Unlike a lot of performers in the realm of standup, for Fred Armisen, it’s not all about him. It’s not that he frowns on those who use their own lives as fodder for their act, it’s just that he thinks there are so many people out there who are better at it.
Armisen comes more from the tradition of Andy Kaufman and Peter Sellers, comic geniuses who surrendered their identities so completely to characters that the line between creation and reality often became blurred.
Whether he’s playing Ferecito, an unctuous Venezuelan percussionist who’s a cross between Ricky Ricardo and Vegas lounge lizard, or a self-defense instructor whose tips would seem to guarantee maximum harm in any situation, Armisen likes the tension created by nervous laughter, when people are not quite sure if he is playing a role.
“The one thing I know I can do is fool people into thinking there is this character on stage who might be actually like that,” says Armisen. “I’m especially amused by motivational and self-help speakers. Every time I see people on ‘Oprah’ telling you about how to better yourself, I think, ‘I have to do that,’ but with complete misinformation, as long as I act like I know what I’m talking about.”
If there’s a traditional route to being a comedian, Armisen didn’t take it. After studying film at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he toiled as a drummer for several punk rock bands with names like Trenchmouth and Those Bastard Souls. With his choir boy looks, you’d never peg Armisen as a guy who was inspired by the Clash, Bow Wow Wow, the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains, save for the occasionally mischievous glint in his eyes.
Not surprisingly, he approaches to humor with musician’s sensibility. “I always admired bands like Devo and artists like David Bowie, because every couple of years they would take on these new personas.”
In that vein, Armisen cut his performance teeth with that institution of off-beat incognito, the Blue Man Group, playing drums for the off-Broadway show’s Chicago franchise.
But it was his mock interviews with unsuspecting figures in the music world that caught the attention of HBO, which hired him as a correspondent on the show “Reverb” and then as a featured performer on an interstitial series titled “Fred,” which airs on HBO zone.
Between filmed gigs, Armisen is constantly honing his material, either as an opening act on rock tours or appearing at clubs in his adopted home of Los Angeles. He performs periodically at Largo but takes pains not to tread on the same ground.
“When I was there last time I went as a feminist poet; you know, thrift store clothes, black hair, tattoos, tribal looking — so I just did this political poetry. But I’m working on a new character…”