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Portlandia: We Put Birds on Things

Portland, "a city where young people go to retire," is the star of a new series on IFC. Will any car-driving carnivores be watching?

When the media flier for the Portland premiere of IFC’s new sketch comedy show Portlandia promised red carpet arrivals with “celebrity guests,” I’ll admit that I felt a twinge of giddy curiosity at the thought of Tinseltown glitz descending momentarily upon our drizzly city. Real celebrities? In Portland? The idea boggled the mind. So when I arrived outside the charmingly dilapidated Hollywood Theater on Friday evening and found no red carpet in sight, I assumed I’d missed the glamorous festivities. It was only after I waded through the tide of thrilled indie-chic Portlanders and ventured to the media room that I realized my mistake. In this case, “red carpet” referred to the actual worn carpeting of the room where local media members huddled excitedly around Carrie Brownstein, one of the show’s two stars and the only celebrity present.

Of course, this experience was perfectly in keeping with the theme of the show itself: Portlandia lovingly satirizes the hyper-liberal, defiantly insular culture of the Rose City. As Brownstein and fellow star Fred Armisen (of Saturday Night Live fame) see things, Portland isn’t so much a city as it is an unusually large commune, packed with idealists whose zeal for sustainability is matched only by their unparalleled ability to slack off. (As Armisen puts it in the show’s first few minutes, “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”) Portlandias citizens are broadminded and tolerant only until someone breaks one of the community’s innumerable unwritten rules, at which point they transform into avenging furies of liberal outrage. In one hilarious sketch, Armisen and Brownstein reach DEFCON 5 after seeing a dog tied up outside a restaurant, its owner missing; “Who puts their dog on a pole like a stripper?” shrieks Brownstein. So you’re damn right Portland doesn’t do red carpets: haven’t you heard how the production of red dye damages lemur habitats in Madagascar? You haven’t? What’s wrong with you?

At least in Portlandia’s first two episodes, all of this makes for very funny television, and Armisen and Brownstein show an improbably solid chemistry throughout. (We knew Armisen was funny, but the fact that Brownstein, who came to prominence in the not-exactly-humorous punk band Sleater-Kinney, also has legitimate comic chops comes as a pleasant surprise.) What remains to be seen, however, is just how amusing Portlandia will be to those who don’t actually live here. Sure, all of the recognizable Portland stereotypes are on hand—the bike-riding mayor, the feminist bookstores, the pathological fixation on locally grown food—but the show’s cupboard may be overstocked with inside jokes as well. The audience laughed riotously at "We Put Birds on Things," the second episode of sketches featuring a motorist-abusing bike messenger and a television duo who specialize in stenciling birds on every kind of consumer product imaginable, yet for those who haven’t witnessed Portland’s belligerent cyclists and bird-obsessed indie crafters firsthand, I’m not sure how funny these bits will be.

Not that Portlanders care whether you get it. I mean, you shout at drivers as you bike to your sustainable vegan body piercing classes, too, right? You don’t? What’s wrong with you?

Portlandia premieres on IFC on Friday, January 21st. Photos by Scott Green/IFC.

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