Fred Armisen Can’t Stop Making Comedy

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Clockwise from top left: Fred Armisen as Gustave Calderon, Archer; Vivienne “Big Vivvy” Van Kimpton, Documentary Now!; Dr. Weiss, The Jim Gaffigan Show; Brandon, New Girl; Garry Epstein, Difficult People; and Dead Janitor, Deadbeat. Photo: Courtesy of the networks

Steve Maxwell Vintage and Custom Drums, up on the third floor of a slender building in the Theater District, is neatly organized and surprisingly quiet. A former recording studio retro­fitted for a niche upscale market, it feels exactly like the kind of place Fred Armisen — drummer, self-mocking hipster, TV-­comedy perpetual-motion machine — would recommend for an interview.

Armisen doesn’t so much arrive as nonchalantly materialize. His swept-back hair recedes slightly over gray temples — he’s 49 — but his face is ageless and so is his style: chunky black glasses, black Keds, flannel shirt, canvas jacket. “Is Jeremy still working here?” he asks a manager, before inquiring about kits once owned by jazz greats Joe Morello, Elvin Jones, and Mel Lewis. “When it comes to drums, we’re allowed to name-drop,” he says. “Oh, look at these old timbales! They’re my favorite instrument in the whole world. Tito Puente used to play them, and as Fericito I played them.”

Fericito, a manic, gold-toothed timbalist with corny punch lines, was the character Armisen chose to play when he auditioned for Saturday Night Live in 2002. “So they’ve been sort of like my good-luck charm,” he says, rolling his fingers over the weathered twin drums: trat, trat, trat-trat-trat-trat. Armisen owns a kit from the store; he spent seven years drumming in the Chicago post-hardcore band Trenchmouth.

SNL employed him for 11 years, and unlike Trenchmouth, it gave him what he wanted — fame. This afternoon, he is due back at Rockefeller Center for the Monday pitch meeting that launches his one-week return to host the season-41 finale. He flew in yesterday from his Los Angeles home to the apartment he keeps in Manhattan. This morning, he prerecorded a bit for the Peabody Awards, and before the pitch meeting, he’ll need a haircut. (He grew it long for a movie shoot.) After the finale, he’ll start collaborating with Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney guitarist, on season seven of Portlandia, the sketch-show send-up of bourgeois bohemia that anchors his happily harried life. Later, they’ll shoot it in Portland, where Armisen has a third home.

Repairing to an insulated demo room, Armisen turns his soft staccato my way. “First of all, I love your name. I’m a really big fan of Boris Karloff,” he says. “He was like, ‘I’m the monster guy.’ I love the idea of ‘Pick your little corner shop and your life will be happier.’ ” But what would you call Armisen’s niche? In addition to Portlandia, he’s in the middle of season two of IFC’s Documentary Now! — uncannily faithful documentary spoofs co-starring SNL alum Bill Hader and co-written by Seth Meyers; he’s the bandleader on Meyers’s Late Night talk show, fronting an indie-rock supergroup of his own creation; he co-produces a Latino comedy website; he appears in a few movies and animated series a year; and he pops up without warning in cameos across the universe of Peak TV.

The litany of those cameos calls to mind “Did You Read?,” the classic Portlandia sketch of literate one-upsmanship. Did you see him as an erotica-writing roommate on New Girl? An adult-baby fetishist on Broad City? An aspiring musician–health inspector on Bob’s Burgers? A Venezuelan functionary on Parks and Recreation? A mysterious foreigner on Brooklyn Nine-Nine? Another mysterious foreigner on 30 Rock? A telethon caller with no lines, also on 30 Rock? Celebrity monster Robert Durst on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? Did you see him? Did you see him?

Armisen has the soul of a performance artist, the native gifts of a polyethnic code-switcher, and the work ethic of Prince, whose tireless experimentation he emulates. In an earlier age, “I think Fred would have been a local late-night basic-cable star with a weird talk show outside of Chicago,” says Robert Carlock, a top writer for SNL, 30 Rock, and Kimmy Schmidt. “He needed more than three networks. But then a lot of us are sucking on that many-teated monster.”

Armisen is feeding on it with the bottomless appetite of a onetime drummer who dreamed of being Keith Moon, only to languish in the bitter backwash of the Smashing Pumpkins. “Yes, I’m really tightly scheduled, but I love it,” says Armisen. “I love the chaos. I love the mania, the insanity of having to fly to Italy and missing the flight back. I love working, and I love overworking. I just want to obliterate everything and turn everything into a blur! I want to burn through all of it. All of these projects, it’s not even enough. And it’s all with my friends, with people I love.”

The week we meet, his friends at SNL are counting on him. Show creator Lorne Michaels pushed hard to slot him into the finale. Does he feel any pressure? “No, because who cares about bombing?” he says. “I got into comedy from bombing. I had a manager who gave me notes — ‘You have no jokes, you’re just doing all these characters’ — and even back then, I remember thinking, That’s fantastic. I bombed my way into SNL.”

Clockwise from top left: Armisen as Martin, Unsupervised; Little Bobby Durst, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Jesus, Man Seeking Woman; Vince, Portlandia; himself, Late Night With Seth Meyers; and Mr. Bunting, Saturday Night Live. Photo: Courtesy of the networks

Armisen was born in Mississippi, where his half-­German, half-Japanese father met his Venezuelan mother. Dad went on to work for IBM, and the family lived mostly on Long Island, with a two-year stint in Brazil. Returning to New York with a samba obsession, the preteen Armisen took up drumming. He soaked up punk and Devo, Andy Kaufman and his mother’s idol Chevy Chase. He went to the School of Visual Arts, met Trenchmouth singer Damon Locks, dropped out, and moved to Chicago.

“I always wanted to be famous,” Armisen once told Howard Stern, “but I thought it was going to be through drumming.” As a recipe for world domination, “it doesn’t make any sense,” he tells me. “But then it turned out that it did.” Wherever he was — in the tour van, behind the drums, working the phones at the Chicago club Lounge Ax — Armisen was a one-man band of pranks, impressions, and kid-gloved mockeries. His first filmed appearance as Fericito is in the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

After Trenchmouth dissolved, Armisen drummed for the Blue Man Group, learning to take himself less seriously and honing his first full-blown characters. Zach Galifianakis was an early booster. Portlandia director Jonathan Krisel remembers asking Galifianakis who was the funniest member of SNL. “Clearly it’s Fred,” he said. “He will do a joke for just one person.”

What finally got Armisen noticed was a 20-minute video motivated by pure frustration. By 1998, he was embittered by the music industry’s empty promises, so he decided to make fun of its annual confab, South by Southwest. Impersonating interviewers who were German or deaf or blind or mentally disabled, he was like Sacha Baron Cohen stripped of malice. Some of his victims were in on the joke. Behind the camera was Sally Timms, a singer with the Mekons and Armisen’s first wife. HBO saw the tape and booked him to do interstitials.


Watch Fred Armisen Talk About His Morning Routine at Vulture Festival


After moving to L.A., Armisen began performing at Largo, where future Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk first saw him — probably playing a jazz aficionado who belittles the audience. “It’s a great Fred character,” says Odenkirk, “a huge asshole who’s got his assholeness well hidden.” Odenkirk put him in an unproduced Fox pilot, Next! Then SNL called.

During Armisen’s long tenure there, “he just got clearer on the pure essence of his comedy,” says Michaels. “When he would do the ‘Prince Show,’ the character was still reverent and still funny. He wasn’t in any way mocking Prince … there’s no meanness in what he does.”

“It isn’t like a moral thing,” Armisen says of his do-no-harm philosophy. “I learned at SNL that it’s a bummer to bum people out. When you’re being mean to someone, you can feel the audience just get cold.” Brownstein says it’s one of her favorite things about Armisen: “He’s not making you laugh out of spite or bitterness but out of a positivity. That’s why people are so fond of him.”

In person, Armisen is relentlessly, almost unnervingly nice. He thanks me profusely for praising him and compliments me on seeing all of Portlandia. When I ask whether comedy ever frustrates him as music did, he says, “No … it’s one easy ride, right?” Later, I ask what he thinks of critics — of his less-p.c. performances or his self-confessed womanizing—and he answers in his syncopated upspeak: “You have to understand how lucky I feel. I was on Saturday. Night. Live. I played with the Clash! On what planet would I look at anything in my life in any less-than-stellar way?”

Armisen and Bill Hader left SNL at exactly the same time. “We made a deal,” says Hader. “We said we should wave to everybody and step off the stage together.” Greeting them on the other side was the many-teated monster. The occasional MacGruber aside, padded movie spinoffs are no longer the default SNL retirement plan; the great zombie-character apocalypse of the ’90s is over. Documentary Now! is the newer, better model. It grew out of “Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros,” a sketch starring Armisen as a British punk who fell hard for Margaret Thatcher. The team turned down a proposal to flesh it out further. “We already did that,” Hader says. “Let’s not belabor a thing; let’s create something new.”

Michaels produces most of Armisen’s shows, niche products one and all. “They’re so built around his talent,” says Michaels. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be a mass sensibility, but for the audience that loves it, it’s significant enough that the shows can exist.”

But Peak TV isn’t paradise; it’s a gig economy, rewarding hustle. “I remember reading that the Flaming Lips did a show at the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210,” says Carlock, citing one of alt rock’s weirder moments. (They cameoed more comfortably on Portlandia.) “Having the confidence in yourself to say ‘Yes’ to things that might not be cool, or something agents want you to do, or a good use of your time, and making it interesting — Fred has that.”

It’s in the nature of sketch comedy that the best projects start off as larks. Portlandia emerged from ThunderAnt, a series of internet skits starring Armisen and Brownstein. Then it became IFC’s signature show. Some dangerously serious topics surfaced last season. “Fred” and “Carrie” — the most “real” characters in the catalogue — realize they are aging. Fred’s hair goes gray overnight, which shocks him because he thinks he’s 32. “That’s a very real thing,” he tells me, “where the math doesn’t seem to work. ‘But I’m a drummer! I’m not a grown-up!’ ” For season seven, Krisel promises to pull back from the longer character arcs of season six.

Portlandia’s eighth season will be its last, leaving Armisen without a long-term character arc of his own. He seems unconcerned. “I work better when I’m juggling projects,” he says. “Nothing worse than watching someone really embrace what they’re doing, if they love it too much.” His reluctance to stay in one place might have something to do with his roots, which are broad but not deep. “I don’t wallow in pride for a kind of food or tradition,” he says. His Japanese grandfather “wasn’t like a grandfather. He made my grandmother pregnant and then left. He had kids all through Europe.” Was that hard on the family? “He was having a good time, and it turned out fine. My dad’s side was pretty crazy.”

“Fred is a mysterious guy to me,” says Odenkirk. “He is a very independent guy. He’s not married, he travels from city to city, and I think he likes that life a lot. He’s a little hard to know, but he seems to know himself pretty well.” Or maybe he’s still figuring it out. Armisen’s second marriage, to Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, dissolved after eight months. She publicly called the experience “traumatic and awful and horrible,” and approvingly quoted a friend: “The greatest impersonation he does is that of a normal person.”

Unburdening himself to Stern and later to WTF host Marc Maron, Armisen admitted to being “a terrible husband,” an inveterate cheater at war with his own worst tendencies. He tells me that even public aspersions on his reputation only help him grow: “Everything is a process to make your life better — everything.” He’s been dating Orange Is the New Black actress Natasha Lyonne for almost two years. “I’m trying to be less selfish. I want to give more than I’m used to giving.”

The Saturday after we met, Armisen gave SNL a rousing finale, beginning with the theater of awkwardness that was his monologue. In the format of a one-man show teeming with terrible accents, he recast his 2002 audition as a hackneyed parable — a paean to the art of bombing. (After some sleep — presumably — he performed the following morning at the Vulture Festival.) Armisen’s deep commitment to character makes everyone I talked to confident in his ability to anchor a feature role — if he even wants it. “Somebody as distinctive and entertained by variety as Fred is going to go crazy trying to pursue the development world of L.A.,” says Odenkirk. “And to build himself up into what? His route, from my point of view, is just don’t die. Someone will come up with a great Being There role.”

That Hal Ashby classic starred Peter Sellers as a simpleminded gardener who bumbles his way into power. An admirer of Sellers, Armisen has the same ability to project a sort of blank stillness — at least in front of a camera. Back at Maxwell Drums, before racing on to the next appointment, he’s waylaid briefly by a fan and his preteen son — the latter banging away on a muffled kit. Armisen advises him to try an electronic model. “You sound great,” he tells the boy. “Never stop.”               

*This article appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.