The Dream of the ’90s Is Alive in “Portlandia”

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen love layer-appropriate weather—and their jobs.

“Portland is a city where young people go to retire,” proclaims Fred Armisen to Carrie Brownstein in the premiere episode of “Portlandia.” The sketch comedy series is a quirky, hilarious homage to the leftist playground of Portland, Oregon. It’s a land of well-read citizens in sensible shoes tending to their community gardens. Call it green, call it ’90s retro, call it progressive – whatever you do, don’t call it Seattle.

What began as the duo’s web series, “ThunderAnt,” garnered a popular following that led to the show’s upcoming premiere on the IFC Channel.

“We started making videos to entertain ourselves more than anything,” says Armisen. His tone is modest and he is more soft-spoken than you would expect for a man who has parodied multiple world leaders for nearly a decade on “Saturday Night Live.”

By 2010, they had 14 videos and wanted to formalize the process. They pitched the idea to IFC, and the rest is history.

The two are no strangers to the stage. He’s a former member of the indie band Trenchmouth who fell into one of the forefront sketch comedy shows in the world. She’s a 90s punk rock princess-turned NPR correspondent. Yet even with the span of the country between them, Armisen and Brownstein managed to come together to celebrate the Pacific Northwest in everyone’s favorite city (nope, still not Seattle).

Within this mishmash of characters are archetypes whom you might find in any eco-conscious city: two women’s book store employees whose snobbery deters them from selling a single item; a loving couple trying on a “safe word;” overly conscious carnivores; and enthusiastic animal activists who take it upon themselves to free leashed dogs.

“I think these characters embody traits that Fred and I have,” notes Brownstein. “A lot of these people are just grappling with the idea that they want to be well-meaning and they exist in this progressive environment. But there are all these rules of what they need to do to be good.”

Then there are the “freegans,” who gather their worldly possessions and food from dumpsters.

“We turned this into a sketch and I remember thinking, ‘does this even exist?’” says Armisen. “The next day we shot something and one of the extras was talking about how she dumpster dives. And I thought, ‘yes, OK, this happens.’”

While most cities have their fair share of tree-huggers, liberals and tree-hugging liberals, the portrayal of Portland in “Portlandia” has its own flavor of said demographics.

Portland is so cool that the city’s actual mayor scored a cameo as the mayor’s assistant in the series. Never mind the fact that actor Kyle McLachlan (synonymous with the Pacific Northwest from his role on “Twin Peaks”) was perched atop a red exercise ball in lieu of a desk chair in the scene. Portland is just that rad.

“Portland has these characteristics that are really unique and interesting in terms of the aesthetic,” Brownstein observes. “Our director is a big fan of David Lynch and ‘Twin Peaks.’ When you think of Gus van Sant films like ‘My Own Private Idaho,’ there’s this grainy, yet vivid portrayal of a city.”

Above all else, “Portlandia” doesn’t hold back. From the recreational hide-and-seek league for adults to the idea that you can still be a 30-something clown who hangs out all day, there’s an irresistible je ne sais quoi about the series.

“I’ve lived in the Northwest my entire life for some reason – I can’t seem to leave,” says Brownstein. “And then Fred just loves Portland. Loves the weather, loves wearing layers, a t-shirt and a shirt and a jacket.”

“If you don’t have a Portland,” she adds, “you secretly wish you did.”

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