Look around the room right now. Fred Armisen could be there among you and you wouldn’t even know it. The shape-shifting comedy conjurer often appears unannounced—and in such distinct, fully imbued personas, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s him.
The second season of Documentary Now!, the parody series Armisen created with SNL alums Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, has just arrived on Netflix. The show finds Armisen inhabiting a host of unusual archetypes from the wide-ranging world of documentary films. It joins Armisen’s other current series, Portlandia, in which he and rocker-cum-comedian Carrie Brownstein skewer the kombucha-drenched personalities of the Pacific Northwest. Before that, Armisen thrived as a quirky Jack of All Trades on Saturday Night Live, forever popping up in a revolving array of memorable weirdos. There’s a pattern here. Throughout his entire comedy career so far, Fred Armisen has specialized in crafting characters, rather than narratives. It’s a talent that crystallized early on–and one that might have gone wasted had he listened to some early advice.
“I remember when I first started doing standup, I was told by an old manager that that was my flaw, that was my detriment,” Armisen says. “He’s like, ‘You’ve got all these characters but you don’t have any jokes.’ And I remember thinking, ‘So what?’ I mean, I don’t have any jokes. This is what I do. And it seems to have stuck. Pretty much, this is what I still do. I can’t be bothered with narrative. It takes too long for me to try to think of it.”
Before he even started doing standup, however, Armisen, had the ability to capture the essence and texture of a character. It was something he developed while his main job was drumming with the band Trenchmouth. Being enmeshed in the outer borough of mid-’90s indie rock helped the musician absorb some kooky nuances from his fellow travelers.
“When you’re in a band, you spend most of your time in a van. Like, there were four of us, we toured all the time, and you’re stuck looking at three other people for a month straight,” Armisen says. “And all of those times, we all just liked making fun of people, doing impressions of people, coming up with songs. You meet all kinds of people when you’re on tour, and people of all nationalities and styles, and that’s what it was like in the van. Just impressions and inside jokes and accents. That’s what it was for us.”
All the exposure to personality types in the music world ended up giving the musician his chance to break out beyond that world. The first thing that got Armisen any attention from comedy tastemakers was a video he made at South by Southwest in 1998, parodying the interviewers, bands, and general vibe of the convention, long before the tropes were codified.
“That whole video came out of my boredom and frustration with not being a rock star,” Armisen says. “I wanted so badly to be in a famous band and it was not happening. I played drums with different bands, and with the Blue Man Group in Chicago, but I definitely felt like, ‘Wow, I did not picture my life being like this.’ So I just started doing that video and interviewing people and bands I knew.
He’d gone to SXSW with a camera that year, frustrated by his inability to gain success. He left having carved out a path for enormous success in an entirely different field. The video, Fred Armisen’s Guide to SXSW 1998, was a product of the pre-viral internet, so Fred had to make copies of the VHS tape himself and sell them at shows. Pretty soon, though, copies found their way past other bands and other tour buses, and to executives at HBO. They loved Armisen’s arsenal of characters so much they hired him to create some for interstitial scenes on the channel.
As he started to perform standup and create videos, going against the advice of his manager and sticking with characters is what put Armisen on track for SNL, Portlandia, Documentary Now!, and whatever lies in his future. It’s doubtful that he’ll stop anytime soon either since summoning new people into the world helped Armisen figure himself out.
“I’m glad I get to do characters. It’s just like a Polaroid shot of whoever the person is, and to me, anyway, that’s kind of what life is like,” he says. “You get a general sense of somebody and then we’re all good, we get it. We understand each other.”