Since miraculously being chosen for Saturday Night Live in 2002, Fred Armisen has gone for almost 10 years with the dreams of every 90s hardcore kid stitched into his clothes, a secret passport whereby he could choose any goofy one-dimensional role (his first big movie character was an Italian train creepo in Eurotrip for example, definitely the funniest thing about that movie, but still…) and even while being low-brow hilarious to everyone, a cadre of folks who knew where he came from held out hope that he would soon make something really cool of his own. Given his unlikely jump from the drummer of the criminally underrated hardcore band Trenchmouth, to making a homemade video parody of SXSW, to suddenly being on the biggest comedy stage in the world, and given his continuing activity in underground music (directing music videos for Helio Sequence, drumming for Les Savvy Fav, and starting a sketch comedy duo with Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein) it didn’t seem impossible, but other than awesome cameos in a number of awesome places, nothing much broke through. It’s like Superman in reverse–we’ve been waiting for him to put on the glasses so we’d be like OMG LOOK HE’S A HERO!
Well, the time is now. Armisen’s work with Brownstein has led to a TV show on IFC, Portlandia, which is the highest profile original comedy series for that network and the first time EVER that a Saturday Night Live cast member has been on a simultaneous sketch comedy show. Lorne Michaels clearly doesn’t consider Portlandia competition, and that’s probably because it’s way odder and more innovative than anything else on TV that isn’t animated.
To this long-time card carrying harDCore comedy nerd (me) the show does exactly what I have been hoping he would do for years–make jokes about indie shit. There used to be jokes about indie shit, look at Upright Citizens Brigade and Mr. Show and the State…but somehow it fell out of fashion, and Sketch TV became a parade of celebrity impersonations, boners and racial stereotypes. Don’t get me wrong, both can be funny, but both can also be horrible (it rhymes with Barlos Pensia). Portlandia takes the sci-fi weirdness of Tim and Eric or Wondershowzen and marries it with Kids In The Hall’s recurring characters and biting social satire. And it’s pointed at us! Bloggers, pesco-vegans, Boing Boing addicts, bike lane hoggers and Etsy crafties! Oh my. It stings doesn’t it? And it was well worth the wait.
Unfortunately Fred was super duper busy this week preparing for his one man show at the Black Cat tonight and so we only had a few minutes to chat about his career and try to dig up insider dirt on his many projects, but we did get him to maniacally spout nonsense about magic in his fingers and call Lorne “a contaminated little maggot”. Wait, no that was someone else. Nevertheless, he was still very charming and always, always cool.
BYT: What does An Evening with Fred Armisen entail? Will there be any drum lessons?
Fred Armisen: There will be drumming! Plenty of music all around.
BYT: IFC appears to be embracing comedy these days, which is great! Can you say anything about why they decided to start producing more original stuff?
FA: I think the people working there are just huge comedy fans.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVmq9dq6Nsg
BYT: I don’t think anything on TV has had the kind of sketch-to-sketch interplay structure of Portlandia since Upright Citizens Brigade, or possibly Strangers With Candy, both of which were made 10 years ago. Is it important to you to move the genre forward, where a lot of sketch comedy on TV seems to be moving backward?
FA: Thank you for the kind compliment. I love both of those shows. And I think everything on TV is moving forward. Every show brings something new to somebody somewhere.
BYT: Maybe. But Portlandia seems to more avant garde than most. To have that kind of structure and recurring characters popping up over various shows must take a crazy amount of writing before hand. Is that true? I almost get the feeling that story arcs for some of the characters are already laid out. Is that a result of working with Carrie in ThunderAnt for years?
FA: It is a lot of writing, yes. And yeah, it’s from our background working together. Our friendship too.
BYT: A factual question that has been bugging me: Was that old lady in the Library in the first episode of Portlandia an actor? Her teasing of you as the hide-and-seek player was one of my favorite moments of the show so far. Was that scripted or was she just that awesome?
FA: She was just that awesome.
BYT: I thought so. OK. Now it’s time for me to nerd out a little. Can I ask a Trenchmouth Question? Good. In the early 90s I decided to attend Beloit College in Wisconsin partially based on the fact that Trenchmouth played at the college bar on campus. However, the college turned out to be not that great. When is Trenchmouth going to apologize for that?
BYT: Haha, that’s not the real question. The real question is, Trenchmouth felt at the time very natural to be a fan of, as a DC hardcore kid. You guys were somewhat aligned with that scene musically, but what about philosophically? Did you feel any kinship with us out here?
FA: Damon, our singer was originally from DC. We played there a lot and had many friends there. I think we always just wanted to somehow be part of that scene.
BYT: Speaking of that scene, Hardcore was a very serious movement, especially in DC. Did you take any of the values of that community into the comedy community? Like do you consider yourself a Hardcore comedian in some non-sexual way?
FA: Sometimes I try to keep that DIY mentality. I still use statements that Ian Mackeye and Steve Albini have said as mantras.
BYT: That is very inspiring. OK, I’m going to ask some nerdy “What is SNL *really* like” questions now, I hope they aren’t too nerdy… Some of my favorite characters of yours appear on Update–Billy Smith, Nicholas Fehn, that killer Mubarak impression the other night–is there a big difference for you doing characters there and in more traditional scenes?
FA: The traditional scenes are fun because I get to work with people I love and who make me laugh. I really love doing the show. The Update pieces are fun too. Seth is always great in them, and he in fact wrote all the Mubarak stuff.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gyB02h4uqs
BYT: I feel like you started on SNL right as a new era on the show was dawning (and it was one of the bestest eras if I might say). Did you have a sense that there was going to be a new focus on clever references over pure silliness? Or is it all a blur?
FA: It is all a total blur.
BYT: That back-and-forth with Charlyne Yi over her “audition” tape for SNL a few years ago was hilarious. Were you friends with her before that went down or was some of her starstruckness real? How do you think she’d do on SNL for real?
FA: We were friends before. We’ve been friends for a while.
BYT: The excitement over comedy right now in terms of coverage of its inner workings reminds me of the early 90s indie rock mania. Does it feel like you’re living under a spotlight of media attention that wasn’t around for earlier performers?
FA: I think there has always been that spotlight for different comedians over time.
BYT: Some folks have criticized you for playing Obama and other characters who aren’t caucasian. In my opinion you are adept at making them nothing like stereotypes–but how do you steer clear of that and still be funny to a wide audience (some of whom find stereotypes totally hilarious!).
Thank you and that is all in the writing. Seth Meyers, Jim Downey, John Mulaney, and Bryan Tucker do most of the political stuff. Geniuses for sure.
BYT: Hmm. Not really an answer but OK. And finally a ridiculous question: Could you help me invent a new emoticon (in honor of your “Have you read___?” sketch) that means: “I already know that.”
FA: It’s a book with an exclamation mark in the middle. Kind of like:
BYT: Now that’s what I’m talking about. Thanks!
Don’t be all [[!]]. You’ve never seen Fred Armisen live before. Go to the Black Cat and check him out tonight!