Tuned In: Regional comedy spotlighted in IFC's 'Portlandia' and 'Greg & Donny'

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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Take after take, Fred Armisen improvises his dialogue for a scene in the new IFC cable series "Portlandia," a send-up of Pacific Northwest culture. It's early September 2010, and Mr. Armisen, best known for playing President Obama on "Saturday Night Live," sits in Elements Glass Inc., a working glass studio, playing an artisanal light bulb maker.

"It takes six months to make each light bulb. They're $68 each and burn out after a couple of days," he says, in character. "They explode once in a while, so you have to be wary of that but you'll get used to it."

Folks who live in the Portland area will laugh at the notion. Portland is known for artisanal this and artisanal that. It's a crunchy, eco-friendly city whose residents may sometimes take themselves too seriously.

"Portlandia" (10:30 p.m. Friday) takes this regional humor and broadcasts it nationally, something IFC could do in the future for Yinzer humor. In September the Web series "Greg & Donny," created by Johnstown natives Matt Yeager and Jeff Skowron, won the IFC Out of the Box Award at the New York Television Festival. The prize came with a deal to develop the series for cable television.

"Greg & Donny" (www.greganddonny.com) follows the exploits of two friends who live in Johnstown. The show's website includes a glossary of terms (e.g. "yinz," "jagoff," "n'at") featured in the series that has produced about a dozen short, online episodes since 2009. Mr. Yeager and Mr. Skowron previously produced and starred in a Web series called "The Burg," set in Brooklyn. They both live in New York.

The pair, who graduated from Johnstown's Westmont Hilltop High School and studied theater at Penn State, originally created two "Greg & Donny" videos as a visual/audio accompaniment to demonstrate the Western Pennsylvania accents when they were writing a script for a prospective TV series. They put the video shorts online and got enough of a response that they decided to continue it as a Web series.

"We wanted to make it the sort of project we could do for fun in our spare time," Mr. Yeager said, noting that the episodes are shot in his Queens apartment. The pair had created the characters initially for themselves and Mr. Skowron used the Greg character in an audition for a TV sketch comedy show.

"We love where we grew up and we've always felt there was so much material and inspiration in stuff we experienced growing up in Western Pennsylvania," Mr. Yeager said.

The Web series has been viewed by people all over the world, but Mr. Skowron said the most vocal and supportive audience is in Western Pennsylvania.

"We weren't sure at first how people from Western Pennsylvania would respond but it's been almost unanimously favorable and that's been very encouraging to us," said Mr. Skowron, an actor who appeared last year on Broadway in "Enron" with Gregory Itzin ("24") and in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" at The Old Globe theater in San Diego.

"We always believed that 'Greg & Donny,' the accents and specificity of location notwithstanding, was about all these small-town characters everyone can relate to," said Mr. Yeager, who is primarily a writer and co-writes "Greg & Donny" with Mr. Skowron.

Back on the "Portlandia" set, Mr. Armisen comes up with different dialogue for each take.

"Easy is so overrated," he says of most Americans' experiences with light bulbs. "A little bit of difficulty makes you appreciate the good things in life. ... When you want a burger, do you go to McDonald's? No, you go to your own artisan burger shop."

Each "Portlandia" sketch has an outline, but takes are highly improvised with producers filming four times as much footage as they can use in each episode.

Mr. Armisen stars in "Portlandia" with Carrie Brownstein, best known as co-founder of the now-disbanded indie rock band Sleater-Kinney. She and Mr. Armisen, also a musician, became friends in 2005 and began making Web videos at Thunderant.com a few years ago. Mr. Armisen enlisted his "SNL" boss, Lorne Michaels, who also serves as an executive producer on "Portlandia," and a "SNL" writer, Jonathan Krisel, who serves as the co-creator/co-writer/director of "Portlandia," which had a brief, guerilla-style 23-day shoot in and around Portland last summer.

"There's not a singular way Portland is," Ms. Brownstein said. "The way it's portrayed in the media is more artisan and plenty of people in Portland have adopted that but there's also a reaction against it so that all the things people find precious, even some Portlanders find obnoxious. It's easy to skewer and talk about all the different elements."

Six episodes have been produced, featuring co-op workers, Dumpster-diving "freegans" (people who live for free off what they find in Dumpsters) and a yuppie couple who insist on learning all about the free-range chicken they prepare to consume at an upscale restaurant.

"We just use what's around us," Mr. Armisen said. "Carrie had the observation that the most current form of art is putting birds on things. Go to any store [here] and there are bird drawings or emblems on things," he said. That became the sketch "Put a Bird on It," featured in the show's second episode. It ends in hilarious disaster.

"I felt foolish because I have a lot of things with a bird on it," Mr. Armisen said, making a half-dozen assembled reporters laugh. "Dammit, I got suckered in!"

IFC series are shot on a low budget, even by basic cable standards. Mr. Armisen and Ms. Brownstein are the only series regulars in the program, playing multiple characters, including versions of themselves. Guest stars include Heather Graham ("Drugstore Cowboy"), Steve Buscemi ("Boardwalk Empire"), Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation"), Jason Sudekis ("SNL") and Kyle MacLachlan as the Seattle-hating mayor of Portland with real Portland Mayor Sam Adams as his assistant.

Mr. Krisel said the goal is not to mock Portland but to communicate a love for the city that Ms. Brownstein has called home since 2001 and that Mr. Armisen visits regularly.

"It should feel as celebratory as it is satirical. It's not meant to make fun of Portland. Most of the time, these two are the butt of the joke," Mr. Krisel said, gesturing at the show's stars.

But "Portlandia" does make fun -- affectionate fun -- of Portlanders, particularly in a music video that launches the series. "The Dream of the '90s is Alive in Portland" paints Portland as a liberal nirvana where George W. Bush was never elected president and "young people go to retire."

The regional specificity of the humor in "Portlandia" could bode well for "Greg & Donny" if IFC moves forward with turning the Web program into a television series. While past TV shows set in Western Pennsylvania rarely included characters speaking Pittsburghese out of fear that most American viewers would be turned off, that does not appear to be a concern for IFC executives.

"It is exactly what appeals to us: It's something other networks would not embrace and do," said IFC executive vice president and general manager Jennifer Caserta. "But if you look much more closely at these regional or local quirks, personalities, celebrated characters and characteristics about a particular region, it's very translatable to other areas of the country. Barriers such as accents or monuments or local places you refer to are really just backdrops to a story that occurs all over the country."

Ms. Caserta said she was unfamiliar with Pittsburghese and the Yinzer accent prior to "Greg & Donny," which made her appreciate it all the more.

"It opened up a whole new world to me," she said. "You hear all about New York and L.A. and the Midwest but this is something I wasn't quite as familiar with, but it didn't matter because it was inherently funny."

IFC's TV version of "Greg & Donny" is currently "in development" and Ms. Caserta could provide no timetable for when the network will make a decision to go forward with a TV show or scrap the TV project.

If "Greg & Donny" does land as a series on IFC, odds are it will follow the same path as "Portlandia," unveiling an American subculture on a national platform that exposes aspects of Western Pennsylvania that are less known to outsiders.

"IFC was the perfect fit," "Portlandia" producer Mr. Krisel said. "This isn't trying to be a network show. It's a different sensibility. It's not going to be for everybody and they've given us a lot of freedom to go off the rails."


TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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