It’s true, and absurd, and there are a thousand other true and absurd stereotypes that fall short of capturing the city.
IFC’s “Portlandia” is an attempt at sketch comedy based on the peculiar nuttiness that emanates from the City of Roses, which is a difficult proposal, because the people who best reflect that nuttiness are offended, and everyone else is annoyed that their particular tribe wasn’t included. Then there are those things that only outsiders find funny. Yes, in Portland 30-something men ride skateboards to take their kids to school. I only notice this as part of the natural landscape, like a resplendent fall Chinook, writhing its way upstream to spawn and die.
With this spirit I asked a totally unrepresentative portion of the local population for their thoughts: Portland Nervous Breakdown writers Art Edwards, James Bernard Frost, Gloria Harrison, Quenby Moone and Meg Worden. I proposed a series of questions to move the conversation forward.
As a testament to their indy cred the writers ignored me and my stupid questions. If you want to argue “Portlandia” with us in person, come by the Hall of Records this Sunday for the TNB Literary Experience.
NB: Portlandia also happens to be the name of the hideous downtown statue that is posed to eat your children. Beware. – GXR
G. XAVIER ROBILLARD
Portland native since 2002
came from: NYC
What I thought about the show so far
There were a few bright moments, especially the “Dream of the 90s” music video, but I found much of the comedy was dull, or even worse, safe. It’s on IFC, attracting a viewer base of Sleater-Kinney fans and Fred Armisen’s mom – I wanted to see them take some risks. Portland has highest number of strippers per capita next to Vegas, we produce more microbrew and homebrew than anyone else in the world. Our cops accidentally shoot people – often. We’ve got a serious heroin problem. Where’s the dark, bawdy side of Portland?
A far better executed show capturing a specific slice of Slackerdom was Simon Pegg’s sitcom “Spaced.”
Does “Portlandia” get Portland?
The show is really sketch comedy inspired by the idea of Portland, so I won’t fault them for not filming an entire episode in my favorite donut shop. Which by the way features the Cock-N-Balls. “Portlandia” is an idealized version of many small, hip, liberal cities, from Austin to Boulder, Berkeley to Ithaca.
I like that notion as a comic departure point. The “Did You Read” sketch was great, and I turned deeper shades of red as I watched it, thinking of similar conversations I had in the nineties in Berkeley.
“Portlandia” works as a nostalgia engine. It reminds me of Portland when I first moved here: when I was in my late twenties, employed as a temp AND working on a novel, reading Dubliners on my long bus commute, playing Ultimate Frisbee and going to the three-dollar Brew-N-Views to see second-run movies. Now my days are consumed with paying the mortgage and the unfortunate bi-product of raising two sons: an inordinate volume of email from other parents about lice treatment.
Portland is a negation of those other alternative enclaves: cheaper than Boulder and Berkeley, better climate than Ithaca, though not so good we don’t constantly complain about it and not surrounded by Texas like Austin.
It’s a literary city. You can’t throw around a copy of Infinite Jest without hitting a published author. There’s the DIY attitude, astonishing natural beauty (Mountains! Ocean! Desert! All within two hours!) the eleven-month growing season and local food and good bands and food carts and and and…
No. It’s all about the Cock-N-Balls doughnut.
1. What did you think of what you’ve seen of “Portlandia?”
I’ve seen the trailer and a couple of quick teaser clips. I think they’re hilarious. I love the dry humor. I’m also not opposed to making fun of Portland. I’m confused by everyone who is put off by it. The trailer not only teases Portland, but it honors some of our strangeness: The Gay Men’s Choir, The March 4th Band, the short lady everyone knows from riding Tri-met. I’ve known all along that Portland is a strange universe that is not located anywhere else. I love it for that but I also see the absurdity of how “alternative” everyone is (when everyone is that way, what are you alternative to?) I also see how a lot of people are slaves to the Portland Identity and I say kudos to the people who do “Portlandia” for making fun of that.
2. Does “Portlandia” get Portland?
3. Here’s the super-open ended one: tell us about your Portland.
I moved to Portland in April of 1999. I was a few weeks short of 23 years old. I had a six-year-old daughter, who was in Kindergarten. I’ve had a frustrating experience with the Portland Public School system, which is a suffering financially and has been enmeshed in its own scandals about racism. For Portland being so progressive, there’s still a huge division of haves and haven’ts. The haves still have the better schools and the haven’ts still struggle. That may be true everywhere, but it’s our dirty little secret that reveals just how different we’re not. Also, there’s not a lot of integration. There are schools that are more black and schools that are mostly white and everyone here can tell you which part of town each one exists in. Then there’s the gentrification – where all of us progressive, alternative, earth-fucking whities are going in and taking over and building god damned Starbucks. Then there’s the weather – there’s a reason that the Northwest is the suicide capital of the US. We suffer rain and little sun from Halloween to the 4th of July. Most people are Vitamin D deficient – which contributes to an actual illness called S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder.) Then you’ve got the bicycle/car war, which is pretty god damned violent and ugly at times. It’s one of the most divisive subjects in town.
All that said…
Portland is beautiful. My children are free to express their own sexuality, no matter what it ends up being. There’s little worry about them being tortured for it. I’ve met some really lovely people here and despite my obvious unhappiness with the hypocrisy and the pretense (did I mention hipsters? **shudders**), there really is a great sense of caring around the city. Everyone recycles. Many people know who our state and local politicians are and can tell you at least three hot political issues (which is vastly different than my experience in New Mexico, which is where I moved here from.) The parks system here is second only to the library system – both of which are absolutely incredible, and systems that people regularly support no matter what the economy is doing. The schools may be fucked, but there are options – the magnet and focus option schools offer parents more choices than a lot of places that are suffering the same budget shortfalls. There’s a blues fest every year, a rose festival – many, many things (Saturday Market! Farmer’s Markets!) in the summer when this city really comes alive and makes me thrilled to live here (you know, the 4th of July through Halloween.) The local beer is second to none. The mountain, the desert, and the ocean are within a two hour drive in one direction or another.
I’m happy to live in Portland. Every winter I wish I could move (but am unable to because I gave birth to my twin boys here 9 years ago and, due to my parenting plan, I am unable to move out of town and retain custody.) But every summer I delight in being a part of this rich, if not flawed, community in this truly beautiful city.
It’s a given that since I live in Oregon and we’re contractually obligated to do so, I listen to NPR. In one of my several legally mandated hours of listening, I heard about this new television show called “Portlandia.” Funny, since I actually came up with the term myself, but do I see my name on the credits? I do not.
Anyway, I decided to ask me about my experience of “Portlandia” because I live in Portland, I have Portland opinions, and people are also obligated, being from elsewhere, to know that I know best.
QM1: You’re from Portland.
QM2: Yes. Well, no. But I might as well be. Aren’t we all from elsewhere, really?
QM1: No. Your son is a native.
QM2: Because of my good sense, yes. He is.
QM1: How do feel about Portland cliches?
QM2: What cliches? Who could possibly develop cliches about Portland?
QM1: Portlanders are a bunch of emo coffee-drinking, beer-crazed bicycle messengers.
QM2: Well…I don’t ride a bike.
QM1: You don’t?
QM2: I have a bike, I like to think I’ll be a bike messenger someday, and I’m absolutely pro-bike. Except that I’m too lazy. I drink beer instead.
QM1: How about the vegan, natural slow-food locavore movement?
QM2: I hate slow food. Nothing is more annoying than ordering my virgin-blessed tempeh souffle and having it come half an hour later.
QM1: “Slow-food movement”–The idea that good, healthy food takes time. Unlike “fast food.”
QM2: Oh. I like “Burgerville.”
QM1: That’s not slow food. Not even vegetarian!
QM2: Their burgers taste like there’s not a lot of meat in them. Does that count?
QM1: What about other things? How about the DIY craftiness of Portland? It seems everyone is making something from scratch and selling it in Greg’s on Hawthorne.
QM2: I had chickens. Does that count?
QM1: I don’t know. Did you make them and sell them in Greg’s?
QM2: I made a chicken coop. It was very DIY. It’s well-constructed enough that I’m going to make it into my mother’s future residence.
QM1: That’s…not legal?
QM2: It’s plush! No-one could argue that it’s cruel. It’s got two levels and a foundation. I’ve lived in worse.
QM1: What about the chickens?
QM2: The chickens are gone. I realized after the girls ate every single shrub and bulb and twig in my yard, that their eggs were pretty expensive.
QM1: My god, you…you didn’t…
QM2: Eat them? Yeah, I thought about it. You can’t eat someone named “Gigi” though. Or “L’il Bit.” Or “Houdini the Chicken of Mystery.”
QM1: So what did you do?
QM2: Gave them to some other fool Portlander who had the chicken dream. What else?
QM1: How are they?
QM2: I have visitation every other weekend and they’re doing fine. Now they’re destroying someone else’s yard.
QM1: I’m curious. Why do you think people in Portland want chickens? Or to make their own beer? Or to have everything they eat grown by castrati trained-farmers who double as midwives?
QM2: Well, other than us always being right, I think it’s because we think it’s the right thing to do. Even if we can’t change the world, we actually believe we can. Hapless idealism. Hopeless optimism. We actively believe we can do something right once in a while. Even if it’s wrong.
QM1: Like getting chickens.
QM2: Like getting chickens! I mean, yeah, okay. It was expensive. It was really stupid. I spent more money on those chickens than on all the eggs I’ve ever eaten and will ever eat in my life, but you know why? Because I thought I was doing something noble and smart which was going to give me awesome eggs. Pretty stupid, but pretty hopelessly romantic and sweet too. I think the seed of Portland nuttiness lives in my chicken coop. Not literally of course. My mom will live there someday.
QM1: So you think Portlanders think they’re right because they think they’re doing the right thing.
QM2: Yeah. I think so. Well, I know so. Because I’m from Portland.
QM1: You’re from Boulder, Colorado.
QM2: Same thing.
1. What did you think of what you’ve seen of “Portlandia?”
Disclaimers: I’ve seen the trailer of this show and little else, but I will babble on anyway like I know what it’s all about.
My fear is that this show is out to Spaceneedle us.
The beauty of Portland is that it’s always in a state of becoming. Most people here are forgoing a more obvious life to work on something not horribly practical, with their destinies somewhere in the future. The town itself even has this sense of being half finished, of not fully exploiting its assets. I remember hearing Portland referred to as an “up-and-comer” as early as 1990. But the city never gets there, which means everyone’s vision for the town is always forward-looking. Compare that to L.A., which saw its glory days decades ago; or Seattle, with its grunge-aerospace image sealed in its past; or S.F. with its dot-com boom long busted now. Portland’s vision is always looking toward its utopian potential, but we never actually want it to arrive. (Imagine the traffic.)
If this show aims to make that forward-looking characteristic our defining one, fine. But if they’re out to brand us as something more cosmetic, please go ruin someplace else.
2. Does “Portlandia” get Portland?
I remember sitting in a group of writers not long ago and someone saying, “Portland, we do love our tattoos, don’t we?” This shocked and confused me. Do we love our tattoos? I get the impression this show will play up these surface characteristics, which seems narrow to me. Portland is about normal people still being able to afford a house; we’re about people enjoying creative expression for its own sake; we’re about Powell’s and Widmer and a million other independent businesses that stay afloat because Portlanders get that they have to support them to keep them.
One positive for the show: I’m glad sympathetic non-Portlanders can watch and feel a little less alone. After spending 40 years feeling out-of-place in just about every other city in the country, I feel you.
3. Here’s the super-open ended one: tell us about your Portland.
The other day, my friend was talking about how much he loved the St. John’s Bridge. He ended by saying, “It should be right in the middle of the city.”
The urge to give Portland a defining characteristic is strong, and it should be resisted at all costs. If I say “San Francisco,” we think of the Golden Gate Bridge. Seattle/Space Needle. L.A./Hollywood Sign. Even a city of comparable size, like St. Louis/Arch, tries to brand itself with one of these unavoidable images. Instead, I prefer that everyone has their own image of Portland. That honors the self-directed spirit you find here, and it makes people search. I’ve lived here for two years, visited for a decade or two, and Portland keeps revealing itself to me. You will have to pry my ass out of here when it’s time to go.
My Own Private Portlandia or What if The Hokey Pokey is What it’s All About?
My, aren’t we Portlanders the center of so much attention lately? What with actual acts of terrorism and not one but several visits from the New York Times, thanks to IFC channel’s latest comedy, “Portlandia,” staring Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. A hilarious, “Kids in The Hall” style spoof on the extreme kind of liberalism that makes Portland an enclave of DIY weird.
I’ve had “Dream of the 90’s” looping through my skull for weeks. Especially every time I see a double-decker bicycle or encounter an indignant, tattoo covered pedestrian, which happens so frequently in Portland, I’ve been singing it to myself non-stop.
I’ve lived in Portland twice. Which, considering how much I like to make fun of it, does prove that I think pretty highly of the place.
After dropping out of University of Oregon in 1992, Portland was the obvious choice to start my new career as a waitress. I worked at Portland’s original Hamburger Mary’s, slinging homefries with hot sauce and eventually climbed the fine dining ladder to Jake’s Grill at the historic Governor Hotel (where they filmed My Own Private Idaho!) schlepping steaks, cigars and single malts.
While I accepted tips from extremes on the political spectrum, they had their similarities.
For example: I knew for a fact that should a customer at either of the bars I serviced dare order a Budweiser or Heineken instead of, say, a Hefeweizen or Black Butte Porter, all surrounding conversation would screech to a halt and the person would be glared into asking what was on tap.
After a few years I realized that I preferred liquor to beer, I didn’t own or want a Labrador retriever and I didn’t really stand for anything. Besides, I thought, I like hairspray and shaving my armpits.
So I left. Drove away in a 1973 VW Campervan headed for Key West, a place where drinking rum out of the bottle, wearing slutty clothes and smearing lipstick all over the faces of strangers is encouraged.
It was a big fuck you to Portland and its annoying ideals.
But honestly, it’s many of those same ideals that brought me back.
Portland is beautiful, close to the beaches and the mountains while being relatively inexpensive.
There’s plenty to do, but it’s not overwhelming.
There’s amazing food, it’s great for kids.
Of course, Portland still has no shortage of sanctimonious liberals making liberalism annoying. Like the woman checking out in front of me on line at Whole Foods Market, her pant leg tucked into her tie-dyed sock, her neck heavy with crystals and a hand knit scarf. She told the cashier that NO she most certainly did not want a bag for her singular item. She continued by declaring that anyone who would want a bag for only one item should be shot.
Yes, this sad woman, with her re-usable bag (made locally out of vintage neckties) thinks that the cavalier use of paper justifies the death penalty. Her white knuckled clench on her eco-identity blinding her to the fact that she’s but a step away from supporting genocide.
And I can’t drive anywhere without bumper stickers asking me to Believe in Whirled Peas, reminding me that Compost Happens or encouraging me to consider some of life’s deeper questions, such as, What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?
But I also encounter intelligent, dynamic, motivated people with fantastic senses of humor.
All the time.
It’s a fine mix. The former is amusing and the latter is a saving grace.
And my son’s school has a garden.
Fred and Carrie’s “Portlandia” is hilarious. It’s a fun ride that distills the absurdity that can be extremism of any kind, and brings it to light lest we forget not to take ourselves too fucking seriously.
I’m just glad someone is saying it out loud.
JAMES BERNARD FROST
So, yeah, “Portlandia.” My girlfriend and I were trying to decide whether to go out and watch it on Wednesday or go to Ron Jeremy’s sex club. We were at a restaurant on Hawthorne where I’d ordered a burger and a beer. Of course, the burger was a half-pound, house-ground, farm-fed patty, and the beer, a pint of local IPA brewed with about a silo of hops. It became very clear during the meal that we wouldn’t be going to the sex club.
So we went to a bar to watch “Portlandia.” There were about four tables in the bar, and about eight chairs. The bar was half-empty but all the seats were taken. After a short discussion, we decided just to go home and watch it in bed from the YouTube feed we’d found. At home, I got my laptop out, we got cozy, and pulled up the feed—they’d removed it, of course, for the premier. I went downstairs to see if we got the IFC on cable. It took me about five minutes to find it, Channel 532, I think. Turns out the IFC is a premium channel, so we couldn’t watch it.
We got back in bed and watched the “Portlandia” song/video thing they had on the IFC website. It was some hipsters and liberals making fun of hipsters and liberals. There were clowns, though, and clowns make me horny so about halfway through it we clapped the laptop shut. The sex was fine but not particularly memorable.
Photo of Ralph Wiggum, along with Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy.
Credit: Jeff Albertson.