PORTLAND, Ore. -- Take after take, Fred Armisen improvises his dialogue for a scene in the new IFC cable series Portlandia, a send-up of Pacific Northwest culture. It's early September, 2010, and Armisen, best known for playing President Obama on Saturday Night Live, sits in Elements Glass, Inc., a working glass studio, playing an artisanal-light-bulb maker.
"It takes six months to make each light bulb. They're $68 each and burn out after a couple of days," he says, in character. "They explode once in a while, so you have to be wary of that, but you'll get used to it."
Folks who live in the Portland area will laugh at the notion. Portland is known for artisanal this and artisanal that. It's a crunchy, eco-friendly city whose residents may sometimes take themselves too seriously.
Portlandia, which premieres at 10:30 p.m. Friday on IFC (Buckeye CableSystem Channel 218) takes this regional humor and broadcasts it nationally.
On the set in September, Armisen comes up with different dialogue for each take.
"'Easy' is so overrated," he says of most Americans' experiences with light bulbs. "A little bit of difficulty makes you appreciate the good things in life. … When you want a burger, do you go to McDonald's? No, you go to your own artisan-burger shop."
Each Portlandia sketch has an outline, but takes are improvised with producers filming four times as much footage as they can use in each episode.
Armisen stars in Portlandia with Carrie Brownstein, best known as co-founder of the now-disbanded indie rock band Sleater-Kinney. She and Armisen, also a musician, became friends in 2005 and began making web videos at Thunderant.com a few years ago. Armisen enlisted his SNL boss, Lorne Michaels, who also serves as an executive producer on Portlandia, and an SNL writer, Jonathan Krisel, who serves as the co-creator/co-writer/director of Portlandia, which had a guerrilla-style 23-day shoot in and around Portland last summer.
"There's not a singular way Portland is," Brownstein said. "The way it's portrayed in the media is more artisan, and plenty of people in Portland have adopted that, but there's also a reaction against it so that all the things people find precious, even some Portlanders find obnoxious. It's easy to skewer and talk about all the different elements."
Six episodes have been produced, featuring co-op workers, trash-bin-diving "freegans" (people who live for free off what they find in the bins), and a yuppie couple who insist on learning all about the free-range chicken they prepare to consume at an upscale restaurant.
"We just use what's around us," Armisen said. "Carrie had the observation that the most current form of art is putting birds on things. Go to any store [here] and there are bird drawings or emblems on things," he said. That became the sketch Put a Bird on It, featured in the show's second episode. It ends in hilarious disaster.
IFC series are shot on a low budget, even by basic-cable standards. Armisen and Brownstein are the only series regulars in the program, playing multiple characters, including versions of themselves. Guest stars include Heather Graham (Drugstore Cowboy), Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Jason Sudekis (SNL), and Kyle MacLachlan as the Seattle-hating mayor of Portland with real Portland Mayor Sam Adams as his assistant.
Krisel said the goal is not to mock Portland but to communicate a love for the city that Brownstein has called home since 2001 and that Armisen visits regularly.
"It should feel as celebratory as it is satirical. It's not meant to make fun of Portland. Most of the time, these two are the butt of the joke," Krisel said, gesturing at the show's stars.
But Portlandia does make fun -- affectionate fun -- of Portlanders, particularly in a music video that launches the series. "The Dream of the '90s is Alive in Portland" paints Portland as a liberal nirvana where George W. Bush was never elected president and "young people go to retire."
"IFC was the perfect fit," Portlandia producer Krisel said. "This isn't trying to be a network show. It's a different sensibility. It's not going to be for everybody and they've given us a lot of freedom to go off the rails."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen writes for the Post-Gazette.
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