In his four seasons on Saturday Night Live, Fred Armisen has had a wide range of roles: Prince, a giant parrot, Venezuelan entertainer Fericito, Tony Danza, and, well, Fred Armisen. But Armisen first took his comic guises for a bumpy test drive in the much-bootlegged short "Fred Armisen's Guide To Music And South By Southwest," a renegade-style video he made while playing drums with the Chicago punk outfit Trenchmouth at SXSW in 1998. Soon after, comedy became his first priority—he moved to Los Angeles to hone his sketch skills at Largo alongside the likes of Bob Odenkirk, landed a spot on SNL in 2002, and has had a few small roles in movies like Anchorman and Eurotrip. But Armisen hasn't completely left his musical past behind: He still opens for bands like Les Savy Fav, Yo La Tengo, and Wilco, armed only with his arsenal of absurdist alter egos. Recently, Armisen stopped by The A.V. Club's luxurious New York branch office to talk about Saturday Night Live, demonstrate his drumming skills, and figure out the nuances of celebrity, as dictated by iTunes.
The A.V. Club: You're on iTunes Music Store's Celebrity Playlist. Want to talk about any of your music selections? You have Prince in there…
Fred Armisen: Prince is my favorite ever. I've liked Prince since… It's been a really long time. Even in junior high. I used to only like punk for a while, and I had all these rules for what kinds of groups were cool, and who was not cool, but as soon as I saw this one Prince video… It just broke all those rules. I was like, "I love this no matter what." It didn't fit into all the wearing black and camouflage and stuff, but I was like, "This is amazing."
AVC: Have you heard anything from Prince about your impression of him? Is he offended?
FA: Well, the impression I do is all complimentary. I don't do it as an insult or to make fun of him. I do it because I wanna meet him some day. There's gotta be some way to meet him. If I do a sketch about him on TV, that's an angle at least, where I can go to Paisley Park and go, "Look."
But I heard from Paisley Park. They sent an email to me. It was really nice. And it was very mysterious. It was like, "We just wanted to tell you that we enjoy "The Prince Show" very much…" All the pronouns were "we." But it was this official thing saying, "It's okay."
AVC: Did you really do "The Prince Show" because you thought it was a good way to meet Prince?
FA: Yes. Absolutely. Also because I'm a Prince fan. But that was one of the angles. Sometimes when you have a reason like that, it makes you work a little bit harder. I feel the same way about Steve Jobs. I'm a big Steve Jobs fan.
AVC: You want to meet Steve Jobs?
FA: Yeah. I like the way they design their computers and stuff. I've been watching a lot of his keynote speeches, where he introduces a new product, and they're fascinating in a way. It's kind of a show. He has his computer set up, and he has this huge screen behind him, and it's a cool little show. I respect that.
AVC: Do you want to meet anyone else that you do an impression of? Like Tony Danza, maybe?
FA: I've met Tony Danza. He was really nice. And he looks… I feel like he hasn't aged. He looks exactly the same. He's just Tony Danza. He's exactly the same as he's always been. But he was actually really psyched about it. Other than that, I don't know. I'd love to meet one of the two remaining Beatles, somehow. We'll see.
AVC: Back when you were touring with Trenchmouth, did you ever think you'd be in comedy the way you are now?
FA: At the time, I wanted to be on TV somehow. For some reason, I always thought it would be an indirect route, I didn't know that it would be comedy and Saturday Night Live. I just wanted to do something with performing that would lead me there. So, I guess the answer is yes and no: Yes, I wanted to be on TV eventually; no, I had no idea it was going to be comedy. I loved comedy… Who doesn't love comedy? Everyone in my band did. We were all really into it. Everyone in Trenchmouth, in a way, I thought that any of us could have been comedians. They were all so funny. We just always joked around. But the things that meant a lot to me at the time were definitely comedians: Andy Kaufman, stuff like that.
AVC: Would you rather hang out with comedians or musicians?
FA: I think comedians, because comedians–I'll say, me–are a little insecure in a way, in that they're making jokes all the time. I love that because then I laugh a lot more. But I like hanging around with bands too.
AVC: You were a drummer for Blue Man Group, too. Were you a Blue Man?
FA: No. I was one of the drummers in the Chicago show.
AVC: Were you jealous of the Blue Men?
FA; The honest answer… Well, I'll say no. But then again, maybe at the time I was a little bit.
AVC: Because they got all the attention?
FA: Well, what they got to do seemed like a lot of fun. It was really physical, and they got to interact with the audience more, and that seemed really cool to me. But I loved drumming for it. That was like the first showbiz job I ever had where I got a paycheck, so I loved it. I did it for two years.
AVC: Were you doing comedy at that time at all?
FA: No, but toward the end, that's when I went to South By Southwest and made that video. And that was the first comedy thing I ever did.
AVC: What made you want to do the video in the first place?
FA: Just boredom. I had to go to this thing to perform, and they had this booklet of all the seminars they were going to have there, and they were so, just, music biz-y. "How To Make It," "How to Get Your Song On The Radio." For some reason I had a reaction to it. I mean, there's no formula. I thought, "What am I going to do?" So I just bought a video camera. Did a bunch of stuff. And the timing was just right. I think at the time, too, I was just highly not-succeeding at music. Trenchmouth… we did okay. But there were a lot of other bands that were doing way better than us, and I wanted it. I wanted to be successful. So at the time, I hate to paint it this way, but I was a little frustrated. Getting that camera was a little bit of an act of anger.
AVC: And subversion.
FA: A tiny bit.
AVC: Do you wish you could do more stuff like that on SNL? More awkward-funny stuff?
FA: I get to do a lot of that kind of stuff. There's even characters from that video that I do. There's like a blind guy that I did on there, and I got to do a blind comedian on Saturday Night Live. So I'm glad it really worked out.
AVC: How did you get on SNL in the first place?
FA: Well, it was through the regular channels.
AVC: No nepotism?
FA: No nepotism. Even though the producers are my family, that had nothing to do with it. Because they didn't realize they were my family. [Laughs.] I was in L.A., auditioning for things, and I was on a sketch show with Bob Odenkirk. I did some stand-up and stuff. And I had a tape. I had an agent. My agent sent the tape. They saw it and they asked me to come in and audition. I did something at a club, and I did something at the studio, which was really exciting because it was the Saturday Night Live studio, and there I was, you know, where they do the monologue. Already, I was like, "Whatever happens happens, but I can't believe I'm on this stage." And that was it. I'm still psyched about it.
FA: I haven't gotten over it yet. I still walk through the doors and go, "I can't believe I'm getting away with it." Even though it's been a few years, all the Blue Man and Trenchmouth stuff is not that long ago to me. I still have some of the same T-shirts I had from back then… but I gotta get over it, start accepting it more.
AVC: What's the day-to-day like at SNL?
FA: It's like a 24-hour schedule. We come in on Monday, and all the writers and performers sit in this office and pitch our ideas to Lorne [Michaels] and the host. Then Monday night, we write a little bit. Then on Tuesday, we all write all day and all night, through 6 in the morning, 8 in the morning. Write, write, write, write. Wednesday, around 2 in the afternoon, we have a table-read with all the scripts, everything everyone's written, with the host right there. We go through it all. And that lasts 'til 8 o'clock at night or something. And from that, they choose which sketches they're gonna do. And, Thursday rehearse, Friday rehearse, Saturday dress-rehearsal. Then the show. The whole time, you're rewriting and rehearsing, rewriting and rehearsing. So it's really intensive work, but really good work, because nothing is set in stone. Every day, things change as to what's funny and what's not funny. You just have to be thinking all the time.
AVC: Do things get cut all the time too?
FA: They do. But for good reasons–because there's not enough time to put everything on. So sometimes you just try again next week, and then it does go on. Or you figure out what's wrong with it. But if something gets cut, you're just kinda like, "Yeah I guess I had to re-work that anyway."
AVC: Have you ever really liked, really backed something that got cut?
FA: Yes. But when something gets cut, I understand why. Sometimes something seems funny just to me or to showbiz people, and the regular audience doesn't know what you're talking about. As crazy as this sounds, it's always a good thing. I like figuring that out. I like it not being easy, so that not any thought you have just ends up on TV.
AVC: Also, it depends a lot on the audience.
FA: Right, it's whoever shows up that night. At the same time, it pays off because even though there are things that I really loved that didn't make it, there are things that I didn't even understand that did great.
AVC: Like what?
FA: Tony Danza was kind of thrown in my lap. I wasn't like, "Hey everyone, I wanna do Tony Danza." Someone kind of wrote me as Tony Danza, and it worked out.
AVC: Do you self-edit a lot?
FA: All the time.
AVC: Do you like that?
FA: Oh, I love it. That's like my favorite thing to do. It just feels like that's when you know your ego isn't getting away with you. So instead of thinking, "I'm a genius. I'm gonna write all this stuff this way," it's good to question yourself. I've worked really hard on sketches and then just thrown them in the garbage, because I'm like "What am I doing? This isn't funny." Even that's good to do. It's kind of a test, because when you go to the table-read, it's almost like a performance. So you have to make sure it's funny.
AVC: So you've never fought for something?
FA: No. I've never fought for something.
AVC: But people do?
FA: I don't know what goes on.
AVC: No one's ever stormed out of a table-read?
FA: I've never seen that. I think that all the cast members currently… I've never seen them be fight-y about something. I feel like it's a healthy group of people, and everyone understands how things work. And I don't know what fighting gets you. Do you have to fight for something? If you're fighting for it, it might not be worth it. It's either killing everyone and making everyone laugh, or it's not. What's the obsession? It's just not in my personality to say, "Get my thing on!" I'm, "I hope you like this."
AVC: So something's either funny or it's not? No fighting will change that?
FA: Yeah. Then you really risk it, because if it goes out there and gets no laughs, then you fought for what? I don't like fighting anyway. I'm very passive-aggressive, but I don't like fighting.
AVC: Passive-aggression is a form of fighting. The worst form.
FA: I do it. I do it. I'm working on getting better. But if you want me to get into a fight with you, it's not going to happen. But on the way out, I'll do a little something passive-aggressive. I'll just moan about something. I'll just say, "Uh. I guess I'll just walk all the way to the elevator. Like an ape. Like a gorilla."
AVC: You do a lot of long-running characters on the show–
FA: Yeah. I know. I'm not even the new guy any more. I still feel new, though. But there've been whole generations, movements of people.
AVC: Are you sick of any of those characters? Do you ever think, "Ugh. No. I don't want to do that sketch"?
FA: I don't think that's come up. Hopefully, I haven't beat anything to death, really, so. No, I haven't gotten tired of doing any of them yet.
AVC: How do you feel about being responsible for one of SNL's catchphrases?
FA: It's really nice. It's a nice thing. I try not to focus on it too much. It's really weird, because sometimes people will know the catchphrase more than they do the name of the character. So someone on the street will say, "I like that A Dios Mio guy." Or whatever.
AVC: And you're like, "He's more than a catchphrase."
FA: I go, "Excuse me, sir. Come back here. I wanna do this in front of your kid. The name of the character is Fericito. It's not what he says. Kid: your dad is an idiot. Get outta here, both of you. Learn the name of the character." That's what I worked hard for, for you to mention the catchphrase to me? Mention the character. I'm so mad at that guy right now.
AVC: That's the one that people most recognize you for? Fericito?
FA: Yeah. But it's such a nice thing. I could never complain about that. It's weird, in fact. I can't believe that anyone would remember that phrase.
AVC: You're doing Sketchfest. Do you like doing those festivals?
FA: Yeah. I'm really bummed, though, because all of my friends are going the week before. I'm gonna miss Tinkle. But it's totally like summer camp. And the audiences who go are always really cool, too. Because they know what to expect.
AVC: Do you think that live comedy, in general, is getting bigger, or at least cooler?
FA: I think it's really hard to tell, because in our world, we can't gauge it. We're so inside of it, I don't know what's going on somewhere else. I don't know how many comedians these people are reaching. But I do see a lot more print, more articles, about Todd Barry, and people like that. From what I gather, it seems like people are becoming more and more well-known.
AVC: You lived in L.A. for a while. Is it better than New York?
FA: I love Los Angeles. I mean that for real. But I like them both the same. L.A. and New York are very similar to me, even though they're opposites. They seem just as extreme as each other. I don't know what it is, but I love the privacy of Los Angeles. I love driving in your car, listening to music. It's like a bubble. I like the showbiz history of it, because I feel like it's really American. When people say that L.A. doesn't have a culture, I think it really does: a very old culture, and very specific. There's streets named after entertainers, and statues of entertainers, and it's great. Entertainment is still art, even if it makes billions of dollars. So it's like a city built on entertainment, and art in a way.
AVC: Do you see yourself leaving SNL eventually?
FA: Well, yeah, at some point.
AVC: Is it a tricky sort of process, deciding when to go?
FA: Well, there's a contractual thing. Yeah, I think it's tricky. But I think there's a way to do it. I hope there's a way to do it gracefully. But we'll see how that goes.
AVC: How do you see your career-path going?
FA: I want to have a body of work as varied as Peter Sellers'.
AVC: He's your career model?
FA: Definitely. I like the different kinds of roles he did, and that seems like a good way to go. Even up 'til his death, all his characters were interesting.
AVC: Are you jealous of Steve Martin because he got Sellers' role in the Pink Panther?
FA: I'm highly jealous of Steve Martin. That's bullshit. [Laughs.] I called the studio, I asked them to red-light that project. I said, "Don't release it." And they said, "Who is this?" And I said, "This is Fred Armisen." And they go, "Who is that?" And I said, "I'm from Saturday Night fucking Live. New York City. NBC. Maybe you've heard of it?" And they said, "This is coming out springtime." I said, "It's not. Red-light it. Chill for a minute. Hold off, and re-release one of his older movies. Like Cheaper By The Dozen! You'll make a billion dollars on that. People have seen it, they liked it, they'll see it again." And they said, "Why would we do that?" And I said, "As a favor to me. Have I ever asked you for anything, Hollywood? Have I ever called the studios to red-light a project? No. Now I'm doing it. Please, put it on hold. CGI something. And let's re-do it. With me."