He yucks it up on SNL, Portlandia, and Unsupervised, but when it comes to blowing 848 of Maxim’s dollars, Fred Armisen is deadly serious.
Don’t try to bargain with Fred Armisen. The chameleon-like comic and full-fledged workaholic—he currently has two sketch shows and a cartoon on the air—considers it a big waste of time. “Just tell me what the prices are,” he pleads to the staff of Obscura Antiques & Oddities, a tiny shop in New York’s grungy East Village that sells everything from vintage medical equipment to Victorian-era human hair. “Whatever I get, I’ll buy for what you say…in protest to people who haggle!”
We gave Fred $848 to spend however he wanted. His first stop might seem an oddly serious choice for the SNL star known for 10 seasons of silly impressions (see next page) and goofy characters like Ferecito, an overly Latino stand-up, and Garth, the feathered-hair fool who bungles his way through songs with his partner, Kat (played by Kristen Wiig). But in person Fred is thoughtful and endearingly geeky. In fact, the 45-year-old has become a nerdy sex symbol (not with us…OK, maybe a little bit). With recent exes including Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and SNL cutie Abby Elliott, he could almost be called a modern-day Woody Al—“Oh, my God, is that a bat? I love bats!”
Fred has discovered old-school scientific drawings of Bruce Wayne’s favorite flying rodent. “Are you a bat guy?” I ask. “Oh, yeah. They fly, they have radar, they kill bugs…They win for ‘Best Animal.’ ” He turns to the librarian-like clerk. “You have any bigger bat art?” She shakes her head no and asks, “Are you aware of the bat decimation problem in upstate New York? It’s very important to raise awareness.” For a second I think we’ve been transported into a Debbie Downer sketch, or maybe a skit from Portlandia, the IFC show Fred created and stars in with rock guitarist and close friend Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney, currently of Wild Flag). The show, whose second season starts this month, is chock-full of characters whose concerns for recycling, animal rights, and locally sourced produce are over-the-top hilarious and perhaps not all that different from the real-life Fred and Carrie. “The characters do have aspects of ourselves,” he admits.
After giving the store a good scan, Fred declares, “I want that picture up there. What is it?” The object of his desire is a “mourning print” from the mid-1800s that depicts a couple visiting a grave. He climbs onto a desk, grabs the artwork, and hands over the first $250. He tells me he knows exactly where it will go in the living room of his Upper West Side apartment. (“There’s already a nail in the wall there.”) Next stop? Fred’s favorite music store across the East River in Brooklyn.
We walk through the East Village to the L train, and no one seems to recognize Fred. It’s only when he stops to get a MetroCard (for $20) that a small crowd starts to gather. So does he usually take the subway? “I do, even though I’m a huge star,” he deadpans. As the machine spits out his card, Fred notices the woman next to him is having some technical difficulties. In true New Yorker fashion, she pounds the machine and curses. “Here, let me get your ride,” says Fred, who deposits $10 more into his machine. The frazzled woman is stunned as he hands her the card; without waiting for her “thank you,” Fred marches through the turnstile.
Fred smiles and nods at the pierced and tattooed hipsters riding in our car. “People are usually very good with me,” he says. “They say something nice and go on with their day. I think it’s because it’s New York.” As we emerge from the subway and walk through the industrial-chic streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn toward Main Drag Music, Fred tells me about his other life…as a musician. Long before he started doing comedy—in fact, since he was an 11-year-old on Long Island—he’s played the drums. It turned into an obsession, and for the first half of the ’90s he performed with the Chicago-based punk band Trenchmouth. The transition to comedy began in 1998, when a short he made, Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and South by Southwest, became the must-bootleg film of the Austin-based music and arts festival. These days music is “just something I like to do. It’s fun not trying to make a career out of it.” Besides, he says, music and comedy go well together. “They’re similar art forms, and a lot of comedians want to be musicians, and vice versa.” It was through music, after all, that Fred and fellow Portlandia-er Carrie’s friendship, and eventual partnership, began. “I’d visit her in Portland, which I love, and we’d jam. Then we started shooting these weird little videos instead. Those eventually became the show.”
We enter the cavernous store, which is filled with every imaginable instrument, and Fred’s eyes light up. “This place has the best collection in the whole city,” he says as he sits down at a drum set and starts banging away like his 11-year-old self. He tells me that he recently played on the album of an art-punk band called Les Savy Fav, who rehearse in the area. As I try to process how one man can be so damn active (he’s also providing a voice on Unsupervised, the new FX cartoon from the Always Sunny in Philadelphia guys), he leaps from the drums and grabs a metal board with buttons and knobs that looks like it was stolen off the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It’s called a pocket piano, and the noises Fred produces with it sound like something out of either a 1950s sci-fi flick or an Atari game. He can’t conceal his glee as he puts on an impromptu performance. And then, $289.72 later (he’s also bought a stand, cord, and strap for his guitar), we’re getting into a cab ($20 more).
Our final stop? Momofuku Milk Bar, the dessert and snack wonderland of culinary mad scientist David Chang (think cereal milk ice cream and pork buns with poached eggs on top). Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington (lead singer: bald, burly, bearded) and Seth Jabour (guitarist: normal-looking) are there waiting for us. Fred cannot contain his excitement, and it becomes immediately evident that he’s a music fanboy. Little wonder, then, that his favorite musicians—like Steve Jones (the Sex Pistols), Johnny Marr (the Smiths), and Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam)—are guest-starring on Portlandia. Fred just likes hanging out with his heroes. “I make it very clear to all of them that I’m a fan,” he laughs.
Fred buys everyone in the restaurant anything they want. The most popular items: ice cream and pork buns, along with the Sassyfrass (a root beer float with Maker’s Mark) and an addictive pastry appropriately named crack pie. “Anyone want a slice?” Fred asks. Everyone, from the band to the photographer to a young couple from Australia, shouts, “Yes!” in unison. Les Savy Fav’s Tim—known for stripping to his underwear and jumping into the crowd during their raucous performances—looks intense as he gets down with a “Ritz Cracker cookie.” As we gorge on $203.30 worth of grub, I remind Fred there’s still some cash left. Without missing a beat, he takes the remaining $54.98 and puts it in the tip jar. “Eight hundred forty-eight dollars was a good amount of cash,” he tells me. “But still, I wish I could give them a little more.”