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The Late Movies: Portlandia

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Tonight: sketch comedy by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein about Portland, Oregon. As a longtime Portland resident, I can tell you that these videos are made with love and respect for the inherent contradictions of Portland's youth culture. Portland isn't so much a place as it is a state of mind -- a sort of blissed-out, shaggy-haired, "Wow, is is still raining?" kind of thing, that's equal parts ridiculous and wonderful. This is a place where a bumper sticker reading "Keep Portland Weird" is found on 25% of cars. We accept people who have a lack of ambition (and people who are ambitious about small things); we know it's sometimes ridiculous, and we love it.

Armisen and Brownstein launch their Portland-based sketch series Portlandia on IFC in January. Below is the first official clip from the show, plus some older sketches the duo made before signing the TV deal.

The Dream of the '90s is Alive in Portland

This has already become the official theme of Portland. I used to work two blocks from where this was shot -- it's a smallish town. I cannot tell you how many Portlanders love and agree with this.

Armisen: "Remember when people were content to be unambitious? To sleep till eleven, to just hang out with their friends? I mean they had no occupations whatsoever...maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffeeshop?" Brownstein: "Right. I thought that died out a long time ago." Armisen: "Not in Portland. Portland is a city where young people go to retire."

Portland Pet Haven

Armisen: "This is Sissalee. She's a Dachshund, she's fourteen years old, really active, and wants to live in a home with no children and no adults."

Feminist Bookstore

Brownstein: "I fire-walk in my bathroom sometimes, just when I get out of the shower...."

Feminist Bookstore Part 2

Brownstein: "I don't want to play anything that would be offensive to somebody, or make somebody feel like they're having sex." Also, secret neti pot reference.

The Perfect Song

Brownstein (who is, by the way, formerly of Sleater-Kinney): "So I was thinking on the sixth chorus we could do something like, 'la-da-da-da-da-da, if you'd walk with me in the rain, if you held my hand and didn't call my insane, I'd love you more, I'd take you to the grocery store.'"

Featuring a special appearance by Corin Tucker and Lance Bangs wearing an Electrelane tee-shirt. Now that's Portland.


Armisen: "I am full-on sick from the food at this place. I vomited so much that my doctor called me 'A New Era in Food Poisoning.'" Brownstein: "I feel like 'A New Era' in anything is a compliment, and that's what we're trying to do with Katchenza, so...."

This is Nice

A meditation on satisfaction, validation, and existential aloneness. Recommended for fans of Jim Jarmusch.


If you can handle a lot of anger over nothing, check out Closed. "I don't wanna feel like this anymore!" Most things in Portland are closed sometimes. It happens. It can be rough. My favorite YouTube comment: "I? really appreciate the anger involved."

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Chris Weeks // Staff // Getty Images
Watch the Original Spinal Tap Short Film
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Chris Weeks // Staff // Getty Images

Spinal Tap formed in 1979, five years before the classic film This is Spinal Tap premiered. They performed on TV and began developing their personas as idiotic heavy metal monsters.

When the band, along with director Rob Reiner, went to pitch their mockumentary to production companies, nobody "got it." It wasn't clear what an unscripted comedy pseudo-documentary would feel like. So Reiner asked for the screenplay fee—$60,000—to be paid up front as a budget for a short proof-of-concept film.

That skimpy budget went a very long way, allowing the group to produce The Last Tour, a 20-minute Spinal Tap film exploring some of the plot (and many of the songs) that appeared in the later film This is Spinal Tap. There's a surprising amount of concert footage, as various bits that were repeated in Tap (some interview clips were even used in Tap unaltered).

The Last Tour is delightful because it shows a well-developed idea being implemented on the cheap. The wigs are terrible, the sound is spotty, but the vision is spot-on. The characters and the core story of the group (including a string of dead drummers) is already in place, and we get to see the guys improvise together. Tune in (and be aware there's plenty of salty language here):

(Note: Around 4:38 in the clip above, we see Ed Begley, Jr. as original drummer John "Stumpy" Pepys in the "Gimme Some Money" video. Stumpy died in a gardening accident, of course.)

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Warner Bros., IStock
When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.


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