Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Grand Unified Theory on Portlandia's Comedy

What's most impressive about "Portlandia" in its fourth season is that the off-kilter sketch show has a fairly narrow focus and doesn't show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season. Instead, the show has developed a very unique voice. Answering the question "What exactly is that voice and how does it make the show funny?" is the million dollar question.

Courtesy: Modern Accomodations.com
The show can sometimes be striking in the way its sketches don't always seem like they're aiming for a punchline or even being comic. Take a couple sketches of the recent episode "Bahama Knights": One sketch involves a group of women talking about how much they rock while their significant others start embellishing their praises of each other in more flowery language. The opening sketch of the episode involves a couple getting listless at a rock concert and feeling increasingly out of place. Each sketch has a punchline-- In the former, the central couple don't know any of the guests; in the latter, the couple wants to go to a concert again -- but neither of them has anything joke-like in any conventional sense before the punch line. In a way, these sketches play like found art of amusing people. While a lot of the sketches are more overtly joke-like, these two sketches are a testament to the comedic style of the show: "Portlandia" is indisputably comic but the sketches don't necessarily feel a need to start out (or even end up) in a comedic place. Often, the musical score will veer to a darker place to add ambiguity to whether what you're watching is a comedic place or not. 

If there’s something that can be called a grand unified theory as to the nature of Portlandia’s comedy, I would say it is characters that are detrimentally self-conscious about being hip. 

This makes sense as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein both started out as musicians in a fringe music and likely lived in a world with constant pressure to be seen as cool. In interviews about his rock star days, Armisen often describes the period in his life in which he was a drummer for Trenchmouth as a failure, and it was his frustration with the punk rock scene that directly led to his start in comedy 

The main storyline of the first season episode "Aimee" involves Fred and Carrie coming home to find that they have singer/songwriter Aimee Mann as a maid. They become jubilant fan boys in her presence, but they also have a back-handed way of showing their appreciation. Carrie confesses to downloading all of her records rather than buying it legally (presumably, Mann has to work as a maid because the music industry suffers). To make matters worse, they're condescending to her as employers and even suggest that she stole their necklace. One can imagine Armisen and Brownstein are drawing from a lot of experience interacting
with music fans and satirizing their weird habits.

The characters in Portlandia range from people who are overly politically correct to people who are downright aggressive. In his first appearance, the character Skype (Fred Armisen going the extra mile to get his ears mutilated for the role) is downright aggressive towards a guy enroaching on his scene.

On the opposite end of spectrum, there are characters like Peter and Nance who are overtly polite but so absorbed into the little details that they drive characters around them to equal points of insanity. In the pilot episode, Peter and Nance are incredibly polite in their tone of voice when grilling a waitress about every detail about the organic and free-range nature of the chicken they're ordering. They likely drive her mad (some characters react with frustration to the offbeat characters of this universe, some are accomodating, it's a nice mix) as they keep her waiting for what appears to be several months before deciding they’re not interested in ordering. In the middle of this process, Peter and Nance get themselves indoctrinated into a cult (run by Jason Sudeikis) while investigating the organicness of their meat. Here Peter and Nance show they can be equally dangerous to themselves through sheer timidness.

The general theme is that people who are overly concerned about their own image are either making lives for others more difficult or just plain foolish. In the former category, think of the couple who go to the outdoor film festival and loudly set up an entire gazebo in "Baseball" ruining everyone else's experience. In the latter category, think of the Kumail Nanjiani character in "Celery" who decides that he wants to abandon his blue collar job and go to begging. In a Portlandian twist, the punchline is that the two street beggars are really white collar people like him as Nanjiani and one of the beggars bonds over shared experiences on rival high school tennis. Again, being cool is revealed as a facade and trying to be cool is shown to be counterproductive.

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