Reporting from New York —
Where in America can “young people go to retire”? During the opening scene of a new comedy that premiered earlier this month on IFC, Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live” tells former Sleater-Kinney singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein about this strange and wonderful place where “the dream of the ‘90s is alive,” where people are still “talking about getting piercings and tribal tattoos” and “all the hot girls wear glasses,” where going to clown college or taking a part-time job that lets you sleep till 11 a.m. is a totally valid career move.
No, it’s not Austin, Texas. Or San Francisco. Or Boulder, Colo. It’s Portland, Ore. But when Armisen and Brownstein wrote this sketch for “Portlandia” — a six-part series that affectionately skewers the city, along with its feminist bookstores and community gardens — they knew it might hit close to home, no matter which tribal-tattooed hipsteropolis you live in. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Portland and now live in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Portland of the East.)
“Now more than ever, people have embraced this lifestyle that’s progressive and green and earnest, and Portland is really the apex of that lifestyle,” says Brownstein, who’s lived in Portland for about a decade, and first started spoofing her adopted city with Armisen in the sketch comedy group Thunderant. “But it’s also reached a tipping point where people are starting to question that lifestyle because they’re aware that there’s something a little bit ridiculous or precious about it.”
Before you argue with that, consider that Portland is the home of the self-proclaimed “world’s first vegan strip club” and “world’s largest naked bike ride.” Suddenly, “Portlandia” — which features sketches about adult hide-and-seek leagues and a local artisanal light bulb craze — doesn’t seem so absurd.
Decades ago, some people might have insisted that Los Angeles was the place where young people went to retire. But that started to change around the mid-1980s, when Oregon reformed its corporate income tax laws and multinational companies expanded into the area, luring young Californians with new jobs. Now the Portland area is a major hub for companies such as Intel and Adidas, and home base for Nike and Wieden + Kennedy — the ad firm behind Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, whose offices famously resemble an adult playground, complete with a basketball court and a giant bird’s nest.
Brownstein briefly worked at Wieden + Kennedy, and a “Portlandia” sketch about nonconformist brainstorming was filmed there. “It’s called moodshowering,” one character explains. “We hit you with a ball and you tell us the first thing that comes to mind about sportswear.”
For Portland Mayor Sam Adams, the local job market helps explain why the city has become a magnet for forward-thinking 18- to 34-year-olds. “We’re known for high-tech, digital media and outdoor apparel, and those industries require highly educated folks or folks who skew younger,” says Adams, who makes a cameo in “Portlandia” as the assistant to the mayor. (Yes, in Portland, even the mayor’s ironic.)
But Adams points out that the city’s progressive attitude can be traced way back to “the Fort Hall phenomenon,” named for the Idaho outpost where the Oregon Trail diverged from the California Trail. “Settlers who came to Oregon had to decide that they weren’t gonna try to strike it rich in California,” he says, “so there was a real self-separation going all the way back.”
Much of “Portlandia” pokes fun at Portland’s pioneer-days spirit, which has evolved into a do-it-yourself movement that’s embraced pursuits including organic farming and needlepoint. One sketch is called “Put a Bird on It,” based on the premise that in Portland, you can put a bird on anything and call it art.
Sue Bradbury, who owns the Portland boutique Ellaina, heard about that sketch on the online vintage and handmade goods site Etsy, where bird throw pillows and bird tote bags abound. “When I moved to Portland from California, the first thing I did was put a bird appliqué on everything I made,” she says. “When I saw ‘Portlandia,’ I thought, ‘Oh crap. That’s over.’”
No matter how ridiculous “Portlandia” gets, Armisen says, the truth is always stranger. “There was one scene where we play Dumpster divers, and we weren’t sure if that was really a real thing or not,” he recalls. “Then we shot another scene, and one of the extras on the show was telling us, unprompted, that she was a Dumpster diver.”
“She was telling us that she built her own Wi-Fi system out of trash,” adds Brownstein. “Each person we worked with embodied Portland in their own way. Our props guy lives in a trailer that’s painted like a sweat sock inside. Our set medic is also a fire juggler.”
Of course, not everyone finds the city’s oddballs so charming. When the website Deadline Hollywood first posted about “Portlandia,” it inspired such ultraserious rants that it could’ve been a “Portlandia” sketch in itself. One commenter cursed Portland, “the land of unrelentingly hip,” where if you’re not some skinny kid “riding your bike in the rain with a tattoo of a kitchen knife on your forearm to your life’s work at your stupid little organic-vegan bakery then you just can’t fit in.”
Then again, nothing inspires local pride quite like insults about your hometown. “Dude, your vibe is so heinous, I live here and it rocks,” another commenter responded. “Of course I get tired of everything being renamed after Cesar Chavez, but hey man, the coffee’s good the brews are cold — love and peace man.”
Whether that last guy is joking or not, it’s hard to say. But no one likes to poke fun at Portland more than the people who live there. When “Portlandia” had its Portland premiere, even the mayor was laughing. “I declared that this day was Portlandia Day,” Adams recalls. “And my official declaration had a bird on it.”