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Devo Made Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen Want to Be on TV

Ever since he was a kid watching bands on television, Fred Armisen wanted to perform. And now, for nine years, Fred Armisen has been a key utility player on Saturday Night Live. Unlike previous SNL-ers like Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, he has no overarching persona that overwhelms all of his characters; rather, he vanishes into a wide array of parts. And judging from the way he's carving out his extracurricular career, that seems to be the way he likes it. Rather than grabbing for a sitcom or lead movie role, he's popped up in guest spots on quirky hilarious shows like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! And in Portlandia, his new IFC sketch series with former Sleater-Kinney band member Carrie Brownstein (which airs tonight and was just renewed for a second season), he plays a multitude of hipster-skewering characters from the easygoing Oregon city. Vulture chatted with the chameleon about Portland’s color scheme, his embarrassing childhood performances, and why he likes to leave audiences wondering, "Wait, was that real?"

Why Portland?
There’s something open about Portland. There’s something very spacious. I thought it would really help with the physical shooting of everything, even though that culture exists in Echo Park or Silver Lake, or say Austin, Texas. I also like the color scheme of that city. It’s very dark green and plaid-y. Those are the colors I like to wear, so I thought it’d be a nice framework for everything. Aside from that, it’s where Carrie lives. So it’s all accurate.

When you started performing comedy, were you always doing characters onstage?
Yeah, always always characters. Always. That’s all I did. Little did I know that it was something that would have worked on SNL. I wanted to see how characters would fit into an evening of stand-up comedy. It’s what comes to me. I don’t know how to do jokes. I don’t know how to tell stories. I don’t know how to go onstage and talk about my parents or my family. It’s just what I have the clearest picture of.

In other interviews, you mention numerous times that you’d always wanted to be on TV. What was the appeal?
I’ll never know, but it really struck me like lightning through the front of my brain. I remember seeing the Clash live on TV, or Devo would turn up on shows. I was like, “That’s the perfect mix of everything — it’s beyond a record.” Devo in particular paid attention to their aesthetics. Then, as the years went on, I was in a band and all I could think of was that I hoped we’d get to be on Conan some day. It was always this thing in front of me.

Did you always want to be a performer?
As far as I can remember.

How did you demonstrate that as a kid?
It’s too embarrassing to tell. [Laughs.] In the mirror, I was every band I ever listened to. And I remember walking through my backyard — this is so embarrassing. I was alone in my backyard as a little kid; we had this little balcony, and to me, that was like a little television show. I’ve never even said these words out loud, even when I’ve been in therapy, but I used to walk out to my balcony and it was like my own show. It’s fully embarrassing. Fully.

You’ve been on lots of TV shows and popped up in lots of movies. Is there anything else you’d still like to do?
I always want to do more and more. It’s more about how I can make it something I enjoy doing. The person I think of most — and I thought about this a while ago — is Jane Lynch. She was in all these indie movies, and just kept going. Now she’s on a huge TV show, but she’s very much herself. That, to me, is ideal. And you can tell she does it because she loves it.

When do you feel the most comfortable as a performer?
I gotta say, being on SNL: when I’m up there performing with my friends; when there’s music going on. If I do something on "Weekend Update," because Seth is there and he’s my friend, it’s a nice place to be.

Someone once sent me your DVD of Jens Hannemann: Complicated Drumming Technique, which thoroughly confused me —
When I used to do stand-up, before SNL, I desperately wanted everyone to think, “Was that real, or was that fake?” I live off of that. I used to do a priest character, and I would tell the audience, “Seriously, I’m a priest, I’m not doing a bit.” I still aspire to that — and not to fool anybody, but I just like that feeling of, “Could this possibly be real?” That DVD is based on other drumming instructional DVDs that are very meticulous. There’s a lot of detail, a lot of close-ups. My wish when that came out was that I wanted people to buy it and not know who I was, go back to the music store, and go, “This is bullshit.” It was very specifically for drummers.

That’s such a specific thing to satirize.
[Laughs.] Yes, yes it is. But that’s what came to me. I never question it.

Photo: Patrick McMullan