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The NY Comedy Festival Presents: Fred Armisen,The Town Hall, Friday, November 4th, 2016, Reviewed




“This is how I’ve built my entire career. I had a manager and this was like a mid-level manager when I was just starting out and I used to do this exact type of thing where I’d come out and like to characters and stuff, and the audiences were just not having it at all. They didn’t even boo. They’d just stare at me like, why are you doing this to me? And I got rid of the management and I just kept going and going and now I’ve able to do comedy not only on Saturday Night Live and I just kept going and going, show after show, and now I see you and you’ll be up there sort of trying to get attention, waving your arms around…”

That’s Fred Armisen’s response to an audience member asking when will he start being funny. I sympathize with Fred and I sympathize with the audience member. While it is sophistication to go to an Armisen show and expect him to be Robin Williams, the man is an off center utility player with a gift for quirk and a sound of music, you might be forgiven for expecting more “show” show at his performance last night at the Town Hall. If he is too sideways to segue and if you can’t give into his pacing, you won’t much like him.

Fred Armisen -the star of “Portlandia”, former SNL performer, sometime leader of Seth Meyers’ Late Night band, and hipster delight from Long Island but probably lives in Brooklyn, began his 90 minutes with some observational humor which falls oddly flat. AT first I think it is the jokes, an opening salvo about looking for a friend in a plush hotel lobby (like “The W”) isn’t funny or observational (and he would do a variation later on), but the very next joke is extremely amusing in theory, about a guy in the 50s who loves doo wop back when it was the heaviest thing. It’s funny, the audience is laughing, but they aren’t crippled with laughter, and they should be. Then I think it is Armisen’s timing, his segues are weak, his pacing between setup and joke goes on forever. But the man is a drummer and a world class comedian, so he knows what he is doing beat wise. Maybe his geekiness? I don’t get why he isn’t knocking em out, but he isn’t. Now, after seeing the show, I think he is playing an odd role where he PRETENDS his jokes aren’t funny, when, in fact, they are quite amusing. He plays odd games with timing, he is like a jazz drummer, a Buddy Rich, who is fucking with the beat so much, the audience is wobbly. I admire this rather then find it funny or enjoyable, it is like what Jerry Seinfeld once said about being told jokes by laymen, even if they are funny he just thinks “yes, that’s funny”. I am just thinking, yes, that’s funny and  I am more giggling and chuckling than laughing.

For a performance I wasn’t crazy about, I really really admired it tremendously. Cut into four parts that bled into and out of each other, he did Seinfeldian humor, songs, showed videos of outtakes from Portlandia, and spent a third of the evening on an extended q and a. We didn’t get what I really paid my bucks to see, extended impressions, but otherwise, he covered all bases. Armisen moves around his career randomly, doesn’t give you much inside dope (if I had been married to Sally Timms once, I’d have started my show with it), pulls out some greatest hits and calls it a night. A self-confessed attention junkie, he plays himself as somewhere between cool and gawky. Early on, Fred does a piece where he performs the various accents of New York boroughs very very well, and after describing his youth hanging out at the Village record stores in the early 80s and plays a little of New York Dolls Sylvain Sylvain’s  “Crowded Love” (? I think that’s the track) and then, beyond even remotely cool and well into the realms of pop geek heaven,  brings out Sylvain Sylvain, currently living in Nashville, himself to perform it, color me impressed. NOW: this was the most New York moment of all time, and a brilliant idea, and while it isn’t comedy it is something even a little better: it is a masterful pop culture moment for we locals. It wouldn’t really work anywhere else, and the effort is proof that Armisen isn’t being ironic, though he might be being hubristic.

If that was a highlight, there would be others. I have never watched “Portlandia”, it just seemed too hip from a distance and everybody I know who liked it were way too hip recent college grads living with their parents but working on a multi-media art project -I’m too old for that shit. However, apparently I’m a dick because the video where Fred gets a B-52s box set (it includes the band: “don’t forget to feed us”) was hysterical, and so was one where Fred and his girlfriend (yes, that one) buy a white rug. Not as funny was a video about meeting up with somebody at the Met, featuring Ana Fabrega. Ana did ten minutes and the timing of her jokes left me flat footed as well. They are similar in some ways, Ana is like a mix between somebody with Asperger’s disease and Steven Wright, Fred is like somebody with Asperger’s and Jerry Seinfeld. It seems arrogant to write funny jokes and decide not to sell em, to let the audience find their way towards them.

The final third, the Q&A, felt like Fred channeling the audience participant side of the Blue Man Group, oddly endearing, when he wasn’t slam dunking that guy in the last row,. When you’re giving a third of your show to talking to your audience, you are breaking your way through. Yes, being the center of attention, but also improvisation, and also, if you accept at  face value Fred’s pleasure in performing for us, a sharing in the joy of creation. The very best moment of the evening is when Fred brought a member down to perform a Garth and Kat -the SNL duo who make up songs on the spot, and shows how it is done. It was very very sweet.

In the end, as a show, it had no center of gravity, no centrifugal force, it is too whimsical, too fluffy, too decentralized and scattered and uneven, and as a non fan, I had trouble giving Armisen  the benefit of the doubt. In the moment, as a New York experience of a beloved, very talented local hero, performing for his own audience, I admired it, but didn’t enjoy it enough. Perhaps, if he had taken my question and done a David Bowie impression…

Grade: B

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