A visit to the set of 'Portlandia'
TV writer Rob Owen visits the itinerant production crew of the IFC TV show "Portlandia," in advance of the comedy's second season, which begins Jan. 6.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Portlandia'10 p.m. Friday on IFC. Many Seattle-area providers air the IFC East Coast feed, which means the show will be on at 7 p.m.; check with your cable or satellite company.
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PORTLAND, Ore. — As a low-budget cable show, IFC's sketch-comedy series "Portlandia" traffics in more guerrilla filmmaking than most prime-time programs. The series shoots on location all over Portland, traveling with a comparatively small crew that quickly sets up, shoots a scene, then moves on.
That included a September visit to Portland's Laurelhurst Park for a sketch about a guy with an Eddie Vedder tattoo, which will air Jan. 13. The show's sophomore season begins this Friday.
As Laurelhurst's regular denizens amble by, "Portlandia" star Carrie Brownstein sits on a blanket, having a picnic with guest star Scott Green. In the sketch, the two are dating, but Green has a tattoo that Brownstein just can't abide: a cartoonish image of Vedder, Pearl Jam's frontman.
"Portlandia" co-creator Fred Armisen, standing near a playback monitor as the scene unfolds, recalls, "We had a brainstorming session and Carrie came up with this idea. Sometimes tattoos are poorly done or the subject matter calls into question a lot of stuff. You like the person, but all of a sudden, their tattoo makes you say, 'Wait, what's that about?' "
After the picnic scene but before moving on to a bike-riding sequence, Brownstein explains her inspiration for the sketch.
"It's a conversation people have all the time about arbitrary deal-breakers that are actually quite significant in determining if you could actually like someone or imagine a life with someone," she says. "There's something so permanent about a tattoo, and I think specifically with music, Fred and I are such music snobs, we are constantly shocked by the lack of depth of people's knowledge. We're both Pearl Jam fans, but the idea somebody would have a bad tattoo of a cool band is just kind of amazing and shocking."
Vedder himself appears in the Jan. 13 episode.
"Portlandia" garnered a cult following last year with its skewering of Pacific Northwest culture, characters (feminist bookstore owners) and at least one catch phrase ("Put a bird on it!"). Even though this new season has 10 episodes instead of the first season's six, Armisen says there's a greater sense of comfort with the show.
"The first season, we didn't know what the show was at all," he says. "Put a bird on it? I remember we had no idea what that was."
And what the show is now should be in the eye of the beholder, Brownstein insists.
"I'm at the point with the show that it's up to other people to tell us what it is. It's not our job to explain it," she says. "We're not satirizing Portland or a lifestyle Portland represents. Portland is the context from which we work and a setting from which the skits spring forth, but we start there and go to places that are more absurd or surreal."
The "Portlandia" pair are confident they can improve on season one.
"We were always critical, we always think we can do better," Brownstein says. "We know what worked and what didn't work last season."
"I don't want to go into any details," she demurs. "We just watch some things and think, we could have done better. We should have kept that piece looser. We should have had a better ending for that."
Armisen acknowledges IFC executives were more eager for new skits featuring the "Put a Bird On It" characters than he and Brownstein, but he is all too happy to put on a wig again to play half of the feminist bookstore co-workers.
"That's our favorite. We did four or five skits with them this year," he says. "We love it because the location is real. All we have to do is stand there, so it's all mental. You stand at the register and talk and talk and talk. It really is so much fun. Carrie is brilliant."
Yakima native Kyle MacLachlan returns for some episodes in season two as the mayor of Portland. New guest stars include Sean Hayes ("Will & Grace"), Miranda July ("Me and You and Everyone We Know"), Jack McBrayer ("30 Rock"), Mary Lynn Rajskub ("24"), Tim Robbins ("The Shawshank Redemption"), Kristen Wiig ("Bridesmaids") and music stars Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Johnny Marr (The Smiths), singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom and Annie Clark (St. Vincent).
Friday's season premiere, "Mixology," features multiple sketches, including a couple who want to pickle everything in sight and a recurring bit with guest star Andy Samberg ("Saturday Night Live").
Fans of "Battlestar Galactica" will get a kick out of a recurring sketch that's threaded through episode two: Armisen and Brownstein play a couple who have never seen "BSG" and get sucked into the series once they start watching it on DVD. That episode is called "One Moore Episode" after "BSG" creator Ron Moore.
To promote the show's return, Armisen and Brownstein embarked on a six-city, sold-out tour, which included a stop Wednesday at Seattle's Showbox at the Market. The "Portlandia" tour followed Brownstein's five-week fall tour in support of the first album from her new band, Wild Flag.
It was a shared interest in music that brought Brownstein and Armisen together as friends several years ago, so it's no surprise Armisen thinks there's an overlap between music fans and "Portlandia" viewers.
"It's something more than just hipsters," he says. "The age group is pretty big. It's not just people with tattoos and piercings; there are older people too. I think it's generally music fans. I think that's the link. A guy could be 60 or a kid who's 15, and I think they all like Nirvana and the Beatles and Fugazi and Stereolab and Sleater-Kinney."
Rob Owen: RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.
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