'Portlandia' promises to celebrate city's quirks

Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and the producers of "Portlandia" want to stress that the TV series, which has been filming in town for the past several weeks, won't be making fun of Portland.

Brownstein, who moved here in 2001 from Olympia, says there's no single, simple way to depict Portland.

The image that has taken hold in national media — of the city as terribly hip and creative — "even Portlanders find obnoxious," Brownstein says.

Since the announcement early last month that "Portlandia" — scheduled to debut in January on cable network IFC — would be based and shoot in Portland, locals have been wondering how our city will come off. Producers and stars of the show assure Portlanders it won't poke fun at the city or its people — and they also point out that, while it films here, locals will fill most of the production's job openings.

"Portlandia" features Armisen, Brownstein and guest stars satirizing such alternative-culture types as the owners of a feminist book store, a bike messenger, a punk-rock couple and an arty duo obsessed with putting little cutouts of birds on anything they lay their hands on. Each half-hour episode will consist of interwoven short films, with some characters recurring from week to week.

Armisen, best known as a "Saturday Night Live" cast member, and Brownstein, best known as a member of the critically acclaimed, now-dissolved band Sleater-Kinney, talked about "Portlandia," joined by producers Andrew Singer and Jonathan Krisel, also a writer and director of the series.

The show has its roots in a series of videos Armisen and Brownstein did under the name "Thunderant." After IFC announced the showh, some online commenters wrote that the series sounded like it would focus on "Portland stereotypes," and called the creators "trend-sucking hipsters."

But Singer and Krisel took pains to say no offense is intended. Portland will not be the butt of the jokes, Krisel says. Most of the time, these two (Armisen and Brownstein) are the butt of the joke and Portland gets the last laugh."

Armisen says "Portlandia" won't be limited to hipster images or to humor. "We don't even know if it's necessarily comedy," he says.

"I think my love for Portland and Carrie's love for Portland will definitely show through," Armisen said. "We don't really make fun of anything, and in sort of a crazy way we celebrate it."

David Cress, the Portland-based line producer, says he can't reveal the "Portlandia" budget but describes it as "pretty modest." He says most of the crew, from 40 to 50 people, are local. Beyond that, local extras and actors have been hired, and more than 100 local businesses have provided goods and services.

"We're just grateful that Portland's been so supportive of this kind of project," Brownstein said. "I feel like we're being cheered on. It's kind of like running a race and having a lot of people on the sidelines rooting for you."

Cress, who also worked on Gus Van Sant's most recent film, "Restless," and the local director's "Paranoid Park," says it's not surprising to see creative cable TV projects shooting in Portland. "A lot of the best creative (talent) now is migrating to television."

After lunch, the cast and crew head to a glass-blowing art gallery and workshop space in northwest Portland, to film a scene.

In the scene, Armisen, wearing a shaggy brown wig, talks about his character's artisanal glass light bulbs. Like most of "Portlandia," it's heavily improvised, as Armisen tries out various explanations of why the character, "Robert Wilson," is a light-bulb artisan.

His bulbs take six months to make, don't last very long, don't cast much light, and cost $68, Armisen says. He holds one up to the camera. "Isn't she a beauty?" he says. "I'm gonna call this one ... Rebecca."

The six episodes of "Portlandia" ordered so far will feature appearances by guest stars including Steve Buscemi, Heather Graham, Jason Sudeikis ("Saturday Night Live"), Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation") and Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the mayor of Portland. Portland Mayor Sam Adams has a small role in the first episode as the mayor's assistant.

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