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How a hot cult TV show hits targets close to home, and why we love it

Portlandia comes to Trianglia 

Our individual tastes in comedy say an awful lot about us, obviously, and it's not just as simple as "Dane Cook people" versus "Louis CK people." For instance, you either "get" IFC's sketch-comedy series Portlandia or you don't.

If you do get it, then, to bastardize Jeff Foxworthy here, you just might be a hipster (or some variant thereof). Which means the show may be poking gentle fun at you, but that's cool, because you're smart and you're in on the joke.

In support of the show's second season, its creators and stars Fred Armisen (a 10-year veteran of NBC's Saturday Night Live) and Wild Flag guitarist-singer Carrie Brownstein have taken Portlandia: The Tour—a show about the show—on the road.

"It's some of the videos from the second season, some music," Armisen explained recently in a telephone interview with reporters. "We'll be playing some songs from the show, but no real sketches. It's more like just talking. It's like the equivalent of just visiting us in our living room or something."

That's right—you'll get to hear Armisen and Brownstein sing "Dream of the '90s" in all its mutton-chopped glory, but intimately. They'll appear tonight at Durham's Carolina Theatre, before a packed house of Triangle-based "Portlandians." That doesn't necessarily mean people from Portland, though.

More like "Portlandians" in a simpatico way. You know the types—hipsters, college-radio deejays-for-life, coffeehouse denizens, organic vegans, old punks-turned-crunchy parents and other fiercely indie-minded folks.

"Hipster" seems to be the blanket term most often used in print to describe Portlandia's oddball characters. The New York Times even ran a short online video feature about the show with the headline "Making Fun of Hipsters for a Living."

But during a Valentine's Day conference call between the two co-stars and writers from various publications, Brownstein shied way from that often pejorative term and rejected the notion that she and Armisen are really "making fun" of anybody.

"We don't think of it like skewering hipster," said Brownstein. She and her comedy partner don't even consider many of the show's characters hipsters in the first place.

Take, for instance, Portlandia characters Candace and Toni, the hilariously tyrannical feminist bookstore owners, beloved by fans as well as the show's co-stars. In their shop, you don't tell them what book you need, they tell you, and it'll probably take them a year to order it. Armisen affectionately thinks of them as "uncool, in a way."

Candace and Toni are based more on an idea than on specific people, according to Armisen, who spotted a business called In Other Words one day while visiting Portland.

"On the front, there was a sign that said 'The nation's only, or first, or whatever, not-for-profit feminist bookstore,'" he recalled. "I just looked at that sign, and I just thought, 'Wow, that's a lot to say in a sign.'" And soon, Candace and Toni were born.

The owners of In Other Words are certainly in on the joke. They allow those sketches to be shot in their shop, and Armisen and Brownstein have returned the favor by doing benefits for them.

The entire series is shot in Portland, where Brownstein lives. It's a place where, according to Armisen, being "weird" is embraced in a gentle way, and the show reflects that.

"I find that there's not a single character on the show that isn't an aspect or permutation of me or Fred," adds Brownstein. "I think that it's a world that's very familiar to us and certainly aspects of my personality that either very much exist, slightly exist or have the potential to exist.

"It's not mean, and they're not caricatures. Because I feel like there is an affection and an understanding and an attempt to make sense of these parts of ourselves."

That's why Portlandia has struck a shimmering, lo-fi chord with fans who see something of themselves in there. They appreciate comedy made by smart people who understand that living out your righteous ideals can be awkward, inconvenient and even absurd. But that doesn't mean it's wrong.

Portlandia also has the appealing, childlike vibe of two besties having fun at play. Armisen and Brownstein met and bonded because of music—Armisen told Rolling Stone that Call the Doctor by Brownstein's former band Sleater-Kinney was a life-changing album for him.

So he invited Brownstein to an SNL afterparty, and they came to realize they loved many of the same things, such as all the releases on the Dischord label, as well as innovative comedy TV like Kids in the Hall and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

Armisen has a background in music as well, as a punk drummer. But playing together seemed too obvious, so Armisen and Brownstein decided to make short comedy videos instead.

They called their website Thunderant, and that's where fans were introduced to Candace and Toni, as well as Armisen's new version of Saddam Hussein. The deposed dictator now had a working-class British accent redolent of Spinal Tap and a love for Gibson SGs plugged into Ampeg amplifiers. Armisen and Brownstein just can't stay away from the music stuff, it seems.

One of Thunderant's earliest fans was Lorne Michaels, creator and producer of Saturday Night Live. Before long, Portlandia was pitched and sold to IFC, with Michaels as an executive producer.

There have been some memorable cameos by Saturday Night Live cast members, such as Jason Sudeikis as a polygamous cult leader/chicken farmer and Kristen Wiig as a crazed music fan who kidnaps a local band that has a feline as a member (he plays scratching post).

There have been a lot of musician cameos, too, including Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists and Brownstein's former Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker.

Not surprisingly, the show is a hit with band folks, many of whom are the ultimate gentle tyrants when it comes to ideals. And they can even laugh about it.

Here in the Triangle, the folk band Bowerbirds are big fans of the show.

"We're kind of obsessed with it," said Beth Tacular, the band's accordionist, vocalist and co-leader alongside singer-guitarist Phil Moore, who's also her domestic partner.

She and Moore are building a log cabin from recycled materials, about a half hour from Chapel Hill. It will run on solar power and have a composting toilet. Are you reading this, Fred and Carrie?

"It seems that they're making fun of [people like] us a lot of the time," Tacular acknowledges, adding that, even though the Bowerbirds maintain their ideals, being on the road for so long has taught her and Moore not to take themselves too seriously.

That doesn't mean she doesn't have the new indie version of a horrifying "Spinal Tap moment" now and then. Hers came when she watched the mini-documentary video about the making of the Bowerbirds' new album, The Clearing.

Tacular listened to herself talk about falling out of love for about a year and then getting back together with Moore before recording the new record. One thought jumped immediately into her head.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God, this is like an episode of Portlandia.'"

Hey, there are worse things.

  • How a hot cult TV show hits targets close to home, and why we love it

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