Portlandia Begins Tonight

Tonight, welcome to my world: Portlandia. I've lived in the real-life analogue of Portlandia for eleven years, and it's a place of dreams -- dreams of sleeping late, of opening a yarn store, of becoming a freegan, of getting rid of your car and becoming a bike commuter who only wears natural fibers while working quarter-time at a gluten-free bagel shop. It's a city where young people have come to get away from being in a city. As Fred Armisen (now famously) says in the first episode of Portlandia, "It's where young people go to retire."

Tonight on IFC (Independent Film Channel) at 10:30pm, you can see the first episode of Portlandia -- and see how us Portland residents have been living all this time, right under your noses. Yes, we put birds on things and call them art -- and we sell that art at stores devoted to selling handcrafted bird art. Yes, many of us don't seem to have proper jobs, and we often have four or five roommates -- and yes, most of them work at a co-op that sells bulk alfalfa on the cheap. Yes, we organize "sports" leagues that happen entirely indoors, because it's frickin' raining most of the time. Yes, we wear hoodies and jeans and layered shirts without irony -- because it's frickin' raining most of the time! And yes, this is completely nuts, and it's about time somebody noticed. FOR EXAMPLE:

Portlandia is a spectacular example of laughing with, not at. In Portland, the general consensus is that this show is hilarious and correct -- and this makes sense given that Brownstein is from Portland and Armisen (of Saturday night Live fame) hangs out here a lot. There was a screening of the premiere episode last week at a local brewpub theater (yes, we have lots of those -- drink a beer, eat pizza, and watch movies or TV on the big screen), and it was a smashing success. Carrie Brownstein's new band played at a sandwich shop/bar by the waterfront later on. Both Brownstein and Armisen have appeared on our local NPR affiliate, OPB. The message from Portland (and I, as a professional blogger somehow making a living in Portland, feel qualified to say this) is: welcome, and please buy some books from our many local bookstores, or some of our fine locally-made beers or spirits, or at least something with a bird on it.

The only fear we have as Portlanders is that our secret is finally, officially, out. There really is a weird paradise on the west coast, where public transit is excellent, bike lanes are everything, there's no sales tax, you're not allowed to pump your own gas (!), the library system is awesome (they'll mail books to you), and on and on. Now, it's true we have some of the highest unemployment in the country -- but that's partly because y'all have been moving here so much!

I grew up primarily in southwest Florida. Portland is about as far away from Florida as you can get, while still being in a major U.S. city: Seattle is the other option. In the past calendar year, eight friends of mine, all former Floridians, have moved to Portland. Eight. Of the few who haven't yet moved here, I know several who are thinking about it and perhaps secretly scheming -- constantly asking how much my mortgage is and getting really sad because it's half what their rent is in L.A. (I even know of one secret scheme to move here. That's how weird Portland is -- people SECRETLY MOVE HERE without announcing it. It's like moving to Brigadoon -- if you don't come, it might disappear. If you come, you might disappear.)

So tonight, if you have cable, please check out Portlandia. It's funny because it's true. If you don't have cable, come on, don't you have friends with jobs at health food stores? Go to their houses. Bring beer. MORE:

Secret tip: the second episode (airing next week) includes an extensive appearance by Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Portland's mayor. And Portland's real mayor, Sam Adams (yes, that really is his name), plays MacLachlan's assistant. It's getting real, people. Grab your favorite microbrew, put on your knit cap, and tune in. For more, check out the official site (with lots of clips) or check out some web-only clips on Hulu. See also: The Late Movies: Portlandia for early sketches, many of which make appearances (rewritten and shot much better) on the show.

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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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