Make 'Em Squirm | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Make 'Em Squirm 

For Fred Armisen the comedy is in the discomfort.

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You know that old saw about how comedians are all awkward and quiet once you get them offstage? Well, Fred Armisen is all awkward onstage too. In the past seven years, in shorts for HBO and on Saturday Night Live, he's made his mark by creating uncomfortable situations: a priest cusses into a cell phone on a busy corner, a man in a motorized wheelchair does the excuse-me dance with shoppers in a food court, a Native American comedian tells impenetrable jokes to a New York audience.

Armisen, who spent 11 years in Chicago playing drums in the punk band Trenchmouth and briefly in his own salsa outfit, is in town shooting Quebec, a comedy also featuring former Chicagoans John C. Reilly and Lili Taylor. On the patio at Earwax recently, he took every opportunity to engage the waitress, who clearly recognized him and was game when he lodged a complaint about the temperature of his water. "I can bring you some more ice," she offered. "No ice, just the manager," he said. He played it straight right to the edge of discomfort, then laughed, letting her in on the joke just a moment before it was at her expense.

"I like that feeling," Armisen says. "That discomfort is comforting. All of the stuff I like, both comedy and music, has that same quality. Like Andy Kaufman, or even Devo, they made you wonder: Is that really happening? Are they for real? I remember buying a Kraftwerk album when I was young and wondering, is this music by robots, or are they human? There is no wink or nudge there to clue you in. In that, it's a little scary. And that's what I am trying to do."

Many of Armisen's characters are performers themselves, overearnest and overconfident, and reaching for something beyond their grasp. Lately, he's been developing a unique take on Saddam Hussein, playing him as a grizzled but guileless musician. "I think he looks like an aging Pete Townshend kind of guy. He looks kind of like a rock star. He's angry--he's got stubble," Armisen says. In a recent short posted on YouTube, his Saddam is a guest on Boink!, a fake cable-access show hosted by Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, where he discusses (in a British accent) how hiding in a bunker has affected his playing style.

Unlike most of his SNL peers, Armisen didn't hone his craft doing improv or stand-up. He credits instead years of touring in a van with Trenchmouth. "The other guys in Trenchmouth, we spent so much concentrated time together, and they are really, really funny guys," he says. "We all had characters, scenarios, impressions we did."

"There were running gags that lasted through multiple tours," says Wayne Montana, who was Trenchmouth's bass player. "Impressions of promoters, and characters based on the one maniacal fan we would have in every other city. We were all part of it, but Fred definitely applied himself the most to it--in the van and onstage. We'd be playing and we'd have to break to tune, and suddenly Fred would be on the mike, saying something totally fucked up about the city we were playing."

On days off from Quebec, which wraps at the end of the month, Armisen has been shooting a DVD for the Drag City label--an instructional drum video like you'd find at Guitar Center, "but with no useful information in it at all." On Tuesday he'll perform at a comedy showcase cosponsored by the label and the Empty Bottle at Weed's (see the Meter for more on the showcase). Between Halloween and Valentine's Day you should be able to catch him in small to modest roles in three other movies: the Christmas comedy Deck the Halls; Fast Track, with Zach Braff and Jason Bateman; and Tenacious D in "The Pick of Destiny."

Armisen believes all those years hustling on the punk circuit helped him figure out what he really wanted. "Back when we were touring, bands were always complaining they wanted something bigger, to sell more records, play bigger venues--and while I wanted that, I wanted something more," he says. "I had a distinct feeling of I wanted to be famous and I want to be on TV." He laughs. "Basically, I just need a lot of attention. The happiest moments in my life are when the little red light is on the TV camera and it's pointed at me. And as soon as I see the light, I think, oooh, this is really a lot of attention right now."

Fame so far is living up to his expectations. "Sometimes people stop me on the street, they don't always know who I am, but they are always extremely complimentary," he says.

"Actually, yesterday, it happened a couple times. I was out at a Beatles convention, out by O'Hare. People weren't freaked so much by me being a Beatles dork like them--they were more just freaked out I was in Chicago. Like, 'What are you doing in Chicago?' And so I told 'em: 'None of your fucking business. Tell your kids to get away from me. Walk away from me. Now. Don't you ever stop me when I'm record shopping.'"

The People Under the Stares

When: Tuesday 8/29

Where: Weed's 1555 N. Dayton

Price: $7

Info: 312-943-7815

More: Advance tickets available at ticketweb.com

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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