Why Portland begat 'Portlandia' and Seattle stopped being funny

Once Seattle had its own self-mocking comedy sketch show, but now it's too grown-up to be funny. Luckily, Portland's not.

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Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen demonstrate modern retailing, Portland-style.

Once Seattle had its own self-mocking comedy sketch show, but now it's too grown-up to be funny. Luckily, Portland's not.

Portlandia, the IFC sketch-comedy miniseries that’s captured the Rose City’s gestalt with a classically Northwest blend of deadpan kookiness and mordant self-deprecation, has stirred some seen-us envy in Seattle. Or so they say in LA. Portlandia, writes the Los Angeles Times’ Kim Murphy, “has both captivated and irritated Seattleites, who love the show but can't figure out why Portland got one and they didn't.”

And that, in her telling, is why a couple proud citizens of “Boeing-town” launched a Put a Plane on It site to counter the Portlandia-spawned Put a Bird on It. Get it? Portland does cute little natural birdies, Seattle does roaring mechanical superjets: “Our birds rule the sky.”

Anything an LA newspaper says about anything or anyone in the Northwest should be taken with several grains of salt, especially when it refers to “Boeing-town,” something no Seattleite would have called it even when Boeing was a Seattle company. Still, Murphy raises a good question, though not a difficult one. Seattle had its Portlandia, clear back in the mid-to-late 1980s and early ’90s. It was called Almost Live, and it featured quirky sketches with running (or, in one case, speed-walking) characters about local foibles, stereotypes, and stereotyped neighborhoods. It was very funny in its day; would it seem lame now? You might be able to find out, if you can find some late-night reruns on KING 5.

The point is, that was then, back when Seattle was still odd and insular enough to spawn an Almost Live. When it was still an underdog. Humor, like terrorism, is a weapon of the weak. That’s why American comedy evolved as Jewish and African-American comedy, and why when WASPs do it, with the exception of Letterman, they so often sound Jewish or black.

But something happened to Seattle in the ’90s. It stopped being funny and got big, brash, and ambitious. Amazon rose, and Costco and Starbucks and the Seattle-spawned cellphone industry came into their own. Microsoft was still an irresistible juggernaut; it even bailed out the floundering Apple. And we still made lots of Boeing planes, though it’s a little deflating to take your civic icon from a company that moved its headquarters to Chicago a decade ago.

The storms of the ’00s battered Seattle’s economic flotilla, but they didn’t sink it. The city remains a global force in branding, marketing, and, to a lesser extent, technology. So what does Portland have in the way of world-conquering hometown companies? Nike, now nearly 50 years old. Jantzen, if it’s still there. Jantzen Beach is, anyway.

If grunge happened now, it might happen in Portland, or Olympia or Bellingham. Certainly not in Seattle. Portland, Portlandia’s “city where young people come to retire,” is still weird and shiftless and weak enough to be original. And funny.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.