Making fun of hipsters (and especially hipsters making fun of hipsters) is a favorite pastime of so many, particularly on the Web. Who can resist classics like the Hipster Olympics or the recent Ryan Gosling NPR Tumblr? So it’s no surprise that the IFC show Portlandia, starring hipsterdom royalty — SNL’s Fred Armisen and ex-Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Carrie Brownstein — is a hit with beard-donning bike riders in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene and coffee nerds in L.A.’s Silver Lake. But how has it started to reach watercooler status everywhere else?
I’m a fan — I can’t even look at chicken on a restaurant menu anymore without wanting to ask for its papers — but I have only seen the show on Hulu, since I don’t have IFC. I did a quick survey of friends who claim to be obsessed with the show — none of them get IFC either, though the network says the show is its biggest hit, with 5 million viewers. I have to think the numbers explode when you count people watching online. Being available in clips on the Web and via Hulu has helped make “Portland” an adjective and “fixies” a household term. The show has even inspired jealousy from neighboring city Seattle — it’s launched a rival ad campaign (“put a plane on it”).
In an extensive interview with the New Yorker this week, Brownstein explained the show’s success: “In general, things in a place like Portland are really great, so little concerns become ridiculous. There are a lot of people here who can afford — financially but also psychologically — to be really, really concerned about buying local, for instance. It becomes mock epic. It’s like Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock.’ I was standing in line at Whole Foods, and the guy in front of me says, ‘I really wish you guys sold locally made fresh pasta.’ And the cashier says, ‘Look, we do.’ And the guy says, ‘No, no — that’s from Seattle.’ Really? You don’t have a bigger battle?”
The honesty of Portland is also what makes the show a hit, Armisen writes in this week’s issue of EW, on newsstands now. “Many of the sketches on Portlandia came from something real. Whenever we need to cast someone with a very ‘Portland’ look, we don’t need costumes. We just use our crew. (Our budget doesn’t allow us to use 50 extras.) In the ‘Dream of the ’90s’ sketch, there’s a guy using this rope yo-yo thing, and that’s our prop guy. He had a ‘503’ tattoo — that’s a Portland area code — and he drove our props around town in an ambulance. He couldn’t have been more Portland.”
In the wake of the end of another quirky, hipster-darling sitcom, Bored to Death, I’m wondering what makes Portlandia different — is it just that Portlandia’s sketch comedy style of three-minute increments are perfectly bite-sized and shareable online? Or is there some other secret sauce that’s keeping you watching?
Follow Laura on Twitter @laurahertzfeld.