Last week, the thrift-hound Brooklyn blog Brokelyn released a video called “Brokelandia” that I helped write and acted in. Someone suggested the spin-off as a fun idea and before we knew it, the video had over 30,000 views (thank you!), receiving coverage in some big news outlets as well as recognition from Portlandia and IFC themselves. We were overwhelmed by the positive response, but then the negative comments started coming in, which I suppose was inevitable.
Aside from the comments about the quality of the video and the ways people enjoy spending otherwise productive time and energy putting down others for doing something, I noticed another trend: many responded, “This is why I don’t want to move to Brooklyn,” citing broadly outlined “hipster” behavior. As a Brooklyn native who was born and lived two thirds of my life here, I found this comment more disturbing than any of the negative feedback about my acting skills. Did people honestly think we encapsulated Brooklyn in under four minutes?
Portlandia seems to have gotten a similar reaction from people, as though IFC green-lit a travel show, and people are meant to get a sense of Portland, Oregon without having to actually go there. At the Portlandia Tour show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, during a Q & A, Fred and Carrie were getting requests for sketches about other aspects of the city that they hadn’t touched on yet. “You should write about all the sex shops!” an audience member told them. It was a bizarre moment, almost a sketch in itself, to watch people throwing out sketch topics as though they were requesting a song from the DJ. Fred had to awkwardly explain that they’ll only write sketches about topics that they think they can make funny, which probably isn’t something comedy writers often feel driven to clarify.
Yet there seems to be this need to make sure that Portlandia gets the story right, that they cover all the bases. I’m sure there are people in or from Portland who watch the show and constantly say, “That’s not what Portland is like! What are they talking about?” I haven’t spent any time in Portland, but I have a strong feeling that what I would have to say to anyone expressing their hatred for Brooklyn based on “Brokelandia” is probably equally applicable to Portlandia, or any creative work that situates itself in a geographical location.
It’s not hard to understand the backlash that Brooklyn faces lately, with Williamsburg at the center of it all. We have shows like Two Broke Girls trafficking in “Brooklyn Cool,” and daily, there’s a new artisanal store, coffee shop, or toy store throwing Brooklyn in their name to get in on that sweet cash cow that comes from being seen as a “neighborhood store.” This might be something unique to Brooklyn, as I have never heard of an “Austin Cheeses” or “Boulder Meats.” It’s easy to make Brooklyn a target of stereotypes like this within media, but all it takes is a 15 minute subway ride to shatter whatever you think you know about Brooklyn. Believe it or not, there are entire areas of Brooklyn where hipster is not the prevailing fashion. There are neighborhoods where you’re more likely to get by speaking Russian than English, and much like the galaxy we live in, our commentary-filled lives and arguments about how Portland and Brooklyn are different or similar aren’t even on their radar. While Brooklyn is a perfect example of diversity that defies classification, I don’t think it stands alone in that respect.
So what is it that a show like Portlandia is trying to do when it situates itself in Portland? What was “Brokelandia” trying to do, aside from a tribute to the IFC show? Well the first goal is to make people laugh. It’s observational comedy, and yes, it observes its surroundings, but that doesn’t mean it seeks to fully represent its subject. The writers of Portlandia are commenting on trends they see in general, not just in Portland, and the sketches represent their perspective on what they are witnessing. Sketches like “Did You Read” and Brokelandia’s “Did You Eat It” aren’t about hipsters, despite what people would like you to believe. They’re about an outlook toward life — that all experiences are some sort of checklist one must tick off to reach a higher status, that it’s not important that you read, ate, or saw something unless you can brag about it, that one-upmanship in general is insufferable. It’s a universal phenomenon, and I’m sorry to say that hipsters don’t hold the trademark to it, though they may be the most famous for it. People from all walks have the innate ability to be pretentious, name-dropping assholes. Sure, you might easily see this in Brooklyn or Portland, but you can probably find it in Buffalo, NY or Yucaipa, CA.
People make art about the places they live; that’s never going to stop. And sure, they’re looking to reflect what they see, but to expect anything holistic and all-encompassing is unfair and kind of ridiculous, unless we should take Woody Allen down a peg for calling a movie exclusively about the New York intelligentsia Manhattan. Just as we never expected Boston to be full of bars like Cheers or New York apartments to look like Monica’s in Friends, it might be time to remind people that comedy is not meant to be realism, and that a show like Portlandia achieved its current success by producing comedy that transcends geography. To visit the city expecting to see anything close to the half hour you watch every Friday night is kind of missing the joke. Speaking of missing the joke — to the people out there saying, “This is why I won’t move to Brooklyn,” I’m not looking to convince them otherwise. Brooklyn’s been doing fine without them.