Fred Armisen Keeps It Weird

With his new gig on “Late Night” and the latest season of “Portlandia,” the comedian and musician forges a unique post-“SNL” path.

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, Feb 26, 2014  |  Updated 9:20 PM EDT
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Fred Armisen is forging a busy – and varied – comedy career. Here, he fronts the band on "Late Night With Seth Meyers"

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During his debut Monday on NBC’s "Late Night," Seth Meyers teased old "Saturday Night Live" cast mate and new bandleader Fred Armisen about rumors of his upcoming show on the History channel. 

"It's called 'Recent History,' and it only goes back the past hour or so – but with a historical spin so you know the importance of everything," Armisen said.

The deadpan response offered a dose of trademark quirk from a versatile – and busy – comic and music talent. Before making his debut fronting Meyers' 8G Band on guitar, Armisen turned up on drums Monday in a “Tonight Show" bit, playing Ringo Starr to Jimmy Fallon's John Lennon. On Thursday, "Portlandia," Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's offbeat, interlinked sketch show, makes a welcome return to IFC for a fourth season.

Armisen's varied exploits might not be History channel material, but he's forging a unique post-"SNL" path. And, to paraphrase the famous sign in Portland, he's keeping it weird.

During his 11-season run on "SNL," Armisen never emerged as a breakout star, but made himself a key sketch player with a character lineup that included imitations of President Obama and Joy Behar. More important to his latest gig, he established strong chemistry on “Weekend Update” with Meyers, who played straight man to Armisen’s portrayal of legally blind then-New York Gov. David Paterson as a chair-rolling Borscht Belt comedian, and to his unprepared singer Garth (with Kristen Wiig as his partner, Kat).

Armisen enjoys a different kind if chemistry with Brownstein, as they give mellow life to a series of earnest eccentrics whose obsessions include brunch, the minutia of relationships, recycling and the new version of "Battlestar Galactica." Their Portland is a place of rampant individualism – as evidenced by the large swath of characters they embody. 

While Armisen is tapping into the unspoken Portland motto of deliberate nonconformity, it’s a good bet he counts Will Ferrell as role model. Ferrell, whose post-"SNL" career has ranged from movies (including the all-Spanish "Casa di mi Padre") to the Internet (his Funny or Die site) to TV (most recently as an Orson Welles-like narrator on the IFC 1970s mini-series spoof "The Spoils of Babylon") and beer commercials (as a pitchman for Old Milwaukee), won’t be hemmed in by expectations.

Though they missed each other on "SNL" by one season, Ferrell gave Armisen a small but key role in the first "Anchorman" flick: as Tino, the club owner who cajoles Ron Burgundy into sitting in on jazz flute.

Armisen also is adept at combining music and comedy, as we’ve seen through his aging British punk rocker character Ian Rubbish. Now Armisen gets to play guitar and make jokes as himself five nights a week on "Late Night" as he waits for that call from the History channel. In the meantime, check out a preview of the Season 4 debut of “Portlandia” below:

 
 
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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