Philadelphia, Meet Portlandia. It’s Like Looking in a Mirror.
I was late to the Portlandia party. In its second season on IFC, the half-hour sketch comedy is the brainchild of Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and his real-life BFF, indie rocker Carrie Brownstein. The show didn’t really move the pop culture needle when it debuted last year, and I didn’t catch it. But thanks in part to an avalanche of press, the buzz about its gentle skewering of life in Portland, Oregon made me curious. It’s now so popular that Armisen and Brownstein are hitting the road for a live tour, including a stop at the Trocadero on February 19th. For a show about a city I’ve never been to and one that seems about as far removed from Philadelphia in spirit as it is in geography, two things surprised me: There’s something laugh-out-loud funny in every episode, and the subcultures it parodies are completely relatable to life in our city.
Much of what’s been written about Portlandia zeroes in on its mockery of hipster culture, and that’s the heart of the show’s humor. In one episode, Armisen and Brownstein play Spike and Iris, a too-cool couple who hire a wedding planner. When she suggests a theme ceremony and perhaps a flipbook, Spike imagines photos of factories, while Iris has a simple request: “Show people dying.” There’s a sketch about how everyone seems to be a DJ these days and a musical riff on how Portland’s cultural quirks (guys with handlebar mustaches, self-sustainability, suspenders) are really a throwback to the 90s—the 1890s. If you’ve spent any time in certain pockets of South and West Philly, or up along the Northern Liberties/Fishtown edge, you know the characters they’re lampooning.
But even if you have no idea what a fixie is, Portlandia is thoroughly relatable. One of the funniest bits this season was a visit to a chain restaurant called “Around the World in 80 Plates.” The gag is that Armisen and Brownstein just want cheeseburgers, but their eager waiter is compelled to explain every gimmicky item in their menu (“Would you guys like to Super Spike your meal? We pour Jack Daniels over your meal.”).
That’s not in the hipster wheelhouse—that’s suburbia, and anyone who’s eaten near the King of Prussia or Cherry Hill malls gets the joke. In “One Moore Episode,” the pair make the mistake of thinking they can watch one episode of Battlestar Galactica on DVD before heading out to dinner; a week later, they’re still on the couch, jobless and concerned about bladder infections. If you ever mistakenly thought you could dole out episodes of Breaking Bad or Mad Men in small doses, you know that addictive feeling. There’s also a skit about parents who show their son a “Future of Failure” chart as motivation before his interview at an elite pre-school. I don’t have kids, but when I’ve described this bit to friends who do, they instantly relate (and they laugh).
There’s something true about the notion that we’re an insular city, and that Philadelphia thinks its so unlike most other East Coast towns. Watching Portlandia is a reminder that in some ways, we’re really not that different. Sadly, I’ll be out of town when Armisen and Brownstein hit the Troc to discuss the show and the inspirations for their offbeat characters (the early show is sold out, but tickets still remain for the 10:30 p.m. session). What’s drawing fans to Portlandia isn’t a finger-pointing at weird West Coast aliens—it’s that we have more in common with folks in the Pacific Northwest than we thought.