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