Armisen may be next 'SNL' star
Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 10:35 p.m.
Fred Armisen's office at ''Saturday Night Live'' is deceptively small, barely big enough to fit a desk, a couch and an iPod. Yet the glorified closet on the 17th floor of the NBC headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza can simultaneously house a wisecracking Latin American bandleader, an enigmatic rock 'n' roll guitarist, a gay movie monster, a stand-up comic who is both deaf and racist, and several dozen more oddities and eccentrics.
These offbeat, seemingly incompatible personalities - and many, many others - are all contained within the slender frame of Armisen himself. ''They're in here somewhere,'' said the comedian, 38, pointing to a spot on his head just above his black Buddy Holly spectacles. ''So is my need for lots of attention.''
As he begins his fourth year on ''SNL,'' Armisen has certainly been receiving his share of it, having used his time on the sketch comedy show to originate numerous memorable bits and characters, from the drummer Fericito, a master of percussion and corny punch lines, to an impression of the rock musician Prince so dead-on it could make doves cry.
''Fred's the most like Peter Sellers of anyone I've known, except he's a nice guy,'' said Bob Odenkirk, a co-star and co-creator of the cult HBO series ''Mr. Show With Bob and David.'' ''There's a sweetness to him, and you like his characters for it.''
But there is a deceptive side to Armisen as well. Beyond his gentle demeanor, the soft-spoken boyishness in his voice, and his tendency to sit with his knees pointed inward and his hands folded in his lap, he might just be a rock star, too.
''When I was growing up, records meant everything to me,'' said Armisen, who was born in Manhattan and spent part of his childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before his family settled in Valley Stream, N.Y. Raised on new-wave and punk-rock groups like Blondie, Devo and the Clash, he started playing drums at age 10 and soon began forming garage bands of his own. ''When you live on Long Island,'' he explained, ''your instrument is all you have.''
After dropping out of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Armisen spent the better part of the 1990s as the drummer for Trenchmouth, a Chicago rock quartet whose sound he describes as ''a cacophony of noise - heavy and fast and jagged.'' Though Trenchmouth may not have set the record charts aflame, it did attract the curiosity of clubgoers, who noticed Armisen's unusual style of playing his drums while standing up.
''He didn't want to be the typical drummer,'' said Damon Locks, the former lead singer of Trenchmouth, who now performs with the funk group the Eternals. ''He didn't want the drums to be a background element, and he didn't want to be a background element.''
To his bandmates, Armisen was more like the class clown who invented funny voices and politically incorrect personas to entertain them on long van rides. But he lost that performance opportunity when Trenchmouth broke up in 1996, and while he continued to work as a fill-in drummer for other rock acts and the Chicago company of Blue Man Group, Armisen became increasingly disillusioned with the music industry and his career within it.
At the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, in 1998, his frustration reached its boiling point. Annoyed by the many wonkish symposiums there that promised the secrets to breaking into the music business, Armisen enlisted a friend to videotape him as he crashed these panel discussions and harassed attendees in a variety of comic guises. In one indelible scene, he asked the record executive Gary Gersh and the music critic David Fricke if they would kiss each other; in another, he thoroughly perplexed the musicians Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie, of Siouxsie and the Banshees, by wearing fake buckteeth and a preposterous pompadour, pointing a microphone at them and asking them no questions at all.
Almost immediately, the videotape, titled ''Fred Armisen's Guide to Music and SXSW,'' became a frequently bootlegged and highly sought-after collector's item, not only by jaded rock fans who secretly resent successful bands, but by the bands themselves. ''It's genius on a lot of levels,'' said Jeff Tweedy, the guitarist and lead singer of Wilco. ''It's poking fun at a lot of people who don't get teased a whole lot. The indie rock community and all the people outside of the mainstream think of themselves as the good guys, but they're just as easily lampooned as anybody else.''
Armisen is almost apologetic when he talks about the project now. ''I didn't want to be mean to anybody,'' he says. ''The whole point was awkward silences - that weird feeling of, is this real?''
But to this day, some of Armisen's most ardent fans are still surprised by the tape's guerilla-style ambushes. ''It's like watching a modern-day Andy Kaufman,'' said Henry Owings, the editor of Chunklet, a Georgia-based publication that covers alternative culture. ''Both of them come from that vampire school of thought. It's cold-blooded.''
Nevertheless, the film offered Armisen an entry into show business that his music could not, first at HBO, where he produced and starred in a series of comedy shorts for the HBO Zone channel, and then on the stage of the Los Angeles club Largo, where he continued to develop material and hone his comedic skills. Then in the summer of 2002, he was invited to New York to audition for ''Saturday Night Live'' and hired as a featured performer.
Not surprisingly, many of Armisen's most vividly realized characters on ''SNL'' (where he was made a full cast member at the start of the 2004 season) are manifestations of his passion for music. Fericito, the gold-toothed timbales player who caps his jokes with a slow burn or the catchphrase ''I'm jus' keeeeding!'' is his homage to the late mambo king Tito Puente, who had a similarly forthright stage presence. Armisen said: ''It was like, here comes a joke. Here's the joke. I just told a joke!''
And in his more direct tributes, Armisen has learned to let go of the disgruntled feelings that yielded his ''Guide to Music'' video. ''There's nothing mocking or critical about the way Fred does Prince,'' said Lorne Michaels, the ''SNL'' creator and executive producer. ''You can tell that he paid attention in that kind of detail to Prince because he admired him that much.''
Apparently, Prince - or someone who knows how to write like him - agrees: When a scheduling conflict prevented the musician from appearing on ''SNL'' last year, Armisen (who is a member of Prince's official fan organization, the New Power Generation Music Club) received a mysterious e-mail message soon after. ''It's 2 bad that Prince was not able 2 per4m on the show this season,'' the note read in part. ''Something interesting could have happened 4 sure.''
Like many an ''SNL'' star before him, Armisen has started taking his first tentative steps into film, with bit parts in the recent comedies ''EuroTrip,'' ''Anchorman'' and ''Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo''; he'll next be seen in this spring's ''Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny,'' playing - what else? - a security guard at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And his industry colleagues expect that even more substantial movie roles await him: ''Everybody's cheering about Steve Carell and 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' and saying, 'He's more of an actor that I thought he was,''' Odenkirk said. ''Well, I think Fred is even more of an actor than that.''
While Armisen said he was grateful that ''SNL'' had opened so many doors for him, he seemed most excited by the increased opportunities that it had provided him to perform as an opening act for his favorite rock bands (like Sleater-Kinney and Les Savy Fav), direct music videos for rock bands (as he did this summer for the Portland, Ore., duo Helio Sequence), and basically just hang out with rock bands. ''When I see pictures of Peter Sellers with the Beatles, or the Monty Python guys with Keith Moon, I liked how that worked out,'' Armisen said. ''I know I'm going to be happy way later in the future, knowing that's the way I conducted myself.''
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