Portlandia – Sketch Comedy at its Sketchiest

The brain child of ThunderAnt, i.e. current Saturday Night Live performer Fred Armisen and relatively unknown writer/musician Carrie Brownstein, “Portlandia” is a sketch comedy TV show that runs on the IFC (Independent Film Channel, apparently indie films weren’t enough).   If the name didn’t tip you off, the show takes place in and around the city of Portland, Oregon and focuses on the city’s stereotypically ’90s inhabitants (hipsters, hippies, et al.).  From feminist bookstore owners to “normal” couples who end up caring a little too much about animal rights, “Portlandia” makes sure that no one member of Portland’s population is safe.

While this is a sketch comedy show, it does have a bit of structure.  An episode usually starts off with a short cold opening before the credits and then starts off with a sketch that will be the main theme of the episode.  You can count on the first sketch’s idea to be returned to for two more sketches later in the episode.  Other than that it’s just good, old-fashioned hipster lampooning.  For the most part the cast is sparse, every sketch features Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and then usually some sort of famous guest (such as Aimee Mann in the episode appropriately titled “Aimee”).  And don’t worry everyone, expect to see Fred Armisen in a LOT of drag.

Having just watched all of Season one (six episodes in all), I think it’s fair to say that, much like Adam Dunn, when a sketch hits it’s a home run, but when it misses it’s a strike out or worse.  I also hate to say that the show had lost a lot of it’s humor momentum by the last episode of the season, and that’s not just because the sixth episode “Baseball” was fairly disappointing.  If you watch the season fairly quickly you’ll see each episode lose a little steam as it goes along.  Still though, there are some good larfs to be had throughout the entirety of the season.

Compounding the problem of sketches that fall flat is the penchant for the Armisen and Brownstein to amp up the silliness in a sketch they know may not be as funny.  “Portlandia” is at its best when they are straight lampooning the types of people you will meet in Portland.  The sketches in themselves are already silly, however when Armisen and Brownstein keep their characters grounded and believable the sketches end up being great.  Unfortunately when the duo end up trying to goof it up for even more laughs the sketches suffer and the show loses its humor.  This is perhaps best represented in the aforementioned “Aimee” episode.  In the episode the returning sketch is a fairly normal, upper middle-class couple that realizes that their maid is Aimee Mann.  The first sketch is funny as they are in awe and at the same time make sure Aimee does her job correctly.  By the third sketch though, when Armisen and Brownstein (after having received an impromptu live show by Aimee Mann) continue clapping for an encore (even though this is clearly the joke) from evening until the dead of night the silliness of the joke drowns out the humorous semi-reality of the situation.

Season Two just premiered January 13th and I have yet to watch any episodes.  Hopefully with a little more preparation the comedy duo of ThunderAnt will have better sketch material and won’t feel as though they have to play up their own inherent silliness after having a full year to plan for a second season.  If not, the livelihood “Portlandia” may end up on youtube, where the cream will rise to the top and be enjoyed while the rest will be forgotten.  I will watch the show through this season and give an updated report, but as of yet “Portlandia” is not appointment television.

New episodes of Portlandia air on IFC, every Friday night at 10 PM.

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