In Slate’s Portlandia TV Club, Chris Wade will IM each week with a different fan of the show. This week, he discusses “Soft Opening” with Nicole Drespel, an improv comedy teacher at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
Nicole Drespel: I’ve had mixed feelings about the plottiness of recent Portlandia episodes. Sometimes I love it (Nina’s birthday) because it feels like they’re just picking a theme and swinging the show around that theme; other times the plot feels like filler in between funny sketches, like last week.
Chris Wade: Interesting, I’m feeling the opposite: that the show works better with a strong runner and standalone sketches hung around it than with a single plot. I liked this episode because it was the former. Recurring characters Peter and Nance have a disastrous “soft” opening of their bed and breakfast over a series of sketches, supported by a few strong standalones.
Drespel: I love Peter and Nance because they remind me of the sincerity that drove the first season of Portlandia. They definitely like each other. And they want something, so they’re coming from a super optimistic place. And sometimes they just fail.
Wade: My main problem is Fred and Carrie play the one joke of these characters: that they get really excited about something trendy but are incompetent or ineffective at actually doing it, over and over. It ends up making them broader, shallower and less capable of carrying more plot-heavy sketches. Fortunately, I thought that this week’s runner was the perfect amount of weight to give to them.
Drespel: So the core of UCB’s training program, at the center of its philosophy of comedy, is the idea of “game.”. Game is the idea of finding the specific funny thing in a sketch or scene and heightening and exploring that idea.
Wade: Right, so you take an identifiable situation, find the “one weird thing,” and exaggerate it more and more over the course of the sketch.
Drespel: And sometimes I want Portlandia sketches to have a stronger game. Like the Steampunk sketch. I wish it had a narrower focus than “Steampunk people can be weird!”
Wade: Right, and in the context of these plot-focused sketches, we have characters like Peter and Nance who have well-defined character games at this point – but when they’re expected to carry relatively straightforward plots based on Fred and Carrie’s slack improvising it comes across as a broad and directionless.
Drespel: Those sketches plunk the character down in an interesting scenario, but then we don’t actually see them repeat and heighten the fun behavior.
Wade: Fred giving Jim Gaffigan and Matt Lucas a massage was funny because Fred is funny, but without a structural game to provide a pattern or heightening, it loses steam and becomes one-note.
Drespel: But when they do sketches with strong games, it’s hysterical.
Wade: Which is why the best bit of the episode was the Third Date to Italy sketch, where Fred has all the awkwardness of a bland third date in the heightened detail of it being on a trip to Italy. It was identifiable premise with a simple twist they found increasingly ridiculous ways to emphasize.
Drespel: That was great because it wasn’t broad at all, it was uncomfortably realistic. When they were in the airport and she was feeling tired and Fred was trying to be friendly I thought “Oh. Yup. That’s exactly how a third date to Italy would go.”
Wade: The last lines of that sketch were my favorite of the night too:
FRED: “Everyone on the internet, they’re not having as much fun as you think they are.”
CARRIE: “I guess everyone’s just cropping out the sadness”
Drespel: I also love Portlandia’s presentational sketches.
Wade: It took a minute, but the opening sketch of the kid explaining his Rube Goldberg machine really grew on me. In a way, the Rube Goldberg machine is a metaphor for all of Portlandia: a weird and ornate and often fun-to-watch machine with lots of moving pieces that never really goes anywhere or does anything.
Drespel: Ha! Yes.