Fred Armisen & The Art Of Comedic Reality

As a comedian, actor, writer and musician Fred Armisen has always known creating great art is about creating a reality that others can lose themselves in.  1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba caught up with the Saturday Night Live alum as he now stays crazy busy alternating between writing for the critically acclaimed Portlandia, serving as the musical director (and bandleader) on Late Night With Seth Myers and his latest mockumentary series Documentary Now! which premieres this week on IFC.

Back in 2005, Armisen was performing in the Bonnaroo comedy tent. He was emceeing, doing various characters between sets introducing each comedian with a full costume and commitment to varying stand up caricatures he had created. He did a few different failing stand up comedians, namely Native American standup Billy Smith and — similar to his South By Southwest man on the street video  — he succeeded by creating a reality and making it as convincing as possible.

It is the same approach he and fellow musician-turned-comedian Carrie Brownstein embrace on Portlandia and the same detail driven comedy that is highlighted in his latest series Documentary Now!  Read on as Armisen discusses his approach to comedy, his time in art school, and some of his favorites both sonically and visually in the latest 1xRUN Interview..

danny-clinch-fred-armisen-1xrun-02Fred Armisen At Bonnaroo 2005 – Photo by Danny Clinch

1xRun: I wanted to start with just discussing your process. I saw you performing at Bonnaroo in 2005, and you were emceeing the comedy tent, doing these characters in between sets, introducing the other comics and nobody seemed to get it. The majority of the audience wasn’t really sure what was going on, thinking “is this fake or is this real?” Is that the mentality you strive to achieve with your comedy? Does that attitude carry over into Portlandia?
Fred Armisen:  
Yea, I think that even when I first started doing comedy, my whole goal was to just fool people. I wasn’t even sure if it was about it even being comedy. I just wanted to do something convincing. There’s something that I like about that, where you wonder if it’s real. That’s the kind of stuff I like. That was basically the idea behind that. It’s just another way of doing things. I like the idea of someone thinking “Why is this happening? Why is this person on stage?”

FRED-ARMISEN-Michael-Eugene-Burdick-1xrun-02Illustration by Michael Eugene Burdick

[On Portlandia] it’s the same kind of thing, where you don’t always think about what the joke is going to be, you think about how you can make things seem like a reality. I know that Jonathan Krisel, who’s the director, and Carrie Brownstein share this kind of view on how to make things. So yea, I think that’s what we try to do as well. I mean we do try to put some jokes in it.

1x: Do you do the typical writers room? Do you do retreats? How do you go about writing the show? Is it collaborative?
Armisen:  It’s very collaborative. We sit in a room together and pitch each other ideas, but it’s not that singular really. Even if we have our list of ideas like “Hey I noticed this one thing…” “What if we try a sketch about this or that…” we do all contribute to it and add to it. It’s a very traditional writers room.

1x:  I’m assuming you’ve been doing writer’s rooms for a while now, at this point when you hit an obstacle how do you move past it?
Armisen: We throw it away. If it starts becoming too difficult, and it’s like a brick wall, we just think “well that’s not meant to be.” Sometimes you try and come up with something and revisit it, but usually we’ll just leave it.

1x: Let’s talk about your new series, Documentary Now!, tell us a little bit about the series that you, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers created? Without giving too much away what can people expect?
It’s a series of half hour documentaries that all vary in style and subject matter. They are meant to look real. Our hope is that they will be entered into discussion, but as facts. We see it as our way of paying tribute to documentaries that we love.

1x: How did the idea come about for the Documentary Now! ?
It came from doing this short film that we did on SNL, about a fictional British character, a punk musician named Ian Rubbish. Seth Meyers wrote the script, Rhys Thomas directed it, and Bill and I were in it as the band. We really liked making this piece that was more about texture and look, as opposed to it being all about what the joke would be. We thought, let’s make more of that.

1x: You went to The School of Visual Arts in New York, what was that time like, what was your focus at the time?
Armisen: I went because I was a drummer, I am a drummer, and I thought that I wanted to meet people and form a band. It’s kind of part of rock history, and punk history, that in order to meet band members you’ve got to go to art school. That’s the place to go. That’s why I went initially. But once I was there, I was glad because I got to learn a lot about film.

After high school — because of my parents — I had to go to college, but I could not see a scenario that I would not go to art school. I thought that would be the only type of school to go to. I’m really glad that I went. I’m even glad about the name of it. The School of Visual Arts, it’s such a cool name. I learned a lot about film and just about…I don’t know, there’s just something about the whole world of art students that I feel like there is no other way.

1x: So when you decided to leave, what was the impetus behind that? Did you just want to pursue music fully?
Armisen: I went for like 2 1/2 – 3 years, something like that. I was at an age where everything that you do feels sort of intuitive, but short term. You know. “I’m in this band. We’re going to move to Chicago…That’s what we’re going to do.”  It was that kind of thing where I just wanted to pursue music more. Interestingly, the singer for the band when we moved to Chicago was going to the Art Institute of Chicago, so it was still an art school thing, except I did go to the Art Institute. The short answer is that yes, I did just want to pursue music more.

1x: Let’s touch on a few of your early influences as far as art, comedy and music are concerned.
Armisen: Let’s see. As far as art, when I was in junior high school I remember this teacher saying there’s so-and-so morbid things, you should look up the art of Hieronymus Bosch. I was like “ohhh” and then I checked him out and I was like “Wow! That’s amazing.”

Then in college — because of film — I started getting into this artist Bill Viola. He would do these video installations. When you’re in college you’re just like a sponge, you’re like “Wow there’s this other way of doing things.” He made a huge, huge impression on me. Throughout the years I’ve seen other things that he’s done, and he’s really great.

Then just throughout the years there was Joe Coleman and Cindy Sherman. I’d say Joe Coleman is my favorite.

joecolemanJoe Coleman’s Work In Fred Armisen’s Personal Collection

As far as comedy, you know I think it would be the cast of Saturday Night Live (SNL) throughout the years, the cast of SC (Second City) TV, with Rick Moranis, that whole group of SC TV, that cast is just so great. They’re still a huge influence. Then I don’t know, I guess then as I kept going it was different stand up comedians like George Carlin and Steve Martin. Martin Lawrence, I really like. There’s always comedians that I’ll see.

As far as music, that’s a long conversation and a short conversation. The short version, I think I went the Beatles > the Sex Pistols > the Clash > the Damned > the Stranglers > the Buzzcocks > Bow Wow Wow > the Ramones > the Talking Heads > Hüsker Dü > Bad Brains > Prince and then…I’ll just leave it and Prince and then just punk bands throughout the years. Later on it was Fugazi, bands like Stereolab and Joanna Newsome and then of course Sleater Kinney, who is like my favorite band. So yea, those perennials that’s what it sounds like.

1x: Are there any contemporary artists that are inspiring you as far as visual artists go?
Armisen: Yea, there’s this guy who makes these chandeliers that look like weird octopuses, his name is Adam Wallacavage.

wallacavageChandelier by Adam Wallacavage In Armisen’s Personal Collection

1xRun: Yea, we’ve actually featured some of his work on the site before with our friends Pangea Seed.
Fred Armisen: Yea! He’s great! It was a surprise to me because it’s not just a painting. You know what I mean? There’s an unfound edge. There’s another way of just being visual. I’m so psyched that you know who he is, I was worried I was going to sound like a crazy person! He’s so great. There’s also this painter named Mike Davis, who I think is just great. I have one of his paintings and I really think he is great. Mark Mothersbaugh I think is a really great visual artist. I would say what I like is what he does in addition to how he makes music is what i mean by that.

1xRun: Let’s touch on Devo, with them is it the whole package, the music, the album artwork, the tone etc. all fitting as one?
Fred Armisen: Yea. It’s almost like everything you said, you know that is very much an influence. I’ve always wanted to do something like Devo. They were very much 50% music and 50% visual.

You know who else I think is that way is David Bowie. There’s the music part of it, but there’s the whole thing where he’s got the different persona for every album.

Another artist who I’ve got a painting from is Shepard Fairey. Do you know Shepard Fairey?

1x: Yea, he actually just had an exhibition here in Detroit at Library Street Collective earlier in the summer. (Ed. Note: …and felony charges.)
Fred Armisen: He did this series that had Sid Vicious that I am really really into. I got one of the Sid Vicious originals. Nothing makes me happier than getting art, because I don’t know how to paint. I’ve never even kind of tried it. It gives me so much happiness to get something that I don’t know how to do. I think with music and comedy, for me it’s tricky, because I’m thinking “this is how I would have done it.” That’s what’s great about these octopus chandeliers and these paintings, my only job is to look at it.

sidSid Vicious by Shepard Fairey – Photos by Fred Armisen

1x: What was the first album that you remember being totally immersed in? Into the album artwork. The songs. Everything.
Armisen: That’s an easy one. That’s a very easy answer. Kraftwork’s Computer World. Computer World I still get lost in. There’s not a millimeter, not an ounce of it, not one little bit of it, that gives away the human aspect of it. It is so complete. Every little bit of that album is its own world. More than anybody. More than any other album I’ve listened to, that is one that seems like it was made by a machine.

The album is so beautiful. It has aged really well. They were so ahead of their time that the sounds they made on it sounded great on a turntable, but then throughout the years sounded great on a cd, and then now you can play it on any device and it’s so sparse that it still sounds great. There’s no way to try to recreate it. It’s this really timeless, amazing, very moving piece of music. The artwork and the photo on the back, it’s robots of them, but it kind of looks like them. Really it’s chilling. There’s not a part of the album where it’s like “We want to say thanks to our Moms and Dads…” It’s such a mystery, that it’s a haunting album. It’s the most perfect album I’ve ever heard.


1x: You have had a lot of different partners that you’ve worked with over the years, who is one person that each time you see them they really push you artistically?
Armisen: That’s an easy one too. That’s Carrie Brownstein. She is the perfect partner. She makes me everything that I am. Every move that you see me do on Portlandia, and even on other things, is in response to or in order to get a reaction from Carrie Brownstein. She is the most…she is really the other half of everything that I do.

Even when I was on SNL. Anything that I do is done with her spirit, and the way that she thinks, the way that she is, that is in consideration when I do whatever.

armisenbrownsteinPhoto by Fred Armisen

1x: When did you two first meet?
Armisen: In early 2000. I knew Janet Weiss, the drummer for Sleater Kinney and she introduced us and we became immediate friends.

1x: You were a fan before that?
Armisen: Even more than a fan. I was obsessed with her.

1x: That is great that you two have had such a great chemistry working together. Is there anything else you want to add before we go?
Armisen: I want to say thank you. I really appreciate you doing this. Hi to everybody in Detroit!

You can catch Armisen every night leading the 8G Band on Late Night With Seth Meyers. On the upcoming 6th and 7th seasons of Portlandia and the new Documentary Now! both on IFC. You can also follow Fred Armisen on Instagram @sordociego


– Fred Armisen was interviewed by 1xRUN Editor In Chief Pietro Truba. He has previously interviewed Ricky Powell for RUN #00881, Saber for RUN #00800 and Doze Green for RUN #00562. Follow him @Pietro1xRun
– Illustration by Michael Euguene Burdick. Follow him @michaeleugene
– Portrait of Fred Armisen by Danny Clinch. Follow him @dannybones64
– Photos from the Instagram of Fred Armisen. Follow him @sordociego