I may live in Portland, Oregon now, but when I first saw Portlandia, I was a Chicagoan — and I loved the show. In fact, I’ve been a fan of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen‘s collaborative comedy since they were called ThunderAnt with a website and some videos, including the feminist bookstore sketch they recreated for their hit IFC series.
In ThunderAnt videos, the plot wasn’t Portland-specific, but neither is Portlandia, really, which is why the show has been so successful. The characters Carrie and Fred play are everywhere, and they are people you don’t see highlighted as often on television, even on Fred’s other gig at Saturday Night Live. Portlandia is the place where the feminist bookstore workers can co-exist with bearded bicycle messengers and overzealous organic farm-to-table eaters and a mayor who prefers sitting on an exercise ball to an office chair. That’s Portland, yes, but it’s also a portrait of humanity that exists everywhere else.
If you haven’t caught Season 1, it’s now streaming on Netflix, although many clips are available on the internet, which might be half of the show’s genius. The network and stars use social media better than most shows do, and they’ve not only coined phrases like “Put a bird on it,” they’ve gone out of their way to make sure indie sellers on Etsy can use it to sell their tote bags. (Season 2′s “Catnapped” will surely be a big hit once it airs this year. Watch for T-shirts with the faux-band logo.)
Last night, I attended Portlandia Live, the first night of a six-city tour Carrie and Fred are trying out for the first time. If you’re hoping for recreations of their characters from the show, you’ll be disappointed. While they show videos from the new season, they don’t recreate their sketches on stage, which it appeared some audience members were hoping for. If you are going in with an open mind and are a fan of the performers (like myself), you’ll be pleased. The two shared slideshows from their youth, Carrie read from her fifth grade autobiography and Fred went on a “date” with someone in the audience. He also shared some mementos from his days in TrenchMouth, which the Chicagoan in me was excited to see. They played music with special guests Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole and Issac Brock of Modest Mouse, including a cover of Prince‘s “1999″ and the Portland theme song they wrote for the Mayor (Kyle MacLachlan) in Season 1.
Every show on the tour promises to be different, with much of the “set list” improvised, different guests in each city and a Q&A at the end, the content of which largely depends on the questions asked. At last night’s show, Portlandians proved how, well, Portlandia they are with some bizarre statements. One woman, dressed as Sarah Palin, asked if Portland needed a new mayor, refusing to acknowledge she was in costume (and talking like) the former vice presidential candidate. Another woman asked Carrie if she was at a car wash a few days prior and why she ignored the woman and her children who were attempting to provide Carrie “with material.” In true, perfect, deadpan style, Carrie responded, “Sorry, I’m so rude I ignored a stranger.”
I might be new to Portland, but it does seem like the town feels some ownership over the show that Carrie and Fred might not find elsewhere. If someone felt the need to ask Carrie, in front of a crowd of fans, why she blew her off at the car wash, then there are likely 100 more Portlandians who aren’t afraid to go up to her at the Whole Foods and tell her their great idea for a sketch on the show. Little do they know, they might actually be inspiring them to do a whole different kind of sketch — annoying people who have no boundaries.
This isn’t to say Carrie and Fred are not approachable, because they are. Fred is not from Portland but visits as frequently as possible and told us at the press tour earlier this year that he was looking for a house in the area. (I’m not kidding when I say he is probably the nicest guy I have ever met in my life.) Carrie has lived in Portland longer than most of its transient residents, and has represented the city long before the show as a member of Sleater-Kinney. To say she’s probably met and knows a lot of Portland citizens is an understatement.
So what can we expect from Season 2? Lots of guest stars like Kristen Wiig (see: Catnapped), St. Vincent, Eddie Vedder, Tim Robbins and Amber Tamblyn. The return of the characters we loved from Season 1, like Peter and Nance, the feminist bookstore workers, the “Cacao” couple and new characters like the hosts of an Allergy Pride Parade. Also, a great new music video about Portland living in the ’90s — the 1890s. (Think high-wheel bikes, mutton-chops and long beards.)
If you’re a fan of Portlandia or Brownstein, The New Yorker published a fantastic profile of Carrie and the show, which is available in its entirety online. In “Stumptown Girl,” you visit the set of the show, learn the intricacies of Fred and Carrie’s friendship, and also hear Carrie discuss her sexuality, which she doesn’t do too much of on a regular basis. From the profile:
…she hates categories like “bisexual,” and has always felt more defined by her work than by her relationships. “I never think of sexuality as an identifier,” Brownstein wrote in an e-mail. “What seems to have defined me more is that I’m pretty horrible at relationships and haven’t been in many long-term ones. Leaving and moving on—returning to a familiar sense of self-reliance and autonomy—is what I know; that feeling is as comfortable and comforting as it might be for a different kind of person to stay.”
How Portland of her.
Season 2 of Portlandia premieres January 6 on IFC.