One of the low points of the mourning process in the immediate wake of Prince’s passing was the closing half of SNL’s tribute episode to him. The handful of fantastic Prince performances showcased were amazing, but then you had the rambling intros from Jimmy Fallon to contend with – and worse, the programming that they used to pad out the program. This was the lion’s share of the Prince Show skits from SNL in the ‘00s, featuring Maya Rudolph as sidekick Beyoncé, and Fred Armisen as the Purple One himself.
It wasn’t just the blackface issue, or the fact that the clips followed a slew of truly amazing live clips of Prince. It was that they were not funny. One of the guests, Robert DeNiro, who appeared to be not acting at all, did a better job with a punchline (insofar as there are any) than the skit’s main attraction. One of the things that is supposed to be “good” or “cool” about Armisen is that he’s a good musician, but in the musical anti-parodies, this was hardly evident.
If you hadn’t seen his mug in a while, perhaps you needed a brief reminder that Fred Armisen is not very funny. In the right context — say, a well-scripted, less self-indulgent episode of Portlandia — he can play his part acceptably, but when forced to be the driving force, off of sheer comic timing, he usually falls flat.
Serious Armisen fandom seems to arise from more than the fact that he fulfilled, for a long time, the role of nerdy weirdo willing to take the goofiest characters — the kind of role that Kyle Mooney should probably be allowed to assume more in earnest at this point in his tenure on the show, and that Chris Kattan lapped Armisen doing.
Maybe you don’t see Armisen as a dude somewhat inexplicably resting on his indie-cred, personable beta-white-male laurels. Maybe you find IFC’s Documentary Now, a show which will appeal to those who prefer their comedy as nothing but a mess of inside references, consistently… something. Maybe you like a couple of his impressions, like those of Thom Yorke or Ben Gibbard, or someone else equally Super Indie.
However you parse his slightly puzzling career, what you should definitely credit Armisen for being is a notoriously creepy dude. You may know his ex-wife, Mad Men and Top of the Lake star Elisabeth Moss, as a practicing Scientologist, but you should take to heart her indelible characterization of Armisen as “One of the greatest things I heard someone say about him is, ‘He’s so great at doing impersonations. But the greatest impersonation he does is that of a normal person.”
A comprehensive Gawker expose from the beginning of last year rounded up comments from various statements and comments sections excerpts which point to a pattern of skeazy behavior. The examples are too numerous to be negligible, by any means. The behavior is not outright predatory, but questionable, but raised questions about Armisen’s sexual practices, infidelity (affirmed by Moss), and general irresponsibility in relationships. These online testimonials come from over a period of nearly five years. A couple of the most striking ones, from 2013:
“Fred got me pregnant, I had a miscarriage and he abandoned me.”
“A person who hurts women the way he does must be very sick.
“He’s honestly very sad. And I get sad thinking about him.”
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The pattern seems to be stringing multiple women along at once, and absolving himself of guilt abruptly when the situation is no longer comfortable, or a conflict of interest.
Armisen’s accusers are for the most part anonymous, and no one has accused him of outright sexual assault, unlike several notable men with a great deal of clout in comedy and Hollywood. But this is not information that should be ignored. Also, it should not be denied that Fred Armisen continues to not be very funny. The combination of these two things is a bad one, no?
I don’t care if you can get up to two fingers on funny Armisen bits. This guy is hosting SNL tomorrow, and seems to be in our lives for the long haul, whether that will be primarily in the realm of comedy, music, film, or just general, nebulous celebrity. Keep your sights on him.