[6 June 2014]
Fred Armisen is not a busy man.
He has some projects lined up, sure, but nothing too pressing. There’s Portlandia, of course, the critically acclaimed sketch comedy series that he created and stars in with Carrie Brownstein. The hit series wrapped up its fourth season in May and the duo will soon start filming season five, which will begin airing on IFC in early 2015.
On top of that, Armisen recently assumed duties as leader of the 8G Band, the house band for Late Night with Seth Myers. Not only does Armisen help write the music for the guest intros and commercial breaks; he also serves as a comedic foil to Myers, who likes to pick random quarrels with his fellow SNL alum.
Juggling two major television shows—one that films on the West Coast and another that films on the East Coast—can’t be easy. But Fred Armisen, really, is not that busy.
“I travel a lot,” he hesitatingly concedes. “I’ll go back and forth, you know, West Coast-East Coast, but it’s separated by segments. So it’s not a daily thing. For example, I’m gonna do Portlandia all summer, so I won’t be at Seth’s show for like a long stretch of time. We have fill-ins, we have people coming to play, you know, in my place. And the band is still there, so it kind of works out schedule-wise. I mean, it’s a crazy schedule, but at the same time it’s not like I’m flying every day.”
Indeed, to hear Armisen explain things, Portlandia and Late Night do not occupy enough of his time. “I like it that way,” he says of his schedule. “I actually, legitimately feel that I’m not busy enough. I want to be so busy that it’s overwhelming.”
Perhaps to that end, Armisen is also collaborating with Myers and Bill Hader to create another series for IFC that will debut next year. Together, they will write and star in a weekly series, titled American Documentary, that will offer a realistic look into fictitious topics. Unlike typical mockumentaries, though, American Documentary is more homage than satire, paying tribute to documentaries of decades past.
“We want to make documentaries that look real and authentic,” Armisen explains, “without a glaring joke. So it’s even a step deeper than a mockumentary. We’re kind of obsessed with documentaries—Bill Hader especially—so we’re just trying to mirror some of the styles that we’ve seen.”
Elaborating, Armisen adds, “We want to do something along the lines with what we did with Ian Rubbish.” Rubbish, of course, is the fictional punk rock icon that Armisen introduced during his tenure at Saturday Night Live. While parts of Rubbish’s story were clearly a joke (he possessed a decidedly anti-punk affection for Margaret Thatcher, which made for some awkwardly comical punk anthems), the sketch documentaries were much more realistic and gritty than the tongue-in-cheek humor of music mockumentaries such as A Mighty Wind.
Rubbish is one of many musician characters that Armisen created while at SNL. These characters utilized both his comedic and musical talents, resulting in some memorable could-have-beens-had-they-actually-been-real: the Bjelland Brothers, Taste of New York, the Blue Jean Committee, the Fingerlings ... thankfully, these “acts” now live on in a new series of singles (dubbed the Hometown Heroes series) that Armisen is releasing through Drag City.
Much like American Documentary, the series of singles is as much a sincere nod of appreciation as it is a humorous take on pop culture. “I just wanted to get those songs out under the guise of local celebrities, like local famous music artists,” says Armisen. “The phenomenon of that happening, it’s been happening forever—the way that every town has like their sort of, you know, big band that isn’t necessarily known all over the country. It’s just a common thing and it’s kind of cool.”
As he speaks, Armisen overflows with excitement, peppering his speech with “likes” and “you knows” so that his words can catch up with his enthusiasm. His voice is soft and sincere, almost awe-stricken as he talks about the passions and interests that inspire his own work. Imagine being 16 again, discovering the overwhelming beauty of The Smiths or The Clash for the first time, realizing that something really cool is connected to something even cooler. That’s how Armisen talks in conversation.
“It’s sort of like the documentary A Band Called Death,” he says, referring to the Hometown Heroes series, “where the band is sort of on the verge of something. It’s sort of like a good archeological dig to [explore a] music scene and what’s going on in a certain city at a certain time. It’s just basically that. I just try to cover as many odd, made-up scenes as I could.”
This diverse resume—improvisational actor, writer, musician, musicologist—makes Armisen the perfect pick as bandleader on Late Night. Not only is he a natural at the back-and-forth repartee that is the hallmark of the host-bandleader relationship, he’s also superbly qualified to crank out original tunes for the show’s transitions. Still, he dismisses the notion that writing a handful of song snippets for each show is a daunting task.
“It’s good exercise, you know? It’s a really good exercise in making quick decisions and also not overthinking it. So, it’s high stakes in that you want to sound good. But it’s low stakes in that there doesn’t have to be lyrics, there doesn’t have to be a bridge or nothing. We do two parts to a song and we just try to make it interesting.”
While Late Night with Seth Myers is still in its infancy, one of the highlights of the show thus far is the easy banter between the two SNL alums. In one recurring bit, Myers asks Armisen about a supposed recent event to watch how ridiculously improbable Armisen can grow the tale. On one episode, for example, Armisen claimed that he had been cast in the new Star Wars movie—as Outer Space. On another episode, he explained that he’s launching his own line of fragrances named “The Color of Masks”. Each scent will mimic the smell of the inside of a rubber Halloween mask.
The bits would go nowhere and fall flat if not for the symbiotic comedic timing and delivery that Armisen and Myers have honed through years of working together. When Myers leads into the bit, he cracks a sly smile, the glint in his eyes revealing his excitement in anticipation of seeing Armisen spin a yarn. And because the two have worked together for so many years, nothing is scripted.
“It’s 100% improvised, yeah,” notes Armisen. “They’re like, ‘We’re going to do something where Seth asks you a question,’ and I’m just like, ‘Don’t tell me – don’t ever tell me what to do.’ So I never know what’s coming.”
Of all of his projects, though, Armisen clearly views Portlandia as his child, the entity he’s instinctively compelled to nurture and naturally inclined to obsess over—even to the point of self doubt.
“Even though it’s fun and I feel good about it, it’s definitely something I feel like ...” Here Armisen pauses, searching for the right words to finish his thought, perhaps wondering if finishing it at all is giving away too much. “I could fail you in?,” he concludes, nervously turning his statement into an endearing inquiry. Quickly recovering, he adds, “So I really want to focus on it and when we start writing in June, it’s definitely going to be the sort of center of my life. And I kind of want to focus on it.”
The more he talks, the more Armisen does sound like a parent, bouncing from indescribable joy to bewildered astonishment to joyful wonder in the space of a few sentences. “It’s like a dream come true. Like I didn’t expect it, you know? I had ambitions for it, but I still didn’t expect it, you know? Every little bit of it was a surprise.”
Though he cares so much for Portlandia that he worries about letting down the audience, Armisen simultaneously feels relief at having established the show and cultivated a following. With that behind them, he and Brownstein can take the show in new directions, knowing that the audience will willingly follow them.
“I find it more liberating because the pressure is different now. Once we say something, we try not to repeat it. For example, let’s take the Milk Advisory Board or something. Once we’ve done that, we don’t have to search through the attic in our brain for another food joke. I’m like, ‘Okay, great ... now we can go to another area.’ And that’s the fun part – not having to struggle, you know what I mean? It’s a very logical progression.”
Part of the appeal of Portlandia is that the people and situations in the sketches are immediately recognizable. Though their eccentricities are exaggerated for comedic effect, the characters are people from everyday life, people one might run into at the neighborhood eatery or park. And while Armisen and Brownstein have some fun at their expense, the duo is never nasty or petty—which makes the humor all the more appealing.
“We like to keep it positive,” says Armisen. “I think because it’s just, number one, that it’s easier for us to do. When we do, like, characters or impressions that we like then it comes much more naturally. So then it’s more fun. On the other side of it, I also think that if you start getting nasty, it turns people off a little bit. It’s a little bit of a bummer. We can’t really pull it off, so we just try to keep it positive.”
Much like Late Night, the comedic interplay on Portlandia is left to improvisation, the element of surprise resulting in a more spontaneous, genuine outcome. As Armisen explains it, though, the improvisation is as much pragmatic as artistic, a necessity with dividends.
“It’s not like we’re trying to be heroes or anything. It’s more that like improvising dialogue makes it seem more natural and, also, time wise, we don’t really have a big budget or anything so, like, we have to shoot a lot all day long. So let’s say we get two sketches a day; we have to make it quick. So if we have a scripted thing, then we’d spend too much time on, “Don’t forget to do this line” and, you know, you sort of waste time. By improvising, the director can say, ‘Guys, the point of this one is that your hair is stuck in a blender. So just say that your hair is stuck in a blender.’”
Portlandia, Late Night with Seth Myers, American Documentary, Hometown Heroes ... Fred Armisen, apparently, doesn’t have enough to keep him busy. When asked if he has any other projects crammed into his not-so-busy schedule, he replies with typical nonchalance.
“Other than that,” he says, “there’s this Maya Rudolph variety show that I get to be a cast member of,” as if starring in a high-profile reboot of a television genre with some of the most beloved comedic actors of recent memory is just a thing.
Again, Armisen pauses, then adds, “So that’s really fun and that’s a lot easier for me.”
Yep, easy. Not busy at all. Not Fred Armisen.
Michael Franco is a Professor of English at Oklahoma City Community College, where he teaches composition and humanities. An alumnus of his workplace, he also attended the University of Central Oklahoma, earning both a B.A. and M.A. in English. Franco has been writing for PopMatters since 2004 and has also served as an Associate Editor since 2007. He considers himself lucky to be able to experience what he teaches, writing and the humanities, firsthand through his work at PopMatters, and his experiences as a writer help him teach his students to become better writers themselves.