Actor And Comedian Fred Armisen Plays Not My Job
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we ask somebody who can do a lot of cool things to do something he can't do, which is going to be hard because Fred Armisen can seemingly do everything.
He's a cast member on "Saturday Night Live," a star and writer of "Portlandia" on IFC, a former drummer in a bunch of punk rock bands, and for a while, the world's preeminent Barack Obama imitator. Fred Armisen, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
FRED ARMISEN: Hello. Hi.
SAGAL: So great to have you.
ARMISEN: Thank you. Thank you.
SAGAL: So we were researching your life and we found out a couple of interesting things. First of all, we found out that you have said that when you were a kid you always wanted to be famous.
SAGAL: That's true?
SAGAL: I mean it wasn't like I want to be a fireman, I want to be a doctor, it was, like, I want to be famous.
ARMISEN: Absolutely. I would see people on TV or I'd see bands I really liked and I though, I want that.
SAGAL: When you were a kid and thinking about it, did you imagine any of the benefits of fame, like the money or whatever else?
ARMISEN: No, nothing like that. I just liked - the amount that I enjoyed it, I thought that must be a nice thing for people to enjoy something visual and musical.
SAGAL: Right. And so you ended up, like, becoming a musician.
SAGAL: Drums, you play drums.
SAGAL: In, like, a bunch of rock bands. You actually were here in Chicago, playing in the scene here.
ARMISEN: Yeah, I was in a punk band called Trench Mouth, and we played here all the time. You know, it's a lot of work. You know, it's a lot of carrying things.
ARMISEN: Into a van, carrying things out of a van, upstairs, back into the van. It's like a moving job.
SAGAL: Yeah, basically.
ARMISEN: You know, it really is. And that stuff, amps are heavy and drums are heavy.
SAGAL: The other thing we were surprised is I assumed that you had come up, like so many guys on "Saturday Night Live" in particular, through like the improv, like Second City or maybe some of the companies, The Goundlings in LA. But that's not true, right? You just started doing these performances on your own.
ARMISEN: Yeah, I started making videos of interviewing bands. And I would just go and interview bands as different characters.
SAGAL: Yeah, I saw a video clip of you interviewing, I assume a musician, as Hitler.
SAGAL: You just said yeah as if that was a totally normal thing to do.
ARMISEN: Yeah, I just did different - I would do a deaf guy, a blind person, a German journalist. And I put this video together and more people came out for that than ever did for Trench Mouth.
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Who did you interview as Hitler? In the middle of it, did he go "you're not Hitler?"
SAGAL: Actually, but you have to think...
GOLDTHWAIT: Butch is pretty sharp, he probably caught on.
SAGAL: No, actually, what's weird is in the middle of it - I mean at first he's going along with it and he's answering these questions from Hitler.
And the questions from Hitler and not like "do you hate the Jews as I do" but it was like, you know, tell me about your music, except it's Hitler. And at a certain point, the guy you're talking to say it's not so much this guy isn't Hitler, it's that this guy is Hitler and I shouldn't be nice to him.
SAGAL: So he starts saying thing like "you suck, Hitler."
ARMISEN: Good for him.
ARMISEN: Good for him.
SAGAL: You're a terrible person, Hitler.
BRIAN BABYLON: But you know what that means? That means you're a great actor, man, because he started believing.
ARMISEN: Yeah, I made him believe.
BABYLON: That's called method acting at its finest.
ARMISEN: That's right.
SAGAL: On "Saturday Night Live," you're sort of the go-to guy for ethnic characters, would you say? Is that true?
ARMISEN: I don't know. I guess so. Maybe, yeah.
SAGAL: Well, you did Barack Obama for a good three years, right?
GOLDTHWAIT: So what are you saying?
ARMISEN: I mean I think in a scene...
GOLDTHWAIT: That he's the...
BABYLON: You know what, for the longest time, I thought you were mixed. I swear. I thought you were like half black.
GOLDTHWAIT: I knew you were Hawaiian.
ARMISEN: I'm not...
ARMISEN: How did you know?
SAGAL: I want to talk to you about...
ARMISEN: To answer your question about ethnicity - it wasn't really a question.
ARMISEN: But I'm half Venezuelan and a quarter Japanese and a quarter German.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: Really?
BABYLON: That's a potpourri of race.
GOLDTHWAIT: That's a very, very common mix.
SAGAL: Wait a minute, a potpourri?
BABYLON: Yeah, it's a potpourri.
ARMISEN: Yeah, because you can take some of it and it smells good.
ROBERTS: It could be a bouillabaisse.
GOLDTHWAIT: I would think he's a cornucopia...
SAGAL: Of race.
GOLDTHWAIT: If I had to pick.
SAGAL: I'd say he's a mélange.
SAGAL: We have heard that "Saturday Night Live" is a crazy competitive environment, always people...
ARMISEN: No, it's not competitive.
SAGAL: It isn't? We thought that people were...
ARMISEN: No, it's a family. It's an army.
SAGAL: It's an army.
ARMISEN: It's a family. It's like we all support each other. We all root for each other's sketches; we're all in each other's sketches. It's awesome.
SAGAL: Isn't there a sense of like we're all going to come up with sketches and only some of them are going to make the air?
ARMISEN: Yeah, but you're in people's sketches. Every one I know on the show is like we all really support each other. And also, I'm not kidding. I would tell you if it was a little...
SAGAL: Would you?
BABYLON: So there's no Black Swan situation going on in the backstage?
ROBERTS: Can you - without being indiscrete - can you say your very favorite host that you had the most fun with?
ARMISEN: Boy. I would say the people I've had the most fun with are athletes, because they really don't care.
BABYLON: Like Charles Barkley.
ARMISEN: They have no agenda.
ARMISEN: They've already achieved everything they wanted to achieve. And when they step into the studio, they do not - you could put a dress on them. They'll do an accent even if they can't do it. It is so much fun. They're the most fun without a doubt.
SAGAL: Right. For example, who? What athletes have you worked with?
BABYLON: Well, Charles Barkley.
Chuck is crazy.
ARMISEN: Yeah. He's...
ARMISEN: His answer is always yes.
SAGAL: He's not a trained improve guy, he's just nuts.
SAGAL: One last question with "Saturday Night Live," I've heard the audition process can be nerve wracking. What was yours like?
ARMISEN: Well, it was - to me, it was like, it was such a big deal. It was just like being asked to go to the moon or to be president, you know.
ARMISEN: It was just very like "this is crazy, I can't even believe it." And then I remember walking to the elevators and they sort of pulled me back to talk to me, and I thought, oh, maybe something's happening, you know.
Yeah, and then they called me. And when I was outside with the other people who had auditioned, they said OK, I think we're going to do this. I saved the phone number as "best call ever."
ARMISEN: And to this day, whenever NBC calls me, I just keep transferring it to every new phone.
GOLDTHWAIT: But what if you get...
ARMISEN: And I get a lot of new phones.
GOLDTHWAIT: Yeah, but what if you get fired? It's going to be a really weird thing.
SAGAL: The call is going...
GOLDTHWAIT: Best call ever and then...
ARMISEN: But then it'll have a sarcastic tone to it.
ARMISEN: Best call ever.
GOLDTHWAIT: What's wrong, Fred?
SAGAL: Before we move - quickly, before we move on to the game, "Portlandia" is starting up again in January, which is totally awesome. I mean, you don't live in Portland. Your partner Carrie does, your partner in the show. Do you, like, walk around and look for people in the streets that you're going to say, oh, that'll be a sketch or that'll be a sketch?
ARMISEN: You guys, you don't - it's everywhere.
ARMISEN: It's everywhere. It almost seems like they're doing it on purpose.
SAGAL: I want you to know, I was in Portland and I was talking to guy who had quit his job and come there to do some metal sculpture, and he was about 28. And is said have you ever heard, you know, the line that Portland is the place where people in their 20s go to retire, which is, of course, a great line from "Portlandia."
SAGAL: He said, yeah, that's true.
ARMISEN: It is?
SAGAL: It is true.
ARMISEN: It's just this place that where everything is just going great and everyone gets to do whatever they want, whatever kind of shop they want to open. And it all just - it's this place - just everything is just working out for everybody.
BABYLON: It's like a nerdy public radio utopia.
BABYLON: It's like Subarus and hummus plates for everybody.
ARMISEN: That's exactly it.
ARMISEN: And the sort of family - even the families and the dad that - all the dads play bass and drums.
ARMISEN: There's just kids are into the cool music. It's just everything is just - it's almost like let's make a really cool city and that's what it's like.
BABYLON: It's like little kids named Axl running around.
ARMISEN: Oh yeah.
SAGAL: Well, Fred Armisen, we're delighted to talk to you. We've asked you here today to play a game we're calling?
CARL KASELL: I regret regretting that I regretted the error.
SAGAL: We here...
ARMISEN: Wait, can you say it again?
KASELL: I regret regretting that I regretted the error.
ARMISEN: The error, OK.
SAGAL: Yeah. We here at WAIT WAIT love journalists, in fact we depend on them - we're like those little birds that get their nourishment from picking debris out of the teeth of crocodiles.
But journalists aren't perfect, the Poynter Institute just published a list of their favorite retractions of the year, and we're going to ask you about three of them. Get two right and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners: Carl's voice on their home answering machine. Carl, who is Fred playing for?
KASELL: Fred is playing for Jackie Ficked of South Pasadena, California.
SAGAL: You ready to play?
SAGAL: All right, here's your first question. Very early in the year, the editors at the New York Times had to correct a story about to a young couple named Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith. What error did the Paper of Record make about them? Was it A: Jack Robison's actual name was Infanta Miel Tranquilada?
SAGAL: B: Kirsten's favorite My Little Pony Friendship is Magic character is Twilight Sparkle, not Fluttershy? Or C: The two people in the article aren't a couple; in fact, they don't even like each other?
ARMISEN: Well, C, I don't know why they would have been in an article. B sounds kind of interesting. That name sounds a little thought out. So I'm going to go B.
SAGAL: You're going to go B. You're right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: It was the pony. To quote the Times, "It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover."
SAGAL: Next question: Vogue magazine had to apologize for identifying somebody as quote, "an interior designer," when he was really what? A: An Exterior Designer? B: An Intelligent design advocate? Or C: The Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department?
ARMISEN: I want it to be C so bad.
ARMISEN: I'm going to go C, only because I want it to be.
SAGAL: It is C.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: It was C.
SAGAL: It was a profile of Chelsea Clinton. No reason was given for the error.
Last question, you're doing very well. The Toronto Sun made this uncorrected error just a couple of weeks ago. Was it A: They referred to the Canadian Prime Minister as Whatisname because who the heck knows who the Canadian Prime Minister is?
SAGAL: B: They misspelled the word correction? Or C: They captioned a picture of Kim Kardashian with the words "The Whore of Babylon?"
ARMISEN: I think it's C.
SAGAL: You think it's C: The Whore of Babylon?
SAGAL: She might well be the Whore of Babylon, as predicted by the Book of Revelations, but in fact, their error was to misspell the word "correction."
SAGAL: In a correction, they misspelled the word correction. Carl, how did Fred Armisen do on our quiz?
KASELL: Well, Fred had two correct answers, and that was enough to win for Jackie Ficked.
SAGAL: Congratulations. Well done.
ARMISEN: Thank you.
SAGAL: So you're back on "Saturday Night Live," and - which picks up back in January - and "Portlandia" is on in January as well, right?
ARMISEN: That's exactly right, yes.
SAGAL: So it's a potpourri of Fred Armisen.
BABYLON: Armisen Palloozza.
SAGAL: There you go.
SAGAL: Fred Armisen is, of course, the star of "Portlandia," starting its third season on the IFC, as well as "Saturday Night Live." Fred, thank you so much for being with us.
ARMISEN: Thank you very much. Thanks. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.