MAN OF MANY FACES
Fred Armisen on Sex, Sketches, and Growing Up
The Portlandia star sits down ahead of the show’s sixth season premiere to discuss his creative and comedic evolution and intimacy issues.
Early in the sixth season of Portlandia, IFC’s beloved hipster-skewering sketch show, Fred (Fred Armisen) wakes up to unholy shrieks from his roommate and best friend, Carrie (Carrie Brownstein). He whips around in a panic toward the room’s only mirror and screams. In a single night, he discovers, all his hair has gone gray.
“What, I’m not 32? I’m very 32!” the 49-year-old insists before demanding proof of his age in photos. In one illuminating, acid-tinged trip through a black hole, we find real-life pictures of a teenage punk Armisen, smirking at the camera in a mohawk and black leather.
“I was a very proud punk,” Armisen says, suited in head-to-toe black at a table inside New York’s Crosby Bar. “That’s still a part of me. I haven’t outgrown that, the way I thought when I was a teenager—which is terrible.”
Armisen—who, at present, boasts just a few wisps of gray at the temples of his head—is here to promote the show’s sixth season of delightfully absurd short-form stories, each sketch lovingly satirizing the weird, the hip, and the holier-than-thou of Portland and beyond.
The season’s opener, which airs Thursday, takes aim at the pomp and excess of music festivals, with guest stars the Flaming Lips playing divas on the verge of a breakup and Orange Is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne channeling the lovelorn ego of a girl in search of the perfect boy (with a man-bun).
Brownstein and Armisen, meanwhile, sit the whole fest out, too comfortable at home to leave, yet too wracked with FOMO (“fear of missing out”) to miss Portland’s annual Pickathon. Their compromise? A drone, hired to hover over the main stage and give them the best view in the house.
The vainest, silliest, yet most relatable woes about aging and the passage of time—gray hairs, festivals, breakups, lost photos—are at the heart of several episodes screened for press in advance of the Emmy-nominated series’ sixth season. Armisen says his character’s surprise at his own age, and his rush to dig old photos out of obsolete technology just to prove that his life, indeed, really happened, are based in reality.
“All of my memories are now on hard drives,” he says. “I’ll change phones or I’ll change my laptop and all my photos stay. Then all of a sudden I’ll move and look back at my photos and be like, ‘What happened to 2008? Or 2006?’”
“You feel like the same person. There’s no evidence of [time]. I’m not lamenting it. It’s just how it is.”
Armisen, who co-created, stars in, and executive-produces Portlandia along with Brownstein (she of Sleater-Kinney guitar-shredding fame), has amassed a life’s worth of photographs, from his teenage punk rock days in a band called The KGB, to past lives drumming for the Blue Man Group and a hardcore band called Trenchmouth, to his record-setting career on Saturday Night Live and his current gig as fellow SNL alum Seth Myers’s bandleader on Late Night With Seth Myers.
His life, he tells me, has always been about trying to get famous.
“I can’t remember not feeling that way,” Armisen says. “Since I was, like, an infant… I remember being in love with television, I loved listening to music. I wanted to be on records and I wanted to be on TV.”
But life as a musician in his teens and early twenties was far from the Keith Moon glam punk daydream Armisen had been chasing. Trenchmouth labored for eight years to break out of Chicago’s punk rock scene, only to surrender in defeat to the unknowable physics of popularity.
“I wanted to be famous, so I thought if I just kept playing it would happen. But it didn’t happen that way,” he says. “We’d tour and tour and tour and sometimes we’d play crowded places, but sometimes there would be nobody there. At first it’s OK. But as it kept going, there was an alarm clock going off in me going, ‘This is not working. This is not what I want.’
“It’s a sad realization, but I’m an optimist,” he says.
It wasn’t until Armisen joined Chicago’s Blue Man Group (as a backup drummer in glowing skeletal paint) that he earned his first paycheck for playing music. He still gushes about his two-year stint and what it taught him about visual entertainment, lessons he says he ultimately brought to his comedy career on SNL and beyond.
“They didn’t use any words. So immediately, it’s like [the show was] universal,’” he says. “It’s a noble thing to really try to reach a lot of people. Ask people who sat way in the back.”
After the success of Portlandia and Saturday Night Live—where Armisen spent a whopping 11 years perfecting close to 100 celebrity impressions, including President Obama, Harrison Ford, and Joy Behar—the actor finally found the name recognition he craved.
But fame often comes with prying eyes and unwanted attention, the kind of negative spotlight Armisen found himself in this time last year when Gawker insinuated that the actor’s “charm and humor mask something of a reputation.”
Rumors of infidelity had swirled in the aftermath of Armisen’s two-year marriage to Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss, after the actress characterized their union as “extremely traumatic and awful and horrible” in an interview with New York magazine.
“I have a problem with intimacy, where all of a sudden, there’s a real person there… and now there’s a person behind this. It’s not the girl on Mad Men,” Armisen, in a rare moment of vulnerability, later told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast. He explained that the marriage ended after “cheating and infidelity.”
“I’m neither ashamed nor proud of it. It’s just something that happens in my life,” Armisen said, expressing that “little by little,” he hoped to see a difference in himself.
Today, seated at the Crosby Bar, Armisen remains optimistic.
“I see everything as a positive that can only help me,” Armisen says. “I am not finished becoming a person. Even though I said that [about working on the problem], I still think that way. Every day I wanna work on being a better person, not just to others but to myself.
“I worked at it and the result of it is that if you put effort into things, good things keep coming. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got many supportive friends. I think that everywhere I go, people are very kind. People are very forgiving and, as corny as it sounds, very loving. And so that’s what propels me every day. It’s a good thing. It becomes like its own fuel.”
His friendship with Brownstein—a person with whom he finds “true intimacy,” he says—is part of what keeps him moving forward. “It’s one of those things that no matter how many words I use to describe it, nothing will do it justice,” he says. “It’s more of a feeling than anything else. I get to work with her, I get to collaborate with her. But aside from all that stuff, we’ll always be close.”