All Ke-e-e-ding Aside

February 5, 2003



TV critics have branded the 28th season of “Saturday Night Live” as something of a disappointment, but there has been one bright spot in the long-running comedy show, and it comes courtesy of a former Chicagoan.

Can you say,  “I’m just ke-e-e-e-e-ding?”

Best known to local music fans as the drummer of the late, lamented art-punk band Trenchmouth, Fred Armisen joined the cast of “SNL” at the start of the current season, and he has given the show a jolt of energy and a bit of an unsettling edge with characters such as the Venezuelan percussionist Fericito and a self-defense instructor whose tips assure maximum injury to offending parties.

Born to a Venezuelan mom and a German and Japanese father, the 35-year-old Armisen grew up on Long Island, but he moved to Chicago in the early ’90s with two of the members of the group that became Trenchmouth. The quartet broke up in 1998 after 10 years, four albums, and countless tours—“We drove one van into the ground, then bought another,” Armisen says—but its influence continues to live on in the thriving emo scene, and the local label Thick Records plans to release a new compilation of the group’s work in the spring.

In Trenchmouth, Armisen drew on his Latin-American heritage to mix hard-hitting punk drumming with deft worldbeat rhythms. On the side, he performed with a salsa band, Fred Armisen y Su Mensaje de Caracas, and he appeared as a member of the percussion-crazed Blue Man Group. For a time, he also led a justifiably legendary karaoke night at Lounge Ax.

The music world provided a segue into comedy. A former student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he first won national attention in 1998 for a short 20-minute film called “Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and SXSW,” which found him traipsing through Austin, TX during the annual South By Southwest Music and Media Conference.

A pranksterish cross between Tom Green and Michael Moore, Armisen pretended to be blind, deaf, German, and clueless as he threw bizarre questions at music-industry executives, stuffed-shirt critics, and bewildered fellow musicians. The highlight of the film came when he asked Rolling Stone writer David Fricke to give former Capitol Records president Gary Gersh a big, wet kiss during the pair’s one-on-one interview before several hundred people, most of whom laughed hysterically when the two self-important industry insiders were suddenly humbled.

A few months later, the drummer-turned-performance artist attempted to ask a few of his patentedly absurd questions at a press conference when the Lilith Fair tour stopped at the New World Music Theatre. He was unceremoniously booted from the grounds.

Armisen graduated from spectacles such as these to standup comedy, and he was soon named one of the top 10 comics to watch by Variety. His act recalled the surreal routines of Andy Kaufman as he lost himself completely in his strange characters, and it caught the attention of HBO, which hired him as a correspondent for the music series “Reverb,” then gave him a short filler series of his own appropriately called “Fred.” He won further acclaim for his poker-faced appearances on “Late Night With Conan O’ Brien.”

All of this led to “SNL.” But while it seems like a logical career arc on paper, Armisen remains somewhat bewildered by it all, and he’s startled at what he considers his amazing good fortune. We spoke by phone from New York shortly after the start of the current season.

Q. I have to start by telling you how difficult it was to get an interview with you: Do you know how many phone calls and emails it took to the NBC publicist to make this happen? It was all this business about, “[Producer] Lorne [Michaels] isn’t sure if the time is right for Fred to do press.” And here I’ve been interviewing you for 11 years!

A. You have my number! You could have just called me!

Q. I know, but I wanted to see how it would all play out, because the whole thing struck me like a Fred Armisen routine: “Well, Fred is under contract to NBC now, he’s not allowed to speak to anyone without our permission, but we are considering your request…”

A. You’re right, that’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve always made fun of! I would have recorded all the phone calls and emails!

Q. So how does it feel to be on the other side of the media machine?

A. Well, I can’t answer that question without speaking to my publicist… [Laughs]

Q. When you come from punk rock, the arbitrary walls of celebrity are an alien concept. You’ve tried to break those down with your comedic interviews. Do you have to psyche yourself up to get in a particular place in order to confront people like that?

A. I have a weird kind of tunnel vision. I always think about the little technicalities, so I don’t even have time to think about whether I’m scared or not. I’m thinking about whether the sound is on; I’m hoping the camera auto-focuses on so-and-so’s face; I hope that the camera isn’t too tilted; I hope that it picks up the sound. As I’m thinking about that, I spout out what I have to spout out, and later I look at the tape and find out, “Oh, that came out O.K.!”

It’s the same thing with “SNL.” All you think about is the technicalities and hoping everything goes right, because things do go wrong so often, with a stupid camera or a microphone, that that takes up everything.

Q. Was it the same way back when you were playing drums with Trenchmouth?

A. Yes, it really was. It’s the only frame of reference that I have, the only training I’ve had, being a drummer in bands. It’s the only way I know how to do anything, so as crazy as it sounds, every time I do comedy, in the back of my mind, it’s always like doing a music show. I’m about to play; I’m about to do this song; it’s a punk song; I hope we’re all in tune, etc. Because it’s the way I learned, that’s the way I treat everything.

Q. The first place you started doing comedy was in the music world. Did that just seem like the logical entry point for you?

A. It was logical, but not my choice. It kind of just took over. The way it presented itself to me, you know what it’s like being in a band, you try to get the word out and you work really, really hard, for not much return. Something happened that as soon as I did comedy, that just changed overnight. I did the SXSW thing just for friends of mine, for a goof, and the way that things turned out press-wise and financially, it was logical only in that I was able to make my life a little bit better.

Q. So you didn’t set out to be a comedian or a performance artist and leave music behind?

A. I just wanted to perform. I wanted to get on television somehow, but I thought it was going to be through music. I never thought, “I’m going to be a comedian! I’m going to give it a try and maybe put a tape together and send it out.” It happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to think of it as any kind of goal. The next thing I knew, that was just what I was doing. It was really quick: Someone at HBO saw the tape from SXSW, and someone else said, “How about we do this?,” and the next thing I know, I don’t even have time to play the drums.

Q. So your comedy career has been a happy accident?

A. That’s exactly what it is. It’s a great thing, and I’ve found that just naturally I feel better doing it. It’s less physical labor; I don’t have to carry my drums home at 1 a.m. anymore! And the whole socializing thing—by the time I’d pack up my drums, all the girls I’d be talking to were gone. Now I don’t have to worry about that! [Laughs]

Q. Did you find the self-importance and pomposity of the music world—things like SXSW and Lilith Fair—easy pickings for comedy?

A. Absolutely! I just saw the booklet for SXSW, and just the names of all the panels, I laughed out loud. “How to Make It in Showbiz,” “How to Get Radio to Pay Attention,” blah, blah, blah. Having been in a band, I just thought it was all ridiculous, and that inspired me to bring a camera. There’s a little anger that was in me. I don’t want to sound too pretentious about it, but I think that having been in the music business, I was angry about, like, “Who are these people doing these seminars?”

Q. Tom Green and Howard Stern have both done the man in the street and obnoxious interviewer routines, basically updating “Candid Camera” with a scatological edge. But when you do those things, there’s something different going on.

A. I wasn’t interested in any kind of punch line. In a crazy way, I didn’t even need it to be that funny. I just wanted to engage people and suck people into my world for a second, just take a little of their time. The level I did it at, I don’t like to make fun of the people that I’m interviewing, it’s kind of more like I just want to create an awkward situation. How can I make this one moment awkward or uncomfortable?

Q. Now you’re on network TV, on a show with a nearly 30-year history of launching stars. Aren’t there attitudes there that are just as ludicrous as the ones you lampooned in the music world? Take our friend, the publicist…

A. You know, I don’t see that side of it. In a way, I’m so in love with what I’m doing now, that as you’re talking to me, I can’t help but say, “No, I’m too in love with television, I’m too in love with what I’m doing, and I’ve got so much respect for TV—as crazy as that sounds—to think that there’s anything ludicrous about it right now.” I’m so psyched that today I’m going to go into work and think of funny things that they can build sets around. I don’t see the down side yet.

Q. How did “SNL” come to you?

A. Oh my god, it happened so fast. My agent sent them a tape, and I was already working on another project; I had a pilot with Comedy Central. I had a development deal with them for a year and a half, and we were just about to get started shooting—it was going to be all my characters doing something similar to the HBO shorts that I did; hidden camera and people on the street. Then a couple of months ago, “SNL” called and said, “We know you’re under contract, but why don’t you come out here?” And I did, and a few weeks later, they asked me to come back again. They were incredibly nice, and I did my thing—a couple of characters and some impressions—and after the second try, they said, “We’d like you to be part of the show.” So we approached Comedy Central, and they said, “Absolutely, go do it.” Before I knew it, I was living in a hotel in New York.

Q. How does it feel to follow in the footsteps of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, and all the others?

A. Coming from a background as a punk drummer, anything to me is good; to make $50 doing standup, I’m like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe it!” To make even a nickel doing any kind of comedy is a miracle to me. I feel lucky; I feel blessed. All the rest of this stuff is just a lot of icing.

There’s a hallway at “SNL” that has all the photos of everyone who’s been in the cast, and you look and you see Phil Hartman and all these people. And at the end in a frame that’s the same size as all the other ones, there’s me. It blows me away. I just can’t believe how quickly things happened; SXSW was only a couple of years ago, and to go from that to that…

Q. Right from the start, “SNL” began taking some of your routines and working them into skits for the show, like Fericito and the self-defense instructor. And they seem to want to make  “I’m just ke-e-e-e-e-ding?”  the catchphrase of the season.

A. I hope so! You just never know what they’re going to use or how they’re going to use it. As long as they’re putting it on, it’s fine with me. It’s not like I’m doing it for a commercial or something.

The way that it works is on Monday, you pitch all your sketches. You work with other people, and towards the end of the week, you kind of turn it into a sketch for the show. “SNL” has a choice of many, many sketches, and they choose the ones they think are working best for that week. So for the whole week, you go, “I hope they put this on,” and if not, that’s fine, because I just want it to be a funny show. And I really mean that; I’m not saying it be political. You just want it to be funny. And there’s another show tomorrow.

Q. That’s the same attitude you had to have when you were in a band. So you went from being in a band, to being a solo artist, to being back in a band again.

A. Now I’m in a band, exactly. You’ve got to share, and I want to share. The drums don’t sound that good alone, and on “SNL,” I want everyone else to do great, too, because the better everyone does, the better I do, and the more people are watching.

Q. Isn’t it daunting going into a room with a bunch of writers and comedians, some of whom have been on the cast for years already, and getting up and saying, “I’ve got this idea”?

A. I am daunted, yeah, because these people are brilliant. These are pros, and I feel like they really did have comedy training. I always thought I was good at impressions, until I met these people; they do everybody. It’s a little daunting; sometimes I just want to get their autograph. But all I can do is think, “Well, they wanted me to be here, so this is what I’ve got this week. Here’s this Latin character, do you want him for something?” Dude, the whole thing is so funny to me that I’m even there; there’s something so ridiculous and tremendous about it, it’s so much bigger than you, that you just say, “O.K., here!”

Q. You’re potentially the most subversive person who’s been on the show since Andy Kaufman.

A. That’s a nice thing for you to say!

Q. Well, your sense of humor is rather surreal, and you have this evil edge to your comedy. You’re still a punk at heart.

A. Right! To me, what the Clash did and what Devo did, that’s what I want to do. And Andy Kaufman, definitely, I look up to him as someone I would like to be like. Or Peter Sellers, to an extent. That’s something black about those two people that I aspire to.