all words: Andy Johnson
all photos: Stephanie Breijo
It’s easy to understand why Portlandia is funny. This fantasy world of Portland attracts persons who live in reality where Al Gore beat George Bush. We all know eccentric characters who eschew the 9-5 toil of office work to run independent coffee houses and Ornithological design boutiques. “Foodies” who humble brag about biking to work to reduce their carbon footprint. The sanctimonious vegan. The DIY-ers. Music bloggers.
Indeed, these stereotypes are ripe for mockery. But what is this subculture called? I suppose the most frequently used term would be hipster.
What exactly is a hipster anyway? The pejorative is so worn out that it’s lost its fangs. Each person has a different definition of what a hipster is. Some believe hipsters are those with a progressive worldview who digest “indie” culture and eat “artisanal” cuisine and put “quotes” around words to “ironically distance” their meaning. Others offer a restricted view, categorizing hipsters as fashion-conscious culture addicts in search of something newer, more organic, more obscure, more authentic. (My favorite hipster joke: Why did the hipster burn his tongue? He ate the pizza before it was cool.)
The persons who attended the two sold-out shows of the Portlandia tour were seeking an authentic experience. They wanted to cuddle up with their favorite liberal satirists and hope that they’re as cool & engaging & authentic in person as they are on their television series. Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen both have significant backgrounds performing live. They promised special guests and musical performances.
I can readily assure you Brownstein and Armisen are cool, engaging and authentic in person. I wish I could say the same about the event itself.
In an interview with BYT, Armisen openly admits that they “don’t really know” why they agreed to take Portlandia on tour. When asked to describe what fans should expect, he said the tour will consist of “some music, we’ll be playing some songs from the show. But no real sketches, I mean it’s more like just talking, you know. It’s pretty casual, it’s like the equivalent of sitting with us in our living room.” In other words: an entire tour built around Armisen and Brownstein “in their living room,” just shootin’ the shit and cracking wise. Acting casual.
The night opened with a video of Portlandia’s fictional mayor Kyle MacLachlan asking the audience to “mic check” that “We are secretly better than everyone we know.” This awkward-yet-charming moment set the stage for the night, as Armisen and Brownstein clambered out on stage, affixed with bass and guitar respectively, and went through a painful routine of reading TMI text messages from one another. Again, let me repeat that because it bears repeating: you paid money to watch Fred and Carrie read text messages to each other on stage. Casual enough for you?
Musically the duo – backed by Michael Lerner of Telekinesis on drums and Rebecca Cole of Wild Flag on keyboard – sounded fine, bashing out respectable versions of “Dream of the ‘90s”, “She’s Making Jewelry Now”, and “(Portland, Oregon) You’re My Home” from the series. Nevertheless, I grimaced a bit when Brownstein apologized after performing the latter, saying they’d come all the way to DC and all they wanted to do was wax nostalgic about Portland.
Even when their talk turned to our fair city, it was spent arguing over the city’s best coffee shop rather than discussing politics or our vibrant musical scene (Brownstein and Armisen acknowledge their punk roots in the BYT interview). The brief cameo by 1991’s “Sassiest Boy In America” Ian Svenonious (“Do you know Ian, who runs the label?” “Yeah, so do you know the other Ian, he was in Nation of Ulysses…”) was nothing more than a tease. Some Gospel Yeh-Yeh would have certainly spiced up the casual evening.
I was told there would be unaired sketches. What I witnessed was arguably the worst trilogy since Star Wars Prequels: three vignettes about the Feminist Bookstore’s 10th Anniversary. These sketches have yet-to-be aired for a good reason. As much as I enjoyed a cameo by Portland Trailblazer all-star Lamarcus Aldridge (I’m pretty sure I was the only NBA fan in attendance, surrounded by a multitude of Liz Lemon look-a-likes), I didn’t need to see Armisen-in-drag making out with 69-year-old actress/director Penny Marshall. No one deserves to see that. If they continue to push the Feminist Bookstore as the “breakout sketch” of the series, I hope the IFC pulls the plug on the show now, mercifully crystallizing Portlandia before it becomes insufferable. It worked for Chappelle’s Show.
Even that wasn’t evening’s most uncomfortable moment. That occurred when the duo were narrating a slide show of photos documenting their lives. Armisen, a man of Venezuelan, German, and Japanese descent who impersonates our black president on Saturday Night Live, introduced a publicity picture of his grandfather, a Japanese choreographer. The audience laughed. He looked shook. “It’s not a joke. This is real.” While it was charming to delve into the histories of these celebrities (Armisen showed a picture of Steve Jobs smiling; Brownstein’s been rocking a similar bowl-cut for thirty years), there were, well, no jokes.
The only other moment that seemed unrehearsed – and, as such, authentic – is when Armisen gaffed about the notoriously-private Brownstein’s reservations about commitment. He tried to play it off – “Yeah, it just got real” – but Brownstein’s wincing was noticeable.
The Question-And-Answer segment seemed like it had the potential for insight and hilarity. What we got was the crowd inquiring about their three genie wishes (“I’d wish we’d have a great show”), their preference in the Ducks/Beavers rivalry (They didn’t care), and their favorite karaoke songs (Bruce & Tom Petty for Brownstein, Prince for Armisen). For being supposed comedians, the two aren’t the best improvisers. For being a supposedly affluent/intelligent/interested-in-being-interesting city, DC asked some dumb questions.
For some reason, the show ended with Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces performing two songs off her solo album. I understand that Brownstein and Friedberger are friends, as she opened for Wild Flag on their fall dates. But her appearance, while appreciated, didn’t make a lick of sense. Moreover, a quorum of Wild Flag was present, as DC’s own Mary Timony came out for the show’s final number, a cover of Bruce Springsteen-via-Patti Smith’s “Because The Night”. It would have made more sense that the musicians to play “Romance” or “Future Crimes” than watch the unrehearsed Friedberger sing from a handwritten sheet of lyrics. The spectacle was a microcosm of the tour: good intentions, smart people, but rushed and amateurish. I was promised “the equivalent of sitting with us in our living room,” and unfortunately, that’s exactly what I got.