"Portlandia" Keeps Portland Weird with Sketch Comedy

By Amy Wagner on January 16, 2013

Last Friday marked the third season premiere of the award-winning sketch comedy series Portlandia. True to its name, this television show is both set and filmed in Portland, Oregon. It stars Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live as well as musician Carrie Brownstein. This television show began as a fledgling series of Internet sketch comedy videos done by Armisen and Brownstein, beginning in 2005. It was when the series began to feel increasingly centered upon the city of Portland and its countless quirks that the stars decided to approach the Independent Film Channel (on which Portlandia now airs) as well as Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of Saturday Night Live. This January marks the second year that Portlandia has aired, to great success and accliam, including a Peabody Award.

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/portlandia

Each half-hour-long show is a series of vignettes, sometimes interwoven, that center around various residents of Portland. While watching, it is easy to become amazed at the transformations Armisen and Brownstein undergo from scene to scene, with particularly creative uses of costumes, makeup, and what must be an entire closet full of wigs. There is gender-bending, too – in several sketches about a feminist bookstore involving recurring characters, Armisen plays a lesbian bookstore owner. Two other recurring characters portrayed by the stars include a couple of Brownstein’s hyper-masculine, mustache-sporting Lance and Armisen’s girlish, soft-spoken Nina.

This show might sound outlandish, and it surely could be described as such at times. But Armisen and Brownstein never intended to make fun of their beloved place of residence. Stereotypes about Portland are rampant, particularly involving a population of hipsters and hippies. In an interview with The Oregonian, Brownstein asserted that these are preconcieved notions that “even Portlanders find obnoxious.” The goal is not to trash Portland, but to creatively satirize a city that the stars love and call their own. In fact, the series has greatly helped the city, especially in the form of jobs for locals. The crew, actors, and extras are comprised primarily of locals. In an incident in which life truly imitated art, Armisen recalls that “there was one scene where we play Dumpster divers, and we weren’t sure if that was really a real thing or not. Then we shot another scene, and one of the extras on the show was telling us, unprompted, that she was a Dumpster diver.” Brownstein adds that “each person we worked with embodied Portland in their own way,” which doubtlessly contributes to the utter authenticity of the show. Therefore, despite the clear evidence of satire in the show, it is obvious that several aspects do accurately capture daily life in Portland.

Portlandia not only provides residents with jobs; it has stimulated the city’s economy as well. More than 100 Portland-based businesses provide goods and services for the show itself as well as the cast and crew. While statistics on increased tourism as a result of the show have not been recorded, a bicycle tour company located in the city now offers Portlandia-themed bike tours, so that viewers can travel to locations featured in the series. The show has gained such popularity that the mayor of Portland, Sam Adams, declared January 21st,  2011 as “Portlandia Day.” Still not convinced? Tune in to Portlandia every Friday at 8 PM on  IFC.

Amy is a third-year student at the University of Denver majoring in Communication Studies, with concentrations in organizational and intercultural communication, as well as minoring in business and international studies. She is a Colorado native, avid reader, coffee drinker, lover of all things active, and now, thanks to Uloop, a writer.

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