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The joke’s on you, Portland: An interview with the pranksters behind the Peculiarium

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In the window of the pink-colored building that houses Northwest Portland’s Peculiarium, there are signs advertising its contents with adjectives such as “Bizarre” and “Shocking.” The ones to pay attention to, however, are those reading, “We Promise Nothing” and “Not So Unusual, Actually.” Although it sounds like a knock-off of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!—or the title of a kids’ movie about a kooky museum curated by an eccentric collector named Dr. P.Q. Peculiarius—it’s actually more of a parody of those kind of curio tourist attractions. Exhibits include: an empty cage of poisonous lizards from “Idiotsville, Oregon”; the true contents of Al Capone’s vault, complete with a visually-referenced Rickroll; an alien autopsy scene in which the extraterrestrials are the ones doing the dissecting; and, inside the gift shop, a massive stuffed Sasquatch. So it’s a bit of an ongoing prank, perpetrated by Laika director and animator Mike Wellins—you may recognize his work from recent M&Ms and Frosted Mini Wheats commercials—and partners Lisa Freeman and Eric Bute, but one pulled with such enthusiasm you don’t mind being tricked.

We talked to Wellins and Freeman about their big joke, the roadside attractions that inspired it, and how in a place like Portland, where absurdity is the norm, it’s incredibly easy to fool people into believing that, yes, that really is a dead Bigfoot in the doorway.

Portlandia: What was the inspiration for this place?

Mike Wellins: It was a group of people who all like this kind of stuff, and we went to the next level. Lisa and I were looking around to do something to get out there, besides a Web site or something. We originally thought of doing, not a food cart, but a truck that traveled around. We went and looked at some trucks, and we’re like, “Wow, this is a horribly uncomfortable place to have to work. I’m 46 years old, I don’t want to be going to a gas station asking to use the bathroom.” This place became available, and that was it. It harkens back to horror movies and sci-fi and all that stuff we like, and also that tongue-in-cheek, putting-a-museum-on-its-ear kind of humor. To me, that’s one of the really fun, subversive parts. Some people really do see it as a museum and will be like, “Is this real?” There’s that element of teasing people, and also that element of fooling people, which is kind of surprising. There’s a really fine line between screwing with people and having fun with people. That was a big part of it. There’s also a lazy aspect. Like, “I don’t really want to go research a bunch of stuff. Let’s just make up a history.” You couldn’t force me to read history in high school, but I friggin’ love history and true things now, and the strangest stories I can find. So it was a natural transition to just make up our own lore about this area.

Lisa Freeman: I just love the subtle humor throughout. You don’t have to get it to enjoy it, but if you do get it, it’s almost like you’re in on an inside joke. It’s real fun to watch people’s reaction to things. Some of the funniest stuff is when people don’t get it. They’ll say, “Where did you find those aliens? Did they crash in your yard?”

Does that really happen a lot?

Wellins: We’ve had people come in and go, “Oh yeah, I saw Bigfoot up at Trillium Lake, talked to him for half an hour.” They’re serious! They’re like, “We went camping one time, and [pointing to giant Sasquatch mannequin] that’s the guy we saw, except he was shorter and fatter.”

Growing up, were there places you visited that you modeled the Peculiarium after?

Freeman: Of course we both love Ripley’s.

Wellins: My dad was a good dad, but he was in the military. We’d go on vacation, everybody would get up at four in the morning, and he had it all planned out, and we never got to stop at places like this. And we got to pick one gift on our whole trip, which was horrible, because you get something early and later on you’re like, “Oh no! I didn’t know they’d have these!” So I used to drive past all these places. Once I became an adult, when I go on vacation I don’t make reservations, it’s like, let’s just explore. So for me, it was, let’s make a place I never got to go to. I stop at all those things now, even the most rinky-dink, hokiest ones, because they’re so weird. I’m amused by weirdness and awkwardness.

Tell me about the art shows you have in here.

Wellins: We just sort of opened the door. Monte Wolverton, whose dad Basil Wolverton was a Mad Magazine artist, he did a great show, and he couldn’t get a show anywhere else.

Freeman: He came in and didn’t say who he was. He dropped a CD off and ambled out the door.

Wellins: I saw “Wolverton,” looked at the CD and saw the first picture and said, “Yeah, you can have a show.” To me, there is an element of sterility that goes with a lot of art galleries, where it’s not supposed to be fun. Sometimes, the openings are like wakes, where everyone’s standing around wearing black, and they’re very quiet. I need more humor in it. So we embrace people who do weird, silly stuff, and couldn’t get shows anywhere else.

So what’s the deal with the whole Conrad Elwood story?

Wellins: Originally, we wanted to have a bigger back story, to cement [the Peculiarium] to something older than us. It has this long history that precedes this place by 80 years. And we’re out to deliberately confuse people who want to be confused. Some people laugh when they read the signs; other people, like we said, don’t know what’s real.

Freeman: Most people do think he’s real, and we perpetuate that all the time.

Wellins: Yeah, we’ll be like, “Oh, he was just here, you just missed him.”

Freeman: “He just dropped off a new package! We haven’t opened it yet, but it’ll be good.”


The Peculiarium is located at 2234 NW Thurman St. Its winter hours are 12pm-6pm, Fri.-Sun. For more information, call (503) 227-3164 or visit peculiarium.com.

(Photo by Todd Mecklem)

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.