Quick Answer: A whole lot. Brownstein and Armisen admit that, while they start each sketch with a scripted outline, they go off on tangents and usually end up improvising almost all the dialogue. The result is a very organic show unlike anything else on television.
Is the chicken local? Is the comedy scripted? For years, the comedy sketch show Portlandia (2011-) has intrigued viewers with its quirky caricatures of the Pacific Northwest lifestyle. From the vibe of Portlandia’s title sequence traveling through the city, stopping on bridges and bicycles and vegetable stands, the Peabody Award-winning series has a unique, home-cooked, mellow indie movie attitude mirroring the atmosphere and culture of its location and subjects. It’s not in-your-face comedy, it’s not a typical staged sitcom, and, in most cases, it’s wildly improvised.
Each sketch is conceived through a script and a general outline, but as actors Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, as well as series creator, producer, and director Jonathan Krisel have confirmed, what we see in the final cut is mostly improvisation. In an IFC interview, Krisel noted, “They are all outlined, some more scripted than others, but most of the dialog is improvised. We kind of go and go until we hit on something funny on the day, then we exploit that and stick with that. ‘Aoriver!’ was not in the script. Once that came out of Carrie’s mouth, I reworked the whole scene to be about that. One my favorite scenes as a result.”
This malleability is what transforms each sketch into something unique, modifying and changing the comedy toa fresh and current idea. It eliminates the mandate of sticking to a months-old script and performing as written, and is what the actors find most exciting about the series. Brownstein told The Wall Street Journal, “The tangent becomes the center often.” To that, Krisel added, “Comedy is like alchemy. You have to be able to find it with the performance and the writing and the improv.”
Portlandia has become known for its multitude of rich, quirky characters who inhabit a unique world. The Portland of the series is an arguably dream-like exploitation of the common culture of the true city. In tandem with Portland’s popular “Keep Portland Weird” slogan, the series is innovative and original in its own weirdness. It manages to be relatable and satirical for people both inside Portland and out. It’s the kind of comedy that jokes about a unique subset of American culture while holding reverence for it; making a mockery while asking the question, “Why can’t we all be a little weirder?”
The show’s improvisational nature is a perfect match for this style of comedy. It keeps the comedy as organic as artisan movie theater popcorn served in a newspaper cone, or Heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts.
Portlandia's informal cinematography and editing feel equally off-the-cuff, adding to the authenticity of the improv. Krisel describes it as a “cable access nightmare kind of aesthetic." The characters and their behaviors aren't TV-worthy as far as typical television conventions go, and that is what makes them interesting.
The recurring theme here is being different. From outlined scripts with improvised performances to informal editing and shooting, Portlandia is built in the image of its subject.