Portland, Brooklyn, And Other -Landias

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. TC mark


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  • Guest

    “While Brooklyn is a perfect example of diversity that defies classification, I don’t think it stands alone in that respect.”

    Baltimore fits a lot of the “hipster stereotypes” of Brooklyn and Portland. But it is also a city of gentrification and racial tension.

    • http://hotfemmeinthecity.wordpress.com/ natasia

      There is a ton of racial tension in Brooklyn too, but I don’t think a comedy should would want to touch on that.

  • http://www.nicholeexplainsitall.com EarthToNichole

    I just got back from visiting friends in Brooklyn and this article made me miss it even more. Not going to lie though, the food was definitely one of the best parts of my trip.

  • Bronxboy600

    its just too much like a mix of “shit girls say” esque skits and portlandia itself. there is potential here, but at this moment in time the material is unoriginal. the acting is fine, the tempo is fine but the material needs an upgrade in the form of diversity i think. good work though.

    • http://twitter.com/primesilver Eric Silver

      I understand your point (and thanks for the compliment), but I don’t know if I would exactly agree with saying it’s a variation of the “shit girls say” meme. That video is recasting the idea of portraying a stereotype by reducing it to comments without context. But portraying characters saying things that epitomize who they are is kind of the bread and butter of comedy (or at least sketches, where time is the rarest commodity). If the video were a bunch of cuts of different locations, communicating the idea that this is a general trend among whatever group being targeted, and if there was no dialogue (in the sense that only one character is speaking), then yes, I’d agree. But I would say this is just a scene that packs in a lot of dialogue and goes at a rapid pace for comedic effect.

      Now, if you wanted to say it is too much like Portlandia, I don’t have a counter-argument for you there. We’d like to think we distinguished ourselves a bit, but I can understand if anyone disagrees on that point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anatole.rahman Anatole Ashraf

    I went to middle school in the Upper West Side, high school at Brooklyn Tech and now I go to Columbia while living in Jackson Heights. Believe it or not, the area around Brooklyn Tech–Fort Greene–and Flatbush Avenue, and just about the entirety of Atlantic Avenue, is an area I don’t recognize anymore, and this was just 5 years ago! Whereas the UWS and Jackson Heights have been the same since I was a toddler. Mind you, all those areas are prettier and more expensive than ever before, but it can’t be the Brooklyn you grew up in, Eric.

    I mean, I love artisanal sandwich and cheese shops as much as the next hipster, but not at the expense of pricing out hard-working members of the lower- and middle-class. And perhaps more so than other aspects of hipster culture, it’s that path of gentrification and destruction of lower- and middle-class that follows hipsterdom that opens it up to criticism.

    And this article pointed out that Portland–which seems to more or less represent most of a glorious, gorgeous city–Brooklyn is not Portland. I mean, hell, Williamsburg around Boricua College is a completely different planet from Bedford Avenue. It’s THAT Brooklyn–this “Planet Bedford Ave”–that you seem to idealize with Brokelandia, and not the real Brooklyn. Not the Brooklyn that’s pricing out hipsters to my neighborhood in Jackson Heights (who are in turn being priced out to slightly further in Elmhurst, which only goes to show it’s not only hipsterdom to blame). And it’s this idealization that allows realtors and developers to capitalize on these reputations, and fundamentally alter the characters of these neighborhoods.

    I liked this though. It was funny. Great job, and I hope you guys get a deal from it.

    • http://twitter.com/primesilver Eric Silver

      Well, the Brooklyn I grew up in was Canarsie, which actually went the opposite of gentrification since I left. At least, I don’t remember the bulletproof glass in the bodegas from when I was there. But I agree, Brooklyn is changing, and people in certain income brackets are being pushed out in the name of higher property values, etc.

      My point in the article, though, was not about “Planet Bedford Ave”. Indeed, I was trying to point out that Brooklyn cannot be reduced to that. I also made the argument that a scene set in a coffee shop in Bed Stuy that takes place in less than 4 minutes is not meant to represent or idealize any sort of Brooklyn. We talked about foodie culture, which IS a thing in Brooklyn, and if people want to classify us as hipsters, that’s fine, but I think that comes down to rounding up from thick frames and a flannel shirt.

      But to get pack to the point at hand, our goal was to be funny, and in future episodes we’ll try to touch on other aspects of Brooklyn, but to be fair, we’re going to write what we know. I think the last thing anyone is going to want to see is a sketch that pushes an agenda or seems inauthentic. That’s not going to help anything.

      Anyway, I do appreciate your thoughts on this, and obviously I’m glad you found the video funny, class politics aside.

      • http://www.facebook.com/anatole.rahman Anatole Ashraf

        You’re exactly right, you should never be inauthentic. Mind you, I never meant that you guys set out to idealize any sort of Brooklyn, and I totally get the foodie culture (hell I love David Chang and Marcus Samuelsson as much as I love a turkey sandwich from the local deli). I just wanted to provide some insight into why there may be some validity in the backlash against hipsterdom in general. Your video being so closely associated with “Portlandia” opens it up to that kind of criticism in general.

        BTW, I tried red quinoa for lunch for the first time today (from this “$$$” place in the UWS called “Community,” so yeah, there’s contradictions all around, hah hah).

        Also, any plans to highlight “Cortlandtia”?

        Definitely keep up the good work. I look forward to more episodes.

  • guestie

    i literally just discovered portlandia an hour ago and have watched three episodes already on netflix. funny cause i was thinking “i wonder if thought catalog did a piece on this!” awesome :)

  • SeeDoubleYou

    This blog was so spot on an necessary in a time when anyone and everyone thinks they are some kind of critic of all-things in the media and pop culture. And the term “hipster” is so overused now that it has completely lost any kind of meaning.

    I live in Portland and I could immediately appreciate (understand) that the show was just another tongue-in-cheek jab at certain counter cultures, personalities and scenes that exist, not only here, but everywhere. It is caricaturization with the intent to make people laugh. It can be drab, dark and outrageous: all different forms of comedy. Its setting is almost irrelevant.

    One thing that I love about Portland is the diversity of interests people have here. We have dive bars, chic bars, sports bars, white-trashy bars, titty bars, funky doughnut joints, douchy bars, shopping malls, texas hold-em joints, adult sports leagues, universities, ping-pong tournaments, food carts, fast food, foodie culture and every imaginable scene and micro-scene within the music community. Considering this, how can anyone think that one shows is even *attempting* to summarize or stereotype an entire city? Dumb.

  • http://dirtyyoungmen.wordpress.com/ Maxwell Chance


  • Ehe1988


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