Why ‘Portlandia’ Was the Best Comedy of the 2011-2012 Season

Wrapping up this season, we asked some of our contributors to write about some of their favorite comedies that have aired since the fall. Instead of handing out accolades to just one show, we’re looking at a number of shows that all deserve to be called the best comedy of the season.

So many shows try to be quirky and offbeat, but Portlandia does it right by looking deeply into the desperate need people have to think they’re different, slightly better, ever-striving to stay contemporary, and gradually losing it the harder they try. When it comes to naming the best show this season, I can’t resist rooting for this IFC underdog. Season two brought back favorites like the Feminist Bookstore ladies, hardcore “so over” bicycle rider Spyke, and Portland mayor Kyle MacLachan, but it also introduced a whole new set of weird, adorable, and pretentious couples and characters. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s friendship translates into all of their scenes so well that even their most biting parodies still come with a side of love, and their mix of rock and comedy star sensibilities results in sketches that are as cynical as they are admiring of their targets. Here are four reasons why I think Portlandia rocked it this year:

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The Guest List

Portlandia might like to roll under the radar, but that didn’t stop it from featuring plenty of guest stars this season: Andy Samberg was the hunky bartender in “Mixology,” Kristen Wiig was the local band Cat Nap fanatic Gathy, Sean Hayes was a dealer of intentionally bad art in “Cops Redesign,” and Ed Begley Jr. was a drug store owner-turned-aspiring brunch hotspot creator in “Brunch Village.” A steady stream of musician cameos continued from last season as well — this year we got appearances from Eddie Vedder (and a tattoo version), Isaac Brock, Joanna Newsom, Miranda July, Robin Pecknold, St. Vincent, and more. Toss all that in with the more unpredictable guests like Tim Robbins, Ron Moore, Penny Marshall, Amber Tamblyn, Portland NBA star LaMarcus Aldrige, and Jackass’ Ehren McGhehey on a motorcycle, and it’s safe to say that there’s a cameo for every kind of viewer in Northwest 90s land. Kyle MacLachlan especially nailed it as the mayor this season with his ridiculous Portland a cappella anthem performance in “No Olympics”My city, my Portland!

Truth in Comedy

There’s this great Frank Lloyd Wright quote that goes, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” That’s the path Fred and Carrie have chosen with Portlandia — there’s no need to exaggerate when their cultural targets are already self-caricatures. Chances are that if you’re a regular Portlandia viewer, there’s been at least one scene that might have stung a little more than it tickled. Whether you’re a Pitchfork devotee, Kickstarter musician, new parent, sensitive feminist, thrift store frequenter, victim of a dropped iPhone, or most of all, a real-life Portland resident, this show sometimes hits too close to home. Fred and Carrie have both rejected the existence of the words “hipster” and “skewer” and prefer to base characters off themselves and real people they know, so it’s no surprise that some of Portlandia’s most memorable moments exist more in reality than parody: Women and Women First is a real feminist bookstore called In Other Words, the “Two Girls, Two Shorts” sketch from “Motorcycle” was filmed in a Portland boutique called Stand Up Comedy (ha!), and even Fred’s bizarre yet hilarious interpretive canoe dance in “No Olympics” is pretty much a literal depiction of a very real outdoor activity called “freestyle canoeing.”

Ellen Bloodworth

Adorable little old lady Ellen Bloodworth, who called out Fred on his hide-and-seek club last year, returned this season to play his babysitter in “Motorcycle” while Carrie goes to “work dinner” without her infantilized boyfriend. Not only is Bloodworth a local Portland actress, but before Portlandia she was a relatively undiscovered Second City performer who worked with Nichols and May. And as cute and smirk-worthy as she is on the show, she’s also an authentic flower child herself: “I lived the hippie life,” she told Oregon Live. “I was part of a food collective. I’m probably the weirdest of all my friends. I’m just here to embarrass my children.” Bloodworth also has an Academy Award tattoo on her arm and — do I really have to go on?

The Fred and Carrie Magic

If you ask me, Armisen and Brownstein easily have the funniest, most ambitious, and most eloquent and believable comic rapport of any comedy duo on television this season. Not only do they each bring their own perspective to the world of Northwest hipsterdom, but it’s clear that they’re just two real-life best friends who like to make funny things, whether it’s posting a handful of homemade videos online or getting a hit IFC series, book deal, and Peabody Award thanks to their cast of pretentious but lovable weirdos. Their comfortably platonic chemistry allows them to dip into the absurd, like when they gender-flop with Lance and Nina with Fred taking on the more sensitive girlfriend role and Carrie as the disturbingly low-voiced, low-maintenance boyfriend, but no matter how bizarre the situation, it’s as much of a loving tribute of cliches and stereotypes — that they might even be a little guilty of themselves — as it is satire. Fred has such an expertise for pinpointing all the absurdities in human interaction — see his bro talk with Andy Samberg in “Mixology” or his cheesy runway gawking in “Cops Redesign” (“Hands Up? I don’t think so, it’s hands down…the best“) — while Carrie knows the terrain and can rock that flat monotone of the Daria at the co-op generation like few before her and lead Fred along as her subservient lackey, like as Lance and Nina, the uptight hyper-parental music snobs Brendan and Michelle, or even the exclusionary feminists Toni and Candace at Women and Women First, on whom I can always depend for a few trigger-defensive bookstore outbursts (“This is no longer a safe space for women!!”). So as long as Fred and Carrie stay friends, Portlandia will continue to be an awesomely unexpected, funny, and innovative show.

Why ‘Portlandia’ Was the Best Comedy of the 2011-2012 […]