In Slate’s Portlandia TV Club, Chris Wade will IM each week with a different fan of the show. This week, he discusses the show with Geoff Garlock, sketch-comedy teacher at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
Chris Wade: This week’s Portlandia is interesting since it makes the commitment to doing an episode-long story arc, like “Brunch Village.”
Geoff Garlock: I like a sketch show being ambitious. Of course, with that ambition comes room for failure here and there, which is commendable. But in general I think Portlandia works best when not in the form of a sitcom.
Chris: So we’ve got an episode-long story centered around the gender-swapped couple of Fred’s Nina character and Carrie’s Lance character.
Geoff: I thought when they first started doing those characters they would use them to somehow comment on the “sex positive” nature of Portland. But really it seems to be about the two of them in opposite genders and the ridiculous, affected voices.
Chris: I see that. But I get a real kick out of these two, mostly from Carrie’s really uncomfortable masculinity as Lance. So, Nina creates an elaborate invitation for her birthday after Lance doesn’t want to do anything special. We see a bunch of people who receive the invite, including Patton Oswalt as a dude who prides himself on jokey Evite responses, Fred and Carrie as themselves, Fred and Carrie as their yuppie characters Peter and Nance, and the delightful Maria Thayer and Mike O’Brien (of SNL and sometimes UCB) as another couple.
Geoff: We don’t learn more about the characters and find new ways to laugh at them. The huge danger in sketch comedy is characters getting broader and further away from the source material while never evolving—as opposed to the great characters on, say, Comedy Bang! Bang!, who with each new appearance get richer while still giving us the things we originally laughed at because they are now getting built upon.
Chris: Right, which is exactly what’s happening with Kumail Nanjiani’s bit. We first saw him selling a needlessly elaborate cellphone plan in Season 1. Here, he’s selling a needlessly elaborate “birthday loan” to Thayer and O’Brien. Kumail has done essentially the same joke three times, and you want to see him become a richer character or do something else entirely.
Geoff: We want the characters to get richer and build on that original strong foundation. When the character moves from being rich and deep to being a collection of vocal and physical tics and catchphrases that people can shout on the street at them, that’s problematic.
Chris: So it all ends up at Nina’s birthday, in which we have Fred and Carrie playing three separate characters in the same room. Then comes my favorite premise of the night: a professional fixer, a la Harvey Keitel’s The Wolf in Pulp Fiction, arriving to help split the check. Perfect Portlandia satire subject. Check-splitting is perhaps the most pressing problem facing trendy Americans today.
Geoff: TELL ME ABOUT IT!!!! I really appreciated the check-splitter idea. As both vegetarians and nondrinkers, my wife and I are constantly getting screwed because of giant group bills. Paying $80 to eat a side of mashed potatoes and a seltzer. They are really good at pointing out the things that are idiotic in this little subculture but also realizing that we are not above it: that it is all right to make fun of all-natural underarm deodorant while still having the desire to buy all-natural underarm deodorant, which is the sign of great parody. Parodying something you love. Portlandia’s like Metalocalypse, where the writers love metal but also know that it is totally dumb and must be made fun of. But it should be made fun of by the people who love it.
Chris: Portlandia is a total inside job.
Geoff: I still appreciate Portlandia. I just want them to continue to be smart and sharp in their view on this certain subset of the world. I want them to continue to make a bunch of people complain about it on Bedford Avenue while they walk into an artisanal cheese shop with a weird tiny fedora on as they curl their Rollie Fingers ironic mustache. There are places where no one has a mustache without irony, and that world still deserves to be made fun of with loving, open arms.