A true Renaissance man, writer and comedian Fred Armisen did not get his start in the comedy circuit. After dropping out of NYC’s School of Visual Arts, Armisen’s first major artistic impact came from behind a drum kit. His tenure in the Chicago post-punk outfit Trenchmouth lasted through the early ’90s until he went on to pursue acting and comedy. He toured as a comic opening for Jeff Tweedy, landed a few choice late-night gigs, and eventually ended up on SNL. Most recently, IFC began airing Portlandia, a light-hearted send up of bohemian culture in Portland, which Armisen created with Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney). Never content to stand still, he’s doing a few solo stand-up dates right now and stopping through the Black Cat tonight. He was kind enough to exchange a few words with ArtsDesk via e-mail before the show.
How did you meet Carrie Brownstein, who you’re now working with?
I don’t really remember. We have conflicting stories. We had many mutual friends over the years. I think we met in San Francisco at a show. Carrie thinks it was New York.
Where did the idea for your comedy duo ThunderAnt (and more recently, Portlandia) come from?
We just wanted to do something fun. We both liked the idea of making videos that would make us laugh. After a while we had a bunch and put them online. Soon we had quite a few and we decided to pitch it as a TV show. Then we changed the name to make it a little more specific.
Does the fact that you were both in punk bands affect how you interact as comics?
I think so. I think there’s a sense of, it’s okay if you’re not perfect at doing it all. And there’s give and take like there is in a band.
With Portlandia, you poke fun at a lot of bohemian liberal tropes. Do you feel like the show is more of a friendly satire rather than a pointed one?
Way totally friendly. It’s a friendly postcard.
Does your experience at SNL play into your work on Portlandia at all?
Oh yes. I learned a lot about writing and making sure to think about the audience.
Do you feel like you have more freedom on Portlandia than you do with SNL?
No, I’d say it’s about the same. All of us (including Jonathan our director) edit ourselves pretty heavily.
You played drums on some of Les Savy Fav’s 2007 album Let’s Stay Friends; how did you score that gig?
Syd just asked me to do it. I said yeah absolutely!
Did it make you long for the days of Trenchmouth?
It did in a way. Playing drums in the studio is so gratifying.
Certain D.C. musicians, notably the guys in Q and not U, were really big fans of Trenchmouth. Did you make many connections through playing in that band?
I did. I made some lifelong friends.
Do you find yourself listening to many D.C. bands or punk bands in general these days?
Recently yes. I’ve been listening to Lungfish (I know, I know, it’s Baltimore), Jawbox and the Evens.
You previously opened for Jeff Tweedy as a comedian, and you’re touring in rock clubs now. Do you feel more comfortable in rock venues than in more typical comedy clubs?
Definitely. Comedy clubs are too comedy-ish for me.