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Who Needs Snark When You Have Good Satire? Portlandia: The Tour

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 20, 2012 5:00PM

When Portlandia debuted exactly one year ago with its shoestring budget and home on a specialty cable channel, the show's quick rise to cult-status favorite was pretty predictable. The bigger surprise - evident during the sold out Chicago stop of "Portlandia: The Tour" Wednesday night - was how adeptly the show walks the sometimes-blurry line between satire and cynicism.

The two hour variety show packed in live sketches, previews of Portlandia's second season, musical numbers and a few free-form breaks where the stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein could riff on their guests or the audience. The show was wisely short on "Chicago vs Portland" comparisons, but peppered in a few local references for good measure (during the Chicago rendition of "Dream of the '90s," Armisen plucked the deerstalker hat off Brownstein's head and opined "too 'Wicker Park'").

Though Armisen hasn't lived here since the '90s, guests Spencer and Sammy Tweedy, Tavi Gevinson and Sally Timms helped bolster the show's Chicago connection.

Armisen and Brownstein enlisted the three teenagers as guides, asking them to share what's au courant in Chicago with regard to music venues (the 16 year-old Spencer said "Lounge Ax!" because of course he would), hot dogs and neighborhoods. When Brownstein asked the trio to name the best place to live in Chicago, their earnest and unintentionally funny reply: "we don't know street names yet."

"Remember that luxury?" Brownstein said.

The elder Tweedy was the most fun of show's guests, trading witty barbs with the adults before Armisen went on a fake tirade against Wilco. And while there was no surprise appearance by the Wilco frontman, the two stars shared the stage with Timms (current singer for The Mekons and Armisen's ex-wife) for a single number. Timms's cameo added a nice counterbalance to the more jocular Portlandia numbers, giving the show a few meatier musical performances that were still fun but less focused on parody. And though it might not have matched the intensity of a Wild Flag performance, Brownstein's guitar chops gave even the joke songs a certain ferocity that had to be taken seriously.

It was equally fun to see Armisen flexing his musical muscles since we normally only get to see him stage vamp with a guitar for SNL sketches. Armisen's punk rock days predate us, but we had a taste of it when his former Trenchmouth bandmade Damon Locks (now of The Eternals) materialized for the show-closer, a blistering cover of "London Calling."

The sketches, meanwhile, were a mix of "good" and "better" send ups related less to Portland itself and more to the crunchy, alterna-slacker ethos the city embodies. Nothing fell completely flat, but not everything matched the brilliance of "The Dream of the (18)90s" or the effortless hilarity of Brownstein and Armisen's personal "get to know you" slideshows.

In the former, the duo re-makes the song to show how Portland (though really it could be any urban-centric creative class) has more in common with the 1890s than even the 1990s. The images of mustachioed men chipping their own ice, locals butchering farm-raised meats and denizens scooting around on high-wheeler bikes probably hit close to home for a few in the crowd, but the treatment was never condescending.

To that end, the lack of smugness is what made Portlandia: The Show truly excellent. Armisen and Brownstein didn't look down their noses as arbiters of cool, dissing the owl-loving Etsy crowd as lame. Rather, the two riff the fun and absurd that tends to surface when people are passionate about something - be it locavore eating, technology, decorating with birds or Battlestar Galactica.

Brownstein and Armisen's personal slideshows proved they understand that they themselves are plenty mockable. And while Armisen's weak (and eventually successful) attempts at being punk and Carrie's bad fashion choices were fun to laugh at, it was nice to see the two be real: sharing photos of people they admire, special memories and the story of how the pair became real-life friends.

In the Q&A portion of the show, both stars willfully admitted that in most cases, the characters they spoof on Portlandia are really thinly-veiled versions of themselves. Brownstein lost count of how many articles she owns with birds on them, while Armisen says that he has some of the "angry bike guy" in him.

After the show, we asked Armisen about navigating the all-too-common comedy sand traps of mean-spiritedness, mockery and smarm. During the Q&A, an audience member mistakenly referred to Brownstein's band as "Black Flag" (it's Wild Flag), setting off a ripple of whispers and smirks. Brownstein gamely jumped in and said she'd "love to play with Black Flag!" while Armisen encouraged the man to not be embarrassed.

"There's really no reason to be mean," Armisen said. "People are nervous enough as it is. You could even tell [during the Q&A] that people were hesitating. We want to make it easy for people to talk and have fun."

Together, Brownstein and Armisen make a great team with plenty of musical and comedic chops between them. Their ability to spoof ideas and personas in Portlandia without devolving into a disingenuous snark fest-that was perhaps their most impressive skill on display Wednesday night.