Portlandia (IFC, Fridays, 10:30) is funny, but mostly it’s daring.
Cultural innovators, like the ones who live in Portland — bike messengers, locavore chefs, and assorted others with nose rings — usually get a pass. The satirists leave them alone. The notion: if you are a rule breaker, you’re above reproach.
Satire, that’s for poor, rule-bound schmos. For them, satire is a mixed blessing from the avant-garde: a punishment for schmo-ish-ness, and an opportunity for liberation.
Making fun of a rule breaker — especially rule breakers who are so disarmingly earnest and serious? This is actually very rule breaking.
This is exactly what Portlandia means to do. SNL’s Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein take aim at the rule breakers of Portland. The reward is comedic riches. After all, no one’s working this territory. There’s satiric opportunity just about everywhere.
In one skit, Armisen and Brownstein scrutinize a restaurant menu to see if it is Kosher according to Alice Waters and the artisanal movement. Brownstein’s character wants to know, for instance, precisely how large the range is in which the free-range chickens are kept. The joke here is that restaurants are completely unsurprised and not even a little exasperated by this. They present a little dossier for the chicken-who-would-be-dinner. (His name is Colin.) But this is not enough for Armisen and Brownstein, who insist that the restaurant hold their table while they drive 30 miles to check out Kevin’s farm for themselves.
This the best kind of comedy, both broad and cunningly detailed. In the Adult Hide and Seek League skit, there are lots of little grace notes. Brownstein is completely preoccupied with the after party. Armisen tries to make “SEEK” into an acronym, and can’t think of a word for the second “e.” Armisen does a brilliant little Spider-man thing while hiding in a hall way.
The best piece takes place in a bookstore charmingly named Women and Women First. Steve Buscemi commits an error — he uses the bathroom that’s clearly reserved for customers only — and Armisen and Brownstein, the proprietors, have him. He must pay for his error with a purchase. But no, it turns out, Armisen and Brownstein are not going to let him make this purchase: he is not worthy. So he can’t actually leave. It’s a little anthropological study of what happens to commerce when freighted with morality. The anonymity, the choice, the freedom we look at with some suspicion actually begins to look OK. At least you can leave.
Armisen and Brownstein have managed a small cultural miracle. They found a way to make fun of those who are normally the agents, not the objects, of ridicule. They found a way to set up shop, comedically speaking, in a place more avant than the avant garde. Good going! Who knew there was a there there?
The big question: will Portland see the humor of Portlandia? The Women & Women First skit suggests not. The proprietors have no sense of humor. (And this is too often true of cultural innovators. They gorge themselves on moral certitude and righteous indignation.) And if Portland does not see the humor of Portlandia, well, there’s always hide and seek.
You might wonder what a post on Portlandia is doing at HBR.org (where it was originally published), instead of at Entertainment Weekly’s website or my own cultureby.com. Most corporations simply do not pay enough attention to contemporary culture — they react instead of respond. But corporations need to know about the slow food movement and why the hot color this season is a particular shade of blue — and about shows like Portlandia — because such intelligence matters for how they shape their products and interact with their customers. They need to see the early warning of changes taking place in American culture. (Plus, if nothing else, this gives you fodder for small talk at your next dinner party.)