Portlandia Live Reviewed

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein take the stage as Portland's ambassadors to itself

Image courtesy of IFC's Portlandia Blog

The premise is, I suppose, simple: Take Portland on a tour, not merely in the pages of magazines and dailies, but actually as a place. Who says one city can’t visit another? But then of course, it is not so much Portland that is touring in live form to Seattle and New York and Boston (and also at the tour’s kickoff at the Hollywood Theater this past Tuesday, December 27) as it is Portlandia, a place and IFC sketch comedy show that exist as an exacerbation of certain Portland qualities: passive aggression, inertia, institutionalized eccentricity, effete politesse, hipper- or hippier-than-thouness.

It is also a place that I had worried would become claustrophobic over a two-hour acquaintance, rather than in 20-minute snips. Portlandia, thusfar, has been devoted mostly to hyperbolic observational humor, sketches that found their genesis in a Seinfeldian “Did you ever notice….?” and then elevated their punchlines—that lots of people in Portland DJ, say, or that we engage in irritating bouts of didja-read-it literary one-upmanship—into a near-hysterical pitch, not resolving or turning so much as exploding into feverish, farcical impossibility.

Its most satisfying sketches, on the other hand, have paid closer attention to character and to situation, and to the simple architecture of a story, as with their recurring lesbian-bookstore employees and the standout first-season sketch involving a whingy-lefty couple concerned about the provenance of their chicken. This was luckily also true of the clips that Portlandia stars/founders/writers Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein showed of their new season, including one starring Kristin Wiig as a Portland fan obsessed with keeping local bands local, and an absurdist farce in which hyper-involved parents asserted their rights to ensure that their children heard only the best indie rock in the schools.

But still: sneak previews and promotional banter could have been reserved for the TV screen. What made Portlandia Live a truly enjoyable night was something entirely unexpected: an odd intimacy with and between the two stars, who bantered with the audience about their clothing choices and the perils of being single in a row of cute couples—a genial heckling that is usual enough for a comedy show—but who also took us on a kind of touching snapshot tour through their childhoods and histories, with pics of little Carrie Brownstein gape-mouthed on a swing, little punky Fred Armisen making monster faces and strange fashion choices.

It was this, though neither came from Portland (Armisen is east-coasty, Brownstein originally a nearby Washingtonian), that made me feel most at home. Because I found myself liking these people. Armisen is a more polished stage performer and thus very able to parlay his moods and expressions into a charismatically nebbish nice-guy persona, but Carrie especially I recognized as a child of almost the same places I had known, a girl who became a woman in the public eye and who so, when brought into proximity with the private life of her childhood, smiled the genuinely shy, embarrassed smile of a girl. Really, it was a surprisingly warm half hour to spend with the lives of strangers, and makes me regret that the slideshow is an art that has mostly gone lost as a live thing, relegated to near-anonymous flickr and tumblr progressions.

So while the TV show might nettle and poke at where we all live, the live show actually seemed like a place to live. Heck, even the stage looked like any old Portland basement, with a raggy old couch and a bunch of band equipment (utilized in playing talky, jokey tunes among Brownstein, Armisen, Janet Weiss, Isaac Brock, Coryn Tucker and Rebecca Gates.) It was pleasant, and I liked it. Hope you came.

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