too.

Do you always have to be up in our faces, Portland, what with being the first US city to adopt a global warming plan way back in 1993 and before that bringing on Fareless Square in 1975 (now Free Rail Zone) so people could ride the bus for free downtown, which, incidentally helped spur revitalized downtown development and hence business and hence prosperity?

Alright already, you’re cool. Is there anything you can’t do to help the world, improve the lives of people and make the rest of us look like Johnny Come Latelies?

Apparently not. Every time the world tries to catch up with you, Portland, whatever we finally adopt would be so over in Portland.

So over.

Turnabout is fair play

Well it’s time for a little comeuppance of your own, Portland, which is coming at you right from Portland in the form of Portlandia, the new hit cable show about Portlandiers and all their Portlandiness.

It ain’t all pretty. But it is all funny. Really funny. The best joke of all may be that while Portland forms the hyper-local hub around which the hijinks happen, the assorted personality types lampooned in Portlandia can be found in cities everywhere (probably solely due to vigorous Portland exportation, of course).

This sketch comedy gem, the first season of which I devoured in one sitting (just like a Battlestar Gallactica freak), boldly but lovingly skewers a raft of seemingly underground characters who have ascended into enough cultural familiarity that parodies and mimicry can be handily applied toward their hilarious takedown.

Consider, for example, Etsy-like craft folks who are just trying to eek out a living hand making stuff and then adorning it with applique or stencils of cute symbols like squirrels or cowboy hats or birds. This is the kind of person Portlandia feasts on. As witnessed in this video clip from season one, “Put a Bird on It!

Portland, where young people come to retire

The brain child of SNL’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein formerly of the Indie rock band Sleater-Kinney, the majority of Portlandia’s characters are played by Armisen and Brownstein themselves in an enviable feat of endless doubling.

But it’s not just the acting that kicks ass at half the price. Portlandia nails the liberal canon of precious ideas and predictable people with that key ingredient Jon Stewart calls essential to worthy comedy: truth. Their stuff wouldn’t be nearly as funny if we didn’t see ourselves in it in all our earnest, striving glory.

Boy did I see myself in it more than a few times, and not just in the Battlestar Gallactica bit.

Lip rings, vegans, local food eateries, free-range chicken growers, “womyn,” famous but low-income rock stars, pet owners, intellectuals, geeks, barristas, tattoo art, bikes, streetcars, lesbians, goatees, vintage fashions, skateboards, bikes, vinyl, mayors, artists, artisans, bottom feeders, social media addicts. It’s all there.

Take this dialogue breakout from within the song, “The Dream of the 90s” where Carrie plays “Melanie” and Fred plays “Jason.”

Jason: Remember when people were content to be unambitious, to sleep till eleven and just hang out with their friends? I mean you had no occupations whatsoever. Maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop?

Melanie: Right. I thought that died out a long time ago.

Jason: Not in Portland. Portland is the city where young people go to retire.

Jason: Remember in the 90s when they encouraged you to be weird? It was just an amazing time where people would go see something like the Jim Rose Sideshow Circus and watch someone hang something from their penis. You could grow up to wanna be a clown. Like people went to clown school.

Melanie: I gave up clowning years ago.

Jason: Well in Portland you don’t have to.

Melanie: So from what I can surmise from what you’re positing, it’s like Portland’s almost like an alternative universe. It’s like Gore won, the Bush administration never happened.

Jason: Exactly.

Melanie: In Portland it’s almost like cars don’t exist, right? People can ride bikes or double-decker bikes. They ride unicycles, they ride the tram, they ride skateboards.

Jason: Yeah!

In the six short episodes of season one Portlandia manages a panoramically skewering sweep of the city where we all want to live and the inhabitants we all want to be while succeeding in leaving us, the stateside viewer, wanting more.

Sounds like Stephen Malkmus really screwed up by moving away. Berlin? Seriously?

Punch my coffee card

Fortunately, season two of Portlandia debuts this Friday at 10pm/9central on IFC. (Sneak preview on Facebook.)

I can only hope that it will bring with it survivalists, peak oilers, 350.org-ers, Waldorf children, community gardeners, craft brewers, tea connoisseurs, urban homesteaders, Transition townies, Occupiers, and a host of other lovably lampoonable eco-urbanites who are hoeing the row before us at their own expense. I know these people live in Portlandia. Mycologists, too. Now make fun of ’em!

If not this season, let’s hope that with Lorne Michaels as executive producer we’ll see a good long run from Portlandia, giving Armisen and Brownstein ample time to rib every last artisanal crafting crunchy nutter out there.

At least until Mt. Hood takes the city out in a deep-fried tofu blaze of glory.

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice

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    • says

      Yes, I’ve heard about their tour. But since they haven’t come to Staunton, Virginia…to, say the Mockingbird Roots Music Hall, which would be a great fit, I’m miffed! Would love to see them live.

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