Fred Armisen could really use another project. At the moment, all he’s doing is writing, producing and starring in the IFC show Portlandia, leading and curating the band on Late Night with Seth Meyers, guest-starring on shows like Modern Family, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Broad City, doing social experiments for Heineken (more on that below) and creating a new show for IFC called American Documentary with fellow SNL alums Seth Meyers and Bill Hader.
Yep, that’s all. What a shirker.
We recently chatted with Armisen about all of his projects, his transition from music to comedy in the late ’90s and why sleeping for eight hours makes him feel guilty.
“In New York, people go from Point A to Point B. In Portland, they go from Point A and they stay at Point A.”
You’re making the rest of us look bad. You’ve got like seven jobs!
[Laughs] I just like doing it. I feel very lucky to do anything in comedy at all, so I really cherish it all.
In all seriousness, how do you find time to do everything? Do you have any time-management tips or secrets?
No, because I actually don’t feel like I’m that good at long-term time management. I try to do the immediate more. Like, I look at my month ahead as opposed to my year ahead. Things change so frequently that anything that I plan out a year in advance always turns out to be the wrong way to go. So I just try to plan a month at a time.
We also read that you sleep very little. Is that true?
I sleep very, very little. I go to bed late and I wake up really early. That’s just the way I’ve always been.
Like, four hours a night?
That sounds about right, yeah. I really like getting up early in the morning. That’s when I can think the most clearly. I really am not a fan of oversleeping. If that ever happens to me, I feel dread. Like guilt. I feel immediate guilt. Like, if I sleep for seven hours, eight hours, it’s like, “Ah! What did I do?!”
In addition to all your TV work, you’ve got a new video with Heineken in which you see if New Yorkers will pick up a ringing payphone and follow orders. Did anyone recognize it was you on the phone?
Nobody. Not only did no one recognize me, but the director also wanted to keep it mysterious. So I couldn’t even hint at it.
Do you think the experiment would have gone differently if you’d done it in Portland instead of New York?
Oh, wow. Yes. My answer is yes. Like, I actually expected very few people to pick up the phone in New York. But I think in Portland the sound of the phone would be more noticeable. Because it’s quieter. So I definitely think it would get people’s attention quickly—faster than it did in New York. The other part of that, too, is that in New York, people go from Point A to Point B. In Portland, they go from Point A and they stay at Point A. They just kind of sit. And, you know, whatever hobby it is that they have, they just open up a shop for it and then they run a shop for that hobby.
Is that the biggest difference between New Yorkers and Portlanders?
Definitely. Definitely. Like Portland, and I mean it with respect, anything that they love, they’re just like, “I love synthesizers,” and they just open up a synthesizer shop, which really does exist there. And, you know, whoever comes in, comes in. So it’s kind of like, they’re in a place where they have time to pick up the phone.
We’re sure everybody asks you this, but do you miss SNL?
I loved SNL. I had really the time of my life. I loved it with every fiber of my being. But I don’t miss it because I don’t miss anything, you know? Like, anything in the past, it’s an experience, it’s a memory, but nothing that I would ever… like, it doesn’t make any sense for me to want to be at a place again, you know what I mean? Like, I like going back and visiting, but I really love my life and I love the future, you know what I mean? Also, it was a lot of work. It’s almost like talking about missing college. Like, I loved college, but there was a time for it, you know?
One other question related to the Heineken thing. Did you do a lot of prank calls growing up?
I did. And then early on, when I started doing comedy I did these pieces for HBO where we did some hidden camera stuff. And I remembered thinking, right before this came up, that I was missing doing that. I was like, wow, I really miss that sort of scary act of interacting with strangers. You know, I was like, wow, I really have not gotten to do that in a long time. So… it’s so funny, I was just talking about not missing SNL or anything, and now I say I missed doing pranks. So I contradict myself. That makes me complex and interesting, so make sure to put that in the article please.
Do you remember the first impression or character that you did in your life?
I used to do impressions of teachers and then people on my street, for my dad. But then as I started doing comedy and stuff, I think one of the first ones was maybe Gene Wilder. Or Sam Waterston from Law & Order.
Armisen and Brownstein in a scene from Portlandia. We think.
We just watched your 1998 SXSW video on YouTube. It’s really funny. Was that a big moment for you, in terms of going from being a drummer in a punk rock band to becoming a comedy performer?
Oh, that was like the turning point! Before then, I was 100 percent playing music. And then that video is what got me, you know, that was my entryway into doing comedy.
Did you make it for a particular outlet, or did you—?
No. Just for fun.
Just 100 percent for fun. In fact, it was maybe even more out of boredom. You know, I went to this festival, and there were all these panels and stuff, and I was like, “I’m just going to go there with a video camera and, you know, see what happens.” So there was no goal, it was just something I wanted to do. Which is kind of like, it’s the same way Portlandia started, when I started doing videos with Carrie [Brownstein]. It was all out of… for no reason at all. It was like, “Let’s do something.”
That’s usually the sign of the best stuff, right? That you just want to do it whether you get paid for it or not?
That’s what I think. All the stuff that I’m a fan of had similar beginnings. They just did it for fun. Or for no reason whatsoever. It always seems to get the best results.
By the way, how did you and Carrie meet?
I was a huge, huge fan of her band, and I was friends with her drummer, Janet Weiss. And she introduced us. In like 2003 or something. Because they came to New York and I was going to go see them play, but I had a show, and so they just came to the SNL after-party.
And then you realized that you had the same comic sensibilities and all that?
Oh my god, it was really odd. It was an immediate… “We’re friends.” You know what I mean? Like, immediately we were like… I remember thinking we were going to be friends, and then we were. It’s something you can barely describe. You just know it.
And she knew it too right away?
Yeah, yeah. It was almost like sharing in the same secret or something. Or sharing a secret. We began right away. We just started. And it still goes on through today.
Speaking of which, Portlandia recently picked up six Emmy nominations, including two for you. Congrats.
Oh, thanks. I’m really excited about it. It’s really nice. It’s nice for the show, you know. It’s all good things.
You’re in preproduction right now for season five. What can people expect?
I think we’re going to get in deeper with some of the characters. There’ll be a couple of new characters, and also we’re starting to examine some of the institutions of Portland. You know, things that are more part of the infrastructure.
Well, as soccer fans, we really appreciated your Portland Timbers sketch. The more of those, the better.
Dude, you gotta go to a Timbers game! It’s insane. They bring drums. The crowd brings drums. They have something called the Timbers Army. It’s insane. You literally feel like you’re in another country.
We’d love to. OK, last question: Got any advice for guys out there trying to make it in comedy or music?
My advice is to always surround yourself with people who make you laugh and who inspire you. That’s the most important thing. Because then right away you’re in a good place.