Fred Armisen (Michael Simon/startraksphoto.com)

Fred Armisen: "Saturday Night Live" was smart to increase the diversity of its cast

The comedian talks to Salon about season 5 of "Portlandia," life post-SNL, and his typically wacky new Heineken ad


Prachi Gupta
July 22, 2014 10:00PM (UTC)

Though Fred Armisen took a break from work to celebrate “Portlandia’s” recent Emmy nominations (which included the comedian’s first Emmy nom, ever), Armisen hasn’t stopped for much else lately: He’s already thinking ahead to the show’s fifth season, developing a new comedy on IFC -- “American Documentary,” with Bill Hader and Seth Meyers -- and riffing on the guitar four nights a week on “Late Night.” And as of Tuesday, the “SNL” alum is also the star of a new “social experiment” sponsored by Heineken, meant to get people “out of their comfort zones” (and, presumably, to drink more Heineken).

In “The Payphone,” Heineken’s promotional video for the campaign, Armisen seemingly channels his creepy character from “Broad City” and calls an unmanned payphone on MacDougal St. in New York City, begging anyone who answers to come to his room -- which happens to be the iconic comedy club Comedy Cellar. The video documents the awkwardness embodied by so many of Armisen’s wacky characters. Unsurprisingly, out of the thousands of people who walk by the phone, only five attend Armisen’s set. (Though it’s not likely you’ll get a call from Armisen, you can join the experiment by signing up at RoutineInterruptions.com for a “mysterious call” that may result in “secret concerts in living rooms” or “one-of-a-kind dinners.”) In anticipation of Heineken’s viral-hopeful campaign, Armisen talked to Salon about the experiment, “Portlandia” and where he wants to take his comedy next.

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So, first of all, congratulations on all the Emmy nods.

Thank you very much! It’s very exciting.

Is it premature to ask you what we can expect from Season 5?

Um, a little bit in that whenever we do the episode, you know we set out to have just one viewpoint and then when we edit it, it starts to turn into something else. So where last season, before, we would think that one episode is about something like the amount of leisure time someone has, it turned out to be more about something else completely -- like finances. So it’s too hard to say at the moment. What we’ve written so far — we’re in pre-production right now — I would say that a lot of the institutions of Portland -- the more utilitarian areas, are something that we’re trying to address a little bit more; all the things that are part of every city.

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Do you see a logical end point for "Portlandia"?

We love doing it. We take everything sort of year by year, season by season. All we can do is focus on the season that we’re in, you know? So that the future of it is, “Let’s see when we get there.” Because everything in my life so far has worked out that way, where you just never know what’s around the corner, or what kind of opportunities there are. So that’s all we could do. All that we know is that we love doing it, we’re so happy with it and with IFC.

Any particular challenges that this next season poses?

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Me, personally, whenever we’re writing, my challenge is that I have to be careful not to repeat myself, you know what I mean? So sometimes I’ll present a sketch idea to John Krisel and Carrie and they’ll go, “Well, we kind of did that already. This is just another version of ‘blank.’” And I’ll go, oh my god, you’re so right. So it’s that kind of thing.

I've heard budding comics talk a lot about the struggle of translating funny ideas into a sketch or joke. I assume that still happens for you, but does that get less common with more experience?

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No. For some reason — I mean, the only thing that comes with experience is that you can edit yourself a little bit better. I would say that’s one little thing, where you can read the room or see the people around you and go, “Oh, maybe this is not going to work.” So there’s that, that’s one experience of trusting others. But other than that, to have an idea that’s going to resonate with other people — it can come from anywhere. I used to think that well, as long as I’m relaxed, and as long as I’m happy, that’s the best time to come up with stuff, but it’s not true. I’ve had really long work days and right at the end of it, there’s something that, you know, works somehow.

What is it like to perform sketches now, when you don't have the feedback from "SNL's" live audience?

It’s the same muscle in that, you know, when I’m on the set for "Portlandia," there’s still people there. There’s still Carrie, there’s still people I want to get a reaction from. So that part stays alive. I still do live shows, live performances, so there’s some of that there. And there’s working on set, which has an element of it as well. So it all kind of makes — it appears, once in a while.

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Speaking of live sets and reactions, regarding the Heineken ad -- what happened when these random people came up on stage?

That whole thing, by the way, was actually real. I really was calling that pay phone. And people — those were real people answering it. Sometimes when I watch things like that, you kind of can’t tell.

I don’t know how they organized getting all these people across the street to the club to get in. But they did it. I really did have to do my stand-up set for the show, so I did that, and then at the end of it, I brought these people up. And one guy -- something that I’ve done in stand-up before is where I do a dramatic piece but the other person can’t say anything. Like a scene in a play, where I’m like really, really crying and yelling and being really dramatic, and the other person has to stand there stoically... so we did that with one guy, and he was great. He was really, really good. And for him, for his night, whatever he had planned for his night, all of a sudden he got up stage with this crowd watching him do a play. Which I kind of liked the idea of, that he was one thing during the day and at night he’s doing this play. And then the next person, there was this woman who came up and I sang her a song. So, and even though to them it was a surprise, it was also a surprise for me to know what this guy was going to be like, you know? Live sets are sort of tricky because sometimes people react in ways you don’t want them to, you know? But this guy was great and this woman was great as well. So those parts, for me, were a surprise that it worked out that well.

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Are we going to get to see those at some point? Is that going to be a part of the commercial?

From what I understand, yes. That’d be funny if I told you no, though. But yeah, that’s the idea. I think the thing that they’re looking at is the sort of teaser.

Did any of the people recognize that it was Fred Armisen on the other end of the line?

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Zero.

Zero?

Zero. And the director also wanted me to be vague so that… he wanted me to seem mysterious. So yeah, nobody, no. Not one person. Even the words and stuff were supposed to be kept vague, not like, "Come to the club it’s gonna be fun!" It’s more like… 'cause the payphone was across the street from the club, it was very like, "Walk over to the other side of the street." It was supposed to sound mysterious.

Did you ask them why they came? What made these few people come across the street?

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Yeah! And it’s almost like their answer was that they didn’t even know... They were all like, "Yeah, I dunno," just they were just drawn to doing it. And the other part of it that was kind of interesting was the people that didn’t wanna go across the street. They were curious enough to answer the phone, but not enough to walk across the street... and also when we were shooting it, they had no idea if anyone would answer the phone, because I don’t know if I was walking down the street if I would pick up the phone. Especially in New York. New York is like… everyone is… there’s so much noise… how would you even discern a… ringing payphone. I really, when I went out to do it, there was a part of me that thought, "Well, good luck to them, 'cause I don’t know who they’re gonna get to pick up a phone."

I have a couple questions about "SNL." There have been a lot of changes in the short time you’ve been gone, and Lorne Michaels says there are going to be a lot more changes coming this year [Editor's note: the recent firings at "SNL" had not yet been announced at the time of this interview]. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed since you left, and how do you feel about them?

I’m a fan of "SNL." I love watching it. I watch every episode live. I love watching the show. ... I love trying to guess what writer wrote what. And it’s something that actually makes me feel really good about the show. Like, no matter who’s there, it’s always gonna be great. And as far as this year, I have no idea. I never… even when I was there, I never knew what the changes were gonna be from season to season. I would just sort of find out on a Monday: Okay well, this is who he cast here and this is who the writers are. But I love seeing a new direction, seeing the new voices of what they’re steering towards, you know? And I also like seeing the DNA of what makes a person a total "Saturday Night Live" performer. There’s a quality in their voice and the way they perform, I’m like: "That’s an 'SNL' person."

You mean that you see that develop in cast members?

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Well, when I watch and see the newer cast members, you can see the thing that got them there. You can just hear it in their voice. Oh yeah, they were made for doing the show.

Can you describe somewhat more of what that quality is?

I can’t, because those things are so undefinable. It’s like trying to define that what is it that four British musicians from Liverpool sounded the way they did? No one will ever be able to describe that. It’s blank. It’s a question mark. No one will ever know. All you know is the end result. That’s all anyone can ever know is the end result of it. And there’s so many things that come together, including not only the performer, but the audience too. The mood of the audience: are they wanting to see this, are they gonna want to connect. It takes a lot of people to make that happen.

Yeah, and certainly Lorne Michaels has. He's created quite an empire.

He’s a genius! He has such a talent for it. He’s such a genius at it, going back to 1975. He just has an eye and an ear for what works.

Yeah, and that’s amazing because it’s not like comedy has stayed the same since 1975.

Yeah, you just don’t … I was gonna say, ‘You never know,’ but I guess he seems to know.

"SNL" did have a pretty big controversy this year around its casting practices. What did you make of the conversations about race and then the extra auditions?

Well, I think they made a great choice -- the cast is so strong now. And you can see it. It’s very harmonious and through everything, they’re just good at planning the right people.

So when you played Barack Obama and then that role went to Jay Pharoah -- that came up again in the race discussions this year. Did you feel at all uncomfortable about playing Obama?

No, I’m a soldier for the show. All I do is I serve the writer, right? So all I can do if Jim Downey wrote a piece is to respect the word and to respect Seth Meyer’s words. That’s my only job is to deliver on what writers write.

It feels like you’re involved in every bit of great comedy on TV today. I’m wondering if there’s one project — not necessarily an acting- or comedy-oriented project, that you could be a part of — what would it be?

I wanna do something having to do with foreign language. Something in another country in another language. Because I think that the way that South Korean music has succeeded in the United States, I think that can happen the other way around.

What do you mean?

Well, there was a top 10 hit in another language. It didn’t turn out to be translated — there wasn’t an English version of it.

You’re referring to "Gangnam Style," I’m assuming?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was a huge, huge hit, and it was in another language, so I think that it gives hope to the fact that like, you know, maybe there’s a sketch here or some standup that could be written that could be performed in Iran or North Korea. I dunno. Or Finland?


Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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