The SNL player and Portlandia star likes it sweet and creepy.
Fri Feb 25 2011
Fred Armisen wasn't always a comedian; in the early to mid-'90s, he was a struggling musician in a punk band called Trenchmouth. The group wasn't as influential as he'd hoped, and in 1998 Armisen wound up at South by Southwest sitting in with other bands. On a devilish whim, he decided to break up the boredom by recording himself, in the guise of several odd characters, interviewing musicians on the sly in a prank he called Fred Armisen's Guide to Music. The video caught fire in underground music and comedy circles, and not long after, his bizarre and slightly disturbing characters nabbed him a spot on Saturday Night Live, where he's performed for the past nine years. Armisen met Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater Kinney fame) at one of her band's New York City shows shortly after starting his SNL gigs; the pair hit it off, forming a friendship and video collective, ThunderAnt, which mocked the affluent and oblivious denizens of Brownstein's home in the Pacific Northwest. These videos have since morphed into the IFC sketch show Portlandia. We talked to Armisen last week, on the morning it was announced that IFC picked up Portlandia for a second season.
The rhythm of the ThunderAnt stuff feels very natural. How much of it is a product of your friendship with Carrie?
All of it. Carrie is my instant friend. You know when you make a decision and you think, This is my life friend? I would go visit her all the time, and I don't visit anybody. But I thought, I'm going to make this work. I love her and I'd go visit her, and for lack of a better thing to do, we started making videos. We didn't have anyone to answer to except ourselves, so I like that there was a lot of blank spaces. And it's not just awkwardness—I like it when you've got to fill in the blanks.
You've managed to carry the original lightness of these vacation videos into Portlandia.
That was a decision. We had to remind ourselves: We can't forget what we like about ThunderAnt. And we would forget sometimes. We'd start writing and writing, and I'd say, "Relax. Leave it alone, let it be its own thing"—I feel weird that I'm talking about it so seriously. I can't stand to hear comedians talk seriously about what they do.
It's the worst. I don't think people want to know the process. In music, sure. In comedy I think, Oh, I can't believe you thought about it that much. It sounds indulgent. An art piece should speak for itself.
But music is different?
Oh, music is different. I want to hear about what instrument they played, where they recorded, all of that.
What about this, then: You were in a punk band and then switched disciplines outright. How did being a drummer for so long influence your comedy?
It taught me how to regard an audience. What can they hear, what can they not hear, what do they appreciate? Even when I go do comedy stuff live, I can still feel the drummer in me about to go onstage. And then when you're onstage, you're trying to keep the beat but still trying to draw attention to yourself. I'd say it's 50 percent of what I do.
Carrie is surprisingly funny on the show. When did you figure out that she was good enough to anchor a sketch show?
The first thing that I noticed is that she's compelling. I've seen Sleater Kinney many times, and I found myself just drawn to her. You know that face when you wonder, Who are you? It's even deeper than having a crush. It's: What are you? I would just watch the way she played and the way she talked and there's something about her personality, too. I am so engaged.
Between Portlandia and many of the characters you do, it's clear you like comedy that breathes, in which the audience may not agree altogether on a moment for laughter. How do you weigh that against the SNL model, bringing in the audience as quickly as possible and hitting the joke hard?
They're both so different. They're both satisfying in different ways. With SNL, we have the luxury of a live audience, so we can pinpoint laughs. The luxury at Portlandia is that we have an editor who can choose things he finds funny. He just crams in whatever he knows is going to work best.
What's fun about doing topical bits on SNL, like playing Mubarak these past couple of weeks?
There's a real excitement to it and it's educational. I don't know who this guy is. And then, for the first time, I had to look at the newspaper and think, Okay, who is this dude? It makes you feel like you're in the present tense.
People must respond to it differently.
Yeah, that's when the grown-ups talk to me.
What do you feel when people tell you that you play creepy really well?
My favorite stuff is creepy. I'm a huge Peter Sellers fan. Him in Lolita—what's better than that? Him in Dr. Strangelove: There's a creepiness there, too. [Pause] I like the fact that people point to me and say anything.
Portlandia airs on IFC at 11:30pm EST on Saturdays. An extended interview with Armisen on Ron Bennington's Unmasked will air on Sirius Radio's Raw Dog Comedy channel Sat 26 at 8pm, Sun 27 at 3 and 8pm, and Mon 28 at 7pm.