In Slate's Portlandia TV Club, Chris Wade will IM each week with a different fan of the show. This week, he discusses “Alexandra” with Pat Bishop, a director and editor for comedy website Funny or Die, where he created the Slate-approved “The Wire: The Musical” video.
Chris Wade: Pat, you direct and edit video sketches yourself. What works for you about Portlandia this season?
Pat Bishop: The really natural, sincere moments are incredibly funny to me. And it feels very positive. I like how the show's not about getting drunk and getting laid like a lot of comedy. It's about friendship and other good stuff.
Wade: That’s a great point—Portlandia is decidedly, refreshingly nonsexual. Which is why this episode stands out, I think, in a good way. The runner sketches are about Fred and Carrie competing for the affection of Chloë Sevigny's Alexandra character. But even that is done in a diffused, innocent way.
Bishop: The running story did a good job of breaking up the high-concept sketches around it—like the desk ornament consultants. I like the conversational scenes between Fred and Carrie. They punctuate them with weird, hilarious buttons like, "We're talking about Afghanistan."
Wade: The best concept in that scene was calling Alexandra a “cultural tease.” It’s kind of a more positive form of a poseur, someone who adopts various trends and styles aware of their inherent coolness without really being interested in the original context. I was thinking about everyone wearing the Unknown Pleasures T-shirt without really caring about, say, early demo versions of “No Love Lost.” Like how Alexandra, dressed exactly like Siouxsie Sioux, pronounces her name “Suxie Sux.”
Bishop: It’s also like the sketch at the punk house. You see Fred acting like this punk rocker, but then at the end they reveal that he's an insecure actor and is down to go out to Olive Garden.
Wade: The idea of an ethnographic chamber of commerce tour, with little old ladies snapping pictures, visiting a group house full of punk dirtbags, was a gamey sketch premise, and it played out really nicely. That was my favorite stand-alone sketch from this week.
Bishop: It also tied back to the cold opening, where everything turned out to be an art exhibit, including Carrie.
Wade: Speaking of the cold opening, I wanted to chat with you specifically about the filming and editing of Portlandia. They present a simple concept—such as misunderstanding which objects in an experimental art exhibit are actually the art—and use quick cutting and a kind of “A to C” visual language to heighten that one joke to an insane level. Carrie discovers she’s her parents’ art project: Carrie—Mixed Media, Vagina and Penis.
Bishop: They just make up their own rules and trust the audience to come with them. When I shoot, I try to get as many funny moments as possible, and then I trust that in editing, I'll find a way to put them together in a way that makes sense. Watching Portlandia makes me want to make stuff that's just fast-paced and fun and where the energy is never allowed to drag.
Wade: They need to retire jokes like this week’s overly fancy movie concessions sketch. We’ve seen Portlandia do this joke and do it way better before. I expect more from the show than “food too nice for its venue.”
Bishop: That's kind of their bread and butter—put on a funny wig and be an ineffective employee selling a weird product.
Wade: “Put a bird on it,” their original signature sketch, was basically that. The show maintains a constant sense of being one bucket of organic food jokes away from drying up their well.
Bishop: Because of the energy of the film making and how fast-paced their sketches are, I don't really notice when a sketch falls flat. Some things I don't really get tired of.