Talking To Fred Armisen About ‘Portlandia,’ ‘SNL,’ And Meeting Prince

It seems hard to believe, but punk musician-turned-comedian-turned-punk musician/comedian Fred Armisen has been on SNL for over 10 years. His first episode, on October 5, 2002, was the show’s first since Will Ferrell left, but in the decade since, he’s become, not unlike Ferrell, arguably SNL‘s most dependable castmember. He’s the face of dozens of recurring characters, including Billy Smith and Fericito, and three times as many impressions. I think about his portrayal of Prince at least twice a week, which is why I was so happy to talk to him about it.

I spoke to Armisen on the phone earlier in the week, not only about SNL, but also Portlandia, his wonderfully charming IFC series with co-creator Carrie Brownstein, and how the show has blossomed in its third season and whether we’ll ever see a Portlandia movie. We also covered his most quoted role, fan feedback, and, again, Prince.

The nerd PSA from last week’s Portlandia episode really took off. Where did that idea come from?

That was a conversation we had as we were shooting the show. I think we must have been a few weeks in, and [director] Jonathan Krisel had brought it up, and we were talking about exactly what you see in the sketch. Isn’t it weird how much people throw around the word “nerd,” and how cool it is to throw the word around? Then all of a sudden, we were like, Oh, there’s a sketch. It’s one of those ideas that came in a minute. Within a week, we found someone to do it, because you know the main guy, he’s a real nerd, like we didn’t want an actor to come in and be like, “Hey, I’m a nerd.” The casting person remembered someone who worked as a, I think, cashier somewhere. He was a little reluctant to do it; he wasn’t like, I want to be on TV. He was more, I’ll give it a try.

The sketch was played so straight, so I was curious if the stuttering was real.

It was absolutely real. In fact, he couldn’t remember his lines, really. There were way too many. So, I thought, I’ll fix that — we’ll use cue cards, we do that on SNL. I wrote them all out, but the takes the editors used for the shoot were the ones where he wasn’t reading the cards. The takes that resonated the most were the ones where he was remembering the lines.

This season feels broader than previous ones, in a good way. You’ve gone past Portland-specific jokes. Is that a natural progression for a show entering season three?

Yeah. We knew we needed the framework of Portland to give it some relevance, a place to work off of, and it kept going. It’s less about the city and more about the people, and what happens in society. It’s a natural progression.

Music’s such a big part of the show. If you could book any dream musician for an episode, who would it be?

If I had the people of my dreams, it’d be like Mick Jones of the Clash or Captain Sensible of the Damned. He’s a great musician, he’s really funny. I want to get someone from Kraftwerk. Like Ralf Hütter. What TV show has he ever been on? Paul McCartney, too.

Well, you have experience with him.

Oh my god, I flip out every time I think of it. He’s a hero.

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