“Portlandia” and the Sad Hilarity of the Aging Hipster


In a sketch from the first episode of Portlandia’s current season, Fred Armisen plays Spyke, an aging punk rocker with stretched ears and a goatee, who seizes on the dismal political climate as an excuse to get his old band, Riot Spray, back together. For the bit, Armisen enlists a trifecta of indie stars of the Eighties and Nineties, who play Spyke’s friends and former bandmates: Henry Rollins, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty. They reunite in Spyke’s basement to rehearse Riot Spray’s defiant single, “I Refuse” (“You wear a blindfold but complain that you can’t see/You pin the tail on the donkey or does the tail get pinned on me?”). They might be a little rusty, but as Spyke insists, “What matters is getting our message to the government.”

By the end of the episode, fed up with America’s corrupt regime, Spyke has reached the Canadian border, where he pleads his case to a sympathetic guard who eventually coaxes the truth out of him: He’s not mad at the government; he’s mad at his friends. “They turned old in a way that we were against originally,” Spyke explains. “They went to their houses and their decks and their cars — I mean, we wanted to smash the system!” Finally, Spyke admits, the person he really hates is himself. He turns around and heads back home.

That kind of left-y self-loathing defines the comedy of Portlandia, which is halfway through its eighth and final season on IFC. Created in 2011 by Armisen, while he was still a cast member on Saturday Night Live, and his friend Carrie Brownstein, whose band Sleater-Kinney was on hiatus at the time (director Jonathan Krisel is also a co-creator), Portlandia captures the slightly sheepish, somewhat smug attitude of the aging hipster as only an aging hipster can. Full of absurdist commentary on “the way we live now” — this season features a parody ad for a tech start-up that claims to have hacked the humble sandwich by replacing it with the much sleeker “chicken sprinkler” — the show targets its own audience, lampooning the hipper-than-thou, infamously twee inhabitants of its title city and beyond.

For Armisen, Portlandia is an opportunity to take aim at what appears to be his favorite subject of ridicule: artists and their endearingly self-indulgent habits. That’s also the topic of his new Netflix special, Standup for Drummers, which was released last week and which is, quite literally, a stand-up set delivered in front of an audience made up of fellow drummers. (Armisen played drums in the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth, after he dropped out of art school and before he started performing as a comedian. He’s long mixed music and comedy; he used to do his SNL character Fericito, a Venezuelan nightclub singer, at Chicago rock shows before he was cast on the show.) At one point in the Netflix special, moving behind a drum kit onstage to demonstrate impressions of famous drummers, Armisen quips, “The weird thing about being a drummer is the pathway behind the high hat. Where do we go?” Later, he admonishes the practice of lightly dinging the cymbal at the end of a ballad: “Why? Leave it. Leave the song alone. It’s great! It ended already!”

Standup for Drummers relies on the almost ridiculous specificity of its humor; you don’t have to play the drums to appreciate it, but the number of viewers who can relate to the frustration of tipping over a high-hat stand as you make your way behind a drum kit is, well, limited. Still, as on Portlandia, Armisen takes material that appears so particular as to be alienating and turns it into surprisingly accessible comedy. Midway through, he brings out singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen on acoustic guitar to accompany him for a parody of the typical NPR live performance of a folk-y, fingerpicked tune (instead of sticks, he uses a mallet and a maraca); in a purring, Feist-like voice, Nguyen coos, “A window by the porch/A faded mirror in the vestibule.” Standup for Drummers contains plenty of jokes that have nothing to do with music; in one memorable bit, Armisen, pointing at a map of the U.S., takes the viewer on a state-by-state tour of the country’s varying accents. But at its best, the special showcases Armisen as a kind of crossover star, an embodiment of the cultural intersection between music and comedy.

For obvious reasons, Portlandia sits at that same intersection. Armisen’s co-star and co-creator is an indie rock icon, and over the years, an entire festival’s worth of rock stars have appeared on the show, either in character or as themselves: Annie Clark, Eddie Vedder, Steve Jones, Aimee Mann, Johnny Marr, and Sleater-Kinney’s own Corin Tucker are just a handful. Given its mission to relentlessly interrogate the minutiae of the coastal hip lifestyle (“Put a bird on it!,” “We can pickle that!”), the show’s position in between the cultural spheres of music and comedy is entirely appropriate.

Both Armisen, 51, and Brownstein, 43, have talked about how discovering certain bands and musicians in their youth gave them a sense of purpose and identity; in a New Yorker profile from 2012, Brownstein remarks, “You can never underestimate that moment of somebody explaining your life to you, something you thought was inexplicable, through music. That was the way out of loneliness.” With the rise of “alternative comedy” in the 1990s and early 2000s, coupled with the advent of the internet and streaming video in particular, sketch comedy came to function similarly: as a dispatch sent from various pockets of hip out into the wider world, where a lonely kid with a weird sense of humor might discover that he’s not so alone after all.

Of course, that lonely kid will eventually learn what Brownstein’s and Armisen’s Portlandia characters so often do — that by the time you can confidently claim for yourself the label of “cool,” you’ll probably realize it no longer matters. There are bills to pay. Your wife’s pregnant. Your roof is leaking. Cultural capital matters both more and less in a world where actual capital is derived from how cool you are; if you’re an Instagram influencer, great. But if the commercial world wants nothing to do with your particular brand of cool, or vice versa, you might as well get comfy: In the opening sketch of the final season, Armisen and Brownstein play a couple with a baby who dream of giving up their home for the #vanlife. While Armisen’s character imagines the family running through sepia-toned fields of wheat, free at last, Brownstein pictures gas station hot dogs heated over a trash can fire. Finally, she proposes, “Let’s just get a new condo where everything’s really clean and sterile.”

In one scene from last week’s episode, a yuppie couple (Armisen and Brownstein, duh) simply cannot wait the twelve hours until their favorite meal: breakfast. “Steel-cut Irish oatmeal with a little maple syrup,” she giddily suggests. “We can have coffee with almond milk,” he responds. “Rye toast or wheat toast or sourdough,” she lists, overwhelmed by the possibilities. They go to sleep; they can’t sleep. They wake up and prepare the meal so it’s ready as soon as the morning light hits. When the time finally comes, the camera lingers in slo-mo over the food in their sun-soaked kitchen: Golden orange juice raining down into dainty glasses, glistening berries being tossed in a sieve, steaming coffee cascading into a ceramic mug. It’s a funny bit on the mundane pleasures of middle age. But I have to admit, that breakfast looked good.

Portlandia airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on IFC.