Fred Armisen: ‘England is endlessly beautiful. I still haven’t gotten over it’

The former ‘Saturday Night Live’ star talks to Kevin E G Perry about growing up obsessed with British punk, plans to reunite with ‘Portlandia’ collaborator Carrie Brownstein and filming Judd Apatow’s pandemic comedy ‘The Bubble’ in Berkshire

Friday 01 April 2022 08:22 BST
Armisen, comedian and Anglophile punk fan
Armisen, comedian and Anglophile punk fan (Jemal Countess/Getty for Peabody Awards)

Fred Armisen was born in Mississippi, grew up on Long Island, lives in Los Angeles and created a hit sketch show about Portland, yet the 55-year-old comedian says there’s nowhere he’d rather while away his days than the English countryside. “Any small town where a street curves a little bit, and it’s all cobblestone, and there’s a little white shop,” he says wistfully, speaking over video call from a hotel room in Manchester. “There’s a Boots nearby, and a coffee shop. You can hear the sound of cars and people talking. It’s a little chilly. I’ve got my jacket on. That’s the perfect spot. That’s where I want to be.”

By luck or design, Armisen has lately found plenty of reasons to keep himself sequestered in his British happy place. He’s just spent the week in Wales filming for the fourth season of Documentary Now!, the mockumentary series he co-created in 2015 with fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Seth Meyers. It’s previously been announced that the new run will include a parody of 1996 boxing documentary When We Were Kings called How They Threw Rocks, about a fictional Welsh sport, but Armisen is keeping tight-lipped about how production is going so far. “It’s so chaotic and things change so much,” he demurs. “I want to wait until we’re done.”

What he can talk about is The Bubble, Judd Apatow’s new pandemic-set Netflix comedy about the travails of a group of high-profile actors forced to quarantine together as they film Cliff Beasts 6, the latest instalment in a big-budget Hollywood franchise packed with CGI flying dinosaurs. Loosely inspired by the havoc Covid restrictions reportedly played with production of the forthcoming Jurassic World: Dominion, the film’s ensemble cast includes Karen Gillan, David Duchovny, Leslie Mann and Pedro Pascal. It was shot between February and April last year at Shepperton Studios in Surrey and at Cliveden House, a stately home on the border of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire so grand that The Beatles used it to double for Buckingham Palace in Help!.

As pleased as Armisen was to spend a few months familiarising himself with a new corner of his beloved England, he says the novelty of making a film about a pandemic while one is still ongoing wore thin pretty fast. “I know every interview about every movie says this, but there was so much protocol about getting tested and wearing masks,” he says. “Our drivers would have masks, and because we had make-up on we’d have these plastic shields over our faces, and then that’s what the movie was about. It was just so literal every day.”

Armisen as director Darren Eigan in ‘The Bubble’: ‘I just tried to make him somebody who was pretending to be in control and is, of course, drowning’
Armisen as director Darren Eigan in ‘The Bubble’: ‘I just tried to make him somebody who was pretending to be in control and is, of course, drowning’ (Laura Radford/Netflix)

Armisen is great fun as Cliff Beasts 6 director Darren Eigan, a “visionary” hired to helm the multimillion-dollar juggernaut off the back of his previous work Tiles of Love, a Sundance-winning, iPhone-shot indie he made while working at Home Depot. The character’s backstory draws from the biographies of several real-life directors. Colin Trevorrow had made the low-budget sci-fi romcom Safety Not Guaranteed before being charged with rebooting the Jurassic Park franchise with 2015’s Jurassic World and its subsequent sequels. Likewise Jordan Vogt-Roberts went straight from being an indie darling with 2013’s The Kings of Summer to directing 2017 monster epic Kong: Skull Island. “That was Judd’s idea, because it happens all the time where a director is sort of thrown into a franchise,” says Armisen. “The long hair is what made him more of an indie guy, and he had trendy T-shirts and little hipster sweaters. That was our way in. Then I just tried to make him somebody who was pretending to be in control and is, of course, drowning.”

The Bubble is Armisen’s first time being directed by Apatow, although he did have a small role in the Apatow-produced Anchorman as Tino, the club owner who encourages Ron Burgundy onstage to display his jazz flute prowess. Since then they’ve remained friends and have run into each other fairly often. “Something I really love about LA is that we’ve always been in the same circles,” says Armisen. “Sometimes we’re doing stand-up in the same place. I always wanted the world to be like that. It feels like a ‘scene’, like you’d have with a music scene.”

Music was Armisen’s first love, which helps explains his deep-rooted Anglophilia. As a teenager in Long Island in the early Eighties he and his friends obsessed over the minutiae of British punk bands. “The Damned, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Slits, The Stranglers and the Buzzcocks really shaped how I thought, and how I heard music,” he says. “Me and my friends would stare at pictures of them, and their equipment, all the cables and stuff.” They wanted to know everything. “Where are they practising? Where’s that rehearsal space? Do they all know each other?” reels off Armisen. “I don’t know why we identified with these lyrics about working class London. We were from middle class New York, we didn’t know anything about the stuff Paul Weller was singing about.”

Music easily eclipsed comedy in the young Armisen’s mind, although he did always make time for Saturday Night Live. Decades later, towards the end of his 11-year run as an SNL cast member, his two passions came together in a memorable sketch telling the story of Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros, a fictional British punk band whose frontman had a surprising soft spot for Margaret Thatcher. The sketch aired the week after Thatcher died in April 2013.

“Seth Meyers, who knew how much I love that music, came up with the concept,” recalls Armisen. “I don’t know my way into politics. I don’t know how to write something like that, I just like doing the impression and playing guitar. Seth figured out a way to give it some relevance.” The team who put the sketch together, framed as an episode of History of Punk, went on to create Documentary Now!. “We just thought: ‘Let’s keep working together,’” says Armisen. “‘Let’s keep making these fake documentaries.’”

Armisen with ‘Portlandia’ co-star Carrie Brownstein: ‘She’s just the greatest'
Armisen with ‘Portlandia’ co-star Carrie Brownstein: ‘She’s just the greatest' (Chris Weeks/Getty for Hakkasan Beverly Hills)

While still at SNL Armisen co-created the sketch show Portlandia with his friend Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman of Sleater-Kinney. The series lovingly parodied Portland, Oregon’s reputation as a sanctuary for eccentric hipsters and became a cult hit, running from 2011 to 2018. The majority of the show’s major characters were played by Armisen and Brownstein themselves. “The show was a way for us to cement our friendship,” says Armisen. “Now we have to make more of an effort, but that’s fine. I still have a place in Portland, and I went up and visited during the pandemic. She’s just the greatest.” The pair keep in regular contact, often suggesting jokes for each other if they have to speak in public, and are looking for ways to collaborate again. “We will absolutely work together,” says Armisen. “Jonathan [Krisel], the director of Portlandia, had this idea for an audio version of Portlandia. At some point we’ll get to it!”

Until then, Armisen will have to content himself with living out his teenage fantasies of wandering the cobbled streets of England. “I used to watch MTV and Madness would come on,” he recalls reverently. “I still remember the colours of those videos, the yellow bricks. I was like: ‘What is that mysterious, cool place?’ When I first visited it was immediate. It was perfect. I love walking down any street. It’s just endlessly beautiful, and I still haven’t gotten over it. I love England so much that when I walk down the street I say out loud: ‘I love England!’”

‘The Bubble’ is on Netflix from 1 April

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