Fred Armisen: Nothing Is Bullshit

Fred Armisen is best known as the co-creator, along with Carrie Brownstein, of the sketch comedy show Portlandia. Launched in 2011, the Comedy Central hit fell alongside Armisen's long-running stint as a writer and cast-member on Saturday Night Live. This past May, after 12 seasons with SNL, he left the show to pursue other career opportunities.

Of Armisen's many character portrayals, a majority of them were musicians—either spoofs of archetypal figures or spot-on impressions of icons like Prince and David Lee Roth. One of his final SNL sketches ripped into early-'80s UK punk rock via a fictional band called Ian Rubbish & the Bizzarros. Music has always been close to the heart of Armisen's humor. His start in show business, in fact, was as a drummer in the punk band Trenchmouth. 

In advance of his July 7 show at the Showbox, we spoke with Armisen at 9 a.m. on a recent Monday morning.

City Arts: I'm not used to being up and working at this hour.

Fred Armisen: Same here. We're both on adult time. This is what it's like being a grownup. I'm getting ready for work right now.

Do you have an office space you go to or do you work in your living room?

I'm here in Portland right now, and we're starting to write Portlandia Season 4, so we go into an office. It's very traditional, a real workplace. We go in the morning and start hammering out ideas. 

How often are you in Portland?

I spend my summers here. Four months, which is definitely a long time. I love the Pacific Northwest. It's really nice. I'm out here the whole summer, which is one of the reasons to do the Seattle show. I can do a couple shows here in Portland up in Seattle. 

Seattle is a nice place to go to as well. I know "nice" is a light word. What I mean to say is that it's something I look forward to doing anyway.

You and Carrie have toured with Portlandia before. Are these shows going to be like those? Will you be leaning heavily on Ian Rubbish material?

We've done a couple tours with Portlandia, but this is going more heavily with the musical show. I wanna someday go on Ian Rubbish tour and just play those songs. This way I can have a band and play those songs, and those songs are out online and stuff so there's at least some awareness about it. It’s a very mobile road-worthy thing to do. It's not like I need that many instruments or there's a huge stage show. Punk bands are so striped down, and that’s something that'll help it. And also I love playing those songs, so any excuse to do that is great.

The rest of the show, I'll show some videos, some outtakes from Portlandia, I'll talk a little bit. It’s a show but it's also hangout.

The Ian Rubbish thing is wickedly spot-on. I'm amazed that UK punk hasn't been torn into like that before. It's so ripe. 

I've been practicing that character my whole life. Maybe since I was 12 or 15, you know? So when the sketch came up it was easy to do. I didn’t even have to think about it. And I'll say to the credit of the writers and filmmakers at SNL, they did a good job of capturing that time film-wise. The quality of the film, The History of Punk, looks like it's from back then. That added to it.

Why hasn't punk been spoofed like that before? Is punk rock humorless? Is it inherently absurd? A few months ago an article came out in a local publication that claimed punk rock is bullshit. It pissed off a lot of people but it was pretty righteous. 

Lemme break down a couple things in that question. I haven't read the article, so I can't address it directly. But number one, as an immediate answer, there is some punk rock that absolutely has humor in it. You just have to dig for it a little bit. The Damned had a sense of humor. I think in a way Husker Du, the Replacements, the Minutemen, absolutely.

But I think it's always good to have a discussion, to have an article that stirs things up. If you're getting offended by an article, you have other problems. Just disagree or ignore it. But the funny thing about all of this, on the other side, is the writer—I don’t know if he realized it but maybe he did—he did the most punk-rock thing ever. He inadvertently made himself a punk. He made himself part of the discussion, he used punk language like "it's bullshit!" and stirred things up, so he therefore he is a punk. The punk I grew up on, that's what it's all about.

It's my opinion that nothing is bullshit. Nothing. Every type of music means something to somebody. That goes for boy bands, the most fabricated music—that’s not bullshit. Nothing is bullshit. Everything means something to someone.

What makes something like Ian Rubbish work 30 years after UK punk disappeared? Why is that music funny today? What music will be funny in 30 years?

That changes day to day. Whereas making fun of some huge pop icon would be funny a week ago, it might not be funny this week. It's all timing. Who knows why things make people laugh? It they had it down to science it would be much easier. You never know what could resonate. When Spinal Tap came out, I'm sure there were people who said, "You can't make fun of this now! There's nothing funny about heavy metal!" I think. Then they came out with maybe the greatest movie ever. Who knows. It’s a timing thing.

Do you ever consider that you'd never be as famous or successful as you are now if you pursued a career in music?

Without a doubt. It’s a good lesson in evaluating what's in front of you. When I was in bands, we played in Seattle a bunch of times, and it was so frustrating at the end of the tour and, like, that’s it—we weren’t destined to be this huge band. Only through comedy has a song I've written gotten out to television and records and stuff. It’s a really nice, happy miracle. I don’t mean that in a religious way.

It's a really fortunate thing. That’s not lost on me.

It seems like it worked out as it should, because now you get the best of both worlds, in music and comedy. You're the only person who could be doing what you do.

That’s very kind of you. That’s nice of you to say. If I back you up it looks like I'm an egomaniac. Which I can be at times, like, "Yeah, I am talented." I'll say this: It's all stuff I grew up on. All the comedy I grew up on and music I grew up on. I just wanted to be a part of it all.

Fred Armisen plays the Showbox on Sunday, July 7.

See more in Comedy