Another 100 Minutes

Or How Not to Interview BIPOC, by Eric Simons

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It’s October 15. About 11:45am. Maybe noon. I’m simultaneously attempting to impress my six-month-old with an array of mouth sounds and trying to determine if one of her classic farts has turned into something more dangerous.

That’s when it hit me, I’m scheduled for a 1pm interview with a local Portland publication but I don’t know who is calling who, what the interview is about, or if my six-month-old will be ready for her nap in time. With one of my teammates, Leon, also taking part, how would we be handling three people on the line?

I open my phone to try and fire off a quick one-handed email reply, when I see Leon has Slacked me with the exact same questions (naps notwithstanding). Neither Leon nor I realized this was just the beginning of one of the most frustrating and, frankly, disrespectful interviews either of us has ever been part of.

According to an email from the interviewer, the chat was for “coverage of your podcast event”. Honestly, this should have been the first sign of trouble. Sure, the press release I sent out for Leon Anderson, Chris Williams, and my comedy trio Broke Gravy was for a weekly podcast we have been doing since March. I don’t know if anyone would consider our regular midweek podcast drops an “event”, but I found it relatively easy to chalk it up to semantics.

For those of you reading who are outside the world of theater, improv, comedy, podcasts, or just art in general, publicity isn’t always easy to come by. It’s harder still when many publications were struggling before Covid-19 reared its head. So we bit. Or I should say, Leon and I bit. Our third member Chris excused himself, stating “I don’t trust the media.” Chris’ assertion should have been our second sign.

Through some combination of hard work, luck, and magic — our group has been performing live improv shows in Portland and across North America since February 2016. When we had to halt our monthly show this past spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, we pivoted to a previously unrealized side project. The most original idea of 2020, start a podcast.

While we had no desire to try and recreate our stage show in digital form, we did want to continue to have the same candid, random, and funny conversations that would open our live performances. What has congealed over some 30 episodes is a taste of what makes the three of us tick as individuals and friends. That’s to say, we never really know where things will go.

Between our audience asking us questions and each of us having an innate curiosity about the world, we might spend 90 minutes chatting about movies, favorite breakfast foods, fatherhood, regrets, or how we create art. Really, the only guarantee is our profound belief that Tear Gas Ted Wheeler is terrible at life and his public-appointed job.

We’re improvisers, we can roll with just about anything, but what followed was a remarkably aimless interview. There was no pre-established mission statement other than our “podcast event”, still, how did our interviewer manage to talk for most of our interview? And why was he so defensive?

After several minutes of trying to all get onto the interviewer’s conference call, Leon set up a makeshift call share using Google Meet. The first handful of questions were pretty basic. Are you from Portland? Where are you from? Why did you move to Portland? When I was asked what the differences were between my home state of Minnesota and Portland, I answered that Minneapolis was fairly similar to Bridgetown — art-forward, outdoorsy, culinary-rich, and generally liberal but with some pretty big blind spots when it comes to race.

This did not sit well with our Portland-born interviewer. What would follow is 100 minutes of liberal white male defensiveness — a blind spot that I had literally just commented on. If it wasn’t such a common occurrence for Leon, me, and other BIPOC, I’d call it ironic.

Depending on your familiarity with our group, you may or may not have realized that all three of us are Black. It’s the sort of thing that we all agree shouldn’t matter, but of course it does. And given that we don’t shy away from speaking about our personal experiences on stage and on our podcast, our interviewer really shouldn’t have been surprised by our answers.

We would point out a very common example of Portland’s systemic racism. He then goes on a long, meandering spiel about how we’re reading something incorrectly. We cite more examples, he spends minutes nitpicking details. We supply more details, he makes generalizations. “I guarantee Portland businesses want to have more diverse employees.” And yet here we are, Portland, one of the whitest big cities in America.

And yes, he made sure to attempt to shift that focus to other cities, most of which he has never stepped foot in. Making generalizations about other cities was one of his favorite moves. Whether it was our hometowns in Minnesota and Florida, or the places we’ve traveled to perform, like clockwork, he tried to assert that Salt Lake City, Edmonton, Providence, and Cincinnati had to be less diverse than Portland.

I assume he knew better than to ask about us performing in Toronto, Austin, or Los Angeles — but throughout the over two-hour interview, it was very clear he did no research on us, our style of art, or even our “podcast event”. He couldn’t even keep the two of us straight, “Is this Leon talking?” he’d ask. It wasn’t. It wasn’t any of the multiple times he asked.

Given that he hasn’t seen an improv show in “over five years”, I shouldn’t be surprised that he kept fishing for “jokes”. Show me an improviser and I’ll show you someone who gets asked how their stand-up is going. At one point, he made a pretty lackluster attempt to connect the blue-red politics of Minnesota to musician Prince, aka the Purple One.

When I tried to actually add some depth to the “joke” by citing Prince’s liberal sexuality and conservative religion, I was interrupted and had his “setup” explained to me. As with the rest of the interview, Leon and I just didn’t “get it.” So he would explain for us. Over and over and over again. Interrupting us during our interview to tell us how Portland truly works, to explain away racism, to fish for “jokes”. It took about 100 minutes before he asked us a single question about our “podcast event” or our art.

But during those first excruciatingly familiar 100 minutes, he referred to Section 8 Housing as “rat traps”. He made it clear that public transit for people beyond 82nd Avenue wasn’t important. He determined that the displacement of Black and Brown folks in Portland was an overblown non-issue — or worse, just how it goes. The apathy was palpable.

For those of you just joining this essay, this is just a taste of what BIPOC run into every day and twice on Sundays. This was supposed to be an interview about at the very least our podcast, if not also about the ways we are diversifying in response to Covid-19. Since March, we’ve joined the Artist’s Rep Artshub, started an art criticism collaboration with the Portland Art Museum, and scheduled workshops with communities looking to start having the types of difficult conversations our interviewer seems to think they are above. Despite most of this information being in our press release or on our website, almost none of it was discussed.

We haven’t seen the piece yet, but my guess is it will be fairly fluffy. That of course calls into question the point of those first 100 minutes of our interviewer making sure his stance was paramount. As people and institutions all over America talk about diversity of voice and opportunity, here is another gatekeeper to circumvent.

Imagine how often this happens at the local paper in your town — let alone one of the “hip” alt-papers. Imagine how many BIPOC have stared this process in the face and decided it wasn’t worth the extra dose of stress. Even to share the thing they love. Even in a “liberal” town like Portland. We thought it would be a cool opportunity to talk about the art we are making, but all this liberal white male wanted from us was jokes.

Listen to Eric and Leon discuss this interview further on an episode of their podcast, Whatchu Wanna Know.

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As three Black Americans, we use improv comedy, storytelling, and podcasting to discover truth between the blurry lines of the daily grind.

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