Throughout Saturday Night Live’s history, the show’s cast has been largely imported from comedy training grounds like the Second City in Chicago or The Groundlings in LA, but Fred Armisen’s path to the show was a little different than most of his peers’. Armisen spent the better part of the 90s as a musician. His main gig was drumming for the punk band Trenchmouth but after the group broke up, he briefly served as background drummer for the Blue Man Group and had his own salsa band before switching to a career in comedy in his early 30s.
“Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and South by Southwest” (1998)
Living in Chicago in the mid-90s, Fred Armisen honed his comedic skills in his personal life and by hosting a series of karaoke nights in character, taking the stage as Jesus and Hitler simultaneously or as a female Wicker Park hipster, but the first big splash he made as a comedic performer was “Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and South by Southwest,” a 20-minute video of Armisen playing different characters and messing with people at 1998’s South by Southwest music festival. Inspired by UK comedian Paul Kaye and his character Dennis Pennis and with a touch of Andy Kaufman thrown in, Fred Armisen ambushed a series of speakers with bizarre questions, posing as different inept journalists. His gift for disappearing into characters and mastering accents is on full display here, despite his greenness to performing comedy.
“Why didn’t I just take improv classes like everything [sic] else? I took one or two at Second City, but I didn’t like it, and the truth is, I don’t think I’m that good at it. I went out and bought a video camera instead, and that was the turning point. Sally and I were going to South by Southwest and I don’t know if I was still frustrated about Trenchmouth, but I saw that they had these seminars on, like, how to make it in the biz. And I thought, ‘You can’t have a seminar on something like that!’ So I tried all this man-on-the-street stuff and did this video.” – Fred Armisen in a Chicago Tribune piece in January
As you can see in the video, Fred Armisen’s earliest piece of comedy doesn’t seem like the work of an amateur at all (thanks to Armisen being a naturally funny guy and polishing his skills around the fringes of his life as a musician). The video holds up great, still being very funny nearly 15 years later. It’s a prototypical version of the brand of comedy Armisen has gone on to perfect on Saturday Night Live and Portlandia. Here he is talking to The AV Club about what made him want to make the video:
“The timing was just right. I think at the time, too, I was just highly not-succeeding at music. Trenchmouth… we did okay. But there were a lot of other bands that were doing way better than us, and I wanted it. I wanted to be successful. So at the time, I hate to paint it this way, but I was a little frustrated. Getting that camera was a little bit of an act of anger.” – Fred Armisen, 2006.
Fred on HBO Zone (1999)
The South by Southwest video caught the attention of HBO, who hired Fred Armisen to make similar videos, a series of short interstitial segments titled Fred for a then-new HBO channel called HBO Zone. The HBO Zone videos (collected below) saw Armisen get a little more ambitious with his hidden camera/man on the street stuff, and in them, he created multiple characters that he brought to SNL and other TV shows in the years that followed.
“Attention All Tappers”
After finding out about auditions for a national tap dancing tour, Fred Armisen shows up without having any tap dancing experience at all. He quickly makes a fake resume and headshots and crafts his own tap shoes to see how far he can get into the audition just by messing around.
“Former Sgt. Fred Armisen’s Guide to Self-Defense”
A self-defense video Armisen made with his character Sgt. Fred, which he often performed at live comedy shows and later brought to TV. This one sees him branching out of the hidden camera stuff and just nailing an awesome character.
“Bloody Head Guy”
Fred Armisen puts a bunch of fake blood on his head and acts like he was just in a car accident while still insisting on visiting real estate open houses.
I remembered this video of Fred Armisen running amuck a computer game conference from when the clip used to be hosted on his MySpace (back when that was still a thing). We spoke to Fred Armisen who was kind enough to send the video over to include in this piece. Big thanks to Fred for sending a copy of the video in!
“Medical Conference/Lilith Fair/Poet Girl”
A string of three short HBO Zone videos Fred Armisen made, in which he crashes a conference for the North American Spine Society, does the same at a Lilith Fair panel, and competes at a poetry slam in drag.
Armisen performs street music as a variety of characters, including Fericito, who would go on to become one of his first breakout characters on SNL.
Armisen interviews Butch Vig from the band Garbage, in character as history’s greatest monster.
Transitioning to late night TV
While making videos for HBO Zone, Fred Armisen had also been appearing on the HBO music series Reverb and on the UK show Freak Out, but his career really took off when the HBO Zone videos got him noticed by bigger players in the TV world. Armisen moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in January of 2000 and quickly began appearing on high-profile shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, NBC’s short-lived stand-up show Late Friday, and Zach Galifianakis’s VH1 talk show Late World with Zach.
While some of Fred Armisen’s early characters like Fericito and Sgt. Fred the self-defense instructor resurfaced on SNL, others like foul-mouthed, substance abusing priest Father Fred did not.
Premium Blend – Sgt. Fred (2001)
Armisen began playing his character Sgt. Fred, the self-defense instructor from one of his HBO Zone videos, as a live comedy act. Here’s him performing the routine on Premium Blend with Conan regular John Grady as his assistant/assailant John. The character reappeared in a one-off sketch during Fred Armisen’s second SNL episode in 2002, with Amy Poehler and host Sarah Michelle Gellar as his fellow police officers.
Bob Odenkirk’s failed Fox pilot Next! (2002)
Fred Armisen’s HBO Zone segments also caught the eye of Bob Odenkirk, who cast the comedian in Next!, the new sketch show he was developing for Fox. Armisen was to be a part of the repertory cast along with Odenkirk and Mr. Show veterans Jay Johnston, Jerry Minor, and Jill Talley, while folks like Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, and Brian Posehn also figure heavily into the pilot. Armisen appears throughout the pilot as rude German journalist Gerhard Lipshitz, busting Ray Romano’s balls in an interview that’s weaved between the show’s sketches. Fred Armisen is absent from all of the show’s regular sketches besides the opening, but his Ray Romano interview provides for some of the pilot’s biggest laughs.
Sadly, Fox passed on Next! in favor of another sketch show, the quickly-canceled Cedric the Entertainer Presents, but the pilot was, along with the HBO Zone videos, what caught SNL producers’ attention and inspired them to take a chance on a plucky musician-turned-comedian named Fred Armisen.
“The Frank International Film Festival” (2002)
Bob Odenkirk was a big early supporter of Fred Armisen’s comedy, collaborating with him on a short called “The Frank International Film Festival,” which was released as a DVD extra with Odenkirk’s directorial debut Melvin Goes to Dinner (Armisen also has a small part in the movie). The short revolves around Bob Odenkirk touring Melvin Goes to Dinner and taking it to Frank’s International Film Festival, a one-man film festival that a guy named Frank (played by Armisen) runs out of his house. Along with Next!, the short is one of the last projects Fred Armisen worked on before he was snapped up by SNL and brought his awesome comedy to a much larger audience.
For further reading on Fred Armisen’s early years in Chicago (1988-2000), check out this excellent oral history of his transition into comedy The Chicago Tribune ran earlier this year. And thanks again to Fred Armisen for supplying us with the “In Charge” video and thanks to Splitsider’s own Megh Wright for retrieving the DVD.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.