Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
One of SNL’s most modest and low-key players, Fred Armisen brought a punk rocker/character comedian hybrid edge, quiet charm, unrelenting versatility, and collaborative talents as both a background and lead funnyman to his eleven seasons – making him one of SNL’s most dependable anti-punchline wardens of weirdness – and his best characters blur the line between parody and realism as well as cynicism and sincerity: “There will always be new ways of doing sketches and performance,” he says. “I want to try something that isn’t necessarily comedy or drama.”
From an early age, Armisen was an avid fan of bands like Devo and The Clash while growing up in Valley Stream, Long Island, where he aspired to become a full-time musician. After briefly attending the School of Visual Arts, he moved to Chicago in 1988 to play drums in the punk rock band Trenchmouth and also had a stint as a background drummer with Blue Man Group throughout the early nineties. Frustrated with Trenchmouth’s lack of success, Armisen channeled his troubles into a homemade video in 1998 called Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and South by Southwest, his first go at man-on-the-street-style character comedy inspired by British comedian Dennis Pennis and filmed by his then-wife Sally Timms. Throughout the video, Fred interrupts a string of music industry seminar speakers and interviews bands by posing as inept reporters like the tactless German journalist Gerhard Lipschitz.
After the underground success of Armisen’s SXSW tape, HBO tapped him to play a band interviewer for its short-lived series Reverb, and he also aired a special similar to the SXSW tape with the HBO Zone channel’s Fred the same year. His HBO exposure led to appearances on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, NBC’s music video show Late Friday, and SNL writer Bob Odenkirk’s failed Fox pilot Next! alongside Mr. Show regulars Jay Johnston, Brian Posehn, Jerry Minor, and Jill Talley as well as alt comedy up-and-comers Patton Oswalt and Zach Galifianakis. In addition to his television appearances, Armisen further developed characters in Los Angeles comedy clubs like the Venezuelan timbale-playing comedian Fericito, and his standup experience and onscreen footage earned him an SNL audition. He joined the cast as a featured player in 2002 alongside similarly absurdity-driven newcomer Will Forte.
Thanks in part to his Venezuelan mother and German/Japanese father, Armisen earned immediate and massive airtime as SNL’s ultimate multi-cultural impersonation chameleon as illustrated by his over 100 impressions of figures including Prince, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Penny Marshall, Desi Arnaz, Gene Simmons, Joy Behar (“So what!?”), Tony Danza, Martin Scorsese, Liberace, and Queen Elizabeth. Just like his 1998 SXSW video, Armisen didn’t veer away from sensitive targets and delivered provocatively hilarious depictions of blind former New Jersey governor David Paterson as well as deaf comedian Ritchie B and the mentally challenged Frondi, his breakout character from 2004 who famously tells host Ben Affleck (referring to his critically panned film Gigli) “Ben! Ben! …I don’t think this movie’s gonna work.” He also gave an unforgettable performance as the wimpy, desperate thespian Tony Palmese in the 2011 Digital Short “Half Jewish, Half Italian, Completely Neurotic.” “I’ve always liked the idea of a person at the wrong venue,” Fred says, reflecting on his favorite characters. “Any of those comedians are performing where they shouldn’t be. The same can be said about any of the fake bands I’ve done on the show.” Thankfully those bands – The Blue Jean Committee, The Bjelland Brothers, A Taste of New York, Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros, and more – will be represented by a string of 7” singles due to be pressed over the next few months.
Armisen also created a long list of eclectic recurring characters like the oddly-accented contemporary pop art dealer Nuni Shoener, punchline-free Update comedian Nicholas Fehn and the Native American Billy Smith, Dominican talk show host Manuel Ortiz, and Stuart, the blonde lead star of the west coast soap opera spoof “The Californians.” He also brought Fericito from his early days in Chicago and made memorable Weekend Update duos with Will Forte (Gunther and Patrick Kelly), Bill Hader (the gay New Jersey couple), and Kristen Wiig (the tacky on-the-spot singers Garth and Kat). “I always enjoyed Garth and Kat,” Fred says. “Nicholas Fehn was always fun. For characters and impressions, it is most important to me that I like the person, that I’m celebrating them.”
After eleven seasons, Armisen left in 2013 alongside veteran players Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis and made his final appearance as Ian Rubbish singing the original goodbye song “Lovely Day” with Bill Hader on bass and Jason Sudeikis on drums, gradually joined by friends Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, J Mascis, Aimee Mann, and Steve Jones. By then, Armisen had already appeared in films like EuroTrip, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and The Dictator as well as shows Human Giant, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation, and he was also the voice behind the downbeat Mexican puppet Chip Douglas on Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers from 2003-2007 as well as Speedy Gonzales for The Looney Tunes Show since 2010. During his final three years at SNL, he also co-created, wrote, and starred in the Emmy-winning Lorne Michaels-produced IFC series Portlandia with his friend and former Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, which is embarking on its fourth season this month. Looking back at the lessons learned from SNL, Fred keeps it simple: “Don’t be precious about what you do. Edit yourself mercilessly.” Ironic advice coming from the mind behind Nicholas Fehn, but perfect for one of SNL’s most stealth-successful and ego-free offbeat favorites.