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Evan Shapiro: Too Hipster For TV?

Date January 04, 2012
Evan Shapiro: Too Hipster For TV?

For the past two years, I've been lucky enough to be a small part of a show called Portlandia. The series -- created by the prolifically talented Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and returning on Friday for a second season -- has been described by many a stinging satire of Hipster culture. While it does parody Hipster earnestness, the show pays loving tribute to communities LIKE Portland everywhere -- Silver Lake, Austin, Bolder, Williamsburg, Minneapolis, Northampton, Berkeley, etc, etc, etc -- and much has been made about how the show has puts Hipster Culture in the spotlight.

I must say, however, Hipsters are not a new TV phenomenon. With thick glasses, just-so-avant-garde fashion and knowing smirks, Hipsters have had a special place on TV since the beginning of the medium -- even before the birth of the term. For more than half a century, TV Hipsters have had a profound effect on American culture. These characters taught many of us the importance of oddball tastes, wardrobe thrifting and (perhaps more importantly) the ever-lasting power of snark.

So, to celebrate the return of Portlandia, to commemorate the long and storied role of Hipsterism on TV and to exercise my obsessive love of lists, I give you The Official Evan Shapiro Top Twenty-Seven TV Hipsters of All Time (arranged by a combination of Hipster influence, programming quality and -- of course -- overall list aesthetic).

TOP 27 TV HIPSTERS [CHARACTER (Actor, Show): Context]:

  1. MAYNARD G. KREBS (Bob Denver, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis): Perhaps the Forefather of the Modern Hipster Movement, Maynard actually represented Beatniks of the fifties and sixties. But with Krebs, Denver -- along with his portrayal iconic slacker Gilligan -- was an obvious progenitor of Hipster attitude, fashion and music.
  2. BERT (Frank Oz, Sesame Street): C'mon, look at him -- he's got one eyebrow, sports a faux-hawk, always wears a turtleneck, still lives with his first roommate and is obsessed with pigeons.
  3. LISA SIMPSON (Yeardly Smith, The Simpsons): An accomplished jazz saxophone player, an avowed vegetarian and a converted Buddhist, for 20 years (and for an entire generation), Lisa Simpson has personified the model modern feminist. She was an environmentalist before Al Gore wrote An Inconvenient Truth and was identified by PETA as one of the most animal-friendly characters in TV history. In short, Zooey Deschanel wishes she were Lisa Simpson.
  4. COSMO KRAMER (Michael Richards, Seinfeld): He had an extensive vintage wardrobe, hosted a talk show in his apartment, lived in the most expensive neighborhood on earth with no apparent source of income, wrote a coffee table book about coffee tables, invented a fragrance that smells like the beach and created an imaginary job with no pay. He may actually have been the mold from which all Hipsters were formed.
  5. PHOEBE BUFFAY (Lisa Kudrow, Friends): First, I must note my strong belief that being a twin is almost an immediate qualifier for Hipsterism, thus explaining the mention of three sets of twins in this list. Second, Phoebe was a coffee bar musician and a massage therapist; she once lived in a Buick; she believed an alley cat was the reincarnation of her mother; she served as baby surrogate for her half brother; and while she once had gay ice skater husband, she wound up with Paul Rudd. I'm sure they live in Williamsburg by now.
  6. WILE E. COYOTE (Mel Blanc, Loony Tunes): The originator of the DIY "Maker Movement", Wile E. was a frustrated inventor of artesian Road Runner traps. He must have been living off his parents, as he never caught his food and spent a bloody fortune on materials from Acme. He seemed to have sworn a part-time vow of silence, except, of course, while hunting Bugs Bunny, when referred to himself as a "Super Genius" in a fake British accent. Please.
  7. ERNIE KOVACS (Ernie Kovacs Show and many others): Probably the greatest TV mind you've never seen on TV. Kovacs was one of television's first true auteurs, creating many techniques of video, variety and comedy later used by SNL, Laugh-In, Letterman and others. However, he was FAR from mainstream. He put a homemade kaleidoscope in front of the camera lens and once filled an entire half hour of prime time without any dialogue. In fact, his stuff was so far ahead of its time, no one really watched it -- thus earning him instant Hipster Cred.
  8. LISA LOOPNER & TODD DILAMUCA (Gilda Radner & Bill Murray, SNL): The original TV Hipster Couple. Look at them. Todd's Dad was Buck Henry, his chief rival was Steve Martin and he wore his pants under his armpits. Lisa was proto-feminist with an eyewear fetish, originated allergy chic and was obsessed with Marvin Hamlish. Plus she attracted older musicians, yet still took her Mom to the Prom.
  9. NORVILLE ROGERS aka 'SHAGGY' (Casey Kasem, Scooby Doo Where Are You?): Shaggy was of the model Hannah Barbera Hipster -- originally created as a non violent alternative to the Super Hero cartoons (true story). He was the original Hipster Foodie, who turned odd food combinations into his own artisanal cuisine; he ate anything he wanted yet never gained a pound; and he invented his own, strange Hipster language (Jinkies, Zoinks!).
  10. MIKE NESMITH (The Monkees): His mom invented Liquid Paper, he jammed with Frank Zappa and he was the inventor of the ironic use of the wool hat. Plus, he produced Repo Man.
  11. MISTER PEABODY & 'HIS BOY' SHERMAN (Bill Scott and Walter Tetley, The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show): Long before Bill and Ted, Peabody and Sherman made time travel cool. Mr. Peabody was a small, designer dog who invented a time machine called a WABAC, wore thick black glasses and a bow tie, had an obsession for bad puns and adopted a boy out of wedlock.
  12. STEVEN QUINCY URKEL (Jaleel White, Family Matters): TV Guide once named Urkel the 27th Greatest TV Character of All Time. As unreal as that may seem, many experts do credit Steve as an important pioneer of the Hipster movement -- he did crosswords in pen; started the oversized glasses 'thing' and even inspired his own dance. Like it or not, that TGIF line-up is still a force in popular culture. Not only is Urkel's look all over the streets of Silver Lake and Portland, the Olsen twins were just named Vogue's Most Fashionable Siblings.
  13. TOM & DICK SMOTHERS (The Smothers Brothers): Their incredibly subversive show unseated mainstream western Bonanza as the #1 TV show and was the only show to allow both The Doors and The Who to perform live. They constantly took on network censors and the Nixon administration and got fired for it, rather than change their ways. What's more, they launched Steve Martin's writing career and to this day have an act that features a Yo-Yo.
  14. DARIA MORGENDORFFER (Tracy Grandstaff, Daria): Daria is one of the primary trees from which modern female TV Hipsters fall. She was the foil of Beavis and Butthead; her theme song was "You're Standing On My Neck"; and her wardrobe was the pitch-perfect polar opposite of Benneton. Her deadpan delivery is still echoed by disenchanted teen girls who tell their parents that something is "almost as fun as drowning".
  15. TIE: SQUARE PEGS and FREAKS & GEEKS - (Sarah Jessica Parker, Amy Linker, John Femia, Merritt Butrick and Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr): These 'broken series' are two holy grails of the Hipster TV Pantheon (also see My So Called Life below). Pegs is a shared touchstone for GenXers everywhere and the TV birthplace of SJP. FnG was first to recognize the Hipster charms of James Franco as well as about half of today's comedy mafia. IMHO, however, they are most notable for two major Hipster Icons: Johnny "Slash" Ulasewicz and Bill Haverchuck. Slash's laid-back, high-on-life attitude and Bill's deadpan delivery and better-than-Urkel eyewear continue to stand the tests of time.
  16. BRIAN GRIFFIN (Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy): Another note -- in my estimation, almost all talking dogs are Hipsters, thus explaining the inclusion of two dogs and one coyote on this list (as well as the absence of Scooby Doo, who cannot really talk). As for his specific Hipster Cred, Brian is failed writer who lives rent-free, drinks a lot of beer and coffee and loves opera and jazz.
  17. SHEMP (Shemp Howard, The Three Stooges): He lived in Brooklyn, he originally quit The Stooges to go solo and then, there's that hair. One of TV's earliest Hipsters.
  18. APRIL LUDGATE (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation): April is a live-action version of Daria, updated for the post-Clinton era. She's half Puerto Rican, got her internship because she overslept and her boyfriend is a shoe-shine guy/musician/receptionist. April is the cool girl in the club that won't give you the time of day because she doesn't care to have it.
  19. ARTEMUS GORDON (Ross Martin, Wild Wild West): Perhaps the only example of a TV Cowboy Hipster, Artemus was a connoisseur of gadgetry, costumes and role play. Plus, he and his partner lived and worked on a really awesome train.
  20. JESS DAY (Zooey Deschanel, New Girl): New Girl has seemingly breathed new life into TV Hipster Culture. Jess sings every day conversations, she's a teacher who actually cares and she lives platonically (so far) with three guys in an industrial loft in what must be Silver Lake (does anyone actually know in which fiction Hipster haven this show is set?). Plus, she's injected "Adorkable" into the American vernacular. If she weren't so damn cute, she'd drive me absolutely nuts.
  21. ALEXANDER CABOT III & ALEXANDRA CABOT (Casey Kasem and Sherry Alberoni, Josie & The Pussycats): In a cartoon equivalent of the Playboy Club, twin sibs Alexander and Alexandra served as snarky counterpoints to the pretty people. As for Hipster Cred: they were trust fund babies who hung out with a band yet traveled the planet on a budget. He always wore shades and an ascot; she had a bleached streak in her hair and spent most of her time talking to a cat.
  22. JEREMY GOODWIN & WILLIAM "WILL" BAILEY & (Joshua Malina, Sports Night & West Wing, respectively) -- Although he would likely hate this, Josh Malina is the perfect TV hipster -- all smarts and earnest beliefs and stuff. As for Hipster Cred: Goodwin was a RainMan-like sports researcher and Will was a wonk's wonk -- plus, both wore glasses and talked real fast.
  23. HIKARU SULU (George Takei, Star Trek): Contrary to popular belief, Sulu, not Spock, was the Hipster on the USS Enterprise. (Spock was too unemotional.) Perhaps the first Asian TV character not to be portrayed as either a servant or a villain, Sulu broke through crucial racial barriers. His hobbies included fencing, botany, gymnastics and collecting antique guns and he is trained as an astrophysicist. Plus, that voice was just so... right.
  24. PETER & NANCE (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, Portlandia): You might think this self-serving, since I run the network on which Portlandia airs. Wrong. Since they asked not only if their chicken dish was locally raised but also if he had any friends on the farm where he was raised, Peter & Nance have embodied the current state of Hipsterism. Their excruciating level of political correctness and their sense that they "just know better", make them a cathartic release for those of us not on the inside of the Hipster culture. Look for more classic Peter and Nance this season.
  25. THE GREAT GAZOO (Harvey Korman, The Flintstones): He referred to everyone else as "dum-dums", was a failed inventor and was the reason that the mainstream Flintstones Jumped The Shark. Plus his helmet was early Steam-Punk.
  26. COUSIN OLIVER (Robbie Rist, The Brady Bunch): A trend setter, as the first example of the "New Kid" category of Jumping the Shark, Cousin Oliver is also a classic Hipster: his parents left him with his Aunt (Carol) because they're in South America 'for research'; he was precociously wise for his age; and he destroyed the very pop culture icon he was there to save.
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