Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Portlandia


Although the tone of this blog tends to be serious, I have a sense of humor and also enjoy good comedy. The problem is that I rarely find comedic films or plays funny at all, and I've never followed stand-up comedy. There is written comedy, and I used to like reading David Sedaris, but I eventually tired of him. Most of the comedy I've come across has been in film or TV. I liked Woody Allen's Annie Hall, a romantic comedy, but think that comedy in that format is too restricted to be of much interest. I have never thought much of Monty Python, and generally dislike British humor. An exception is A Fish Called Wanda, which is probably my favorite comedy, but it wouldn't have been the same without Americans Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline. Another comedy I liked was Animal House. Fargo was funny, and perhaps the best Coen brothers film, though technically it is a "dark comedy crime thriller." There is also the category of black comedies, which aren't necessarily funny if you think about them, and my favorite there is Dr. Strangelove.

I used to watch Saturday Night Live regularly in the 1970's. It declined significantly in quality from 1980 to 1984, when producer Lorne Michaels was gone, and I stopped watching it then. It picked up again in 1985 when Michaels returned. Shows were inconsistent but often good up until about 1990. I watched it erratically up until about 2000 and have hardly seen it since. I've tried a few times and have always found it abysmally unfunny. However, over the years they've had quite a lot of talent on the show. I'd say my favorites have been Bill Murray, Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman.

In 2010, former Saturday Night Live member Fred Armisen teamed up with Carrie Brownstein for the filming of the first season of Portlandia. It follows a format similar to that of Saturday Night Live, and Lorne Michaels is one of the producers, but it isn't shot in front of a live audience and is filmed around Portland, Oregon. Armisen and Brownstein play a variety of characters in short skits that are sometimes broken up and shown as parts of a single episode. Generally speaking, it is a satire of trendy people who theoretically live in Portland. Portland does have its appeals. It was on my shortlist for retirement locations but in the end lost to rural New England college towns for a number of reasons. In any case, Armisen and Brownstein are incredibly creative by TV standards.

One thing that usually seems missing in American media is social satire. I think it is more common in other countries. Some of the best satire is produced under oppressive regimes, such as the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. For whatever reason, there is a deeply embedded blandness to American culture, and, especially when combined with another powerful force, political correctness, people here find it difficult to voice criticism or otherwise question the choices and behaviors of those around them, no matter how absurd. Portlandia offers empathetic satire, and it is always humorous while still doing a good job at bringing out the oddness, irresponsibility and stupidity of the lifestyle choices that trendy people often make, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

Although it started with a low budget, after four seasons it has drawn a lot of attention and is now popular with Hollywood insiders. The budget for the fourth year seems much larger, and there are increasing cameos by celebrities. I find the best segments to be among the funniest I've ever seen. I'm not sure whether these links will always work, because the posts may not be legal, but my favorite segment is Art Project, from the third season. I've started season four and found the Social Bankruptcy segment quite amusing; note that it contains a reference to Lorrie Moore. Another thing that distinguishes their better work is an almost philosophical look at modern life. As with any TV production there are duds, but generally I am pleased with the quality up until this year.

Update, November 29, 2014. I've now seen all of season four, and overall it is quite bad. I'm not sure why it has changed for the worse, but it certainly isn't funny. The best episodes tend to be at the beginning of each season.

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