Over the years, former "Saturday Night Live" and "Portlandia" star Fred Armisen has experimented with different ways to mix his two passions and skills – music and comedy.
Starting with his time on "SNL," he used his offbeat humor and musical chops to parody bands and musicians. That included the Margaret Thatcher-loving Sex Pistols wannabe Ian Rubbish, hardcore punk wedding band Crisis of Conformity and yacht rockers the Blue Jean Committee.
He’ll share the eccentric spectrum of his comedic stylings Saturday at a sold-out show at the Majestic Theatre.
Armisen talked with the Cap Times about playing O'Cayz Corral back in the '90s, his love of the Midwest music scene, and the ingredients for a successful musical parody:
What are some of your favorite Madison memories?
I’ve been to Madison a lot. Way back in the ‘90s my band would play there a bunch of times. Because we were from Chicago. There’s a place called the O'Cayz Corral that we would play. Then it became a destination, coming up through Chicago. I think this was late ‘90s, Tito Puente played there, and I went up to go see him at a theater somewhere.
You played drums for Chicago post-hardcore band Trenchmouth, before you started your comedy career. What was it like being part of the Midwest music scene?
I loved it. I loved the care that Midwest bands and recording studios put into recording. There was this real love and obsession with microphones and old drum kits. As much as I’ve traveled and gone to other cities, there’s something about the Midwest and Chicago and Minnesota, there’s a real obsession with making good recordings.
As silly as this sounds, I liked how flat everything was. It was just easy to get everywhere. I remember we bought a van and we’d go to the middle of Illinois or Indiana. Obviously Wisconsin. And Minnesota. Sioux City, Iowa I remember. It was always an easy ride and we’d listen to cassettes and just listen to music. I just have so much fondness for touring in the Midwest and being there. And I’m not even from there. I’m an east coast person originally. But I really grew to love it and that scene.
And the record labels, too. The record labels in the Midwest were cool as hell. Every label we visited, it was always a loft or warehouse or somebody’s house. And they were there making records. It was great.
The Madison show is billed as “Comedy for Musicians but Everyone is Welcome.” What about musicians make them great targets for comedy?
It’s more a shorthand or easy way to communicate to a group of people. I like conventions, like if there’s a car collector convention. If people are into a certain car and there’s a little gathering, there’s something easy and sweet about it. I like that. I’m like "Wow, all these people got together because they’re all 'Star Trek' fans" or whatever. When that happens, there’s a good focused feeling in the room.
In the world of music there’s so much to talk about. Different guitar shops and drum shops and tutorial videos…I’m going to write that down actually. Because I’m working on this next tour, I’m working on tutorial videos…That common bond makes for a fun night. I was thinking of doing a show that was even more specific, like "This show is for punk fans only" or something like that.
Based on your experiences, what do you feel are essential steps in pulling off a successful music parody?
I think love for whatever you’re parodying. Those feelings of affection for what you want to parody. It can happen quicker if you know whatever music it is, like country music. It’s quicker to do what you want to do if you know it pretty well. If you’re familiar and like it. That said, people out there could parody something they know very little about. But for me, I like to have affection. Blue Jean Committee was all 70s yacht rock. I just loved that music. I loved how gentle and quiet it is.
After doing comedy for many years, how do you keep comedy fresh and interesting for yourself?
I try to do things that I think there’s a big question if it will ever work. I’ll approach something and think "I don’t know, maybe this might not be a good idea." And that challenge keeps nagging at me. "I don’t think it’s a good idea but what if I did it this way? Maybe that will help. I don’t know. I don’t think people will want to see this." The more I start tinkering with it, the more I think "I’m going to try to put this on a show and see what happens."
What’s it been like continuing your relationship with fellow "SNL" alum Seth Meyers on his show?
I go back maybe every month or so. I’ll do a week or so there. I continue to love it. But I’m loving it more and more. Mostly because those are my friends. The band, they’re my friends, and Seth and the producers. I just love them all. I feel the more I keep doing stuff, the more appreciation I have for these long work relationships. I feel very fortunate that I’ve known Eli Janney since the mid-90s. And Seth from when I started working at "SNL." And Mike Shoemaker. They’ve been in my life so long that I just feel so lucky. I’m like "Wow, I get to hang out with them some more."