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F-STOP: Being Fred Armisen

Fred Armisen by Gene Smirnov copy
Photo by GENE SMIRNOV

Our man Gene Smirnov just won a big deal award from The New York Chapter of the American Photographic Artists with this portrait of Fred Armisen for my May 2014 Magnet Magazine cover story, which goes like this…

“Do you have Questlove’s cellphone number?” Beyonce’s drummer asks nobody in particular. She twists around from her perch in the front seat of a black Escalade that NBC has sent to ferry us from a downtown Manhattan rehearsal studio to the storied Art Deco tower of power that is 30 Rock, and looks around to her bandmates in The 8G Band seated in the rows behind her — keyboardist Eli Janney, formerly of indie heartthrobs Girls Vs Boys; bassist Syd Butler and guitarist Seth Jabour, both formerly of indie iconoclasts Les Savy Fav; guitarist/bandleader Fred Armisen, formerly of Trenchmouth and SNL and currently Portlandia.Fred-Armisen-MAGNET-COVER2

Everyone but Fred Armisen gives her that ‘How the fuck would I have Questlove’s phone number?’ look. You know that look. You probably give that look a hundred times a day without even thinking about it. We all do. But not Fred Armisen. Fred Armisen actually has Questlove’s phone number. Fred Armisen, as I will learn over the course of the coming weeks, has EVERYONE’s number. He shoots her a look that is half sheepish, half inquisitive and then asks her the question he already knows the answer to: “Yeah, do you want it?”

“Uh, yeah,” says Beyonce’s drummer (real name: Kimberly Thompson), who is, just to be clear, also The G8 Band’s drummer. “He just Instagrammed me and told me to call him.” Fred pulls out his iPhone and texts her the Roots’ drummers digits and..the elite circle of show biz connectivity remains unbroken and, as it must, the show goes on.

When we get to 30 Rock, the band rides the elevator up to the 8th floor, disembarks at Studio 8G, and after an hour in hair, make-up and wardrobe, takes up their positions on the bandstand of the set of Late Night With Seth Meyers. By now it’s 5 PM on the first Thursday of April and dress rehearsal for tonight’s taping has just gotten under way. They work through the songs that will score the arrival and departure of tonight’s sundry guests: a clear-eyed Bob Costas who will, upon his departure, walk over to Fred and do that prayer-handed Buddhist bow that signifies respect and due deference in show biz; a delightfully dastardly Steve Coogan, who will roll a Fred-Armisen-MAGNET-COVER2disturbingly funny clip from the Alan Partridge film he has come to plug in which, long story short, he winds up naked with his junk tucked between his legs like Buffalo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs; and the exotic animal wrangling Kratt Brothers who have come bearing a Burmese python, a kangaroo and a lemur, all of which will slither, jump, strangle, crawl and possibly defecate all over Seth, as is the tradition established a long time ago in a basic cable galaxy far, far away by Johnny Carson, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of American Talk Shows. When rehearsal wraps, the studio audience is ushered to their seats and after the standard off-camera warm-up/pep talk from a stand-up comedian, the taping of the 27th episode of the first, but hopefully not last, season of Late Night With Seth Meyers begins.

Fred and The 8G Band launch into the show’s opening nouveau New Wave-esque theme song over a jittery montage of Manhattan twinkling after dark — taxi cabs! neon signs! people on sidewalks! — as the announcer blurts out tonight’s guests in that stereotypical stentorian talk show announcer cadence before introducing the man of the hour, smart aleck-y fallen preppie, looks-like-the-guy-who-took-your-sister-to-the-prom Seth Meyers who makes his entrance to the deafening cheers of APPLAUSE-sign-triggered Midwestern tourist adulation.

The first thing you notice about Seth Meyers — in person and stripped of SNL’s Weekend Update desk and dressed as he is tonight in a fitted, slim-cut, two-button, two-piece charcoal suit — is that he has thicker thighs than you would expect from a man so petite from the waist up. Dude has quads the size of Easter hams, an anatomical fact that will surely serve him well in a job that is all about standing up and sitting down and standing up again. All day, every day. As per the unshakeable dictates of talk show orthodoxy, he monologues, somewhat mirthlessly it should be noted, on the newsmakers of the nano-moment: Putin, Blackberry, Beyonce. Then he tosses Fred-Armisen-MAGNET-COVER2it over to Fred and The 8G Band who launch into one of those strummy, cymbals-sizzling interstitial rave-ups that mark every transition in the stations of the talk show cross as Meyers takes a seat behind the desk.

At this point in the show Seth and Fred do a recurring sketch called Fred Talks, their take on the obligatory talk show host/band leader banter — you know, Johnny to Doc, Dave to Paul, Jimmy to Questlove — which invariably involves and incredulous Seth calling bullshit on some ludicrous claim that he’s allegedly overheard Fred making backstage. Seth informs Fred that he’s done some asking around and some Googling and it turns out the following things that Fred has told him all week during this segment are patently false: Fred did NOT open a theme park in Arizona called Clayland, nor did he invent a ‘hot new dessert’ called Water Indulgence, i.e. a bowl of water, nor did he open a new spa that is basically a miniaturized version of the suburbs of Chicago, which is somehow ‘very calming’ and restorative. Fred just smiles serenely, untroubled by this intrusion of fact-based, objective reality — as if to say he’s used to it, he gets this all the time — because, after all, he is the hard-earned beneficiary of the New Normal in show biz, which is this: When all good 40something indie-rockers die, they go to Late Night Talk Show Band heaven.

Plus, he’s got tickets to see Kraftwerk tonight. MORE

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SLATE: SNL vets Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Myers have been working for more than a year on Documentary Now!, a six-episode series that spoofs documentary films from the 20th century, from Nanook of the North to The Thin Blue Line.* The first trailer for the IFC series gives us an intriguing look at the show’s use of period costumes and grainy film textures to mimic the cinema of yesteryear. Personas the comedians adopt in the trailer include 1970s rock stars, undercover guerilla journalists, and, in a nod to Grey Gardens, mother-daughter socialites. (Armisen is cast as the Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale figure, while Hader plays a version of Little Edie.) Armisen and Hader also explore Inuit culture and investigate the “traditional” Icelandic Al Capone Festival, while joined by guest stars including Jack Black and John Slattery. Judging from the detail-oriented trailer, Documentary Now! will be a must-see for sketch comedy buffs when it premieres on Aug. 20. MORE

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