Generally, this ex-drummer (for Chicago post-punk band Trenchmouth and the Blue Man Group) comes across as an unassuming guy obsessed with making people laugh. During his six years as a comedian (the past two on SNL), the rising star of NBC's late-night stronghold has also become the king of character sketches.
There was Niles Covington, the fusion jazz musicologist Armisen performed as at Bumbershoot in 2002. ("I'll put on a Spyro Gyra CD but I talk all the way through so you can't hear the music," he explains of Niles. "I really like berating people, berating the audience and people who think they're an authority on something.") He's also played Prince in a talk-show sketch in which the Paisley One did everything but interview guests; a self-defense instructor who hassles his clients; Native American comedian Billy Smith; and, most memorably, Fericito, the hilarious Tito Puente-based percussionist who punctuates his skits with the catch phrases "I just keedding!" and "Oh, dios mio!"
Most recently Armisen dreamed up the most unusual of his music-related roles: Saddam Hussein. "[Hussein] went to court and he lost all this weight. His hair's a little longer, he has this black suit on with a white shirt, and he looks great. He looks like a New Yorker," Armisen says of recent images of the former Iraqi dictator. "If anything, he looks like an aging rock star. He's also really angry, yelling at the judges, and he's such a Pete Townshend kind of guy. So I put together this costume [where I'm] Saddam Hussein as an aging rock star who loves playing the blues, who loves playing rock, who talks about the theory of rock. That's what I've been obsessed with. In some ways it makes no sense but I can't help it."
The charm in Armisen's delivery lies in his ability to turn the most unlikely of characters into a gag. Take his chance entrance into the comedy world. In 1998, he attended the annual Austin music conference South by Southwest with Trenchmouth, but made more of an impression playing faux journalists interviewing bands on video. Posing as a German reporter, a deaf man, and a booker at a prominent New York club, he interviewed everyone from Steve Albini to Siouxsie Sioux. That clip got him into the comedy circuit, where he toured promoting the tape and was eventually hired by HBO to be on a show called Reverb. "I'm always goofing around. Even when I was in a band. I've always joked around a lot," he says. In addition to landing on SNL--where he's recently been promoted to featured cast member--he's had bit parts in both Eurotrip (his scenes as an Italian pervert were the best moments of that underrated teen comedy) and Anchorman.
"I always stayed out of comedy clubs," says Armisen, whose lifelong aim was to land on television. "Even when I was starting doing standup, I would do it at places in L.A. that are a little different than comedy clubs. It was a little more 'alternative comedy'--although I hate to use that phrase--less jokes about your parents and where you're from. I don't mean to dis all those people, by the way. I just can't do that; I can't tell jokes and talk about my family."
Keeping with his alternate route to success, Armisen is one of a small crew of comedians like David Cross and Eugene Mirman who have toured with or opened for bands. He's been on bills with Les Savy Fav, Sleater-Kinney, and Shellac, and anyone who saw the 2002 Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, might remember his backstage scenes as well. "Jeff Tweedy thought the audience was getting a little serious, so he wanted to lighten things up a bit," Armisen says of the Wilco frontman's invitation. "I would go onstage as Fericito and people would be like, 'Why is this Spanish guy here?' But I kind of liked it, I didn't expect anything different. I just want to fool people when I'm onstage."