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Keeping Portland weird ...
'The Famous Mysterious Actor Show'
by Mark Anderson

aybe a city gets the talk show it deserves. Letterman in New York. Oprah in Chicago. Leno in L.A.

In Portland it's a squeaky-voiced man-child in a mask named Famous Mysterious Actor offering up "The Famous Mysterious Actor Show," a manic, sugar-spiked spoof of the shopworn talk-show routine.

Who is that masked man? Famous Mysterious Actor does Portland's version of the shopworn man-behind-the-desk routine. ["Almost Famous," by Mary Bergherr]

Portland, after all, claims more bicycles than Central Park has rats ... devours veggie burgers and Big Macs in equal measure ... takes perverse pride in its nonchalance toward major-league sports ... shuns a sales-tax levy despite ongoing civic detriment ... languishes in ambivalent, self-pitying glee over not being Seattle ... flaunts bumper stickers that plead: "Keep Portland Weird."

And it wasn't too many years back when George W.'s daddy dubbed this bluest of cities as "Little Beirut."

So it makes some sense that Portland's version of the man-behind-the-desk conceit is hosted by a silly, unbridled enigma with a fright wig, a dirty parka, a spooky black-and-white disguise and a knack for spouting recalcitrant zingers.

All of which has combined to create someone who's becoming, well, increasingly Famous.

According to local lore, the bit began in the late '90s as part of a comedy improv troupe based in Eugene, Oregon's other resoundingly blue locale. The troupe eventually migrated northbound on I-5 and the faux talk-show format, transplanted into Portland bars, brought droves of beer-drinking rowdies out to guzzle on otherwise stay-at-home off nights.

The show wasn't even on television.

Lately, though, the joke has turned somewhat serious – even finding a Sunday-night home on Comcast Cable Channel 14, where production techniques, in wildly varying degrees of sophistication, provide an undeniable charm. Even so, catching the show on the tube, local commercials and all, can make the proceedings seem juvenile and shrill.

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The preferred venue is the operation's new home, a reasonably well-appointed warehouse studio on the lower east side of town. There, on most Wednesday nights, an odd assortment of locals cough up the five-buck cover, knock back some free microbrew and dollar Red Bulls, then sit back and let the insanity begin.

A swirl of pre-show excitement accompanies a cadre of stagehands as they flutter around the set. Then, just before things get under way, they pass out handfuls of wrapped hard candy and an announcer, while carrying on a miked conversation with the still-behind-the-curtain star, explains the showbiz protocol to an attentive crowd. A rocking house band, a sidekick, a stray German guy and an assortment of traditional TV sundries pump up the festive aura.

Finally comes the moment of truth.

Famous hits the stage. The audience tosses the candy. And the proceedings, beginning with the host's slightly edgy monologue, turn into an increasingly petulant frenzy.

Guilty pleasures: Pixy Stix and Famous.

Guests at a taping last month included a cartoonist from the Oregonian, a funnier-than-expected local comic and a late-night TV huckster who traffics in teddy bear giveaways with each mattress sold.

Shonen Knife, the sprightly Japanese girls-group, performed as musical guests onstage across town at Dante's – apparently beamed live via satellite, they were displayed back in the studio via big-screen TV.

And all the while, Famous played the part of ringmaster to a cockeyed circus as he frequently poured sugar through the hole of his mask in the form of that guiltiest of childhood guilty pleasures, Pixy Stix.

Famous and Portland: straddling the fine line between charmingly weird and trying too hard.

Never mind that the show is neither anywhere near polished nor consistently hilarious, it does have its moments. And somehow, almost in spite of itself, it has risen above nothingness to become part of the fabric of Portland.

There's a fine line between charmingly weird and trying too hard, and Portland and Famous Mysterious Actor seem to joyfully straddle that line. The fact that the show falls relatively flat on the tube only adds to its inexplicable mystique.

True blue Portlanders aren't supposed to be home watching television anyway. Not even on a Sunday night.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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