Portlandia is the comedy creation of SNL’s Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein that is normally a sketch-based television show broadcast on the Independent Film Channel, but more people know about it from watching YouTubed segments from the show on Facebook. It’s genius and popularity lies in the fact that it doesn’t so much skewer or lampoon the narcissism, naivety, misguided self-righteousness, and faddishness of early twenty-first century, hipster, Pacific Northwest culture as it does kabob it dead-center with the precision of a laser-guided javelin. So much so that for Seattle, a city routined in doing everything it possibly can to distance itself from stereotypes (Rain! Coffee! Grunge!-even I can’t even list these without almost mentally retching), for once we find ourselves falling over ourselves to embrace all the mocking of Portland’s peculiar traits and claim them as our own. “ “Put a bird on it!”-that’s so totally Seattle!” we laugh, forgetting the show was never set here. “The tattooed and goateed vegan on the fixed-gear? That is so Capitol Hill, RIGHT?”
Live, Portlandia was comprised of witty repartee from Fred and Carrie, humorous songs with the help of a session keyboardist and drummer, new video clips from the upcoming second season of the show, and Q&As with the audience on a minimally furnished stage. Armisen wore a black t-shirt, brown jacket, loose dark green trousers, brown shoes, and specs, and looked utterly normal, like a guy you’d see waiting in line for a domestic flight. Brownstein made more of an effort, wearing a colorful, patterned plaid shirt with skin-tight black jeans and heels. The show opened with a fireside-filmed message from the fictitious mayor of Portland, played by the Yakima-born, Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan, who asked us to repeat his rules for tonight’s performance all together “human megaphone style” that included the line, “we are here… because we are better… than everyone else we know.” He later appeared onstage to ensure Fred and Carrie were promoting the city of Portland properly.
After the TV show intro played and the duo did a short bit about the correct way to write Christmas cards, Fred picked up a bass and Carrie a guitar to play their most widely-known comedy song “Dream of the 90s.” The spoken parts were funny but unfortunately the sung chorus was shaky and weak. At the end of the song Carrie put on a gray beanie, pretending to finally arrive in Portland. “You’re a little late,” Fred chided. “You’re also a little too… Seattle” he said, noting the beanie, and took it off her head to unexpected boos from the crowd, upon which he hurriedly replaced it. The pair then played a previously unseen video clip spoofing the song: “Dream of the 1890s,” where men with Amish-style beards and waxed mustaches march into rustic, artisanal butcher shops and ride old-fashioned, uncomfortable bicycles throughout the city.
Fred and Carrie were largely themselves in real life throughout the performance, only dipping into character only once as the ultra-feminist owners of the “Women and Women First” bookstore to compere a sex advice Q&A with the audience. Dan Savage appeared onstage to sit between them on the couch to help field questions and Carrie gave her best performance of the night as the uptight, squeamish, and pedantic Toni. Throughout the evening, you could tell that Fred’s background was in improv and stand-up as he was well-rehearsed in getting the crowd on his side and careful not to overly offend anyone. You could also tell that Carrie’s background was fronting a rock ‘n’ roll band as she was well-rehearsed in not worrying too much at all if the crowd were on her side and not particularly bothered if she offended anyone.
“To tell you the truth, I’m relieved to be out of Portland. This is a real city!” Fred said to easy cheers. “There’s like, dudes here!” Carrie continued. “You guys have sports! There’s a skyline! People work here! There’s traffic, industry!”
More new video shorts followed that included an Allergy Pride Parade and on-screen cameos from SNL’s Kristen Wiig and Eddie Vedder. New song “She’s Making Jewelry Now” elicited knowing smirks. Another Q&A had people touting their jewelry businesses, people pitching ideas for future sketches, superfans wearing t-shirts printed with catchphrases of the show, and Sleater-Kinney fans asking for a reunion, all approach the microphone.
Portlandia the Tour ended with Fred and Carrie playing “a song for Portland that the mayor asked us to write.” At Fred’s behest, we all ended up singing the chorus which somehow became “Seattle! Washington!”
“This is the second live show we’ve ever done” Carrie said towards the end. “We knew it was going to be casual and off-the-cuff. Thanks for sticking around.” After lines around the block to see one of the most anticipated comedy shows of recent months and all chairs (yes, chairs at Showbox Market!) taken a few minutes after the doors opened, no one would ever consider not “sticking around.” But “casual” and “off-the-cuff” sum up the spirit well. In the vein of 2011’s golden rule, they were certainly “being authentic,” however the performance could have used a little more planning and professionalism. Overall it was rough, uneven, unprepared. Too relaxed. Not hungry, but friendly enough to mask complacency; a victim perhaps of the detached attitude that the show itself captures. There were a few moments where Fred’s spontaneous stand-up brilliance really shone, but at other times Carrie simply stood for twenty minutes, laptop in palm and fiddling with wi-fi connections, showing us photos of her and Fred from her MacBook. Still, the show’s eye for well-deserved satire is well-trained and it’s characters are wincefully well-loved. There is little else on TV right now that targets the blinkered egos of hipster culture so distinctly and in a way that so easily translates from Portland to Williamsburg to Silverlake to Shoreditch. This is one of Portlandia’s many strengths. We will no doubt see a new and improved Portlandia the Tour in the near future as a result.