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Fred Armisen: East Coast Portlander

Insight into the double life of NBC's new bandleader and IFC's comic mastermind.

    Artwork by Steven Fiche

    I’m starting to hate Florida. Not because of its politics or tabloid culture, but namely due to the overwhelming mundanity that makes up most of the state. Outside of Miami, it’s a de-culturalized habitat of Paneras, 24-screen movie theaters, and P.F. Changs, which locals think are okay because, well, there’s the beach and you don’t really get that everywhere. What they don’t tell you is how often they fuck that up, too, either through cracks in the sewage, world renown oil spills, or daily pollution from picnickers “havin a fun time.” I’m thinking about all of this as I’m staring outside the front room window of my father’s condominium while three sixtysomethings complain about the lack of doggie bag dispensers in the neighborhood. It’s the sort of dilemma straight out of IFC’s Portlandia, but I only make that association because I’m minutes away from talking to its creator and star, Fred Armisen.

    At 47, Armisen has never been busier. Following an 11-year stint on Saturday Night Live, the quirky New York actor-writer-musician has found another enviable groove for himself, one that’s a little more consistent, slightly bolder, and altogether appropriate. He’s now leader of The 8G Band, house act for the newly minted Late Night with Seth Meyers, a high-brow retooling of the same NBC nighttime talk show previously headlined by Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, and David Letterman. To say that’s a big deal would be an understatement; in the realm of things, he’s part of a broader generation shift in the late night circuit, where baby boomers a la Letterman and Jay Leno are passing the baton to new ringleaders of the midnight hour. Because of this, the job’s hardly another inclusion on Armisen’s resume; it’s the beginning of a new title for himself. Think about it: If all goes according to plan, he could be doing this for the next 10-15 years.

    Late Night with Seth Meyers - Season 1

    Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC

    “With Late Night or any of these things, you just let it all happen,” Armisen explained to Howard Stern, a mere 24 hours before we chat together on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. “For me, the important part of it is getting to do it, and then coming up with music… that’s like a little ego boost. Like, ‘Well, that’d be nice to be responsible for some music,’ and that’s where it ends with me.” It’s a candid interview, as most are with Stern, and although Armisen comes off as rather sheepish (at least on Late Night and Portlandia), he never falters throughout the hour, maintaining a humorous rapport with Stern as if they’re old drinking buddies from college. Later, things get intensely personal when he’s grilled on who he’s “banged,” his “game” in bed, and what “famous women” he desires. (Spoiler: He might call Feist one day.) Yet despite the awkward string of questions — especially a brief mention of Kristen Wiig’s breasts — Armisen stays honest and amicable. Hell, when Stern asks him if it’s okay for Jim Breur to fuck his sister, he gives a shrugging okay.

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    Immediately, I congratulate him on his power hour with the Sirius blockbuster host, admitting that it was comforting to discover a personality of his that hardly makes it on-screen. “I appreciate that because I never know, I mean, I never hear it,” Armisen admits. “I listen to his show, but when I’m on it, I’m not listening, so all I know going into it is to clear my mind and be open. I really had a great time, and I could have been on for hours and hours more. I could have talked and talked and talked.” We’re seconds into the call and already I can tell he’s exhibiting the same candor and professionalism that he offered to a veteran, a certifiable legend, like Stern. It’s nice.

    What’s also surprising is Armisen’s humbling approach to show business. Here’s a guy who has over 80 credits to his filmography, and yet he’s still floored by the industry’s star power, an attribute that’s only been heightened amidst his short time on Late Night. “I don’t think I’ll ever really get over it, being part of it,” he admits. “I’ve always loved TV and movies and entertainment, so even though I’m in it, that excitement hasn’t died out.” He pauses, reflects, and continues: “[Lena Headey] from Game of Thrones came on. She plays the king’s mother, and seeing her, I couldn’t believe it! That show is so real to me; it’s such a big deal to me, so to see her in person was like, ‘Whoa!'” He contends he’s “not silenced,” but instead “just psyched.” And why wouldn’t he be? Stardom aside, he gets to share this new chapter of his life with his longtime friend and peer in Meyers, whose time at Saturday Night Live parallels that of Armisen.

    Their decade-long chemistry fills up most of the empty space of Late Night‘s hollowed out Studio 8G. The way Meyers leans on Armisen for comedic support never feels patented, but jovial, as if the two of them haven’t had time to catch up all day. Their opening bit, “Fred Talks”, offers Armisen a chance to flex his comedic chops as he impresses Meyers with a random fictional project he’s working on that’s either far-fetched, meta, or beyond asinine. For example, he recently pitched a leisure company based in the Chicago suburbs that would essentially be a spa chock-full of miniature recreations of the same Chicago suburbs the business is housed in. It’s ridiculous, but funny in its improvisational approach.

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    “I never know what kind of jokes are gonna be thrown at me, so I have to come up with something that’s really fun,” Armisen explains. I ask him if Late Night currently feels like a blank canvas for him and its creators, a comforting yet horrifying image for any writer. “Absolutely,” he agrees, “but for everybody. Even for the audience.” The truth is it’s a confused landscape of expectations, because while the Late Night banner remains, it’s not the same show as Fallon’s, O’Brien’s, and certainly not Letterman’s. Instead, the show excels in minimalism, lodging itself somewhere between The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher. Already, it’s finding its footing as Meyers continues to prove he’s a sharper interviewer than his contemporaries, a trait he’s capitalized on throughout its two-month run. Everything else creatively is up for grabs, and that’s far from unsettling for Armisen. “It’s a really good place to be, and it’s exciting,” he contends. “That’s when people can explore their best stuff. I like it when things are still being figured out. It will be a while before things become cemented.”

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