Portlandia and Its People

A Look at the Creators Behind the Show, the Characters They’ve Created, and the People They Emulate

Comedy duo Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have taken similar paths in life. From punk-rock beginnings to a comedic present; they have both managed to accomplish many noteworthy things that span different genres.

Fred Armisen, born on December 4, 1966, grew up in Valley Stream, New York. His music career began in 1988 when he moved from New York to Chicago. He joined the band Trenchmouth, a post-hardcore band from Chicago, as the drummer. They were active from 1990-1996 and were signed with Skene! Records and East West Records. Armisen has also played with other musical groups such as Blue Man Group, Les Savy Fav, Wandering Lucy, and is currently the guitarist and bandleader for the 8G Band, the in-house band for Late Night with Seth Meyers. When his musical projects waned, Armisen switched to comedy. He wanted to keep performing and found comedy to be his new outlet. He has been in multiple comedic roles on television and in film, but is perhaps most famous for his work on Saturday Night Live (SNL) and Portlandia.

Fred Armisen. via Wikipedia.

Carrie Brownstein also got her start in punk music. The West Coast native, born on September 27, 1974, grew up in Washington and now resides in Portland, Oregon. Her first major breakthrough was as a guitarist and vocalist of Sleater-Kinney (1994-2006, 2014-present).  Sleater-Kinney was part of the riot grrrl and indie rock scenes in the Pacific Northwest. Riot grrrl was an underground, feminist, hardcore punk movement that aimed to address issues such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, racism, patriarchy, and female empowerment. Like the movement, Sleater-Kinney’s music was a combination of both personal and political themes. Their music dealt with rebellion against war, consumerism, traditionalism, and gender roles. In 2006, Rolling Stone readers’ list named Brownstein as one of the twenty-five “Most underrated Guitarists of All-Time.” She was the only woman to be included on that list.

In the early 2000s, Armisen and Brownstein met each other, but it was not until 2005 that the world was able to see any collaboration between the two. Operating under the moniker of “ThunderAnt,” they fused humor with extreme exaggerations of urban Pacific Northwest stereotypes to create skits. They posted these videos online on their website, but since the premier of their hit show, Portlandia, they have made them unavailable. The skits feature characters like lethargic activists, crunchy environmentalists, feminist bookstore workers, punk rockers, and liberal elites.

These characters may sound familiar to any fans of Portlandia; Armisen and Brownstein developed them even further with their new show. In 2011, Portlandia aired for the first time on IFC, and it was a hit. It has since been renewed for second, third, fourth, and fifth seasons. It brings to audiences a satirical look at Portland, Oregon. Portlandia, a light-hearted send-up of bohemia culture in Portland, both pokes fun at bohemian liberal tropes while still showing love to the city and its people. Armisen and Brownstein, the creators, writers, and stars of the show, maintain that it is both a love-letter to and satire of Portland.

Carrie Brownstein playing with Sleater-Kinney. via Wikipedia

What makes the duo of Armisen and Brownstein so great is that they are turning a social commentary into comedy. They get audiences to laugh at the absurdities they portray while simultaneously bringing these absurdities to light. They seem to exclusively make fun of the privileged people of Portland. Through humor, they acknowledge all of the weird things that privileged people – in this case, white, middle class to upper middle class people – can afford to worry about. Such worries are whether or not the food they eat at a restaurant is local, organic, and antibiotic free; if they are keeping up with the latest diets and trends; and whether or not they go to brunch, and that if they do go to brunch, that they do so correctly. One skit even features a couple of punks, sitting outside on a tarp with a dog, begging for money. By the end of the skit, we learn that the punks were actually wealthy; they were just bored of their regular lives so they had adopted this new life for its difference. Being able to fake poverty, if just for a little while to relieve boredom, is something that is exclusive to those with privilege. By focusing a skit on these characters, Armisen and Brownstein are at once entertaining their audiences and also drawing attention to a social issue. This method of social commentary is effective; it allows for people to feel entertained and alerted to an issue, but it does not make them feel like they are listening to a lecture.

In other skits, Armisen and Brownstein have their characters focused on the entirely wrong things. In one episode, they get caught up in brunch. Because of the glowing review a restaurant receives, their whole town becomes obsessed with being able to go to brunch there. The lines for the restaurant weave their way throughout town, and an elaborate system of speakers is set up to alert customers as to when it is their turn for brunch. This whole brunch phenomenon is not Portland-specific, but fits in well with the show. Being able to completely waste a Sunday waiting in line for expensive food is something only those with privilege could hope to do. Disposable income and time to waste are necessary for this activity.

Both Armisen and Brownstein are unafraid to have their political leanings and their social commentary saturate their work. From their musical beginnings, to their current comedic conquests, Armisen and Brownstein continue to be both artistically inclined and socially aware.

 

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