Forging a career beyond Saturday Night Live is a daunting prospect for its ensemble performers. Bill Murray and Will Ferrell are the exceptions, not the rule. (Remember Joe Piscopo?) Fred Armisen is reportedly returning for an 11th season at SNL, but he's already got a strong insurance plan with the success of IFC's Portlandia. Arriving at Bumbershoot on Sunday night to a packed Intiman Theatre (get there early on Monday), he drew cheers when he said he'd been filming new episodes down in Portland all summer. The former punk-rock drummer is a lucky guy and a busy guy. Sharing a set with two other acts, he showed onstage versatility that had more to do with his background as a musician than telling jokes...
With his elusive demeanor, Armisen is not a natural behind the mic, no club-honed standup comedian. He has something of Steven Wright's laconic, unhurried delivery, but he's delivering musical and behavioral nuggets instead of punchlines. The evening's best-received routine had him command the audience to challenge him with various regional accents. Mississippi, Texas, Pennsylvania, whatever--it was all improv but authoritative improv as he explained each bogus vowel placement and pronunciation like a professional dialect coach. (When asked to do Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he countered, "That's two accents," meaning native and hipster. "No, wait, three," he corrected himself, adding Hasidic Jew.) Again, it's comedy of the ear, which he also demonstrated--now picking up the guitar--with musical impressions of Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, and ... Katy Perry?
Here a special shout-out to Karen Kilgariff, who does funny, self-deprecatory songs ("You're a solid 9 and I'm a 4/But I couldn't love you more"). She was squeezed second in the set before Armisen came on, but he later called her back to help sing duets and musical spoofs--including Kilgariff's Katy Perry parody of "Firework." In another musical bit, Armisen explained that all popular songs can be reduced to alternating G and D chords, which he Kilgariff then demonstrated by again taking audience requests.
This reduction of the pop catalog was an affectionate travesty, but also a punk rocker's revenge. Jazz, pop, Katy Perry--what's the difference? Armisen was having fun with those of us in the audience, Bumbershoot music snobs all, who make so much of those distinctions. Appropriate for a guy who's segued from music to comedy, he just slides from genre to genre, character to character, cycling through the chords that never quite resolve.
Fred Armisen's second and final Bumbershoot appearance will be at 1 p.m., Mon. in the Intiman Theatre. Get there early, seriously early.