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Touring Portland As It Prepares For Its Moment In The Comedy Spotlight

Tonight, IFC premieres the sketch comedy show Portlandia, with Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen starring opposite Carrie Brownstein, who's a veteran of both the band Sleater-Kinney and the blog Monitor Mix, which she wrote for NPR Music. (The two have been making web videos for several years at the site ThunderAnt.) The show studies Portland, Ore., where Brownstein lives, through visits with its prototypes: the feminist bookstore owner, the bicyclist, the freegan, the origin-of-chickens enthusiast.

That's right: the origin-of-chickens enthusiast.

Ari Shapiro learned more about all these fictional (or are they?) folks during a tour of Portland — his own hometown — with Carrie Brownstein for a piece airing on Friday's Morning Edition.

The Best Of Monitor Mix: Check out the best of Carrie Brownstein's NPR Music blog, Monitor Mix, from how she learned to listen to Phish to the collision between rock music and beards.

They visited an independent bookstore called Reading Frenzy, where a volunteer shows them an issue of a zine called Moldy Soy. Reading Frenzy served as the model for Portlandia's sketch about a feminist bookstore where guest star Steve Buscemi can't seem to successfully buy a book.

What's next door to Reading Frenzy? Courier Coffee (naturally), where they deliver beans only within bicycling distance. (Really.) At Courier Coffee, Carrie and Ari find out that the guys working behind the counter have coffee tattoos — very, very serious coffee tattoos. Did you know there was a coffee-shop equivalent of the skull and crossbones? You will after you hear them explain it.

At another very real store called Tender Loving Empire, Carrie explains that she had a moment of realization in which it became clear to her that anything with a bird on it was transformed into art — which became Portlandia's "Put A Bird On It" sketch.

Lest you think this is an unsympathetic view of Portland, Carrie stresses that it isn't: "There's part of you that's cringing," she says of observing the local culture, "but at the same time, you wouldn't live anywhere else."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Portland, Oregon is ready for its close-up.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Tonight, the city gets its own sketch comedy TV show. It's called "Portlandia," on the Independent Film Channel. The program may extend the fame of Portland, which up to now, has been better known for its food, its music and, of course, as the hometown of NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: Near Carrie Brownstein's home in Portland, there is a locally owned, environmentally friendly pet store. Carrie shops there, but sometimes she feels a little judged.

Ms. CARRIE BROWNSTEIN (Actor/Comedy Writer): When you go in, we're selling lamb bones and meat, and you can even buy, like, a trachea. But then when you ask for a leather leash, they say: Oh, my gosh. We do not sell anything with leather. And I just think: How am I supposed to do this? Like, I just want to be a good person. Now I just want to go to PetSmart.

SHAPIRO: That, in a nutshell, is Portlandia. One sketch takes place in a restaurant, where the waitress tells Carrie and her co-star Fred Armisen about the chicken on the menu.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Portlandia")

Ms. JAIME LANGTON (Actor): (as Waitress) Woodland-raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts.

Mr. FRED ARMISEN (Actor, Comedy Writer): (as Fred) And this is local?

Ms. LANGTON: (as Waitress) Yes, absolutely.

Mr. ARMISEN: (as Fred) I'm going to ask you just one more time: Is it local?

Ms. LANGTON: (as Waitress) It is.

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: (as Carrie) Is that USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?

Ms. LANGTON: (as Waitress) It's just all across the board, organic.

Mr. ARMISEN: (as Fred) A hazelnut - these are local?

SHAPIRO: Fred Armisen is best known for playing President Obama on "Saturday Night Live." He and Carrie have been friends for years. They created a series of Web sketches that eventually spawned this show.

Carrie didn't have any TV experience. She was in the band Sleater-Kinney, and she once wrote a blog about music for npr.org. In making this show, she had the advantage of being local.

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: For me, it is an absolute love letter to Portland. I've tried to live elsewhere, and I can't. I always come back here.

SHAPIRO: I should mention that you, Carrie Brownstein, are sitting here in the interview wearing a plaid shirt.

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: I am. I actually took off a flannel shirt to come down here and be interviewed by you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: I asked Carrie to take me on a tour of my hometown, to places so emphatically Portland that they could translate almost verbatim to the show "Portlandia."

We walk to a tiny independent bookstore called Reading Frenzy. Andrea Deacon volunteers here.

Ms. ANDREA DEACON (Volunteer, Reading Frenzy): Pretty much, you know, the goal is to have things that are kind of hard to find at most, like mainstream, you know, bookstores, or things like that.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, what've you got there?

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: I have Issue Number Two of "Moldy Soy," which the burning question on the cover of this issue is: Is he still a vegan boy? It's a $2 zine.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wait. And I just have to say, the superhero with the V on the cover is saying: That time with the pizza was totally an accident. They said it was vegan cheese.

This bookstore was the model for one of the "Portlandia" sketches. Fred and Carrie play the owners of a feminist bookstore, concerned about everything except selling books. Actor Steve Buscemi makes a cameo as a customer who just wants to buy a book and leave.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Portlandia")

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): (as Customer) Do you want me to buy something now?

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: (as Carrie) Yes.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Customer) This is good, "She's No Lady."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMISEN: (as Fred) That's actually a series, so there's another 14, so you've got to subscribe.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Customer) Yeah, I just want this one.

Mr. ARMISEN: (as Fred) It's a series book, so those are...

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: (as Carrie) That's the thing. Book 13, you find out she is a lady. And it pains me to imagine you not knowing her journey.

SHAPIRO: It's a safe bet that next to almost any business in real or imaginary Portland, there is a coffee shop. Next door to Reading Frenzy is Courier Coffee.

(Soundbite of coffee grinders)

SHAPIRO: The owners roast sustainably harvested coffee beans in a garage. They use ceramic coffee cups that their friend made. The company only delivers beans within bicycling distance. It's easy to imagine one of Fred's characters from "Portlandia" stopping by.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Portlandia")

Mr. ARMISEN: (as Fred) Watch out: Bike, bike, bike, bike, bike. Cars, man. Why? I don't have a driver's license. I don't need it. I got a bike lane here. Hey, I get this whole lane. Ten-feet rule. Oregon state law, 10 feet. Hey birds, you guys have little bikes?

(Soundbite of a whistle)

SHAPIRO: The cyclists at Courier Coffee are not so intense. But they do have a specially-designed cargo bicycle that can carry 200 pounds of beans.

Tyler Hauptman and Ryan Donaldson are behind the bar. They roll up their sleeves to show their coffee tattoos.

Mr. TYLER HAUPTMAN (Employee, Courier Coffee): I have a cup and cross-spoons on my lower arm.

SHAPIRO: That's cup and crossed-spoons - like a skull and crossbones, but with a coffee theme.

Mr. HAUPTMAN: And then I have a French press surrounded by a coffee tree on my shoulder. Ryan has a port-a-filter.

Mr. RYAN DONALDSON (Employee, Courier Coffee): Mine is just a steaming port-a-filter on the back of my arm.

SHAPIRO: The port-a-filter is the handle thing people put in the espresso machines?

Mr. DONALDSON: Right, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Okay.

There is also a menu of pastries baked in-house.

Mr. HAUPTMAN: Holding true, there is one vegan on staff at Courier Coffee. And that's me. So we'll usually have one or two vegan things.

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Vegans have really benefitted from affirmative action here in Portland.

SHAPIRO: Just down the block from courier coffee is a shop called Tender Loving Empire. Every corner is crammed full of locally made art, music and clothing.

Carrie Brownstein says a little while ago, she had an epiphany about stores like this.

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: I realized that the shorthand for something being art was just to have a bird on it.

SHAPIRO: Here's how that theory translated to the show, "Portlandia."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Portlandia")

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: (as Lisa Eversman) What a sad little tote bag. I know, I'll put a bird on it. Did you see this bag before? I didn't. Now there's a bird. It's flying. It's free.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Back in the real Portland, we put Carrie's theory to the test.

Mr. ANDREW SLOAN (Minister of Creative Content, Tender Loving Empire): If I just sat here and talked about every single bird item, we would be here for an hour or two. So I'm just going to breeze through it.

SHAPIRO: At Tender Loving Empire, Andrew Sloan's business card says: Minister of Creative Content.

Mr. SLOAN: Here's two brass birds kissing in front of a cloud on a necklace. Here we have a tie with - looks like a sparrow chasing a worm. A little owl here. Here's a rooster. Here's two little lovebirds together there.

SHAPIRO: Can I just mention that the 10 things with birds on them that you've just named are in a one-square foot radius? We have not moved.

Mr. SLOAN: We haven't actually taken one step to our right or left. Could you help but notice the wings spanning from the center of that mythological cat?

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Even cats have to be birds in Portland in order to get any respect.

Mr. SLOAN: Everything I've seen about "Portlandia" is going to squash Portland. Like, you just watch that show, and you're just like no. Yes, but no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: I feel the same way, but I feel like that's what it's like to live here, a little bit. There's a part of you that's cringing, but at the same time you wouldn't live anywhere else.

SHAPIRO: The first episode of "Portlandia" airs tonight on IFC.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: We've got clips from "Portlandia" on the blog Monkey See at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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