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Fear not, Portlandia will poke gentle fun

Is new IFC show good for city's image? It's better than a terrorist
by: Courtesy of IFC Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, Portland resident and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney, create art when they “put a bird on it” during an episode of their new IFC series “Portlandia.”

Let's get this out of the way first: Carrie Brownstein wants everyone in Portland to know that the new IFC television series, 'Portlandia,' isn't making fun of her adopted city.

That's a big misunderstanding, says the Sleater-Kinney guitarist, who co-stars in the six-episode series that pokes loving fun at the Rose City's foibles, odd lifestyles and idiosyncrasies. It skewers many aspects of Portland life, from the city's free-range-eat-local-organic-food push (diners want to know if the chicken they're about to order had a fruitful life), to its niche and boutique shops (a reluctant customer is trapped in a feminist bookstore), mining all of it for laughs.

'That's probably the biggest misconception about the show,' Brownstein says. 'We're not making fun of the city. I have a real affection for Portland. It's really a love letter to Portland.'

'Portlandia' begins Jan. 21 on IFC at 10:30 p.m. A special screening of the show - with a very unPortland-like walk along the red carpet - is planned at 8 p.m. Friday at the Hollywood Theater, 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. It features Brownstein and director Jonathan Krisel, who will answer questions after the show.

The series was written with Brownstein's friend and co-star, Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen. It grew out of video segments they created for their own sketch comedy Web venture, ThunderAnt. It was a kind of 'Funny Or Die' Web shtick based on characters and situations Brownstein saw while living the past decade in Portland.

Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video is the executive producer.

Brownstein, 36, and Armisen, 44, met in New York City several years ago when Brownstein was playing a gig with Sleater-Kinney. Through mutual friends (Armisen played drums in Chicago's late-'90s punk band Trenchmouth, and Brownstein was a fan of the group), the two met during a taping of SNL and she was impressed with his television work.

'When I met him, he was wearing a button with my face on it,' Brownstein says of Armisen. 'I was a fan of his band and he was a big fan of Sleater-Kinney, but I didn't know anything about his work on Saturday Night Live.'

Brownstein lives in Portland's Grant Park neighborhood. The Redmond, Wash., native moved to the city in 2000, three years after graduating from Olympia's Evergreen State College. In the past few years, Long Island, N.Y., native Armisen has been a frequent visitor to the city, taking in all the oddball sights and experiences.

From there, using some of the characters they created through their ThunderAnt bits, the two spent four days filming the first 'Portlandia' episode, pitching it to IFC. Once the cable network picked up the show, they hustled to complete the other five episodes in 21 days.

'It was kind of a fast process,' she says.

Cue the oddballs

If there's a theme to the show, Brownstein says, it's that Portland has a few oddities that have long disappeared in other places. That should help people outside the city relate to the weird characters and wacky 'Twin Peaks' atmosphere of the Northwest portrayed by 'Portlandia,' she says.

'I think there's a lot of Portland in other states,' Brownstein says. 'It's a real dreamlike, magical city. That goes along with loving a place, and the things that are sort of weird about it.'

As the show opens, Armisen sets the stage for the oddballness to come:

Fred: Do you remember the '90s? People were talking about getting piercings and getting tribal tattoos. People were singing about saving the planet and forming bands. There's a place where that idea still exists as a reality and I've been there.

Carrie: Where?

Fred: Portland.

In fact, the series' opening song describes Portland as 'a city where young people go to retire.' Another song written by Brownstein and Armisen for a kooky mayor played by Kyle MacLachlan (with real Mayor Sam Adams as his aide), hails the city's 'underemployed coffee drinkers, vintage clothing and forward-thinkers.'

Is that a good image for the Rose City? You betcha.

'I think it will actually have a good impact,' says David Schargel, president of Portland Walking Tours, whose guides have already discussed the show with several out-of-town visitors. 'From the standpoint that it would expose Portland to people outside of Seattle or San Francisco, that's a good thing.

'I think it's better than the guy who tried to take out the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony (suspected terrorist Mohamed Osman Mohamud). It's much better than that.'

Jeff Miller, president of Travel Portland, has seen snippets of the show on the Web and thinks it will be 'fine for the city.'

'Getting the name out there really causes some people to investigate further,' Miller says. 'They might like what they see.'

Will everyone in Portland like what they see? Probably not, Brownstein says. But she hopes people across the city, and the country, can relate in some way to the characters.

'A lot of the underlying themes are universal,' she says. 'A lot of the characters on the show are either making up the rules or trying to follow the rules. There's that feeling that they're trying to do good in the best way they know how.'