Is there a grand unified theory behind Portlandia’s comedy?

Orrin Konheim
5 min readAug 22, 2022

What’s most impressive about “Portlandia” in its fourth season is that the off-kilter sketch show has a fairly narrow focus and doesn’t show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season. Instead, the show has developed a very unique voice. Answering the question “What exactly is that voice and how does it make the show funny?” is the million dollar question.

The show can sometimes be striking in the way its sketches don’t always seem like they’re aiming for a punchline or even being comic. Take a couple sketches of the recent episode “Bahama Knights”: One sketch involves a group of women talking about how much they rock while their significant others start embellishing their praises of each other in more flowery language. The opening sketch of the episode involves a couple getting listless at a rock concert and feeling increasingly out of place. Each sketch has a punchline — In the former, the central couple don’t know any of the guests; in the latter, the couple wants to go to a concert again — but neither of them has anything joke-like in any conventional sense before the punch line. In a way, these sketches play like found art of amusing people. While a lot of the sketches are more overtly joke-like, these two sketches are a testament to the comedic style of the show: “Portlandia” is indisputably comic but the sketches don’t necessarily feel a need to start out (or even end up) in a comedic place. Often, the musical score will veer to a darker place to add ambiguity to whether what you’re watching is a comedic place or not.

If there’s something that can be called a grand unified theory as to the nature of Portlandia’s comedy, perhaps it is characters that are detrimentally self-conscious about being hip. That is, after all, the reputation of the city itself despite the misleading theme about how it’s a nostalgia factory for the 1990s.

This makes sense as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein both started out as musicians in a fringe music and likely lived in a world with constant pressure to be seen as cool. In interviews about his rock star days, Armisen often describes the period in his life in which he was a drummer for Trenchmouth as a failure, and it was his frustration with the punk rock scene that directly led to his start in comedy

Orrin Konheim

Freelance journalist w/professional bylines in 3 dozen publications, writing coach, google me. Patreon: http://www.patreon/com/okjournalist Twitter: okonh0wp