LIVE FROM NEW YORK
With the third season of Portlandia now under way, Fred Armisen goes M.I.A. from the weekly SNL sketch-writing session to take NYLON Guys on a tour of his favorite hometown haunts.
For Fred Armisen, star and co-creator of Portlandia and a 10-year Saturday Night Live vet, it’s not so much a question of love or hate—or even comedy—when considering his feelings toward New York City. “More than just loving it, it’s part of me,” he says. “I grew up on Long Island, and I’ve gravitated toward Rockefeller Center [where SNL is taped] my whole life. I’ve moved away a couple times, but I’ve never left
This brief moment of gravitas comes just seconds after Armisen finishes a lively discussion with our cab driver on the issue of diminished legroom vs. expanded cargo space in the newly redesigned NYC taxis. “I’m fine,” the bespectacled comedian concludes. “How much legroom do you need? Plus, you could put suitcases in the back if you’re going to the airport. Or shopping bags.”
We’re traveling by car on our tour of Armisen’s favorite spots in the city, but like Mayor Bloomberg (whose response to Hurricane Sandy Armisen hilariously parodied in the cold opening to the previous week’s episode of SNL), this tried-and-true New Yorker is a subway man. “It’s just the fastest way,” he swears, and is proved correct when several drivers deny us a ride after visiting our first location—yes, television stars have a hard time hailing a cab, too. “Oh my god, you think they play favorites at all?” Armisen asks, laughing, as we hoof it across town. “If you’re not going in the direction they want at the right time, forget it!”
The walk does provide countless opportunities for meeting up with fans, including a real live Portlandian—“I hate your show!” she yells. “Just kidding”—as well as a group of hyperactive middle-school kids, just let out for lunch (“That guy’s from SNL!” one screams. “No, he’s not,” dismisses another), and a disoriented elderly lady in a muumuu and winter coat, who asks, “What are you doing here?” Armisen smiles and soldiers on, adding that he always tries to be friendly when people recognize him on the street. “When I was a kid and I met somebody who was on TV or in a band, it meant the world to me,” he says. “I remembered every second of it.” His favorite star sighting took place after an early-’80s Clash show at New York’s Pier 84. “I met Joe Strummer,” he says, eyes aglow. “They let people back who were waiting. It was a dream.” In fact, our afternoon stroll is a bit reminiscent of the now-famous “Dream of the ’90s” musical montage from the first season of Portlandia. One can almost hear the faint strains of a synthesizer building behind Armisen’s optimistic commentary as we walk: “It’s so pretty down here, guys! Isn’t it great that this is our job?”
Portlandia’s third season, which premiered January 4 on IFC with an episode called “Take Back MTV,” has Armisen and co-star Carrie Brownstein back in Portland, picking up where they left off, portraying beloved characters like high-strung couple Peter and Nance and the feminist bookstore ladies, while introducing a few new recurring guests, including Chloë Sevigny (“I can’t stand how cool she is,” Armisen deadpans). And though the new season continues to poke fun at the city where all the hot girls wear glasses, tattoo ink never runs dry, and young people go to retire, there was a concerted effort to experiment with more developed narratives. “Our director, Jonathan Krisel, said, ‘Anything that we’ve done before, let’s not go back to that,’” Armisen says. “We didn’t want to go too crazy, but we wanted it to be a little weird.” And “a little weird” also works as an apt description for most of Armisen’s usual haunts in New York.
OBSCURA ANTIQUES AND ODDITIES: An art-collector friend introduced Armisen to this cramped and quirky Alphabet City second-hand shop, which specializes in freak taxidermy, animal skulls, outmoded scientific instruments, bizarre historical artifacts, and a massive pair of Reebok golf shoes. “They’re size 22, which is Shaquille O’Neal’s size,” says Mike Zohn, the store’s affable proprietor. “So they may be made for him, but likely they’re just a promotional item for display in a store.” When we arrive, the Obscura staff is wrapping up filming for an episode of its reality show, Oddities, now in its fourth season on Science Channel. The last time Armisen was in the shop, he bought a print of a couple in mourning. “This store makes me feel like I’m in New York—the New York I love the most,” he says, right before noticing a massive papier-mâché gorilla head tucked behind the register. “Hi, cutie!” obscuraantiques.com. 207 Avenue A.
OTHER MUSIC: Armisen's been a longtime regular at this East Village record shop, famous for its eclectic collection of rare, underground, and experimental music. “It’s very well-maintained,” he says. “There’s no dusty corner where they’re like, ‘Well, this is where our used records are.’ They keep it all alive, every corner.” When asked what he’s listening to lately, Armisen pulls an iPod out of his coat pocket and begins scrolling: “Liturgy is amazing. They’re like the heaviest thing I’ve heard in my whole life. I like Grimes, Real Estate, Raveonettes, and The War on Drugs. I really like John Maus. I saw him in Portland, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Chloë Sevigny hipped me to him.” othermusic.com. 15 E. 4th St.
THE STONE: Avant-garde composer John Zorn is the artistic director for this nonprofit East Village performance space where no drinks are served and no merchandise sold, ensuring that the focus stays purely on the music. “I love that it exists,” Armisen says. “It’s just a good, truly New York place of business— small, but really good programming.” A favorite show featured a collaboration between his friend Petra Haden, downtown icon Laurie Anderson, and Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda. thestonenyc.com. Avenue C at 2nd St.
THE BOWERY BALLROOM: “There are many great venues in the city, but for some reason this one just sounds the best,” Armisen says of the lower Manhattan live music venue, known for hosting up-and-comers and seminal innovators (Beach Fossils and Bob Mould are scheduled to play in February). His most memorable show: A performance by Portlandia guest star Joanna Newsom. “She’s a friend. I’m name- dropping, but that’s the gig I remember most.” boweryballroom.com. 6 Delancey St.
HOME RESTAURANT: With its farm-to-table menu of meals with a story—items like pan-seared day boat sea scallops and braised Jamison Farms lamb shoulder—this cozy 30-seater, situated on Greenwich Village’s most charming block, feels plucked right out of a scene from Portlandia. “It’s like a secret place,” Armisen says. “There’s a nice backyard, the food is great, and it’s in a part of the Village that isn’t so crowded, so I can always get a table.” homerestaurantnyc.com. 20 Cornelia St.
MAIN DRAG MUSIC: Just across the East River from Manhattan lies Armisen’s go-to spot for a vintage-music-gear fix. “The layout is nice and big,” he says, “and the people who work there aren’t jerks. They’re all really helpful and friendly and happy you’re there.” He’s bought several drums at this South Williamsburg store and lately has been eyeing a few old synthesizers, but his most recent score was a Steinberger bass. “It’s from the ’80s and it has, like, no body. It’s just all neck,” he says. “Whenever I go there, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve been kind of looking for this, and now I don’t have to go on eBay or anything.” maindragmusic.com. 330 Wythe Ave. (Brooklyn)
PIES ’N’ THIGHS: This comfort-food gem, famous for its simply (and deliciously) prepared fried chicken and perfect pies, is around the corner from a rehearsal space Armisen shares with arty indie-rockers Les Savy Fav. “It’s just a little out of the way, which I like,” Armisen says. “You know when you want a quick, good meal and you don’t want to make plans? You can just kind of wander into this place. And it reminds me of Portland.” piesnthighs.com. 166 S. 4th St. (Brooklyn)
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY: “When I was growing up on Long lsland, we’d come here on field trips,” Armisen says. Upon entering the 143-year-old institution as a child, he’d head directly toward “anything with bats or skeletons.” These days, he’s a fan of the cavernous Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, a.k.a, the Whale Room, where IFC hosted the premiere party for Portlandia’s new season. “But the whole place is beautiful,” he says. “It’s so majestic-looking, and it looks kind of haunted. It’s still the same as I remember it in some ways.” amnh.org. 200 Central Park West.
STEVE MAXWELL VINTAGE AND CUSTOM DRUMS: On the other side of an unmarked door and up three floors in an elevator smelling faintly of pot (at least on the day we visit) is a drummer’s heaven. Within minutes of our arrival, Armisen (who used to drum for a band called Trenchmouth) is jamming with a couple of Blue Man Group cast members who happen to be at the store when we stop by—“I used to play drums for Blue Man Group in Chicago,” Armisen says excitedly. “It’s almost like I set this up.” After this percussive trip down memory lane, Armisen shares his favorite drummer joke—“What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians?”—and then sticks his head inside a vintage Vistalite tom. “There’s nothing junky here,” he says. “It’s all awesome drums.” maxwelldrums.com. 723 7th Ave., 3rd floor.