A couple of years ago I was discussing Saturday Night Live castmembers with a friend, and I made the following observation: “Fred Armisen is that show’s weakest link.”
My friend vehemently disagreed, but I couldn’t be swayed. I thought Armisen’s impression of Barack Obama was mediocre. I disliked how his main schtick seemed to be staring bug-eyed into the camera after each joke. He’d been on the show longer than almost anyone else on the cast at that time, and it was time for him to go.
Turns out, I was an idiot. Well, half an idiot: it was time to Armisen to leave SNL and focus on other stuff. Like Portlandia.
Marking its Canadian fourth-season debut Monday on Super Channel – the show airs Thursdays on IFC in the U.S. – Portlandia is the brainchild of Armisen and musician/actress Carrie Brownstein, who together created this improvisation-heavy sketch comedy show centred around the culture and characters of Portland, Ore.
I originally discovered Portlandia on Netflix, and after devouring the first couple of seasons, I immediately regretted bagging on Armisen’s SNL presence. (And now the guy is the bandleader on Late Night with Seth Meyers, as if he doesn’t have enough outlets for his talents.)
Armisen and Brownstein have incredible comedic chemistry, and the show’s parade of quirky characters – from feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace to artisan entrepreneurs Bryce and Lisa to clueless outdoor enthusiasts Dave and Cath – are quite unlike anything else in TV comedy.
(Being the slightly dim person that I am, I also didn’t realize Brownstein wasn’t originally an actress by trade. “Wait, you mean that’s one of the women from the band Sleater-Kinney? What the hell? How did I not know that?”)
While I’m sure the people of Portland get a unique kick out of the show, which is shot and set in their city, the characters common enough – or sometimes, just surreal enough – to have universal appeal. Except Portlandia doesn’t have universal appeal, not really.
And that’s part of its charm. “Keep Portland weird” appears on a sign during the show’s opening title segment, and the same applies to Portlandia itself. Sometimes it’s really funny. Sometimes it’s just silly. Usually it’s gentle, except when it’s catty.
Monday’s Season 4 premiere maintains that flavour, with Kirsten Dunst guest-starring in a segment about a girl haunted by a couple (Armisen and Brownstein) who died of confusion, not knowing if things were good or bad for them.
Economically imbalanced couple Doug and Claire provide the through-line for the episode, which is peppered with skits about a woman who falls in love with a computer that writes motivational signs, a fact-checker who verifies claims made on first dates and a couple who make the most of their 15 minutes of free parking.
In next week’s episode, bookstore owners Toni and Candace put on a fundraising car wash, Carrie tries to educate Fred about hip-hop, guest star Olivia Wilde is an underachieving eco-terrorist and so forth.
Although it’s produced by Saturday Night Live maestro Lorne Michaels, Portlandia is an odd, intelligent and unique show, mainly because its stars are so good at what they do. As for Armisen in particular... well, SNL’s loss is our gain. And never again shall I dis him.