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Part of what makes Portlandia so endearing as a comedy series is its inherent outsider charm. The show ambles from episode to episode with an nonchalant ethereal grace practically unheard of in modern comedy. Typical comedies of today have some sort of demand for snappy go-between and rapid, almost frantic, set-up-punchline-set-up pacing. Portlandia features none of this, for better or worse, as the rapid hilarity formula can occasionally do wonders for a show (see Community). Working slowly at its own pace, Portlandia‘s sketches blossom slowly over time, becoming unique and wonderful flowers of comedy or occasionally, but rarely, adorable failures.
That is to say, co-stars Fred Armisen (of SNL fame) and Carrie Brownstien (of riol grrrl band Sleater-Kinney fame) play out equally satirical and silly skits set in Portland with pristine timing. Portlandia’s skits fall directly between Saturday Night Live‘s never-ending blah-blah and the absurdity of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! on the implicit Big Ol’ Comedy Spectrum™. There’s not a moment in any sketch that feels wasted or glazed over.
I imagine pitching Portlandia to a network would be pretty challenging. The show’s humor relies on niche satire and undeniable esotericism, making it a difficult show for marketing. It’s strange then that the show has found such resounding success as early as its second season, especially on a network as small as the Independent Film Channel, whose other endeavors remain muddled in obscurity. Something about the show’s approach to the sketch comedy genre transcends time and place and cements it in viewers’ hearts. Just as Monty Python’s giant feet and dead parrots would at first glimpse seem too ridiculous for most people to find funny, the aggressive bikers, adult hide-and-seek leagues, and androgynous bookshop owners that inhabit Portlandia are overcome by the show’s own unique sense of funny.
For instance, the show constantly pokes fun at stereotypes about Portland and hipster culture. Guest star Kyle MacLachlan (of Blue Velvet and Desperate Housewives fame) plays the mayor in one of my favorite episodes. The fictional versions of Armisen and Brownstein approach his office to suggest nothing less than a “Bring Your Guitar To Work Day.” As he sits on an exercise ball (so he can “work on [his] core”) and flaunts Portland’s latest award, “Best Official Website for cities with populations under 700,000 in the Pacific Northwest,” he confesses that his greatest aspiration is to give Portland a great theme song. He hires the fictional versions of Armisen and Brownstein to write the jingle, and as they leave his office toting the tribal music CD he had proffered, he leaves them with one requirement: “DON’T MAKE IT SOUND LIKE IT’S COMING FROM SEATTLE!”
From the beginning of any given episode, it’s made clear that Portlandia is not an amateur effort. The show is chock full of impressive guests, both comical and musical, due to the creators’ artistic backgrounds. The pacing is veteran in nature, with overlapping sketches that tie the individual episodes together and make each one an enjoyable watching experience. Occasionally, the sketches fall flat, and some will appeal only to certain funny bones and demographics. When this is the case, the sketches can feel prolonged and even tedious, but they move, both in pace and tone, so rapidly that any harm done will be quickly righted.
Armisen’s character declared in the pilot episode that “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.” No other show on television accurately captures this feeling: the liberation of petty things in favor of pure silliness. Portlandia is absurdist comedy done to perfection.