Fred Armisen surprises with comedy, musical chops on ‘Late Night’

David Lee, Blogger

I was absolutely thrilled when Seth Meyers first announced Fred Armisen as the bandleader for his new show, “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

Although I am not an avid follower of Armisen’s sketch-comedy show “Portlandia,”the few episodes I’ve watched on Netflix showcased his obvious comedic talent. Not to mention, Armisen was a “Saturday Night Live” cast member alongside Meyers for 11 years.

Also, the Norris Bookstore, where I work, plays an endless loop of four short clips. In one of them, Red Fang, a self-proclaimed “post-grunge” band, gives a behind-the-scenes of the music video for its song “Blood Like Cream,” in which Armisen has a cameo. The custom-made video shows an intense close-up of Armisen’s face, red with angst and frustration, as the band members praise his acting chops.

I wondered, however, if Armisen was musically qualified to lead Meyers’ band. My only exposure to his work was when, during his time on “SNL,” he played Ian Rubbish, a punk rock singer whose love for Margaret Thatcher inevitably sinks his career. The music in the skit was satirical, so its poor quality was excusable. I was having nightmares about Rubbish leading a talk show band.

Upon doing some research, I found out that he had a reasonably impressive musical resume. Armisen is a virtuosic drummer who played for the hardcore punk band “Trenchmouth” in the early ’90s before joining “Blue Man Group,” for a couple years. Eventually, Armisen ended up at “SNL” and now, leading the 8G Band for “Late Night.”

Right from the premiere, Armisen disarm(isen)ed all my fears. His short banter with Amy Poehler, the show’s first guest and a fellow “SNL” alum, about the two being “turbulent lovers” reminded me his musical talent isn’t actually that important on a comedy show.

Jimmy Fallon uses The Roots’ musical talent to great success on “The Tonight Show,” but most talk show band leaders place much less emphasis on the actual music. David Letterman and Paul Shaffer always have fun banter, as is the case with Jimmy Kimmel and his band leader, saxophonist Cleto Escobedo III. Conan O’Brien barely talks to his band and just has a second comedian on the show at all times. Craig Ferguson talks to Geoff Peterson, a robot.

Lorne Michaels, the mastermind behind Armisen’s hire (in addition to the few other things going right with NBC), made the smart decision to surround Armisen with Seth Jabour and Syd Butler of indie rock band Les Savy Fav, Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys, and Kim Thompson, a drummer who has toured with Beyonce.

At the end of the day, I do not think Armisen is musically skilled enough to be a band leader for these esteemed musicians on such an highly-regarded show. But he’s funny. That’s really the main priority here, and it was wrong of me to think otherwise.

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