“PORTLANDIA” has wrapped up its second season and I’m convinced that this show will go down as one of the great original American television comedies. Even with all the local references, or because of them, I can easily see this show as a successful import into Canada and even the UK. Ah, just like that annoyingly quaint catchphrase goes, “Think local. Act global.” Or is it, “Think global. Act local?” Whatever. You know, it might be fun to see the creative team for this show come up with some sketches of what “Portlandia” would be like in other countries. Being neurotic is a pretty universal thing.
The idea of being overly civilized, overly self-aware, overly progressive is a hilarious but sad truth for too many of us. If you’re reading this, trust me, you are as much a part of the problem and anyone else! This is your Portlandia as much as it is mine. But, hang in there, because you’re in for a lot of good laughs too. Thanks to the internet, thanks to “Portlandia,” we can laugh and cry like we’ve never laughed and cried before. But, seriously, many thanks to what’s become the comedy team of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen and to the show’s co-creator and director, Jonathan Krisel. And the rest of the writing team which includes Kasey Dornetto and Bill Oakley, a veteran of another great American original, “The Simpsons.”
There’s this one modest sketch that sticks with me, among so many to choose from this season, with Armisen dressed up like a dignified older gentleman. Maybe it’s a costume or he’s just a little bit steampunk. He takes this canoe out onto the water and there’s an audience by the bank looking very proper and politely applauding. Armisen then goes on to do an interpretive dance to the beat of Erasure’s “Oh L’amour.” It seems like a sendup to every earnest civic activity you’ve ever been to. But it’s more than that! IFC provides you with all the benind-the-scenes stuff you could want on this show including what sparked this particular skit.
“Portlandia” is, at its heart, sketch comedy and sketch comedy today still owes much to the anti-humor movement of the ’70s led by such comedy greats as Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman. The idea then, and today, being to “push the envelope,” try the patience of the audience. But the saving grace is that, when done well, this comedy sparkles. If the timing is off, if the actors are not fully committed, the whole thing will fall apart. On “Portlandia” things get pushed around quite a bit, thrown in the air, and usually come in for a safe landing.
And it’s much easier said than done! I present as evidence all the dismal and horrid “humorous” commercials for Pemco Insurance that “poke fun” at the Northwest locals. It’s been a series of “profiles” for years with stuff like “Profile #52: Socks With Sandals Guy.” It seems like corporate “humor” feels compelled to severely hold back and not really be funny. In fact, it disrespects the very thing it claims to want to be and that’s to be funny. To actually be funny would simply be too subversive! Thankfully, that is not an issue for the talent behind “Portlandia.”
Anyway, “Portlandia” ends its second season with a wonderful extended sketch, “Brunch Village.” It brings back to mind the gold the writers struck earlier with “One Moore Episode” where a neurotic couple become obsessed with the television series, “Battlestar Gallactica.” This time out, the obsession is the Sunday ritual of waiting in line for brunch. I can attest to this madness here in Seattle. For some reason, we’ve convinced ourselves that the long wait while we sip coffee and ponder the variations on pancakes and eggs on the menu, and finally the actual meal in a crowded restaurant, is one of the ultimate treats that we can give ourselves. In this episode, the wait may last all day. The line goes on forever. Ed Begley, Jr. plays a competing restaurant owner trying to lure in customers with severely marked down specials. And Armisen and Brownstein play a hapless couple who must learn the hard way about brunch line etiquette from a demonic etiquette overlord, played by Tim Robbins. It makes no sense and it makes perfect sense. Welcome to Portlandia, you’re already home.