Portlandia is a show that works almost as a series of inside jokes. The sketches are all knowing winks to the audience about the culture they presumably know all about, in which your friend has begun pickling everything and people can “put a bird on anything and call it art.” But it also works because Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are the kind of people who you’d like to share an inside joke with. Both are unquestionably cool in their own right, but it’s their friendship, both on and off television, that’s an equally compelling force behind their television success. In interviews and on the show, they seem like two BFFs having fun as much as professionals with a television show, riffing off each other and cracking wise. But not all twosomes translate as well off the HDTV screen, so it’s a relief that the Portlandia live show, which wrapped up its first leg in New York this weekend, shows the friends to be every bit as fun as they seem. After the jump, the best moments from the show at The Bowery Ballroom, plus what Armisen and Brownstein had to say about spirit animals, overanalyzing text messages, and a possible Portlandia movie.
The Portlandia live show could also have been name Carrie and Fred’s Variety Hour, a mixture of little spoken pieces by Brownstein and Armisten, clips from the second season of the TV series, and musical performances. Things kicked off with a video introduction from Kyle McLachlan, who plays the mayor on the show, reminding the audience to be courteous and have fun. “Ask your neighbor if it’s all right to clap.” Each of the shows included different special guests — in LA, Aubrey Plaza joined the team, and in Chicago, Tavi Gevinson took a turn on stage. One of New York’s treats was to have Kyle McLachlan show up in the flesh, outfitted with a Rasta hat and a bass, apparently fresh off a gig with his reggae band.
Brownstein and Armisen’s stage patter formed the basis of the show, some of it referencing moments from the series (as when Brownstein entered from the middle of the audience, calling “A-O River”) and some of it playing on their friendship. One early bit involved the text messages they had sent back and forth to each other before the show, Armisen’s becoming more and more gooey, weird and affectionate, culminating with a poem that began with the instructions “to be read in an Old English accent.” Brownstein’s reply: “Dear Sir or Madam: Of all the people I know, you are one of them. Generally Yours, A Citizen.”
Armisen, displaying his chops from years at Saturday Night Live, shone when he interacted with the crowd. At one point he affectionately silenced an audience member on the topic of them both being from Long Island. “Just admit it, though, it’s a little embarrassing.” He also offered his reasoning behind the name Manhattan. “See, there was a man, he had a hat. And he was like… I’m pretty tan.” Brownstein was a little more reticent, but managed to get in some good lines as well. “Coming from Portland to Brooklyn is like going from one lukewarm bath to another lukewarm bath.” And, on the subject of the “Cacao” sketch: “people tell me, and I agree, that I look like Justin Long [when I'm] in drag.”
Things got really adorable when Armisen and Brownstein presented a slideshow of photos they found on each other’s computers. Brownstein showcased a poem she had written for her mother that referenced how much she loved Wham! and Madonna, and an unquestionably 1990s prom picture. Armisen had a series of photos in Long Island punk gear with a mohawk. “See the tucked in shirt? That’s how you know it’s Long Island.” he joked.
In an audience Q&A section, the duo mused on the future of the show. Brownstein would love to have Werner Herzog guest star (yes, please!) and Armisen has his sights set on Tom Hulce. According to Armisen, Portlandia might become a movie, too, but they’ll both quit before getting too cynical. “There’s a great amount of underlying affection for these characters. They’re basically us.” Oh, and in case you were wondering, if they were animals, Armisen would be a shark and Brownstein would be a giraffe.
Not surprisingly, Brownstein was at her best in the musical segments of the evening. The duo performed the show’s signature song, “The Dream of the ’90s is Alive in Portland,” plus a couple more songs from the second season, including one called “She’s Making Jewelry Now,” prompting a discussion on the awkwardness of bad homemade jewelry. An updated version of a feminist bookstore sketch featured an “in-store performance” from St. Vincent, who sang a version of Pearl Jam’s “Black.” Armisen also recruited one of his childhood heroes, Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers, to play a few songs. In the grand finale, Brownstein, Armisen, and St. Vincent joined Cornwell to play a couple of songs. It was a reminder of what makes Portlandia great: the scenes that the two of them poke fun at are ones that they are obviously immersed in. You could easily see a show like this one being skewered on Portlandia, pickling demonstration or no. But it didn’t make it any less fun.