Cinequest is thrilled to bestow its Maverick Spirit Award to beloved comedian, actor, and musician Fred Armisen (Portlandia, Saturday Night Live). Event will include a moderated conversation with Mr. Armisen, a career-to-date highlight video, award presentation, plus a screening of one of this year’s Cinequest Audience Award winning comedy shorts.
It’s often been said that life is, “everything all at once.” Given that premise, super talented, multi-hyphenate (punk rock drummer, musician, band leader, impressionist-extraordinaire, film and TV actor, writer, producer, comedian…Nobel Prize winner…oops, ha-ha-ha, almost had you there), Fred Armisen couldn’t be more alive.
Where to begin, where to begin? Almost from the very start, Fred Armisen has been “everything all at once.” Born in Hattiesburg, Missisippi, to a Venezuelan mother and a father of German/Japanese heritage, Fereydun Robert Armisen grew up on Long Island and studied film production at New York’s School of Visual Arts. But his time there was limited. He was in a hurry to get on with everything and dropped out, moving to Chicago and becoming a punk rock drummer with the band Trenchmouth; in the 1990s, he also drummed with Blue Man Group. These days, among the many musical pies Armisen has his busy fingers in is his current gig as bandleader and drummer for 8G, the “house band” for Late Night with Seth Meyers. Successful rock musician and TV talk show bandleader. Quite the achievement, no? But wait, there’s more!
Though not at all traditionally schooled in acting, Armisen had that part of the show business itch deep inside him and he definitely needed to scratch it. “I wanted to be on TV somehow. I didn’t know that it would be comedy.” The “comedy” to which he refers was landing a featured player role in 2002 on Saturday Night Live. During his eleven-year stint, he created a virtual city’s population of unforgettable characters. There’s Venezuelan nightclub comic Fericito, Mackey the senile, can’t-keep-time drummer, the bumbling Dr. Phil-like Roger Brush, the pretentious poser Regine, who can’t keep her reactions to being touched-in all the right areas-to herself. And the list goes on and on. Come to think of it, when you look at Armisen’s thick black-framed glasses, it’s hard not to see two old CRT TV sets and a trenchant pair of all-observant cameras behind those lenses.
And then there are the impressions…spot on, hilarious, and unforgettable. Barack Obama, Prince, Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs? Oh, yeah!), Martin Scorsese, Tony Danza, Mick Jagger, all subject to Armisens’ keen observational skills, mynah bird voice, and his uncanny sense of the absurd.
Speaking of absurd -- yes, let’s -- there’s his signature IFC series, Portlandia, which flew in under the radar on IFC, but then attracted widespread attention like a fleet of UFOs. Skewering the uber-hip culture that permeates so many large U.S. Cities, it’s a case of a self-imagined sublime being actually patently ridiculous. Playing the way too cool couple with co-partner in crime Carrie Brownstein, Armisen views the Portlandia landscape and its denizens as delightfully unaware of their own ridiculousness. But he does it broadly, affectionately, without cynicism or malice. He slays with subtle rubber swords. And it flat out works. Unlike a one-off, the shows have staying power. You can’t help thinking about them well after the credits roll.
Another deep dive into the roiled waters of the absurd, Documentary Now (with fellow SNLers Bill Hader and Seth Meyers), puts a decidedly wicked spin on what’s become known as fake news. The films pay homage to a particular documentary style, peppered with healthy doses of comedy, while they earnestly probe into events that, well…never happened. Adding another ironic level to the faux loftiness of the show is Dame Helen Mirren as host. Perfect.
With so many spinning plates (including his trio of comedy shows: Portlandia, Late Night, Documentary Now) in the air, you would think Armisen would be hyper-stressed about them all coming crashing down around him. Not to worry; he’s well-grounded and keeps everything in chaotic, yet calm and comical perspective. In a recent New York Times interview he confessed, “I like to think I like stressing myself out. There’s glamour to like, ‘I’ve got to get to the airport!’ I just like the caricature.” - P.D. Crane