Emmy's Sketchy Hopefuls

"Portlandia" and "Key & Peele" are poised to break through.

Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels might have created his own worst enemy in this year's stiff Emmy race for nominations in the variety, music or comedy series category.

His executive-producing boutique project Portlandia (IFC), which stars SNL's Fred Armisen and his rock musician pal Carrie Brownstein, has broken out of its cult milieu -- namely, the million inhabitants of Portland, Ore., the liberal community skewered by the sketch series -- to become one of the most talked-about entrants in this strange race.

And it's about time. Since Fox's In Living Color signed off in May 1994, SNL has had little to no competition from other sketch series come Emmy time. This year, the NBC stalwart not only has IFC's hipster-fest in the contenders ring but also Comedy Central's breakout Key & Peele, a Chappelle's Show/In Living Color mash-up featuring Mad TV alums Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The friends' biracial backgrounds provide endless fodder for filmed sketches on cultural themes, including the duo's most popular bit wherein Peele's flawless President Obama has an "anger translator" named Luther to help him convey Zen messages with more vitriol.

"We met Obama at George Clooney's fund-raiser," says Key (who "loves Portlandia"), "and he told us, 'I need Luther for my second term.' We stood there like, 'Wow.' We really did our jobs as cultural referees, which is how we see ourselves."

Brownstein sees the emergence of these smaller, zeitgeisty sketch series in the Emmy race as a sign that "what's relatable" isn't confined to race, ethnicity or proximity to the subject matter. "People all over the world respond to stuff on Portlandia -- and most of those people have never been to Oregon," she says of such season-two segments as a couple losing sleep -- and their jobs -- after sequestering themselves on their couch for a Battlestar Galactica marathon. "I've never been to space, but there are plenty of great movies and shows I love that are about space. So why not one about Portland?"

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