Fred Armisen Talks “Portlandia,” “Late Night,” & “SNL”

The comedian’s been busy.

Between the fourth season premiere of Portlandia and his debut as bandleader for Late Night with Seth Meyers, the Saturday Night Live alum is having a very big week.

How would you describe Portlandia to someone who’s never seen it?

It’s a show about that part of your city where there are record stores and guitar stores and coffee shops and lofts with artists in them, and it’s about Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen, and Jonathan Krisel. And it’s a lot of what’s in our world. It’s all the things we experience.

Can anyone jump right in with Season 4?

You know, we kind of designed it that way, so that there’s really no overall arc throughout all the seasons. You get to know the characters more and more, but we purposely left it so you can watch it in any order. Because that’s the kind of TV I like to watch, too.

What is it that works so well about your collaborative relationship with Carrie Brownstein?

It’s that I’m such a fan of hers as a comedian and a performer and a writer, and I get to sort of give her ideas and see them come to fruition. It’s this really lucky thing. She’s just so prolific; she’s an incredible writer. And I can come up with something and she’ll add to it. We’re best friends too, so it’s this oddly perfect working relationship. She makes me laugh, and that’s how I want to spend my day.

How did you first start working together?

We met a while ago, maybe over 10 years ago. We immediately wanted to work together, but we didn’t know what it was going to be – even though you would think that since we were both musicians, we would start playing in a band together. That just seemed like such a regular route to take. Like, you know, “Let’s just pick up instruments.” It didn’t seem as inspired as making videos. And that’s what we started doing. Writing ideas, shooting stuff, improvising videos, without any design on it becoming anything tremendous; it was just, “Let’s just do this.”

How much of Portlandia is scripted versus improvised?

It’s this really weird combination of both where we write out a sketch, we actually have a script, but we don’t use it. The purpose of having a script is for IFC, so they know what’s going on. And also I don’t want to wallow on ego and say, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it and improvise and it will be brilliant.” I’d rather have a blueprint. This is the idea of what this sketch is. Once we’re on set we kind of don’t go by the dialogue. We go, “Well, we know what this is, but let’s start shooting it and see what we come up with naturally.” And with the guest stars, they can just say whatever they want.  

You’ve had many amazing guest stars on Portlandia. Anyone in particular who stands out, who you really vibed with?

You know, we’ve been fortunate all the way through. For different reasons, different people have been great. When Steve Buscemi is on the set, we can’t believe our luck. It’s not just the fact that he’s well-known – that’s one thing, that’s great – but he’s so funny in exactly the right way. Steve Buscemi doesn’t have to say anything. You just see it. And that’s what’s great about it. It’s almost doesn’t have anything to do with great acting. Great acting is a little overrated. It’s something like a sense of being. If someone just exists as an interesting person, we’re all the way there.

Are there any notable guest stars in the new season that we can look forward to seeing?

Kirsten Dunst, we were really lucky to get. And I would say Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. And the usual people that come back. I don’t want to take them for granted just because it’s their fourth season doing it, but Jeff Goldblum, Kyle MacLachlan. We had Mike Nesmith, and I was very honored, just because he’s one of the Monkees. What’s cooler than that? A sketch with one of the Monkees…

What are some of the differences or benefits of working at a network like IFC versus a major network like NBC?

There’s no such thing as “versus,” because every venue has its benefits. They’re all different but in the end they’re all helping you get your artwork or whatever you make on TV. So there’s no better or worse. It’s all luck, it’s all incredible, nice things.   

A few years ago you told Maxim that you still often traveled by subway and could walk around the city without being hounded by fans. Has that changed at all since you left SNL, with the growing success of Portlandia?

Yeah, but for some reason, I don’t see it as hounded. People seem to [recognize me from] Portlandia more and more now. And it’s just so nice, I don’t know what it is, but everyone’s just so nice. And it’s all these different kinds of people. I’ve seen families, people with their kids and stuff, and I don’t know, maybe it’s because of the internet or something, but people seem to be very respectful. They’ll say something, and then they say, “Anyway, I don’t want it to seem like I’m bothering you.” It’s been perfectly fine.

Before joining the cast of SNL in 2002 you were primarily a musician. How did the transition to comedy come about? 

I was just in love with TV. And I don’t know what my intentions were when I started doing music, ‘cause they might not have been as musical as I thought. I think I wanted to get on TV more than I wanted to make good music, and I could tell because whenever I went to the recording studio, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.  I think my goal wasn’t pure enough when it comes to music; I think I just wanted to be on TV, and I thought, “Well, if we’re in a band, eventually we can get on to Saturday Night Live or Conan O’Brien or something.” It’s almost like I always had that goal, but I didn’t know which way to go.  

Once you did make it to SNL, you had so many memorable impressions and recurring characters – and they were incredibly diverse, from the Queen of England to President Obama. Were any of them particularly close to your heart?

You’re very nice to say that, and thank you for the compliment. Yeah, I would say maybe Ian Rubbish, the British character, because it was all the people that I sort of admired. Growing up, I was really into the London music scene, which I had no part of – it was too late by the time I discovered it. You know, it was over. I was such a fan of Nic Jones and Captain Sensible and Steve Jones. I’ve been doing this my whole life; I’ve never not been doing that character.

Did you know that Ian Rubbish has his own Twitter account?

Aw, man. It’s not me. But that’s really funny. When people would do their own Prince websites [based around my impression], or Devo fans who made their own art, or John Waters fans…I feel like that’s a healthy thing. If people want to be part of that output, then great.

Speaking of Prince, has he ever seen your impression?

Oh yeah, yeah. I met him at [SNL].  I was starstruck.

What does he think of it?

He was very friendly about it. I sort of started to apologize for it and he put his hand on my arm in a really nice way, sort of asking, like, “Why are you apologizing?” So it was actually really nice, really cool.

Is it ever uncomfortable meeting the people you’ve impersonated on TV?

No, I would say it’s awesome. It’s almost like you recognize each other, like, “Hey, it’s us!”

Is it comforting or surreal to be working at 30 Rock again, post-SNL, as the bandleader for Late Night?

It’s both. There’s so much to do that I barely have time to think about it. But Seth’s my friend and I love him and I want to do a good job for him. I also enjoy playing music. I put my friends in the band – these are people I’ve known for a long time. I just like being in an environment where I can sort of surround myself with people I like.

Do you have any favorite talk show musicians? From Doc Severinsen to Paul Shaffer to Questlove?

They’re all great, going all the way back to Doc Severinsen. They’re a representation of the music that the host thought was cool, so it’s this really good reflection. That’s what I like about it. So they’re all great. I really do respect and look up to them.

Do you have any dream music collaborators on the new show?

Yoko Ono.

You’ve played so many different instruments, both professionally and for comedy sketches. Are you going to be varying the instruments you play on Late Night?

Yeah, that might be fun, maybe I’ll switch it around a little bit. I’m sort of setting this ship afloat, meaning I was asked to curate this, and at some point I’ve got to go back to writing Portlandia and shooting and stuff, so I’m sort of setting it off and getting it ready, and I did the theme song, and hopefully it’ll all go great.

Will you be doing any writing for the show?


People who don’t know that you have this extensive musical background might have been surprised to hear you would be the bandleader for Late Night. Was this always the plan?

No. It was a last-minute thing. Very last-minute. I really sort of had the rest of my life going. And when people ask me to do things, I always think, “Well, sure, why not? Let’s try it.”

Some of your fellow SNL alums have gone on to take some more dramatic roles. Is that something you could ever see yourself doing?

I don’t know if people want to see that from me. I’m a comedian.

So, stick with what you know?

I’m satisfied and happy with what I’ve been asked to do. I don’t know if I’m equipped for it. The cast members that have gone on to dramatic roles, they’re so brilliant and they actually somehow put their comedic spin on it, like a secret twist that I really love. So I feel like I want to just do whatever is in front of me that much. I can only attack things little by little.

The new season of “Portlandia” premieres Thursday, February 27, on IFC. Catch “Late Night with Seth Meyers” weeknights at 12:35/11:35c on NBC.