Fred Armisen: The Comedy Of Drumming


Fred Armisen is a busy guy. The former Saturday Night Live cast member’s show with Carrie Brownstein, Portlandia, is now in its eighth season. He’s the bandleader and drummer for Late Night With Seth Meyers. And now his new Netflix special, Standup For Drummers, has bridged the gap between drumming and comedy. Drum caught up with Armisen to chat about his love of tom toms, why drum shops are better than guitar shops, and his favorite drummer joke.

Why did it take so long for comedy and drums to be brought together like this?

That’s a good question. I feel like in the past there have been drummers who are comedians, or comedians who are drummers. It’s been happening a long time. I think that there’s a real link between the two. I know that Johnny Carson was a drummer, and Peter Sellers. And in some ways, I feel like Keith Moon was a sort of comedian, you know? I think Ringo had a comedic persona as well. There was a group of people, even Ginger Baker in a way, too. So, I don’t know why it took so long. Maybe it’s been living there but maybe not as a standup piece, as far as we know. Maybe there’s something out there already.


Was this a one-time special, or have you thought about doing a tour around drum-focused humor?

I’ve done some live shows as drum-focused humor. But what’s happening was I had this thing with Netflix where I was going to do a standup special, so I was already working on what I would call “regular standup,” where it was just general stories about music. But then, I guess I would call it on the side, I was doing these standup shows in Portland, LA, New York — just something where I would stay at a music store, and I loved the idea. I enjoyed it so much; it was very focused. I was at Revival Drum Shop in Portland and everyone who showed up was a drummer. And the more I did it, the more it felt like there was momentum behind it. I had a real passion for it. And the audience seemed so into it. They would hang around after the show and talk, and I just thought, If I have this much feeling for it, I may as well do it as a special.


How about doing this as a tour? I know you’re one of the busiest people on the planet, but if you ever had time for a tour, and a bunch of roadies to carry all your drum sets, isn’t that the dream? Having other people carry all your drum sets?

That is absolutely the dream. I would love to go on tour doing it. Especially if I got to perform at drum shops around the country. Because they’re pretty great places, as you know. They’re very different from each other, and they have their similarities obviously because of the inventory, but that’s a part of the culture that is rarely examined: Drum shops. They exist everywhere. So many cities have them, and they’re so cool. There’s this local pride about them. And they’re also cooler than guitar shops. Guitar shops are great, but there’s something — you can just get a guitar and walk out. I feel like, with guitar shops, it’s more about collectors collecting something from, like, 1959, whereas drum shops are more — it’s more like a group hobby, where everyone’s excited about what’s in the shop. I don’t know, maybe I’m biased.


Your drumming through the ages bit in the Netflix special was not just entertaining, but accurate. Do you have a favorite era of drums?

Definitely the ’80s. I think the ’80s had the best use of tom toms in general. They got really worked into beats. It was also a decade where the drummer didn’t have a name. You know, the ’70s, and even the ’60s, had a real rallying around named drummers, whereas in the ’80s, they just sort of disappeared into the band. It was like, even though there was a Cold War going on, there was a sort of Russian, faceless drummer who really carried whole songs, you know? There was so much real experimentation and not just all drum solos. It wasn’t just drum solos and showing off, they were part of the beat. Like, these really crazy, heavy tom patterns in songs.


It became about the sound as much as the chops.

Yeah. The sound, and they were purposely busy — these busy little beats. Adam And The Ants, Bow Wow Wow, The Clash, Talking Heads, Midnight Oil had some crazy beats. A lot of tom work. That’s my personal favorite. I wanted to say one thing about the kits. I skimmed over the surface of each decade. Obviously, I couldn’t go into every form of music for every decade. I basically stuck to what I would say is rock music. But I don’t know enough about what was going on in R&B drumming, I don’t know what was going on in Latin drumming, jazz definitely. I wanted to say, before giving myself a big pat on the back, that I really skimmed the very top of what I perceive it to be. I’m sure there was a lot more happening than I could have ever explained.


Last question: Do you have a favorite drummer joke?

My favorite drummer joke is, “What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians? A drummer.”