What the hell happened at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last Friday night?
Ostensibly, a sold-out crowd saw something called “Portlandia: The Tour,” but that title doesn’t tell us much. Sure, it starred Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the creators and stars of IFC’s Portlandia. But it wasn’t a stage adaptation of an episode in the vein of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s “The Nightman Cometh” tour. Nor was it an all-new set of stories like those creepy Glee stadium blowouts. In fact, virtually none of the evening was fictional or in character, at all.
The very existence of the tour is baffling, in a way: what would it even mean to take something as subtle and strange as Portlandia on tour?
It didn’t mean doing a sketch show. Sure, the night kicked off with a pre-recorded video message from the dreamy Kyle McLachlan as the series’ fictional Portland mayor, urging politeness: “Throughout the show, ask your neighbor if it’s alright to clap or cheer.” And yes, we got a brief visit from Portlandia’s most memorable recurring characters, judgmental feminist bookstore owners Candace and Toni.
But for the most part, Carrie and Fred just hung out on an undressed stage, out of costume, chatting with each other and the audience. The only aspect that resembled the experience of watching Portlandia on TV was the fact that the house lights remained on throughout the affair — which, of course, only added to the surreal nature of it, because when does that ever happen at a rock club?
There was one delightful little quasi-sketch at the beginning, involving the duo reading texts from one another — which may or may not have been a reaction to their much-discussed habit of incessantly and intimately checking in via text, as revealed in a recent New Yorker profile. Fred’s were increasingly affectionate (“The smell of our meld-sweat bathes us as a unit”) while Carrie’s became more and more bloodless (“Dear sir or madam: of all the people I know, you are one of them. Generically yours, a citizen”).
The only other sketch-like bit came with Candace and Toni, who welcomed everyone to their “pop-up store” in Brooklyn. But after a few liberal-ribbing gags (Carrie’s black-maned Toni feared the phallic nature of a microphone — “I need you to change the shape of it,” she begged Candace), everything got odd again. They invited Hugh Cornwell, the 62-year-old former frontman of English rock outfit the Stranglers, up for an unironic “in-store” acoustic performance. Carrie and Fred made no effort to keep up the act, taking off their wigs and standing to the side, with Carrie reverently mouthing along to the lyrics.
And what are we to make of the other surprise guest, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys? He ambled out for a straightforward, conversational segment in which Carrie, Fred, and the crowd asked him about his favorite parts of New York. (Beasties fanboys: let it be known that Ad-Rock’s favorite Manhattan burger can be found at the Blarney Stone, near Madison Square Garden.)
Oddly enough, the biggest laughs of the night came during an earnest discussion of a slideshow. The duo projected photos from each other’s pasts and offered unscripted commentary. A school-dance photo of Carrie incited the loudest cheers. “This is the last time I wore a strapless gown, by the way,” she explained. “It’s a little bit ‘mother of the deceased.’”
One more thing: what kind of comedy show has a setup including four guitars, a synthesizer, a drumkit, and eight microphones? Full-band renditions of ditties from the show were sprinkled throughout the night, from Portlandia’s mission statement, “Dream of the 90s,” to a previously unseen ode to aimless friends, “She’s Making Jewelry Now.” Horovitz and Cornwell joined Fred and Carrie for a show-closing rendition of Stranglers staple “Hanging Around,” during which our emceeing duo seemed to be at their most blissful.
Honestly, of all the species of live event in the world, the show most resembled a comic-con press conference. The crowd got interactive early on, yelling catchphrases (“Cacao” seemed to be the fan favorite, although “put a bird on it” popped up repeatedly) and occasionally making everyone cringe (a shout of “Do you sleep together?” drew boos and a retort of “Don’t you wanna know?” from Fred).
But civility reigned during a long, open-ended Q&A, which delivered a number of behind-the-scenes tidbits. For example, sandpaper-throated Battlestar Galactica legend Edward James Olmos apparently gave an impromptu motivational speech during lunch at the shoot for his recent Portlandia cameo — although further details on the event were kept tantalizingly out of sight. And did you know that fellow surrealist culture-assailants Tim & Eric were an inspiration for Portlandia? “The first time I ever visited them at their studio is where I thought, ‘Oh, we gotta do something,’” Fred recalled. “The idea of having your own place really appealed to me.”
We also got to hear their thoughts on the cross-dressing weird sex of the aforementioned “Cacao.” “When I’m in drag, do I look like that actor, Justin Long?” Carrie asked nervously. To be honest, she does. No homo.
All night, she was a consummate indie rocker: ebullient, relaxed, and vaguely aloof. She’d crinkle her nose and look floorward when fans shouted their love — a cry that the best hotel in NYC is “wherever Carrie Brownstein’s staying” brought particular discomfort. But hey, how are you supposed to respond to something like that? And Fred was what he usually is: a relaxed, indecipherable sphinx, always treading the line between earnest speech and subtle assault on the way we all earnestly speak.
So, what was the show? Well, it was Fred and Carrie. With unrestrained access to television cameras, they create Portlandia. With unrestrained access to a stage, they create “Portlandia: The Tour.” The name isn’t really a reference to a location. “Portlandia” is like the name of a band or a comedy troupe — a unifying brand for the ideas of its creators. An easily explainable evening would’ve been a disappointment.
Images via Insider Images.