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Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

The Rise and Fall and Fall and Fall of Hipster Bashing

Let’s get the eye rolling out of the way. We all know hipsters are the worst because they’ve been defined as such since the turn of the millennium when the term was reintroduced. They are all smug and unkempt and sheep-like and neighborhood-ruiners and privileged (if not over-privileged) and jerks and smelly-heads and dum-dums and HIPSTERS. They deserve to be made fun of as much as—if not more than—anybody else. But just because they’re an easy target it doesn’t mean their mocking must be effortless. Over the last four years or so, what was once a rich terrain for satire has been mired by laziness and a singular dependence on broad, overused stereotypes. Hopefully, by scrutinizing some of the more recent shortcomings, we can make way for smarter, more hilarious mockery.

Beyond simply being the butt of jokes, hipsters as a subculture have been defined by their mocking. They’re irrevocably linked to the comedy drawn from them, like clowns or the Jews. However, unlike those other two, hipster comedy comes predominantly from external sources. This was the case in the fifties when Norman Mailer and his cohorts used the term as a knock on middle class whites trying to act like black jazz musicians. Then at the end of the nineties, it was reintroduced almost exclusively for comedic effect—begging the question: What came first, the hipster or the hipster joke?

Around that time, hipsters were, as writer Thom Woodley put it, “a great target.” He continued, “There had been very little making fun of them then. They were mostly contained to artsy sections of major cities’ newspapers.” It wasn’t until 2003 that the term became somewhat regularly used, particularly as a pejorative, with the release of Robert Lanham’s The Hipster Handbook. The book mixes real observations Lanham made living in Brooklyn with somewhat true exaggerations and completely fabricated absurdities. Trust funds and PBR are mentioned but so is made up slang like deck, fin, cronkite, and CK-1 (which mean cool, lame, boy, and bisexual, respectively). For many, Lanham’s handbook was the first introduction to hipsters as a nascent subculture and one that should be mocked.

In 2006, before YouTube’s explosion, there was the fantastic web-series called The Burg. Woodley and his co-creator Kathleen Grace noticed a lack of Hipster mocking content and decided to fill the void with a show about ridiculous friends living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The series introduced many of the stereotypes that eventually became commonplace. However, it also existed as one of the very few explorations of the comical personalities behind them. Woodley: “First we made a list of all the things we knew we had to joke about, because the jokes hadn't been made yet. But we always made sure we tried to ground it in behavior that actual hipsters we knew were guilty of.” The show worked then and holds up today because the jokes were bigger than any specific stereotype.

By 2007, the comedic topic of hipsters was in an odd position; while most in the mainstream had yet to even hear of these skinny-legged urbanites, there was a sizeable contingent calling the joke played out. Aware of this dichotomy, Brooklyn based comedy group POYKPAC created “Hipster Olympics” with the expressed goal of exhausting every single stereotype to a point where they couldn’t be used again. Ryan Hunter, one of the sketch’s writers and performers, recounted the first day shooting: “We spotted a news stand where the latest issue of Time Out featured the cover story called ‘Why The Hipster Must Die.’ Part of us thought that hipster bashing might've already jumped the shark, and I'm sure to many people it had. But in hindsight, it was just getting started.”

PBR, tight jeans, affluence, music taste, irony — all the stereotypes were there. At the time, the humor came from the ludicrousness of going through every single cliché possible. Little did they know they were creating the formula that lesser hipster bashing videos were going to copy, without perspective or adding anything new, for years to come.

Now, four years later, a joke that people consistently proclaim to be “over” has seemingly become more widespread. Search “hipster” on YouTube, Buzzfeed, or FunnyorDie and you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of videos, images, memes, and comics with the same punchlines or, more accurately, the same stereotypes* masquerading as punchlines. Most of these videos feel like they were written by way of a hipster Mad Lib — take something that is vaguely of the moment (the Tea Party, Jersey Shore, etc.) and just throw an assortment of hipster clichés in it.

The cavalcade of this type of failed hipster satire has shown no sign of slowing down. Hunter spoke of his Upright Citizen’s Brigade sketch-writing teacher proclaiming, “50% of sketches now are hacky hipster parodies.” Some are uniquely executed, some are adorable, but generally all are treading in dated material. As Thom put it: “Hipster-bashing is done. We did it, then Hipster Olympics did it, then everybody did it. Now, finally, there are some hipsters popping up on network TV, but it's five years too late for that joke.”

It’s not all bad TV shows either, as Happy Endings, which is one of the funniest sitcoms out there, was the first show to really build an episode around hipster jokes. Comedian Thomas Middleditch agreed, “I love the show, I watch it every week. That hipster episode failed because the jokes were a little cheap. On top of that, none of the hipsters they had were genuine enough. It was actors playing hipsters…and it just felt like a bunch of estranged adults trying to burn the youth they don't understand with some real ‘zingers.’”

2 Broke Girls takes a similar failed premise but tries to build a series around it. Each episode tosses out upwards of five painfully executed hipster jokes like: “Hipsters in Williamsburg will pay anything if it makes them feel like they’re ‘in’ on something new that no one else knows about” and “No, hipster. Do not think we’re on the same team. I wear knit hats when it’s cold out—you wear knit hats because of Coldplay.” They’re the same tired jokes but with an added CBS whitewashing so even your Mom can get them. Hunter:Most of the jokes are very hipster jokes 101. When it comes to racial humor, you can't just say the first stereotype that pops into your mind because someone will get offended by your laziness if nothing else.” This explains why there have been more complaints of 2 Broke Girls being racist, which it is, than hispterist.

How has a joke that some say has been over for eight years become increasingly popular? Much has to do with the medium it originally grew to prevalence on: the Internet. Some aggregators like Buzzfeed get in the habit of spreading anything and everything hipster that comes their way because it will get traffic. Ryan saw a parallel here to another formerly omnipresent target: “If you look at YouTube at its inception, every other comedy video was about ‘Emo kids.’ It's a concept that high school kids could relate to, and high school kids are a massive percentage of YouTube’s user base. Part of me thinks it took high school kids latching onto the hipster concept for it to truly take off and become as ubiquitous as it is today.” These sites are at the mercy of their view counts so if something has a proven track record it will be exhausted until it falters, whether it is Emo dweebs, pictures of Kim Kardashian’s divorced butt, kittens sneezing and farting at the same time, or stupid hipsters being stupid hipsters. The rehashing of the same stereotypes is not only not looked down upon, it’s encouraged.

The problem is not that stereotypes are used as much as it is how they’re executed. Middleditch: “Stereotypes not only beg to be made fun of, they deserve it. Like making fun of the stuffy rich person or the dumb Bronx construction worker or the racist southerner. All stereotypes can be at the same time on the nose and far from the truth…the only trouble I have with blatant hipster bashing is when the only punchline is ‘hipster’ or it's just describing what a hipster is and that’s the joke.”

The reason these content creators likely resort to this and why it’s so successful is the same, it’s easy. As Middleditch put it, “You know you'll get a few laughs from some people. Either self-hating hipsters that are like ‘yeah, screw those guys’ or actual squares who say the same thing.” Hipsters’ tendency to be in denial that they’re hipsters helps proliferate this flawed content. Ryan agreed, “the fact that very few people actually self-identify as hipsters is actually making hipster comedy worse, and keeping it from ever evolving and becoming actually funny.”

Subsequently, the only hope for it to get better is for hipsters—especially hipster comedians—to come out of their closet packed with flannels and/or skinny jeans and/or vintage dresses and/or Indian headdresses and/or coonskin caps. Middleditch admitted as much on his tumblr for the simple reason that the joke was “getting little old.” More and more stand-ups are acknowledging their own hipsterness in order to derive comedy from what that actually means. Hipster audiences are looking for opportunity to laugh at themselves, even if no one would actually admit to being a hipster if asked. Take this very, very funny excerpt from proto-hipster Marc Maron’s latest record, This Has To Be Funny:

With the growth in popularity of routines like this, some sketch comedians are testing the waters of anti anti-hipster comedy. New York’s Bobby Chicago made the brilliant video below that trenchantly makes fun of making fun of hipsters by contrasting its hackery to that of blue collared comedians:

The single biggest defense against awful hipster mocking comedy is great hipster mocking comedy. No one does it better than Portlandia, whose second season is set to premiere this Friday, January 6th at 10pm on IFC. Hunter: “Portlandia is funny because its creators are clearly getting their inspiration from real people—the idiosyncrasies of strangers, their friends, themselves. Whereas the creators of a lot of the comedy sketches in question seem to be primarily getting their inspiration from other comedy sketches.” Portlandia’s sketches can be built around stereotypes but they are fresh, specific, and lived in.

Hipsters are a wonderful target for comedy. At their most severe they are naïfs looking for the most novel way to appear unique. In his book, Look at this Fucking Hipster, Joe Mande describes hipsters as “clowns — terrible, postmodern clowns who don’t know any magic and who get all upset and insolent when you point at them and laugh.” Like clowns, with puffy pants traded for tight ones, they do deserve to be laughed at, but the jokes simply need to get better. The viewer needs to claim offense as a matter of it being disrespectful — not to hipsters but to good comedy. Then we can start dreaming of forty years in the future to an episode of an Aughts’ version of Mad Men where its Rodger Sterling dresses up like a hipster to entertain his garden party guests; we’ll feel a twinge of misplaced nostalgia and laugh—laugh like it’s 2006.


* Here is a list of the fifteen most prevalent clichés:

1. Hipsters are rich, usually from trust funds, though they decide to appear poor
2. Hipsters only do things ironically and embrace all things ironic
3. Hipsters judge others with self-adorned intellectual superiority
5. Hipsters have obscure taste in music/books/film/art and general “I liked blank before it was mainstream/cool”
6. Hipsters drink PBR or another cheap beer depending on region
7. Hipsters don’t have jobs, unless it’s as an artist, which is considered to not be a real job
8. Hipsters are lazy, dirty, and apathetic
9. Hipsters are posers who try hard to appear to not be trying hard
10. Hipsters’ style consists of: skinny jeans, scarves, flannel, glasses and/or sunglasses, non-baseballed hats, tattoos, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, thrift stores, bangs for women and a moustache or beard for men
11. Hipsters smoke American Spirits or Parliaments depending on region
12. Hipsters ride fixed geared bicycles
13. Hipsters eat only vegan food or organic non-vegan food
14. Hipsters live in hipster neighborhoods; if in LA they’ll be on the Eastside (Silverlake, Echo Park, Los Feliz), if in New York City they’ll be in Brooklyn (most often Williamsburg)
15. Hipsters hate hipsters and believe they are not one

Jesse David Fox is a freelance writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. He liked this essay before it was mainstream.

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  • Literary Man@facebook

    It should be noted that Hipsters exist in a continuum, with Bros at the far end, Literary Men in the middle, and Hipsters dangling out at the other social extreme, with many examples of where famous hipsters or bros, such as Jeff Tweedy or Jackson Pollock, fall on the spectrum: http://literaryman.com/2011/04/05/the-hipster-literary-bro-continuum/

  • skyslang

    "15. Hipsters hate hipsters and believe they are not one."

    THIS is the most important. It's not even a cliche. You're making fun of hipsters? You are a hipster. Nobody else even cares.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nathan-Smart/578299991 Nathan Smart

    That's why it's such a silly thing to talk about. Hipsters aren't even a real thing. Everything that someone mentions is a hipster thing is really just something that someone they hate does.

  • Devin Miller@facebook

    The fundamental problem with arguing hipster jokes aren't funny is that the people you need to convince are the exact same people who will tell you, "you only think that because you're too cool for hipster jokes, you hipster."

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    People make fun of people who think they are better than everybody else. We used to call them "pretentious dicks," now they're called hipsters. They may change their clothes, have different tastes and nicknames, but there will always be a "hipster" group. So really, the answer isn't "lets move on from these hipster jokes" as much as its "lets identify the next group of unaware assholes to mock."

  • Evan Shapiro@facebook

    Great piece. Here's something related…
    Top 27 TV Hipsters of All Time:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/evan-shapiro/too-hipster-for-tv_b_1183051.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Thompson/589819387 John Thompson

    The best definition of a hipster as it exists today that I've read, though I can't remember exactly who it's attributed to, is a person who desperately wants to feel creative, and compensates for lack of inborne talent / gifts through outre and obscure tastes. Which I think is both weirdly elitist and anti-intellectual at the same time. On the one hand, it assumes that you can't really have "taste" unless you're blessed with the ability to create, and most people don't. On the other hand, it assumes dishonesty in preference, that no one can genuinely enjoy, say, industrial avant-garde music or little-known Cleveland soul albums, and the only "authentic" people like AC/DC or Kenny Chesney or whatever. There's also a prevailing, ineffable sense of a hostility against the androgyny of the hipster stereotype.

    By that definition I am absolutely a hipster – I have no artistic talents, and I really love some weird shit. But I love it, like really really love it and I don't care what anyone else thinks, and I don't really like talking about it with people because it's impossible to do without being a bore (or a boor). Thing is that folks like me can really be aggravating to be around, when we're enthusiastic, and that's what makes them work as a target of satire. You just have to hone in on that, and avoid the veiled "Real America" / fag-bashing sentiment that undercuts so much of that humor.

  • Emerson Dameron@twitter

    To be fair, it's not easy to build a mainstream satire on a reflexively obscure subculture. Most comedy writers probably engage with real "hipsters" to some degree, but only the IFCs of the world would let them mock those people accurately. Only the most clueless, pandering network exec would suggest that Brooklyn fauxhemians take fashion cues from Coldplay.

    @John:
    There's a variation on this, natch: The reverse-snob who consciously rejects anything esoteric or underground and embraces perceived Middle-American "authenticity," without ever really letting the glib self-awareness down. See Klosterman, Chuck.

  • Pman

    Is there a reason number 4 is missing from the list or am I missing out on a well crafted joke.

    • http://twitter.com/JesseDavidFox @JesseDavidFox

      @Pman Hipsters obviously hate the number 4. Actually, that was unintentional but we are happy to take suggestions.

  • DudebroDMB@Twitter

    If you wear over-sized shoes, garish makeup, a red nose, and a frilly jumpsuit, and drive a tiny car you are a clown. If you wear skinny jeans, scarves, and ride a fixed-gear bicycle you are a hipster. Those aren't cliche's those are the parameters by which we determine if a person is a hipster or not. The jokes are stale, but don't act like you're some kind of minority suffering some type of persecution, that shit is ridiculous.

  • LL Smooth J

    Go back to Ohio!!

  • drew blumenthal

    i like the racism comparisons, great article. when someone who is not a hipster gets called a hipster or is mistaken for a hipster they relish in it, sort of like when a white guy gets a "ghetto pass". jesse david fox is a beautiful man. he likes long walks around the track at mccarren park and pbr.

  • Natalie Shure @twitter

    I am majorly sick of hipster backlash, mostly because the definition of what a hipster even is has become confused (or, more likely, was never clear in the first place.) The monicker of 'hipster' is applied to others as a pejorative based most often on their interests as opposed to their characters or identities, and I feel that certain activities have been oddly stigmatized as a result. I agree that Portlandia is a good antidote – if we are going to laugh at so-called 'hipsters,' let's laugh at the quirky things a person does instead of invoking a nebulous stereotype to function as its own punchline.

  • Jason Sweeney@twitter

    "Ugh, I was making fun of hipsters before making fun of hipsters was cool."

  • Clever McHandle

    It was in 2008, but the King of the Hill episode ("Lady and Gentrification") about hipsters did a good job of showing these folks seeking and ruining "urban authenticity." I think the first use of the word "hipster" I can recall hearing outside discussion of beat culture was the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer's girlfriend calls him a "Hipster Doofus."

    • lux bledstone

      this is true kramer was a hipster doofus lol and king of the hill did the right thing. but they are not bad people just misunderstood

  • http://www.invertedsoapbox.com Tim Donnelly

    Good post Jesse. If a hundred trite YouTube videos made hipster parodies sick, 2 Broke Girls definitely finally killed it. I've liked in BK for three years now and the most negative fraking people I've met are the ones who spend all their time hipster bashing. If not being a hateful cynic means being a hipster, then, fine, sign me up. Part of the reason Portlandia is great is that it's not mean-spirited. It's of the people, for the people, like how Shaun of the Dead parodies zombie movies but is also a great zombie movie. CBS' foray into this is the prime example: the leads spend all their time bashing the "hipsters" working out of cafes while they do what? Make racist jokes and try to sell cupcakes they made from a store-bought mix?

  • Richie Bisso@facebook

    As long as people still conform en masse to the ridiculous hipster stereotypes as though they are unique and clever ways of representing oneself, I see nothing wrong with caricaturing those stereotypes ad nauseam. There are clearly lots of people who haven't got the message, yet. Just because it seems passe enough to you to complain about might indicate that…………..

  • stuff

    I agree that hipster bashing does seem to get pretty cliched now. However, I disagree with people who say there's no such thing as a hipster. It's more than a sum of it's stereotypes. It's simply making decisions based on what makes you cool rather than based on what you genuinely like. That's why hipsters are said to be grown up children. Of course, now that hipster bashing is cool there are probably a lot of hipsters who engage in it. I don't think I'm a hipster because I didn't care about them until I moved to a town that's full of them. Also, I don't really talk about my tastes with people at all. It's not fun to me because my self-esteem does not depend on other people being impressed by what I like.

  • Meeh

    We are less mocking the hipster for the things that they are into than for the fact that they are just another in an endless stream of faceless idiots who work hard to be just like everyone else, except with hipsters, they think they're so original and different.

    That is the key to why the hipster is such a desirable figure of ridicule. Their whole existence is based on looking down upon others for being conformists, yet they exemplify conformity.

  • 00000

    My brother has to deal with hipsters in school. They're nihilistic, lazy @$$hats.

  • DigitalHipster

    Very funny! We're web designers in Ohio http://DigitalHipster.com who love to make fun of our selves and build great websites.