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.

Jack White and No Doubt were both on Portlandia for a combined 20 seconds this season. How do you go about booking big-name acts for such a brief amount of time?

It actually works better if it’s a short cameo. Everyone has such busy schedules that if you tell someone you need them for three days, you’re setting yourself up for them saying no. Jack White, Carrie knows him pretty well, and I know Tony from No Doubt a little bit, so it wasn’t totally business.

Which of your SNL characters do you think would fit in best on Portlandia?

Oh, that’s an easy. I’d say [political commentator] Nicholas Fehn.

What’s the key to developing a recurring character on SNL with so many ideas being pitched each week?

It doesn’t happen through us. Never do we tell the writers, “Hey, this would be a great recurring character.” It happens later. We write a sketch, and if people keep bringing it up, we ask if we should try it again. Sometimes it’s twice, sometimes it’s a bunch of times, but it’s all because of the audience.

I’ve always been curious about that. How much do you listen to fan reactions, whether through recaps or on Twitter?

I don’t do too much Twitter. I’m not really on it, so I rely on Carrie and the writers to pass the information along to me. It’s funny, I really should be on it. I rely so much on them. *laughs* But we actually do, and it’s often a pleasant surprise, like the first sketch we ever did, “Put a Bird on It.” We had no idea what that sketch even was, and it’s only later when we heard people repeating it, then we go, “Oh, maybe those are characters.”

Why do you think “Put a Bird on It” has caught on the way it has?

It’s one of those things that just resonated. There’s no explaining it, other than it seems to have been a real thing. It’s an observation that Carrie made while we were writing the pilot…I think one of the reasons is because it’s a Where’s Waldo, it’s a hidden treasure, in that when I walk around now, I still notice birds all over the place.

It also feels like one of those sketches that was intended to go viral, by the way it was edited and that it’s not too long. Is Internet success something you keep in mind while writing for Portlandia?

You know who does? The editors. They really transform the show more than I care to admit. I never could have designed, I never could have come up with the speed of “Put a Bird On It” without them. Even after we shot it, I wasn’t sure what was in there, and Jonathan and the editors, who are all so talented, they really cut the fat out. They’re very unforgiving, meaning things that I think are really funny, they’re like, “We’re cutting this, this, and this.” And I do think they think of the Internet, and how things can go viral. It’s scary how much I depend on them.

Earlier we were talking about feedback. I’m curious to how you respond to the tired argument that “SNL isn’t as good as it was,” which is something people have been saying seemingly forever.

I like talking to Lorne about it. It happened to him, after the first year. Right out of the gate. After Chevy Chase left, people said, “It’s not as good as this, it’s not as good as that.” He’s been reading the same article forever. It happens so much that to me, it’s a blur. I don’t care about criticism, anyway. Whenever I see anything about SNL like that, it’s just white noise. I know what SNL meant to me and I know what it means to other people of different generations, and that’s the whole point of it.

Let’s talk about something, or more accurately someone, everyone loves: Prince. Is he aware of your impression of him?

Yes, definitely, and I’m a huge fan. I’ve been doing a Prince impression since I was in high school…During rehearsals [in 2006], I sort of called out to him. “Hey, hi, I do an impression of you. I’m sorry.” He was like, “I’m sorry?” and then he gave me a very nice rub on my shoulder. He said something like, “It’s cool,” and then laughed. It was very cordial. A very brief, nice moment. I was struck at, in person, how “male” he is. His voice is actually kind of deep.

You think of him almost as a deer in how delicate he comes across sometime.

I feel like, for some people, it’s in their DNA to become rock stars. That’s Prince.

Along the music lines, “What Up with That?” is by far my favorite recurring sketch. What’s going through your mind when you’re “playing” the saxophone?

*Laughs* What I’m enjoying is that the focus isn’t on me, so as a background player, I just want to look like I’m totally smiling and having a good time. You know when you watch stuff and notice that one guy who’s smiling the entire time. Why is he doing that? I know that in 10 years from now, 20 years from now, I’m going to look back and think, that was so insanely fun.

It’s infectiously optimistic.

Exactly. And I don’t have to think about anything. There aren’t any lines. It’s pure enjoyment.

Especially when Samuel L. Jackson says “f*ck.”

I remember thinking, “Did I hear that right?” What I like about how times are changing is how not a big deal it was. There was a time when people would have freaked out, but now, my immediate feeling was like, “So what? We’re all grown ups.”

It wasn’t like when Charles Rocket used the same word in 1981.

And now it’s a big “who cares?” I was in a really good mood that night, because Carrie was up there, and for some reason, I have this thing in my head about how cool it is that someone from Sleater-Kinney is on SNL.

Are you able to listen to Sleater the way you used to?

Hell yeah. I went through such an intense time listening to them, in a very f*cked up way. It was almost exclusively them. So I can separate the artist from the music, but they’re my friends, too. But come on, those records are great.

Yeah. The Woods and Dig Me Out are basically perfect. Which character of yours do people on the street most often associate you with?

The thing that people will say to me the most is, “Mi scusi,” from a movie I did in 2003 called EuroTrip. I played this Italian guy on the train, and to this day, people say Portlandia a lot, people say SNL a lot, but in terms of numbers, it’s, “Mi scusi.”

Have you and Carrie had any discussions about doing a Portlandia movie?

Yeah, we’ve talked about it, and my manager will say something like, “Hey, you guys gonna do a movie?” Yeah, definitely, I’d want to do a movie. I don’t know how. One of my favorite movies from a TV show is The Simpsons Movie.

It’s a rare event for SNL to do a cast member switch for a prominent impression. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the process of Obama going from you to Jay Pharoah.

Big picture, Jay will probably be there longer than me, so having this new election, it felt very natural switching it up. It was definitely a discussion — it wasn’t a command. For some reason, I loved it. I loved the drama of it, I loved the nature of changing things up, let’s do it this way. It just felt right, and the timing was right. I talked to Lorne, I talked to Jay, and we were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” Plus, I love watching new cast members do things. I get this feeling like, “That’s awesome, let’s keep the show going. Keep it alive.”

That’s how I feel about Kate McKinnon.

It’s the best. All of the new cast members, they just kill it. They have this mixture of humility and confidence that’s just perfect.

Does the cast enjoy when a sketch falls apart? I’m thinking of “Mountain Pass” with Louis C.K. from earlier this season.

Yeah, because those sketches will be fun to watch in 10 years. We’re pretty much just goofing around. Hell yes. Especially wearing those costumes.

In 5-10 years, when you’re finished with SNL and Portlandia, what would you like to be doing?

I want to continue doing TV shows, and I love comedy, and my hope is to do a TV show that’s different genre altogether. A name that doesn’t exist yet. It isn’t dramatic, and it’s not even necessarily comedy…and I mean that in a totally broad, accessible way. I don’t want to do some arty, secret TV show; I just want to do something new.