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Ben Stiller, ’90s survivor.

Ben Stiller, ’90s survivor.  (photo)

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If you look at the two big peaks of Ben Stiller’s early ’90s career — Fox’s “The Ben Stiller Show” and 1994’s “Reality Bites,” the two projects over which he exercised the most control up to that point — and didn’t know any better, you might not have expected him to stick around.

Back then, it seemed clear that Stiller wasn’t a comedian, actor or director so much as a guy peculiarly obsessed with the texture of late twentysomething life (a topic of considerable self-obsession at the time), especially its pop cultural aspects. His Bono impersonation was dead-on, and “Reality Bites” has become a fairly unwatchable touchstone, an amusing anthology of current concerns (AIDS! Coming out of the closet! Slackers!).

Stiller eventually left this financially unrewarding path and, starting with “There’s Something About Mary,” began to systematically peel away the rough edges from his persona. At least in “Meet The Parents” he was worried about being Jewish, and rightfully so whenever De Niro started to crack wise; of late, his paranoia and flailing precede any motivation. It’s schtick as calcified as any Robin Williams film.

It’s funny, then, to see Stiller respectfully profiled and analyzed by Dennis Lim in the New York Times, who notes that he specializes in “characters defined by their simmering resentments and festering neuroses.” Well, sure. Williams plays (mostly) characters defined by motor-mouthed volubility and wise-cracking impersonations: what of it? For the most part, Stiller presents anxiety as a spectacle for other people to laugh at, which is unobjectionable but not particularly brave. It’s hardly a lot to talk about.

03182010_zoolander.jpgOn the other hand, as a director Stiller favors casting himself in aggressively self-regarding and preening capacities (both in “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder”). As a satirist, he isn’t so much pointed as, often, angry. He’s spoofing other people he obviously isn’t — model, action star — and it’s that split between his self-deprecation and his own tendency to use himself as a stick to beat others with that forms maybe the sole interesting tension of Stiller’s recent career.

Towards the end of the profile, Stiller says pop-culture parody — his former starting point — is now maybe too fragmentary for him to keep up with. Instead, the photo at the top of the profile has Stiller (now 44) looking grey-haired and kind of Jeff Bridges-y, while the article talks up how sharp and aggressive his character in “Greenberg” is. But if you transplant the anger animating and uneasy that animates Stiller’s own work, it makes sense: he’s just going to express that in slightly more straightforward ways, the same way all aging comedians eventually feel the oft-misplaced urge to “get serious.” Self-loathing and aggressive bad treatment of others, after all, are almost invariably two sides of the same coin.

[Photos: “Reality Bites,” Universal, 1994; “Zoolander,” Paramount, 2001]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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