Drawing comedy from a sense of place

Dave Bartlett
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‘Portlandia’ spoofs city’s continuing ’90s counterculture through sketches and songs

When I started my journalism career in radio, I worked with a very talented producer who loved stand-up comedy and, as I recall, mounted the stage a few times himself. He wasn’t an overtly funny guy in the day-to-day workplace, but he loved to laugh and he had a good sense of what was funny.

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play a number of characters in the sketch-comedy show “Portlandia.” — Submitted image

When CTV started running the sitcom “Corner Gas,” set in the fictional town of Dog River, Sask., we had a memorable discussion about Canadian TV. He remarked that the most successful Canadian shows, especially comedies, relied on setting far more than American shows, which were set in New York or L.A. more often than not and, ultimately, could take place in any American city. After all, most of the action happens in apartments, coffee shops, bars or offices.

There are exceptions, but setting is often an afterthought on the small screen, and takes a back seat to character and plot.

“Friday Night Lights,” could not exist without its small-town Texas obsession with football, but all you have to do is count all the CSIs to know the settings for its stories are flexible.

But that’s certainly not the case with “Portlandia,” a sketch comedy show from IFC, and available on Netflix, which spoofs the lasting grunge culture in Portland, Ore. — made popular by bands from Seattle, just to the north.

I’ll admit that I tried to watch the first episode several months ago and it didn’t appeal to me.

Then some friends took a trip to Portland and were posting pictures to Facebook from around the city. So, over the weekend, I blew through the six-episode first season in a morning and laughed out loud several times.

Canadian Lorne Michaels produces the show, and it borrows one element from his “Kids in the Hall” that his “Saturday Night Live” has never learned — that sketches don’t have to be really long, and more importantly, can be broken up into three or four parts and dispersed throughout a 30-minute episode, intertwined with other sketches.

It was something the Kids did well, and show co-creators/stars/writers (and musicians) Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen successfully stretch out some very funny sketches in the first season. They also beat a few dead horses to death — but not to pulp as SNL has done for years.

I know some of Brownstein’s work with the band Sleater-Kinney, and I know Armisen’s name as an SNL alum, but I can’t say I was really familiar with either of them before I watched “Portlandia.” I wonder if that might have made me like the show more on first viewing.

They are joined by a number of guest stars, such as musician Aimee Mann, actress Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and actors Steve Buscemi (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”) and Kyle MacLachlan (“Twin Peaks”) who plays Portland’s optimistic, bike riding, yoga-ball sitting mayor in at least three episodes.

I’ve often said I’m not a fan of awkward comedy, and can only watch so much of the cringeworthy before I start pacing. The last thing I want is for TV to cause me stress. “Portlandia” has some of this, but it’s nicely sandwiched between a bit of slapstick and some really funny one-liners.

The show targets things that come under the banner of hipster, though I’m not a big fan of that term, as it’s used as a catch-all for anyone interested in almost any aspect of counterculture — be it music, food or technology.

There’s a really funny send-up of people obsessed with where their food comes from — to the point where they leave the restaurant to quickly go check out the farm/commune where their chicken, named Colin, was raised — before returning to ask about the salmon.

Organics, women’s bookstores, coffee shops and hotels staffed by people who would rather talk to you about how great they are than serve their customers, artisanal light bulbs and cellphone plans are some of the things targeted in the first season.

But if this show ribs the hipster, it also will probably appeal to hipsters. The show really targets fanatics — anyone too serious about anything — and it does escalation really well.

In one scene, a guitar plays feedback in the background as a guy’s hands tape a poster for a music festival on a telephone poll. It’s quickly replaced by a poster for a lost kitten named Jennifer as a soundtrack played on toy instruments tinkles behind two feminine hands in fingerless gloves.

The hands then take turns, using larger and more industrial fasteners, to get their poster on top of the other, until the metalhead duct tapes his opponent’s hands to the poll and wraps her in a heavy chain.

At this point a stuffed cat is seen putting up a poster looking for a ride to the music festival. The last line reads, “call Jennifer” and has a number.

It’s not a show everyone will like or get, but if you like sketch comedy and love that exaggerated send-up, check out “Portlandia.”

What’s your favourite place-based

comedy? Correspondence goes to Dave Bartlett at talkingtelevsion@gmail.com.

Organizations: Night Lights, CSIs, Netflix Sleater-Kinney

Geographic location: Dog River, Sask., Portland New York Texas Portland, Ore. Seattle Twin Peaks

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