Skipping the speech? Try "Onion News Network" and "Portlandia"

OK, you really know you should be watching the State of the Union speech tonight (Tuesday, Jan. 25). If you don't, however, this is the perfect time to find "Onion News Network" and "Portlandia."

Their openers aired at 10 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and rerun at 9 and 9:30 p.m. tonight. That's on IFC (Independent Film Channel), which is hard to find -- you'll need satellite or digital cable -- but worth it.

My previous blog had the overall IFC story I sent to papers. Here are the other two I sent, on the two individual shows. Give both a try; IFC has become a vibrant force in new and rerun cartoons that are fresh, odd and witty.


TV keeps celebrating the same centers
of fun and sin and art and culture.

It gives us Vegas and Miami and San
Francisco and such. Now Portland, Oregon, is ready for its turn.

“Portland is a city that has a lot of
self-esteem, that's filled with people with very little self-esteem,”
said Carrie Brownstein, one of the creators and stars of the cable
comedy series “Portlandia.”

So Portland may deserve a spot
alongside such hip places as Austin, Texas; Ann Arbor, Mich.; or
Madison, Wis. Fred Armisen, who stars with Brownstein, sums it up in
the first minutes of the show: This is “a city where young people
go to retire.”

Its emphasis is on leisure and
reflection and doing the right thing, Brownstein said. “The goal is
not just to be good, but to be good in a certain way. It's so
earnest, so well-intentioned.”

And that leaves room for comedy, with
the stars portraying artists, bikers, book-sellers and more.

Neither is from Portland originally.
Armisen, 44, is from Long Island, not far from his current “Saturday
Night Live” duties; Brownstein, 36, grew up in Seattle, forever
getting attention.

“I've always had this innate desire
to perform,” she said. “I had never been to a ballet, but that
didn't stop me from putting on a tutu and performing for my family.”

No ballerinas lived nearby, but a rock
guitarist (Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate) was in the next
neighborhood. She took lessons from him; in college, she joined
Sleater-Kinney. called it “one of the
most important feminine punk rock bands of the '90s”; Rolling Stone
called Brownstein one of the 25 “most underrated guitarists of all

Armisen was a fan, befriending
Brownstein after a New York concert.

“Fred was a drummer,” said Jonathan
Krisel, the “Portlandia” director. “(When) they said, 'Oh,
let's collaborate on something, I think both of them thought it was
going to be music.”

Instead, they did comedy videos under
the name ThunderAnt, having fun with Portland's earnest ways.

That expanded into this six-week
series, with short bits and recurring characters. Guest stars dropped
in; Kyle MacLachlan of “Twin Peaks” played a super-hip mayor. “I
have made a career out of choosing slightly eccentric things to work
on with unusual, strange people,” he said.

And now he's doing it in, perhaps, a
strange city.

– “Portlandia,” 10:30 p.m.
Fridays, IFC (Independent Film Channel), reruns at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays

– Six episodes, starting Jan. 21,
after the “Onion News Network” debut


In their giddiest moments, the Onion
people say they're on a roll.

Their new cable show (“Onion News
Network”) debuts Friday (Jan. 21), just 10 days after “Onion
SportsDome” started. The plan is “to take over the entire media,”
Will Graham joked.

Don't believe that. This has been
gradual, after decades of popularity.

The Onion was started by two University
of Wisconsin students as a sorta-newspaper, with humor stories drolly
disguised as real ones. Headlines would proclaim: “BYU scientists
convert matter into Mormonism” or “Area stoners mistakenly hold
massive Kemp rally” or “Stupid magazine ranks some stupid crap”
or “Mousy brunette removes glasses, becomes sizzling sexpot.”

The style was straight-faced and
Midwestern; the paper was free. “Everyone in Madison got it,”
Carol Kolb recalled. “It was the greatest; it was hilarious.”

She grew up in Spencer, a central
Wisconsin town of 1,900 people, unaware of Madison's comedy
reputation. This was the birthplace of Chris Farley, the Kentucky
Fried Theatre (whose founders then made the movie “Airplane”) and
the Onion.

The paper had started in 1988; when
Kolb joined it in 1997, it was “on State Street, in some crappy
offices,” she said. It was a place for wild ideas, with “a
humongous list of headlines on the wall.”

That lingered after the Onion moved to
New York, Graham said. “Our office is still kind of crappy.”

The Onion reported a distribution of
690,000 papers, but its Web site became more important. “I think
the online version started in 2000 …. From there, it was four years
ago that we started to develop our Web video department,” said
Julie Smith, executive producer of the newscast.

At first, sportscasts and ONN reports
were strictly online. Now both have gone cable.

The ONN stories are pure Onion –
starting with one in which a blond teen is shocked to learn she will
be tried as a black male. The production, however, adds lots of TV
flash and hype. It “combines all the worst qualities of modern
media and then takes it 200 percent further,” Graham said.

It even hired a pro as its fake
newscaster. Suzanne Sena has worked on cable (E, Fox News), at a
broadcast station (in Dallas), even on infomercials.

She's known the quirks of reporting
from an empty site, after the newsmakers have left. “But we're
there, because we're live on the scene …. That's some of the
absurdity that we like to explore at ONN.”
It's a ripe field –
enough to turn the Onion (gradually) into a media empire.

Onion empire

– “Onion SportsDome,” 10:30 p.m.
Tuesdays, Comedy Central; debuted Jan. 11

– “Onion News Network,” 10 p.m.
Fridays, IFC (Independent Film Channel), debuts Jan. 21; rerunning 9 p.m.Tuesdays

– Online:

– Also: Onion print editions (in some
cities) and books