words // Zach Despart | photography // Ben Sarle
For a guy who has starred in one hit television show, created another and appeared in dozens of feature films, Fred Armisen is a pretty down to earth dude.
We arrived at Burlington’s First Unitarian Universalist Church to find Armisen, in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, snacking on cheese and crackers by the stage. The Saturday Night Live and Portlandia star was in town to put on two sold-out solo shows — a mix of stand up, musical performances and video clips.
After a stint as the drummer in the Chicago hardcore punk band Trenchmouth, Armisen ventured into comedy. He was offered a job on Saturday Night Live in 2002 and stayed for 11 seasons, becoming one of the most versatile members of the cast. Since 2011, Armisen has written and co-starred in the cult hit Portlandia, which he created with longtime collaborator Carrie Brownstein. That show, which airs on the Independent Film Channel, is in its fourth season and has been signed for a fifth.
This afternoon, Armisen is making some last-minute adjustments to the set —checking the lights, troubleshooting the projector, consulting with the crew. He has a hand in every aspect of the production, fine-tuning everything until it is exactly to his liking.
It was immediately clear that with Armisen, it isn’t a matter of being in or out of character, or perfecting an act to perform it onstage. He’s just himself — a soft-spoken, thoughtful man with an undeniable knack for comedy. During the sound check with his backing band, Armisen joked between songs — at one point breaking into a Mick Jagger impression, rooster and all. Instinctively, the guitarist played the opening riff to “Brown Sugar” and the two jammed for a few bars.
Saturday Night Live is one of those shows where the characters are well known, but audiences, with the exception of the Weekend Update hosts (think ‘I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not!’), often don’t know the names of the cast. Despite its popularity — the show won a Peabody award — Portlandia flies under the radar of most casual television viewers.
So the extent of Armisen’s celebrity is unclear. Or rather, it was, until we stepped out onto Church Street to shoot a few photos for the piece. Immediately, Armisen was recognized by passersby, and approached by iphone photo seekers. He didn’t seem surprised, and was friendly to everyone that just wanted to say hi.
Back inside, Thread Magazine sat down with Armisen to talk his career onstage and on screen, future projects, and, of course, to ask if the hipsters in Burlington stack up to the fixie-riding, free-range certified granolas on Portlandia
Fred Armisen in at the top of Burlington’s Church Street. Nov 16, 2013.
TM: So you’ve never been to Burlington before?
FA: It’s my first time in Burlington — it’s really pretty. It looks like fall with a capital F. A total American picture, a painting of what fall is supposed to look like.
TM: We watch Portlandia and sometimes it’s like “Wow, this is just like Burlington.” From what you’ve seen, do you think there are any similarities between the two cities?
FA: We’ve heard that. We got a lot of people who watch Portlandia that say their city is like Portland. I can’t take ownership of Portland — I’m there a lot and I live there part of the time but I’m not from there originally. There are many cities that sort of pop up as comparisons — Brooklyn, Austin, Asheville, N.C., and Burlington absolutely comes up. People will say, “Yeah, Burlington’s the one.”
TM: You suggested in the Chicago Tribune that Chicago serves as the inspiration for Portlandia rather than Portland. Is that true?
FA: Yes. I lived there for a very long time, over 10 years, in an area called Wicker Park. It, more than anything — the music community, the art community, the recording studio and coffee shop community, very much informed all my references on the show.
TM: How did you pitch Portlandia to Lorne Michaels? He’s produced a lot of shows by SNL alums (30 Rock, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Up All Night) — does he just trust that you guys do good work, even if he doesn’t necessarily get the comedy?
FA: It was very organic and natural and quite normal, more of a dialogue than an official meeting. We’re in the same production house, called Broadway Video, and it was more like, “Hey, what do you think of this project?” Carrie and I already had a lot of videos made already, so it was easy to say, “This is what it is.” Right away, it just started happening. At first, it’s just a pilot, and that’s less of a gamble, less of a crazy idea. So it’s more like, “Yeah, let’s try it.”
TM: How did Lorne find you originally?
FA: In the most completely by the book show business way: I auditioned for SNL. No underground connections, nothing like that. Which is the best way — it’s a very honest and black-and-white way to get into something, to get on the show.
TM: A lot of people might not know this, but back in the nineties you were a drummer for the Blue Man Group. What was that like?
FA: I was one of the drummers in the Chicago show. The Blue Man Group — they’re not the musicians, the musicians play above the stage in a sort of backlit loft. It was great — I learned a lot and I’m grateful to them. I learned a lot about entertainment and people and performance. It really changed my life. I loved it.
TM: You’ve cited John Waters as a large influence on your comedy, and said you admire his penchant for shocking and confusing his audiences — do you see some of that bleeding into your work on Portlandia?
FA: With John Waters, I like that he carved out his own genre. He had his own version of comedy, his own version of filmmaking that isn’t even necessarily comedy. It’s a groove or a notch that I feel most comfortable in. It’s never that one kind of comedy is better than the other, that’s just the kind that suits me. There’s a certain kind of guitar playing that a guitarist will like to do. So sort of, right in the middle where it’s not quite comedy is what I feel most comfortable doing.
TM: Yeah, you started out with Fred Armisen’s Guide To Music — it’s awkward to watch, in that it isn’t straight comedy.
FA: Right, right. In that video, I just did started doing characters. It’s kind of the beginning seeds of doing that kind of thing, making up characters.
TM: You played a wide variety of characters on Saturday Night Live, everyone from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Muammar Gaddafi to Barack Obama — what was that like and how important is it to have such a versatile player on the cast?
FA: It was really fun, because it wasn’t just me. There are writers behind it, and the wig department, art direction department and all that. I got to work with the best writers — these really brilliant, smart people. I didn’t write the political stuff at all. It’s just this lucky thing where these geniuses are just like, “Here — say these words.” More than anything it’s fun —even though its hard work, that whole experience is heightened.
TM: You played Bernie Sanders in a sketch (seen here, scroll to 3:35) that got cut after dress rehearsal and never aired. How did you prepare to do the character?
FA: For impressions I just watch stuff online; sometimes I’ll look at a photograph of them to get a sense of who they are. It’s a very simple thing — watch it, maybe a day before I do it I pick up on, “oh maybe he has these mannerisms, like this or like that.”
TM: Do you see this traveling show you’re doing now as getting back to your punk rock roots with Trenchmouth?
FA: Yes and no. I played with Trenchmouth for ten years. We joked around a lot in the band, and it taught me a lot about characters. I’m a punk rock drummer and have always kept that with me through everything I’ve ever done — Portlandia, stand up comedy, everything.
I’ve been very fortunate on Saturday Night Live — they let me do a lot of music stuff on there. But none of this is like “hey, I’m a music guy now.” It’s still in comedy world. That said, on SNL they let me do tons of music — fake bands, and they let me experiment a lot. Aside from Portlandia,Lorne and all the producers on the show let me do some very experimental things; some of that was music. What you saw in the sound check — we’re just practicing the songs, but I talk a lot. I make sure there’s talking and videos and stuff.
TM: In one of those fake bands you played Queen Elizabeth as a Joe Strummer-type punk frontman. Do you think she’s ever seen that sketch? How would you want her to receive it?
FA: Wow… I don’t even… I would be so psyched if that happened. I did that as a character with a lot of affection.
TM: Do you see yourself collaborating with SNL graduates in the future, like Bill Hader, whom you worked with a lot on the show?
FA: Always, always. It’s already been happening. In the history of SNL, Adam Sandler works with Rob Schnieder, David Spade, et cetera. We’ve already been carrying on the tradition. I was on Andy [Samberg]’s show, Kristen [Wiig] and Andy were on Portlandia… Bill was on Portlandia, and we’re working on something right now. I’m also doing something with Seth [Meyers].
TM: You all — Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and yourself, all left the show right around the same time. Did you all talk about leaving or did you just have a sense that it was time?
FA: Yeah, the second thing. We just thought, “Yeah, this is the time to move on.” It’s a very good feeling. It’s very bittersweet but nice — you think, “You know, I’m ready.” And we talk to each other like, “I’m thinking about leaving — are you thinking about leaving?” I love it — it’s never with any bitterness. I loved Saturday Night Live — up until the last minute I enjoyed it. So it’s nice, it’s a happy ending to that. It’s a new beginning — as religious as it sounds, the moment I stopped, right away my brain thought, “Let’s focus on Portlandia, keep going with the next project.” So it’s just a chapter.
TM: You played Tino the club owner in the first Anchorman film with fellow SNL alums Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Do you reprise that role in Anchorman 2?
FA: No. Those are all my friends and I can’t wait to see the movie. It’s not like “No!” it’s more like, “Oh, yeah! I can’t wait to see it.” I’m very lucky to be a part of the legacy of that whole movie.
TM: One more thing — since we’re in Vermont, we have to ask: what’s your favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor?
FA: Chubby Hubby.
Fred Armisen backstage before his show in Burlington on Nov 16, 2013.
Onstage a few hours later, Armisen did not disappoint. He came out in a blonde wig in his Ian Rubbish character, the Thatcherite punk rocker who writes songs supporting the policies of the polarizing prime minister. Rubbish, whose thick British accent left little room for consonants, continuously praised Thatcher and introduced one tune by saying, “This is a pro-fascist song.”
After running backstage for a quick wardrobe change, Armisen re-emerged as himself, in a blazer and his trademark Buddy Holly eyeglasses. For the rest of the show he performed absurd impressions — like a guy in the 1950s listening to doo-wop as the heaviest music he’s ever heard — and original music that held up in its own right. Armisen’s backing band included guitarist J Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr. fame. He showed deleted scenes from the previous season of Portlandia in between sets.
Armisen and his band finished the show with a sing-along rendition of the TLC smash hit “Waterfalls,” with Leigh Nash (of Sixpence None The Richer fame) on vocals. Armisen described the song as “one of the greatest ever written.”
The band left afterwards but Armisen stuck around for a Q&A. On request, he reprised his impression of Ahmedinejad, accepted a bottle of sparkling cider from a fan and admired two others who dressed as characters from Portlandia.
Armisen’s improv background was on full display, leaving one to wonder how much of his show is scripted and how much just comes to him in the moment.
“If you could have a meal with one person from history, alive or dead, who would it be and what would you ask them?” an audience member queried.
“I’d say they guy who invented — you know those really old bicycles with the huge wheel in the front and the tiny one in the back?” Armisen said without hesitation. “I’d just say, ‘Hey man, that front wheel is way too big — can’t you see that?’”
See more of Fred at http://fredarmisen.com/