Portlandia vs. Brooklandia: An Émigré’s Take on the Hit Show

Portlandia vs. Brooklandia: An Émigré’s Take on the Hit Show

January 19, 2012 at 4:00 am

Really, “Portlandia?” Would the show be all that different if it were based in, say, Brooklyn? Brooklandia sounds about right…

Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and guest star Jeff Goldblum are shown above in a scene from the IFC series "Portlandia." But is Portland really more ridiculous than our very own Brooklyn? AP/IFC, Danielle Mathias

Last Friday marked the premiere of the second season of “Portlandia,” a show by Carrie Brownstein (formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney) and Fred Armisen (a current “Saturday Night Live” cast member). As a native of Portland, Oregon, and current resident of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, I’ve had a mixed reaction to the show.

While I find a couple of the sketches funny, the fact that new acquaintances always ask my thoughts on “Portlandia” when they find out where I’m from troubles me. I worry that they think Portland actually resembles the shows’ portrayal of it, as Brownstein has suggested in interviews. Sure, we have plenty of oddballs but, once it reaches a certain size, doesn’t every city? I’m pretty sure there are adults playing children’s games in Williamsburg, and pretentious eaters all over the Tri-State area. 

As part of the show’s 13-date promotional tour, Brownstein and Armisen — along with some of their cohorts — will be making stops in Brooklyn (in Williamsburg, duh) and Manhattan this weekend. The show clearly has a following in New York, as both shows are sold out. But what those yukking it up about Portland might not realize is that there appear to be weirder, more tech- and music- and recycling-obsessed people (in other words, more “Portlandia”-type people) here in New York City, right under their noses (especially if a moustache is there, too). To illustrate the point, I compared Portland and New York City in five categories derived from sketches on the show to see which city matches the characters in the sketch more. (While I believe Brooklyn makes for the best comparison, I didn’t want to be too unfair and single out just that borough!)


This sketch from IFC’s “Portlandia,” called “Sanitation Twins,” pokes fun at recycling regulations. YouTube/IFC

The sketch: Brownstein and Armisen, as the Harris twins, teach you how to recycle. It’s an arduous process: coffee cups have to be split across four bins, with a different one for lids and lids with lipstick on them. The bins are color coded in periwinkle and chartreuse, to name just two.

The truth: Recycling in Portland is actually pretty easy. Households put out two rolling bins, one full of paper, glass and metals, the other with yard debris, as well as a small bin for glass every week. Residents of the city proper can also put any compostable materials straight into their yard debris as well. New Yorkers — and I say this having just put out my recycling with a real New Yorker’s guidance — have a much rougher time of it.

Portlanders can throw pretty much anything plastic into the recycling; New Yorkers have to remember to put all their yogurt containers, for example, in the trash, lest they contaminate their precious “bottles and cans only” with tainted plastics. Apparently, New Yorkers also have to provide their own recycling bins (Portlanders get those from the city) and set up appointments to dispose of their aerosol cans (Portlanders can put those right in with the rest of their recycling). Sounds exhausting. As if that’s not enough, I have no doubt that the Harris twins would also be more at home on New York’s recycling website than Portland’s: the former features grinning cartoon trash cans and an explanatory video.

Which is more “Portlandia”?: New York. On the flip side, the stuff on your curb provides way better shopping. Just last week I got a sweatshirt, a cooking pot and a skateboard!


This sketch from the first season of “Portlandia” features one seriously angry cyclist. YouTube/IFC

The sketch: Armisen is an angry cyclist who parades across the city yelling out “bicycle rights!” and telling cars to obey traffic laws, all while wantonly breaking laws himself.

The truth: After reading about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s planned bike-rental program — ironically run by a Portland company, though Portland has no such program itself — I was ready to write this sketch off as bogus. But, in terms of the percentage of commuters that ride their bikes to work, Portland is actually the leading city in the nation. In fact, though the Portland metro area is only one-ninth the size of New York’s, there are just 1,000 more bike commuters in New York than there are in Portland.

Which is more “Portlandia”?: Portland. As fixed-gear fetishists are something of a null point (both cities bear them in spades), it’s pretty clear which city is home to more cyclists like Armisen’s goateed, gauged fellow. I guess the tip-off should’ve been that biker with dreadlocks in Portland who passed me on the right when I was turning right, while screaming “Make up your [expletive] mind!”

Tech Obsession

In the “Technology Loop” sketch on “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen can’t tear himself away from his digital gadgets. YouTube/IFC

The Sketch: Between his iPad, iPhone and laptop, Armisen can’t break free of technology. Brownstein tries to teach him to use “MindFi,” a telepathic messaging system, but Armisen gets distracted again by an ad playing on the telepathic “network.”

The Truth: Home to both Intel and Tektronix, Portland is indeed a tech-loving city. In 2007, city officials attempted to erect a WiFi cloud over the city, but when it became apparent that reception was mediocre and the city couldn’t fund it, the project was discontinued. And, before the MTA or Bloomberg launched their app competitions, Portland had CivicApps, an app design competition of its own, back in 2010.

But New Yorkers aren’t exactly Luddites, either; for one, DUMBO is populated largely by app developers, social media coordinators and web designers. And the big difference may be yet to come. New York has plans to build a huge applied sciences university on Roosevelt Island, with the aim of building a tech industry to rival Silicon Valley.  That might help New York edge past Portland, which has no such large science university.

Which is more “Portlandia”?: New York. Never have I ever seen as many iPhones, Kindles and other cutely-named doohickeys as I have on the subways of New York City.


The characters in “Portlandia” hope to make money by completing each others’ sentences in this sketch. YouTube/IFC

The Sketch: Featuring several characters from past sketches, including the obnoxious biker, this fake Public Service Announcement introduces a program where Portlanders will be paid to “complete each others’ sentences.” It ends when the biker refuses to comply.

The truth: Unemployment is bad in Portland, but it’s not actually 12 percent, nor was it when this sketch first aired. As of last month,  it stands at 8.7 percent, actually a little bit lower than that of the rest of the state, and lower than New York City’s, 8.9 percent.  And, while high unemployment rates in Portland are often blamed on those that move to the city right after college, middle-class college grads have been doing that with New York for the last 30 years, at least, and continue to do so with no signs of stopping. The big difference between the cities is that more young Portlanders are actually filing for unemployment than their New York counterparts: 12 percent of Portlanders ages 18-34 did so in 2011, compared to 10 percent of New Yorkers in the same category.

Which is more “Portlandia”?: Tie. While Portland has more unemployed youths at the moment, New York has a long and colorful history of bohemians hanging in the city and not working. Besides, it’s unemployment we’re talking about here; no one’s really winning. Trust me — two summers ago, while living in Portland, I was denied by 40 different employers, despite a strong back and a clean criminal record.

Music Snobbery

In the “Wanna Come to My DJ Night?” sketch on “Portandia,” DJs proliferate across the city in frightening numbers. YouTube/IFC

The Sketch: After being invited to an increasing number of DJ nights, Armisen and Brownstein embark on a zombie-movie style flight from Portland, away from the DJs.

The Truth: There are a lot of DJs, bands and record stores throughout Portland. A number of famous and successful musicians over the years got their start in Portland, ranging from The Kingsmen, whose recording of “Louie, Louie” is perhaps the most famous, to singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, to the Decemberists, whose most recent album, “The King is Dead,” reached the top spot on the billboard charts last year. But New York? Cool was born here — literally: The three recording sessions that led to Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” all occurred in New York. And punk rock (the New York Dolls got inspiration for their name from the New York Doll Hospital) and hip-hop were also born here. As far as current musical trends go, one need look no further than the blogosphere for validation of New York’s coolness. Music übermensch Pitchfork has an office in Brooklyn. And there’s a reason the internationally-known music blog is called the Brooklyn Vegan, not the Portland Vegan.

Which is more “Portlandia”?: New York. They have Lou Reed, the meanest man in music.

And the winner is…

With a final score of three New Yorks, one tie and one Portland, we have a clear consensus (well, clear to me, anyway): The fictional world depicted in “Portlandia” more closely resembles New York than Portland does. But, as Brownstein has stated, the show isn’t supposed to be specifically about just Portland, but about irritating, self-involved behavior in general. Thus, finer points about the city go unnoticed.

I imagine that “Portlandia” traits are a little more present in New York just because, well, there are so many more people here, so many more opportunities to be irritated. TV networks are full of shows that take place in New York City for exactly this reason: New York provides a believably wide character base that makes writers drool.

I figured out the real difference in spirit between Portland and New York after a couple days of commuting, and it’s not one that has anything to do with the above sketches. On an average walk to the train at Grand Army Plaza, I see all kinds of people: I pass a pack of guys in Carhartts coming home from a long and difficult night shift, get passed by a red-faced man in an expensive suit and inadvertently elbow kids on their way to schools all up and down Manhattan as we clamber onto the 2.

I have never elbowed anyone getting onto the train in Portland, and that’s because it’s not as crowded; Portland’s a far smaller city, with manageable morning traffic. Now, it’s not as homogeneous as “Portlandia” would have you believe, but no one’s going to kid themselves that it’s as diverse as New York in any category, be it socioeconomic status, race or otherwise. What Portland does have is a population of people easy to call self-involved:  locavores, craft-beer aficionados, bloggers and the like. And, thus, we have  not “Brooklyndia” but “Portlandia:” same great taste, less diversity to get in the way of your comedic enjoyment.

MetroFocus intern Jamie Helmsworth grew up in Portland, Oregon, and is currently living in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, while he completes his internship.