By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES — When Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live” and musician Carrie Brownstein found themselves with time and creativity on their hands, the longtime friends decided to conspire on a few videos.
“Our goal wasn’t to be funny, just to make these odd little pieces,” Armisen said. It was the two of them, a cameraman and no particular expectations.
“Then some ambition did start to creep in,” Armisen recalled. “We said, `Wait a minute, this has the elements of what a TV show would be,’” Armisen recalled.
The result is “Portlandia,” the IFC series that’s in its second season (10 p.m. EST Fridays). It’s a collection of sketches set in a partly real, partly mythic version of Portland that stands in for a certain mindset and community.
Think of “a cool, weird book store” and a record shop, a restaurant with “really, really good seafood” and a movie theater dedicated to indie films, suggests Armisen.
With that backdrop, and with its stars taking on a variety of roles (and sometimes wigs), “Portlandia” sends up city life, pop culture, success-oriented parenting and slivers of obsessive behavior that veer from charming to unnerving – such as the smiling couple who decorate every available surface with bird designs.
In Friday’s episode, “Cool Wedding,” militant bike messenger Spyke and his fiancee seek a unique ceremony, and a grocery store shopper (guest star Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock“) is scorned when he forgets his reusable bag. A must-see repeat (9:30 p.m. EDT) is highlighted by Portland’s annual Allergy Pride Parade – all allergy sufferers welcome – and Jeff Goldblum as a knot store owner.
Watch Goldblum as a Knot Store Owner:
The series has quickly developed a small but avid following, with two important fans at the front of the pack: Jennifer Caserta, IFC’s executive vice president and general manager, and mega-producer Lorne Michaels (“Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock”).
“Portlandia” is “a perfect fit for IFC,” said Caserta. The channel had been expanding its original programming and “an alternative comedy was something we were honing in on, something that our audience wanted from us,” she said.
Co-created by Jonathan Krisel, the show and its stars “felt very right for us and different from any sketch show we’ve seen before,” Caserta said. It’s a match for IFC’s programming that is “irresistibly on the fringes of what of what you would normally find elsewhere.”
Michaels, executive producer of “Portlandia,” calls it “so inventive” and applauds IFC for letting the creative team keep the show’s concept pure and laser-focused.
“They’re only doing it for the audience that wants it. No other audience need apply,” he said, laughing. “And it found an audience: It’s a little hit. I notice that, because people will go out of their way to mention the show to me.”
Watch “Portlandia’s” Allergy Pride Parade:
And that includes the city and its residents, who provide the starting point for parody.
“You have to see it in Portland! They love it,” Michaels said. “I went out there this summer and spent a few days with (the production team). The show soaks up what’s happening there and celebrates it and has a nice way of being funny about it without betraying anything.”
Season two was crafted with more emphasis on relationships, Armisen said, especially on couples who “work as a unit” and speak in the same voice. There’s Portland-style bicycle action, of course, including bicycle movers and a bicycle valet.
Brownstein and Armisen, who met in 2003, share indie-rock music roots. The two also have a similar “fear of stillness,” said Brownstein, which set them on the path to “Portlandia.”
While she describes music as her “first love” (she released a new album last year with the new band Wild Flag), she enjoys mixing it up.
“Creatively, it’s nice to have different outlets and mediums for your ideas,” she said.
There was another reason for them to work on what began as short web videos under the title “Thunder Ant”: It gave the New York-based Armisen a reason to visit his Portland-based friend and collaborator.
“When you’re not dating someone it’s weird to fly across the country and not have a purpose,” she said. “So we created a purpose.”
She has high praise for her co-star and pal.
“I love Fred’s quickness. … He’s somebody who is pulling the rug out from beneath you and you have to scramble to find it. It’s an exhilarating world and I’m glad to be part of it.”
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