FRED ARMISEN ON FILMMAKER JOHN WATERS
It’s interesting, the little threads of connection between artists that we don’t necessarily know about; like who is friends with whom. Below, Fred Armisen talks about his childhood mentor, John Waters, of the immensely beloved and influential cult films featuring an odd array of characters, include Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Cecil B. Demented. He lives in Baltimore, where he was born.
Fred Armisen is best known for the sketch show Portlandia on IFC that he created with musician and writer Carrie Brownstein, and for his contributions to Saturday Night Live over the last ten years — although he initially planned to make it to TV by being in a band. When music didn’t pan out in the late 90s, Fred began to pursue comedy by creating guerrilla-style videos that he screened at rock clubs. His willingness to feed off an audience’s confusion drew comparisons to Andy Kaufman. The Chicago-based recording engineer and musician Steve Albini described Fred’s ascent from punk drummer as an exercise in drive: “Fred is the only person I ever knew who was not famous, then tried to become famous and did it. Truly amazing willpower.” He brings a likably subversive quality to a wide variety of characters on Portlandia — from Candace, the middle-aged co-owner of a feminist bookstore, to Spyke, a heavily pierced bike messenger with perpetual road rage. He’s always convincing, yet also always Fred. – Damian Rogers
THE BELIEVER: I find it impressive, the way you’ve managed to participate in larger institutions — SNL is part of American cultural history; it’s not just a popular comedy show, it’s the comedy show we grew up watching — yet you continue to make things independently as well.
FRED ARMISEN: When I was growing up, the people I admired, the stuff they did, once I grew up, I thought, I could do it as well.
BLVR: What was it that made you think that door was open to you, when so many people can’t imagine doing what their heroes do?
FA: I have no idea. I think it’s maybe that I believed in all those people. All those bands I liked, all of those people, I really believed in them. I thought it was just agreed, common knowledge that everyone should try to be like them. Like John Waters or Devo — we need to try to be like the people we admire. It never occurred to me that you could look up to people and not try to be like them.
BLVR: I recently read John Waters’ book Role Models. Did you read it?
FA: Oh, no, I haven’t read it yet. But I’m actually literally looking at it right now; it’s on my shelf.
BLVR: It’s great. I remember you told me years ago that you reached out to him as a kid.
FA: I was really young, I must have been 14 or 15. I was listening to the radio, to like a rock station on FM radio — I think it might have actually been a Sunday morning — and all of a sudden there was an interview with John Waters, and I just thought, This guy is fascinating, who is this guy? He was so interesting; everything he was saying about shock value and violence and grossing people out and stuff — there was something really funny about him. And he was answering a lot of questions and problems I was having.
BLVR: Like what?
FA: I got sent to the school psychologist in junior high school because we had an assignment in English class, and the assignment was “What would you do if you only had one more day to live?”
FA: And I remember talking to the other kids, and they were just the lamest — how do I describe it? It was things like, “I would visit my grandparents,” “I would see my family,” and I was just like ughhhhhhhhh! I don’t even know if I was trying to be funny or what it was, but I wrote this paper that said, “I would destroy everything, I would go into every store and burn it down and smash the windows.” It was just my reaction to all of that. My teacher graded it by giving me a question mark and then I had to go to the school psychologist for the day, and it panicked my mom. It was really traumatic.
BLVR: What was it like?
FA: I had to take all these tests with questions like, Do you see animals other people don’t seem to see? Do you feel a tight band wrapped around your head? It was very embarrassing for me, you know what I mean? No kid wants to go into some room with a psychologist while everyone else is having their day at school. It made me feel very alone. I was just being funny — it wasn’t real. Then hearing John Waters talk about shocking people made me feel like, Oh, there’s a grown-up who’s doing the same thing. So I went to the mall and I bought Shock Value and I read the whole thing, cover to cover. And that brought it to another level, because it’s all about the reaction he wants to get from his audience — and by the way, I didn’t read any-thing then, ever. I wasn’t a reader. I didn’t care about literature. I’d read maybe a couple photo books on The Beatles, that’s it. But that book was everything I believed in, and I didn’t even know it yet. The book opens with a line like, “If someone in my audience throws up, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” So I wrote to him. And the way I wrote to him is: he says that he stays with his friend Cookie Mueller—
BLVR: Oh, wow, I love her work.
FA: You do?
FA: Well, I went to my phonebook in my house and I looked up “Cookie Mueller in Manhattan. Her phone number was in the book. I grew up on Long Island. I don’t know why we had a Manhattan phone book. We just did. But there it was in the White Pages, and I called her. I said, “Hi, I just read John Waters’ book and do people call you all the time?” And she said, “No. You’re the first one.”
BLVR: Was she nice to you?
FA: Totally nice! I explained that I wanted to get John Waters’ address, and then she got my address, and she wrote his address on a postcard or something, and sent it with an autographed picture of herself! So then I wrote him my whole story. I said, You’re this filmmaker and you get to go to Europe and stuff, and I have these crazy ideas and I get sent to the school psychiatrist.
BLVR: And he wrote you back?
FA: He wrote me back this postcard! I had told him I was his number one fan and that someday I was going to take over his Pukedom, because he’s the Prince of Puke, and we started writing to each other. He’d send me a postcard, and I’d write him a letter. He really saved my life. He explained to me that it wasn’t just about shocking people, but that it had to have a point. It has to be funny. He was giving me lessons on why to do it. He also gave me this piece of advice that I didn’t compute until recently; he said to buy Variety Magazine, you know, Variety, show biz. He told me that ages ago, and that’s another thing: to embrace all the aspects of making things, the business side as well. It wasn’t just [whiny voice] “Destroy everything and be underground!” No. Know the business so you can get somewhere. And he’s a success. Even though he’s considered a cult favorite, he’s a success.
BLVR: For sure.
FA: He was giving me a blueprint of what to be, without being preachy. It was incredible.