Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Are you a TV star? If so, Fred Armisen probably has two more shows than you right now. The man is a workhorse, currently juggling Late Night With Seth Meyers, the Peabody Award-winning Portlandia, and the IFC series Documentary Now!, which debuts on August 20. Like fellow Saturday Night Live veterans Dana Carvey, Darrell Hammond, and Kristen Wiig, Armisen is a comedy chameleon with a deep, rich arsenal of memorable characters. We’re talking foreign dignitaries to irritable priests to adult babies to (real life) talk-show bandleaders. The A.V. Club spoke with him about some highlights.
The A.V. Club: One particular episode in the series sends up Vice documentaries and the new wave of “hipster journalism,” for lack of a better term.
Fred Armisen: Vice is pretty much a style now. So for the show, we were trying to do different styles of documentaries, and everything seemed kind of old. We had so many references from the ’50s and the ’70s that we were like, “Okay, what’s the version of what a documentary is now?” Vice seemed like the most recent, so we thought this would bring us more up-to-date as far as the scope of the series.
AVC: You and Bill Hader definitely capture the Vice reporter esthetic and mannerisms.
FA: Because we were shooting in a way where we had to play different characters for that episode, it was very “reach for some sunglasses or a little beard or something” and then just let the location say the rest. We did some of it in Tijuana, and most of that was pretty much just costumes and wigs. I would love to say we researched the roles, but the characters we did for that were kind of thrown together. There was very little thought put into it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Even people aware of your musical background were surprised to see you sign on as the Late Night bandleader. How did that come about?
FA: I was already starting to get my life together to go do some more Portlandia, but I had a few months before Seth’s show was starting. Lorne [Michaels] called me and said, “Hey, what do you think about curating a band?” That’s how he put it and I loved that idea. I thought, “This is my chance to put ’90s punks on stage, on TV.” I always dreamed of a time where that could happen. So I started to put this band together. The term “curator” was Lorne’s sort of artistic way of saying, “Do you want to be part of this band?” It was only later that people would call me a bandleader. It’s a great experience, plus I get to hang out with my friend Seth and I love being in New York. And they let me go do Portlandia and other shows—it’s insanely generous. For me, if someone asks me to do something, I always say yes and think about it later. In this case it was such a weird idea and also wasn’t that convenient, since I was sort of leaving New York. It made no sense, which to me made perfect sense. So if someone asked me to be in their Peruvian soap opera for a year, my first instinct would be to say yes—I’m going to move to Lima and do the soap opera and then if I can’t do it anymore then I won’t. I think better things come your way if you just try them.
AVC: You did countless recurring and one-off characters during your SNL tenure, so let’s look at one of each. Rodger Brush appeared in several episodes as a sexist, politically incorrect producer filling in on a series of daytime advice shows.
FA: Most of the sketches I’ve done on SNL were with a writer named James Anderson. We did a million of them together, including this one. I had this door lady who’d been at my building for decades, and there was a glass partition when you walk in and she’d be sitting behind the desk. And she was hard of hearing. So every time I had a package she’d say, “There’s a package for you!” And I’d say, “I’m going to get it on my way back” and she’d say “What?!” She screamed at me on a regular basis because she couldn’t hear me. She’d start her day by yelling. So Rodger Brush kind of just came from that: A person who can’t hear but is also angry at the other person. As we were writing, we were trying to think of a way to do it; we thought maybe he’d be the opposite of a person who’s sympathetic to the sensitive things people need advice about. With the idea being that he’s the producer replacing the ailing host. And the host is someone who’s sensitive and good with people, so he’s exactly the opposite.
AVC: A talk show setting would often be enough premise for an SNL bit, but adding that character as a second layer really sells it. The same goes with the one-off “College For Excellence” sketch. It plays out as a poorly made local commercial, but the bigger laughs come from the school’s director lamenting the fact people are probably making fun of it.
FA: That came from when I was walking down 34th Street in Manhattan. I think it might’ve been a real name of a school, or they had something like “School For Excellence” as a slogan. And I thought that might be a good commercial. We’ve all seen a lot of cheap and crappy looking TV ads, so I thought it would be fun if we had that extra layer where the guy starring in it is saying, “I know you’re laughing at me.” There’s something about when people do that, they kind of make it worse. It’s like they want you to feel sorry for them. I don’t know what it is, but something about New Yorkers saying, “Yeah, I know you’re making fun of me. You’re laughing.” You don’t see that anywhere else in the country. I just don’t see it in California or the South. It’s such a New York thing.
FA: I think “We Can Pickle That” and “Put A Bird On It” were the first sketches we did with the Bryce and Lisa characters. The idea originally came from Carrie Brownstein. She was like, “Do you ever notice how people put birds on things and it’s considered art?” Bryce and Lisa are more like really hand-crafted people. They’re not ironic, not sarcastic: They’re Portlandy and as sweet as possible, with sort of a well-maintained and cute look. They’re really presentational. We’re not even making fun of them so much as we’re saying, “This exists.”
AVC: The character of Nina also falls into that category. She’s you in drag, and a bit out there, but she seems like the template for a person who actually exists.
FA: That comes from Kids In The Hall: I always liked that when they were in drag I never even thought about it. Their female characters were so good, and they didn’t overdo it. To me, Nina is like a Southern California/Los Angeles/Orange County rockabilly girl. If you ever get a chance to go to the Ink-N-Iron tattoo festival in Long Beach, you’ll see a million Ninas. People in their 30s and 40s, dyed hair, rockabillied out with their rockabilly husbands and their rockabilly babies. So my feeling with Nina is she moved from L.A. to Portland. I don’t always create backstories for characters, but she definitely has one.
Archer (2014)—“Gustavo Calderon”
Parks And Recreation (2009)—“Raul Alejandro Bastilla Pedro De Veloso De Morana”
FA: I think the directors and the writers had a similar role for me on another animated program, and it didn’t work out. So they had me in mind for Archer. I remember it taking a couple of days—there was a lot of recording, just to give it some depth. They really worked on it. It wasn’t, “Oh, just go to the studio and we’ll knock it out.” A lot of thought was put into it, which I liked. This was one of the cooler things I’ve done. It looked great, it was funny, and the character has “legs,” or whatever that expression is: People talk to me about it pretty frequently, which is really nice because obviously there are a lot of animated shows out there. Plus, anything having to do with dictators or Latin American leaders, I’m a big fan of playing those. [Laughs.] There’s something so vulnerable about people who give themselves uniforms and medals and things like that. They’re like little kids in a way.
AVC: Not unlike the Raul character you played in Parks And Recreation, who visits from Pawnee’s South American sister city.
FA: Which was one of my favorite things ever. We made him Venezuelan because I’m Venezuelan, so we didn’t have to worry about him being inaccurate or whatever. I’m friends with [head writer] Mike Schur, and no joke, we had the same idea around the same time. I texted him and was like, “What about sister cities? What happened to that? Remember when you were a kid and it was like, ‘Hey, we’re sister cities with Oslo, Norway’ or something like that?” And he got back saying they also had that idea for the show. And so they wrote it up, which led to Pawnee having a sister city in Venezuela, whose Parks Department has medals and flags and fancy cars and things like that. With people I did SNL with, nothing makes me happier than the fact we go on each other’s shows. I always liked when people would appear on each other’s albums; where you’d see Mick Jones on a General Public album or the Clash playing on a Damned record. So I’ve always wanted life to be that way, where we all do each other’s shows and projects. It gives me a lot of gratification—it’s such a nice feeling.
FA: Such a great show. I’m really glad I had anything to do with that. That’s an example of me getting an email or a text saying, “Will you come do this episode?” and me saying, “Hell yes.” I was psyched about that. There’s something from the John Waters world living in that episode. We shot in Brooklyn, and it wasn’t a big-budget fancy production, which kind of made things easy and fun. They picked the costume and the look and I just stepped into it.
AVC: And there’s the reveal where your character goes from lecherous-guy-paying-scantily-clad-women-to-clean-his-place to, “I can’t pay you because I’m a baby.” Was the diaper relatively comfortable?
FA: Uh, no. [Laughs.] But discomfort is a really good thing for comedy anyway.
FA: This was my first experience in a movie where they said, “Just make up whatever you want.” And I couldn’t believe it. The audition was like that, the scene was like that, and what you see on-screen was from that. It’s such a cliché thing to say, “Oh, we had such a fun time shooting that,” but that’s what it was. The set was fun and I love Will [Ferrell]—I remember him changing lines every single take. Plus I got to work with Judd Apatow and Adam McKay. I keep saying this, but that was one of my favorite experiences.
AVC: There’s nothing larger-than-life about this role, which kind of makes it noteworthy: It’s a grounded straight-man character who looks and sounds like you.
FA: I always like working with Emma Stone. And I like stuff like that, where I can play an almost normal-ish version of me. It’s a nice compliment, where I want to say, “Thanks for letting me do it this way.” In this case, my job was to keep the story in play, to keep it going. It was very low pressure. I used to enjoy seeing Rick Moranis show up in a role like that, where he was funny but a little more himself. John Candy once in a while too. There’s something kind of nice about it—it’s a pleasant experience.
FA: As much as I’m drawn to underground and punk things, I really love so-called “legitimate” things. Where everything’s taken care of and there are no loose ends. This might have been the first big animated movie I’d been asked to do. So just like the bandleader job with Seth, my answer was, “Yeah, absolutely! Let’s try it out.” I mean, Brainy wears glasses…
AVC: And you wear glasses. Already this is impeccable casting.
FA: It’s funny, because I’d have these all-day recording sessions and it would be mostly sounds of me falling, going, “Whoaaaaa! Whoaaaaa!” And I thought, “I can definitely spend my days doing this.” [Laughs.] The directors were so nice; they really cared about it and really wanted it to be good, so I was all for it. One day I recorded right after Jonathan Winters did—this was about a year before he died. He was on his way out of the booth as I was on my way in. And a lot of us grew up on Jonathan Winters. I think he was maybe in a wheelchair at the time, or at least was walking very slowly. And he had a nurse there to take care of him. And despite all this, he was doing bits to people, being really funny. And I thought that was kind of cool, that at any age you could be doing bits. That was a nice thing to see in my life.
AVC: Smurfs can only be good at one thing, whether it’s juggling or stamp collecting or whatever. But Brainy’s one talent is being smart, which kind of makes him the best Smurf, no?
FA: In my book, the glasses definitely make him the coolest. He’s the one who’d have the best record collection.