|Courtesy: Modern Accomodations.com|
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.