Coffee Talk with Fred Armisen: On ‘Portlandia,’ Meeting Obama, and Taylor Swift’s Greatness

The SNL alum and comedy guru discusses the hilarious fifth season of his IFC series Portlandia, how he became a gifted impressionist, and his full-circle Green Day moment.

01.07.15 10:50 AM ET

Fred Armisen is a man of many faces. For 12 years on Saturday Night Live, he assumed the guise of everyone from Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden. And on his delightfully droll IFC series Portlandia, the 48-year-old incites belly laughs as a host of characters (along with partner in comedy Carrie Brownstein) ranging from the sullen feminist bookstore co-owner Candace to the charm onslaught that is Bryce “we can pickle that!” Shivers.

The face he’s wearing today is a genial one. We’re huddled together at an intimate café in his Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea sipping colossal cups of coffee and picking at a bowl of fruit.

Portlandia’s fifth season premieres January 8, and kicks off with a bang—a hilarious mini-movie chronicling the epic journey of Toni and Candace from the chauvinistic 1980s corporate world to their mutual dead-eyed stare behind the counter of Women and Women First. Yes, the Portland-skewering satire is by no means slowing down, and neither is the very busy Armisen—who spends half the year flying back and forth between the set of Portlandia and 30 Rock, where he serves as bandleader of The 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Over the course of an hour, Armisen opens up about his comedic evolution, from local impressions to international ones, his transition from musician to comedian, and what President Obama told him about his impersonation when they met recently.

I’ve seen the first few episodes of Portlandia’s fifth season, and I loved the backstory of Toni and Candace of Women and Women First, in particular. Where did that idea come from?

We have a team of five writers—me, Carrie, Jon Krisel, Graham Wagner, and Karey Dornetto—and at first we thought they should be in the riot grrrl scene and have a band, but we kept hitting this dead end of, “So what? That’s not a surprise.” So we decided to go in the opposite direction. “What if they were part of a corporation?” And suddenly, we were able to come up with all these scenes for it. It was a brick wall that we turned into the on-ramp of a highway.

It reminded me a bit of an alternative take on The Wolf of Wall Street—through the Toni and Candace lens. And that dance sequence is amazing.

Yeah. We made it purposely like a mini-movie that’s very surreal and exaggerated. And with the dance sequence, we wanted something very physical. Our budget isn’t that big so we tried to get rights to songs, and with that [Snap’s “The Power], we said, “We NEED that song.” But we just went crazy and didn’t even tell each other what we were going to do, and improvised the whole routine.

We’re entering Season 5, of course. How do you feel the show is going? A lot of television series’ usually see a serious dip in quality by now, but Portlandia doesn’t seem to be lagging at all.

Well, that’s very nice of you. We take enough time off in between so that our batteries get recharged and we get inspired again. It’s not that many episodes—only 10 per season—so it doesn’t take up so much of our energy. We have momentum, and all of a sudden we’re back in May or June and all have ideas. It’s a matter of luck, and enthusiasm.

That video of you doing all the New York impressions went viral. How did you even get into doing impressions?

My Mom is from Venezuela and my Dad is German and Japanese, and we lived in Brazil when I was a kid for a couple of years, and then I grew up on Long Island. I think all the traveling and all the nationalities put that stuff in my head. I was just around it a lot. I had enough experiences around languages that it just sort of happened.

Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Mike Chase, Photo Credit-Augusta Quirk/IFC

Augusta Quirk/IFC

I’m a mix too.

I feel like that’s happening a lot. I keep meeting more and more people where that seems to be the case. Don’t you find that other people are like, “Oh my God!” I used to be so jealous of all the other kids in my class because they were all Irish, and I thought, “Oh, it must be so cool to have freckles.”

You always want to conform when you’re younger.

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What were some of the earliest impressions you did?

Ever since I was really little, I started doing a—I don’t know how to put this—mentally challenged person on my street. I meant no harm by it, but I remembered how this person talked, and I did it for my Mom and she was not into it. She said, “You can’t do that!” But my Dad really laughed. So that was the first. And then I did teachers all throughout elementary school and junior high for my friends. I did them all the time, and I don’t even know why I was doing them!

You said you wanted to be Irish, like your classmates. What was it like growing up in Long Island?

It was very Italian-American and Irish. Valley Stream. The Long Island experience is so strange. You’re a satellite around the city, so the presence of the city is always looming. But the people from Valley Stream had such a thick New York accent that was all around me. It’s my favorite New York accent to do because it almost sounds like an exaggeration; it sounds more New York than Manhattan.

Your first love was music, right? Where do you even practice drums living in New York City?

At the moment, the only chance I get is when I go do Late Night with Seth Meyers. You went to Columbia, huh? Things seem to be going well for you.

It’s not bad. It was a bit strange for a while here with all the Newsweek stuff. That was an interesting experience.

What is Newsweek anymore? Because they stopped and I thought, “OK, that makes sense,” and then all of a sudden I saw another issue!

Right. It was acquired by IBT Media last year and then earlier this year they relaunched the print edition with a Bitcoin cover story that got them in some hot water. So wait… you were in a band for a while, right?

Trenchmouth. But I always liked comedy—or was drawn to it, anyway.

I've seen video of that satirical guide to SXSW in 1998 where you asked a bunch of bands odd questions. Was that a transitional moment for you from music to comedy?

I’m glad I went! That was my start—where music went into doing comedy. I wasn’t doing it for anybody; I just decided to go down and make a tape just to do it. That’s sort of how Portlandia started, too. What kind of music do you like?

Everything, pretty much. I gotta say—I think this past year was pretty bad for music. I like the FKA Twigs album a lot and Run the Jewels… the St. Vincent album, too.

That was fantastic. I really like Au Revoir Simone. What about Parquet Courts? I love their new album.

I enjoyed it, but thought it paled in comparison to their debut. I’m a big fan of the new Taylor Swift album.

Oh, yeah. Me too. She’s unstoppable. She’s killing it. I’m so happy about that! It’s such a nice thing to have an artist who can be both huge and great. Do you review shows?

Don’t do live reviews so much. Everyone with a blog or Tumblr can go to a show and write it up, so I don’t really see the point—plus the traffic has been cannibalized.

Plus, I don’t care about live reviews. “I went to a show, this was great…” I could care less! What am I supposed to get out of it?

Well, it’s the only way that bands make money, right? Performing live. Because they don’t sell too many albums these days, and Spotify pays them a fraction of a cent per stream. You may have lucked out by getting out of music. It’s a tough racket.

Oh, that’s right. I guess I did. I mean… I really do wonder how they do it. How can you be a recording artist? I can’t imagine what it’s like. I wouldn’t know the answer of what to do… just tour a lot? I don’t know!

OK back to Portlandia. What are some of your favorite Season 5 sketches?

We just saw an edit of one called, “Doug Becomes A Feminist,” and I just really enjoyed watching it. The Toni and Candace backstory one is good. Our fans have seen all our sketches, so we wanted to give them something a little deeper about each character. And we have a lot of great guests this season: Greta Gerwig, Natasha Lyonne, Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi is back—I love that guy. It’s been very rich in that department, and it’s always by chance. Schedules work out and we just have them come out to Portland.

Are you bi-coastal now, between Portlandia and Late Night with Seth Meyers?

Tri-coastal. L.A., Portland, and New York. I always wanted my life to be that way, and it became that way. You just travel light with carry-on luggage, go to cities that you love, and get to hang out with all your friends. With Portlandia, we only work on it from June through October, so I stay in Portland for that, but the rest I’m here in New York and able to separate them and work on stuff. And then if I have to fly some weekends, I just do it. I really love it. I feel fortunate that I get to do it at all. I spent a lot of years being in Trenchmouth just toiling away, so even though it sounds corny, I just love being able to do what I want to do.

How long do you see Portlandia going?

It’s hard to think that far ahead. You never know what’s going to happen, but we love doing it, and we’re going to do it for as long as we can make episodes that we’re proud of. Me and Carrie aren’t interested in going through the motions. We have Season 6 to shoot over the summer, and we’re just going to keep going.

What is it about you and Carrie that makes you…

…A miracle. It’s this amazing stroke of luck in my life that I was able to cross paths with her, and it changed my life! I was friends with her drummer from Sleater-Kinney, and I met Carrie, and we just hit it off. We did ThunderAnt stuff for ourselves and just put it online, and then it blossomed into something else.

How did you land Saturday Night Live? That audition process is supposed to be intense.

Here’s what happened: I was in a band, then I started doing comedy and went to L.A. and started doing characters in comedy clubs and at UCB. I ended up on a sketch show with Bob Odenkirk. We had a pilot for a sketch show, called Next!, where I’d do characters, but we didn’t get picked up. My agent at the time sent that tape to SNL and then they asked me to come in for an audition. In a way, the SNL audition wasn’t nerve-wracking because I was like, “I can’t even believe this is happening.”

What did you do during your SNL audition?

I only did three. I went into the audition as Fericito, the Venezuelan percussionist, and then I did a self-defense expert. And then I did Sam Waterston in Law & Order.

He shakes his head a lot when he talks.

Yeah! And has a very raspy voice—very dignified. I love Law & Order.

I’m addicted to SVU. I’m curious—have you ever met Obama?

I met him recently, and he was so nice about it and cool. And then I met him before I started doing the impression of him when he was a guest on SNL for a moment. But he told me recently that Malia would do my impression of him to him. It was really nice.

You were basically the guy to do every dictator or crazy character, from Gaddafi and Ahmadinejad to Bin Laden. Were there any where you said, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”

No way! I was psyched to do them all. These were brilliant writers who were really great at keeping it to jokes.

What comedians did you grow up enjoying?

I watched SNL—the Eddie Murphy generation—and also SCTV with Rick Moranis. Me and my friends loved Rick Moranis.

What happened to that guy?

His wife passed away and they had kids, and he wanted to focus on being a dad so he just stopped to raise his kids. I always wanted to have a career like his—except for the stopping work thing. I’ve always admired him and the way he works. And then I was really into later SNL’s with Dana Carvey and Mike Myers. And with stand-ups, I remember liking George Carlin and Steve Martin.

SNL churns out so many great comedians. Is it sort of evidence of the Gladwellian 10,000 hours theory? You must just get a ton of practice.

So much. Being there teaches you to think quickly, edit yourself, and not get too precious about your own work. That’s really the biggest lesson I learned. You walk in thinking, “I’ve got these brilliant ideas,” and right away the audience tells you, “Those ideas aren’t so brilliant.” It’s a good amount of second-guessing yourself.

Do all the SNL alums get together still?

Yeah! It’s the best. Amy Poehler will say, “Hey, we’re all having dinner tonight,” and you say, “I’m in town!” and then we’re there. It’s awesome. I love it. It’s like a family, and we all know each other well enough that we don’t have to put on any façade. You just show up and laugh. What a dream. I love those people.

Aren’t you collaborating with Bill Hader and Seth Meyers on a comedy series?

Yup, for IFC. It’s a fake documentary show. We’re just trying to make these documentaries that look real. We don’t even want them to seem like mockumentaries, because we love documentaries. But I’ll keep it as a surprise. 

Do you miss SNL?

It’s like missing college. I loved it, but I did it, and I don’t miss doing it. I have enough connection to it that I still enjoy being around it—with Lorne, Seth, Bill, Jimmy Fallon, and I’m still in touch with the new cast.

How do you think they’re doing?

Brilliantly. I watch every episode alone on my couch and I just sit there and laugh, and laugh. That Star Wars sketch was amazing. I loved that. Really, really great. There was one with Woody Harrelson towards the end of the show where they’re playing guitar and all trying to remember the song, which I also loved. And Vanessa [Bayer] always makes me laugh. Kate [McKinnon] is so talented. You know she’s going to be in movies and all that stuff. She has that DNA; that SNL voice.

Are you trying to do more movies, and how’s that going?

I just did one [Geezer] with Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day. He plays an aging punk rocker and I play the drummer from his old band. He did great. It’s cool because Trenchmouth opened for Green Day in the early ‘90s in Wisconsin. I liked it because it was like my life coming back together. I really wanted Trenchmouth to succeed and at the time wished we were as big as Green Day. And here I am with Billie Joe. It just took a different way to get there.