The "Portlandia" guide to Portland

Carrie Brownstein offers a tour through the town she loves to live in -- and poke fun of


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Gail O'Hara
January 6, 2012 5:45PM (UTC)

Portland is a town. "Portlandia" is a state of mind.

Portland, Ore., has plenty of reasons to be smug. It’s a bohemian wonderland where, despite high rates of unemployment, homelessness and hunger, sensitive Subaru-driving beardsmen can consume Rogue Voodoo Donut Bacon Maple Ale, enjoy a crispy pig-head roulade, share trailer-refurb workshops with other craftspeople and meet tattooed girls who DJ, knit shrugs and ride custom-made bikes.

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Portland boasts a world-class film and video industry (Grimm, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes), and more successful bands than almost any other town in the U.S. (Decemberists, Wild Flag, M Ward, Pink Martini, etc.). It leads the nation in eco-superiority, LEED buildings, recycling and banning plastic, clean sustainable living and has a bicycle industry that adds an estimated $90 million per year to the local economy. Local moms report that the kids at school excitedly lap up Brussels sprouts.

Yeah, Portland is better than you. And now it has "Portlandia." In its first season, costars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein added such Portlandisms to the zeitgeist as: “Portland is where young people go to retire,” “Put a bird on it” and “the dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland.”  Season 2, which begins Friday night on  IFC, features an impressive list of guest stars including Kyle MacLachlan, Andy Samberg, Johnny Marr, Kristen Wiig, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Tim Robbins.

“It feels like a second album,” says Brownstein. “There might not be as many singles. We don’t have a ‘Dream of the ’90s,’ we don’t have a ‘Put a bird on it.’ On the other hand, we didn’t know that ‘Put a bird on it’ would be a thing. Who knew? Season 2 is stronger: All the sketches have endings. It’s more focused, it’s more pointed, there’s better stories and characters. The writing is better.”

But while Brownstein has talked a lot of late about "Portlandia," we wanted to talk about Portland -- and why the city is such an interesting subject for satire.

The Portland Oregonian newspaper devotes a whole section to locals reviewing "Portlandia." Why are some people so defensive?

I don’t need people to think it’s funny. I’m fine if people think it’s really serious. To me, the more serious or earnest you try to be, the sillier it is. It’s fine if people don’t laugh. There’s a lot of stuff I watch, like the Louis C.K. show, and I never laugh out loud. It’s an interesting show. So I don’t need to be judged by “Did this make me laugh?”

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I’d rather put something out that’s a little more divisive. If the conversation is divided between lovers and haters or people that get it and people that don’t get it, that’s a better piece of work to me. Portland does take itself seriously. It’s a very sensitive city. Very self-reflective and it nurtures sensitivity here. People’s special needs are taken care of at every turn. I remember being in Whole Foods and their most obvious, well-displayed dessert section was their gluten-free section. I just thought, "Where’s the desserts for normal people?" Not that gluten-free people aren’t normal, but only here the inverse. Communities like Portland pride themselves on subverting the structure so people with special needs are taken care of first. That’s why people like living here. It’s a highly curated city.

Season 2 has some great characters who meet at an intersection. The local news recently reported that Portlanders are the safest drivers around -- but they are more likely to report other drivers to the authorities. There are a lot of rules here.

There’s a tacit agreement you make with a city or community like Portland. If you think of Portland as an extension of any esoteric community like indie rock or environmentalists, there’s a very strict set of rules. It professes to be inclusive but really it’s so exclusive. It’s very hard to figure out what rules to follow because they’re so nuanced.

The intention here is to be good, but there’s a certain amount of frustration that comes from not knowing how to be good or feeling like you’re not being good in the right ways. So there’s a little bit of passive-aggressiveness, which I guess is what you’re taking about with people overreporting, a city of tattletales.

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According to this article, Portland is the most promiscuous city in the country.

What?! There are young people here. I remember hearing a statistic that we were a city in a rare position with a high unemployment rate that was continuing to have people move here -- because they were moving here not to work. Those are obviously people who don’t have three kids and a spouse. No one is going to take their family to a city where they can’t get a job. But somebody that’s 24 and thinks, “Yeah, I can get by doing odd jobs and living in a group house for $150 a month,” that’s the person who is going to thrive here and check the casual sex box on OK Cupid.

Let’s talk about food. Trying to consume local, sustainable, clean food is nothing to be ashamed of. What do Portlanders eat?

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The reason I keep extrapolating out from Portland is that I don’t really think that our show is specific to Portland, but there is this exoticizing of the local. Portland chefs have found a way to make local seem like the most exotic food there is, and that’s a very clever approach to food, and also a sustainable approach. Portlanders are really enamored with that idea: the fanciest, most exotic dish could come from a farm within a 50-mile radius. That the essence of a place like Portland, and what I mean by it being a highly curated city is we found a way (to make) local seem rare and special and exotic. It’s such a huge shift: Even the notion of exotic implies that it comes from elsewhere. We live in a community that has completely inverted that meaning. Maybe that’s the crux of sustainability, to get people to exalt something local over something distant. It’s almost like the more nearby it is, the closer it is, the more valuable it is. That’s the opposite of most things.

Portland is hip, but there are also some subcultures that haven’t changed since the first wave. Portland charted at 36 out of 40 on GQ’s list of worst-dressed cities  (Keywords: The Hobbit. Extreme facial hair. Shoes with toes. Straight men styled as 1970s gay porn stars. Multiple tats.) What’s your take on Portland fashion?

It’s hard as a native Northwesterner to know what is wrong with my personal fashion except that comfort here is highly regarded and it’s regarded across culinary lines, the ways we dwell and live, the way we eat, the way we dress, and comfort as a signifier says that I’m working hard -- but not too hard. Portland is all about this balance of ambition and ease, leaning more toward ease, and to overdress here almost sends the wrong message: “I’m trying too hard. My motives are too calculated.” That’s kind of at odds with the lifestyle that people espouse here, which is to work less, to enjoy leisure.

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There’s not a lot of glamour.

Glamour and effort go hand in hand. People in Portland want things to seem effortless. It’s kind of an inherently beautiful city. Things here taste good, they look good, why push it? When I go to a place like New York or when I’m on tour and I’m required to wear things that are nicer, I always come home thinking I’m going to wear nicer clothes here. But there is never a reason to dress up here. I’ve been to the fanciest events and seen fleece as an acceptable outerwear option. You would never go somewhere in New York and have a woman in a dress and heels and thinking that fleece is an appropriate overcoat. Definitely people want to be relaxed here, for better or worse.

Are "Portlandia" characters West Coast stereotypes?

Those people are everywhere. We’ve reached a tipping point of an ideological sameness — like Brooklyn, Portland and Silver Lake don’t seem that different. There’s sort of pop culture and this kind of niche culture. They have a similar broad appeal. One person goes to a city and looks for a Starbucks, the other person goes to a city and looks for a Stumptown (Coffee) or something close to it. Both those people exist and both can be satisfied in almost any part of the country. You can go to St. Louis and find a coffee shop that most resembles your Brooklyn coffee shop. It’s an aesthetic, a taste, a lifestyle.

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People used to complain about Californians moving here, but Seattle feels more like the nemesis. Portland does have that underdog quality. Maybe it’s harder to define characteristics of cities with so many people moving between them.

But that becomes a characteristic of a city. Everyone wants to get here — they’re a non-native but they want to shut the door on the next person coming in. It’s just that in-group, out-group dynamic. You get here, you embrace it and all of a sudden you’re wary of the next group of people.

Which character on the show is most like you?

Honestly, there isn’t a character that’s not close to me. I would say Kath and Dave (they set a tied-up dog free in Season 1), that (mix) of angst and aggression.

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Kath and Dave like rules.

And also giving a speech when it’s not necessary — you’re having a conversation with your spouse or partner, but it’s also for everyone else’s benefit, which I hear all the time. It’s a very didactic, self-righteous thing — you always hear what should be a private conversation, and then somebody thinks that what they’re saying is so important they should speak out to the room. There’s a phenomenon I heard about on "Freakonomics" — I’d have to look up the name, but it’s the thing where people buy a Prius not to own a Prius but to be able to tell people that they own a Prius. The most fascinating one was people who buy solar panels will often put them not on the sunny side of the house but on the street side. There’s a lot of those characters on the show.

I can’t see you actually dumpster-diving.

But the core of that is just that sense of what you’re doing is better — that sense of self-righteousness runs through everyone. The bike guy is a good example. I wouldn’t dress like that and nor would Fred. But when I get on my bike — I bike 20 days a year — it’s as if I never drove a car. I pull up next to someone in a car and I’m like, “Really? You’re going to drive today, it’s so nice. Look how much exercise I’m getting.” I feel like even if you’re a dabbler or a tourist of a lifestyle or an activity — especially if you know that other people perceive that as good or that culturally it’s perceived as relevant or progressive — you so immediately embrace it, you over-embrace it, you swing so far to the pendulum, you proselytize.

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That reminds me of pet owners. You wouldn’t want to own a non-rescue dog in Portland because everyone would be horrified. How dare you get a regular dog!

Right. That one-upping of everything. Even among the rescues, it’s like “Ours was rescued from a flood zone or Japan.” Where’d you get your dog? “I brought it back from Mexico.” OK, you win. My dog just came from a shelter here. I didn’t go down to a third-world country and get a street dog. One interesting thing about a generally well-functioning city like Portland is that you do lose a little bit of perspective of what a real battle is. That’s your battle? How bad off your dog was before you got it? That’s a pretty minor battle in the grand scheme of things. There was a guy in front of me at Whole Foods who was complaining that they don’t sell local fresh-made pasta and the guy was like, “Actually, we do have it,” and the guy said, “It’s from Seattle.” I wanted to turn to him and be like, “You’re in Whole Foods, you could be in New Seasons (a local alternative to Whole Foods) if you really care about local.”

A local food co-op would be even better.

Or you could be making your own pasta in your own kitchen. That kind of stuff drives me crazy even though I know what he’s saying; as Portlanders we totally get this. I’m sure there’s someone making pasta in Portland, why Seattle? The bigger scheme is: Hey, you get to shop at Whole Foods, you can pay for fresh pasta, you must be doing OK. That’s the anger part of me. That’s the part of the show that people relate to. This lifestyle has reached a point where it’s OK to critique it now, enough people are living by these rules. You sometimes do think, Is this a better choice? Am I somehow bettering myself by eating this way? We don’t really know. That’s why the show works outside Portland.

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That reminds me of a product they sell at the vegan grocery store in the vegan mini mall — it's fake cheese that they ship over from the U.K.

There’s so many blind spots in the reasoning and a lot of the characters on the show are operating in that blind spot. They start in that blind spot and they can’t see their way out of it. That’s where we start — at the point when somebody’s belief system has gone off the rails, right at the point of absurdity. Most people are aware of their own belief system and how a little nudge in any direction and you would be the most intolerable person around. It’s the people who don’t get that that are offended by the show.


Gail O'Hara

Gail O'Hara is a photographer, writer, founding editor of chickfactor fanzine, former music editor at Time Out NY and filmmaker (Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields).

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