When Fred Armisen began putting together his 2018 Netflix special Standup for Drummers, the last thing he expected to come out of it was a Grammy nomination. After all, as the title clearly states, this was a comedy show where the vast majority of the jokes were specifically about the art of drumming. They come from his pre-fame days as a drummer for the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth as well as Blue Man Group’s touring unit. The jokes played well to a tiny room full of drummers like Green Day’s Tré Cool, but much to Armisen’s shock, the risky move of releasing the special to a mass audience payed off with a nomination for Best Comedy Album alongside recent releases by Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Patton Oswalt and Jim Gaffigan.
We spoke to Armisen about the standup special, his one-night stint in Devo last year, the upcoming season of Documentary Now, his new HBO Spanish-language show Los Espookys and whether he’d rather see the Smiths or Talking Heads reunite.
Congrats on your Grammy nomination.
Thanks! I’m really psyched about it. I just think of it as another world since I’m not in a band anymore and I was at peace with that.
How did you learn about the nomination?
This guy Eric Guroam, who works for Little Stranger. They produce 30 Rock and [Unbreakable] Kimmy Schmidt. It’s Tina Fey’s company. Eric and I text pretty frequently and he sent me the news. It was just something that really wasn’t on my mind at all, and not in a bad way. I didn’t know those announcements were coming out that day. I hadn’t even considered it, so it was a perfectly surprising text. Also, as far as I know, there’s not the same sort of campaigning that there is for Emmy Awards and stuff. That always seems like there’s months of strategies and stuff.
Even though the Grammys seem like they’re in another world in a way, I still look up to it because I always think of that picture of David Bowie, John Lennon and Paul Simon hanging out backstage at the Grammys in 1975. I always think, “That must have been so much fun.”
They usually don’t even televise the Comedy Album award, but I imagine you’re still going, right?
Yeah. I’m trying to not sound like a cliché, but things like the Grammys are like icing on the cake. To even think I’ll have a certificate or something that says “Grammy” on it, it’s a nice thing in anyone’s life.
How did you get the idea for Standup for Drummers?
Over the years, I’ve done standup. If I ever do anything with an instrument, it’s an easy way in for me. It’s something that I can lean on. If I was ever in a room with musicians and I talked about things I had in common with musicians that, for example, annoy us, I found that the momentum of doing jokes like that came easier for me. It’s an easy reference. Somewhere in there I thought, “What if I do a little bit of this onstage to a tiny audience? If it’s just musicians, they’ll really get it.”
I started to do it at music stores. I did it at this music store Main Drag in Brooklyn. No matter how small the audience was, it was so gratifying since I didn’t have to worry about reaching everybody. I was like, “Maybe I’m not one of those guys that does that. Maybe if I do something that’s specific it’ll be a more enjoyable evening.” So I kept doing it and then Netflix offered me a special. I saw it as two different things. I was like, “I’ll just do a regular standup special, even though I like doing this one that’s just for drummers.”
But then the momentum took over. I felt more into doing material just for drummers. It was easier. I was like, “I can make a list of 10 jokes right now that I can make about a drum kit.” When things happen like that, I tend to just want to go with it. In some ways, it seems like a lot of work, but in other ways, it is easier since I don’t have to think that much.
Did part of you worry it would work very well to a small room full of drummers but not as well to a mass audience watching on a screen?
Yeah. I’m assuming because there’s a drummer in the audience they would at least appreciate the fact there’s a drumming joke just for them. I would go see a comedian who only talked about one subject too if there was someone that just did jokes about tennis, just for the curiosity factor.
How did you gauge success on Netflix when they don’t release ratings or anything? That makes it tough to figure out how popular it became.
It’s really weird. First of all, getting signed to do something on Netflix, that’s something. I’ll gauge that. They are arranging it and paying for production and stuff, great. That’s step one. Then where I live in L.A., where I see a billboard I’m like, “OK, it says Netflix and my name. That’s a little something. That’s pretty good.”
Then the final thing is when people talk to me about it, which is exactly what I was wishing for. When I’m traveling somewhere the people that come up to me and say they like the special are musicians. They were like, “This was made especially for me.” There’s something about it that’s kind of intimate in a way. They’re not just walking up and repeating a joke. It’s so specific that it becomes a secret handshake or something. It also makes it easier for me to talk to them and I can ask what kind of music they play and we talk about music and stuff. That’s how I see it. If someone comes up to me at an airport and they see it, I know it reached somebody.
To switch gears, I’m a diehard Devo fan. How did it feel to play drums with them at that festival gig over the summer?
Wow. That’s another three-hour-long conversation. I was literally a card-carrying member of Club Devo. I saved my little Club Devo card. I saw them back in the day on the New Traditionalists tour and Oh, No! It’s Devo tour. I have so much to say and I’m trying to not sound like a lunatic right now. But since you’re a Devo fan, you get it. You understand what they mean to us. And then Mark Mothersbaugh, what he did with his life, how he became a composer and he’s got this company is an added bonus of what they became. I really idolize Mark Mothersbaugh in a very serious way. I look at pictures of him and go, “That’s a good way to go. That’s a good way to become something else.”
I think Devo affected Portlandia in some of the ways we did our ad campaigns. They were very Devo-ish. And then Alan Myers, I learned drumming from learning his parts. As a kid with a kit, my way of learning my way around the kit was learning “Girl U Want” and “Uncontrollable Urge” and whatever the songs I was listening to. It was truly Alan Myers. He was such an odd, insane, heavy drummer.
To be onstage playing with them, I tried not to enjoy it too much. If I disappeared into “this is a blast,” that’s not the kind of band it is. It’s not a jamming-out band. It’s not for party fun music. It’s almost like being part of a scientific research group.
I was like, “I cannot mess up these songs.” That’s the most I ever practiced for a gig. I practiced at home. Because people had phones, I was like, “I’m not going to mess up a song and it’ll be out there.” It’s like being on live TV. It’s the one time I can’t drop the ending of a song or goof around. There’s none of that. It’s the most seriously I ever took anything. I was like, “Focus on this. Focus on this drum in front of me. Focus on this playing. And then later I can look at a picture and be like, ‘Oh, my God, I played with Devo.'”
I’ve seen Mark talk about the possibility of a farewell tour. If that does happen, do you want to be a part of it?
I would throw my Devo hat in the ring and say, “Of course, I would love to do it.” But that’s up to them. They’ve had different drummers: Josh Freese and Jeff Friedl and some brilliant people. That’s up to them, but if they ever asked me I’d do it in a second. In a second!
If you go on Devo’s Wikpedia page, your name is there under “touring members.” That alone is pretty cool.
It’s one of the craziest things that ever happened in my life. And also, good things. It’s such a good thing because the experience was so good and to think I even know those guys! I paid money to go see them and buy their records and stuff. I was so mesmerized by their videos, so to see them as people was great. I gave myself a real pat on the back that I knew all their songs so well. I imagined them being like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you know this song!” But they took it in stride since that’s the only songs they know. They weren’t like, “Holy moly!” They were like, “Yeah, that’s how the song goes. We’ve been doing it since 1976.”
On another topic, are you finished with the new season of Documentary Now?
Yeah. That’s all edited and ready to go. I think that’s coming out in the next couple of months or so.
Do you feel any pressure to top the past two seasons of the show since they were so successful?
Yeah, but it’s good pressure. It’s good to be pressured to make it even more varied and to make it as good or better than it was a before. It’s my hope that if the episodes get mixed up and out of order that you can’t tell where it’s from. It’s such a cheesy thing, but I do credit those directors. They are the ones that make each one different from the others. The editing and the way the film looks, I don’t have to think about it as much.
Are there any fake bands this season?
Yeah. We did a fake jazz artist. It’s sort of based on Chet Baker. There was a time in the Eighties where they loved doing documentaries in black and white, but it still looked kind of Eighties-ish, so there’s this kind of double joke of celebrating jazz and the success of jazz in Europe, but at the same time trying to make it appear very classical and black and white.
Your HBO Spanish-language show Los Espookys, are you done filming that first season?
Yeah. We shot it in Chile this winter, so I just got back about a week ago. We were in Santiago. We’re working on editing it now. It’s in Spanish. I’m very psyched about that.
Are there going to be subtitles?
Yes. I know, we could have gone more purist, but I have to remember that it’s OK for people to want to understand it. I’m never against that kind of thing. I want people to enjoy it. And there are a couple of parts in English. There’s an American embassy and stuff.
Random question: Would you rather see a Smiths reunion or a Talking Heads reunion?
Oh, shoot. Shoot. I think a Smiths reunion because the Talking Heads reunited for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Sure, but it was three songs 17 years ago.
Yeah, but you can see what it looked like. That’s something. To me, because the Smiths seems more impossible, that’s why it’s like, “Oh, my God.” People would freak out. Can you imagine the venue they would play? I actually think they could play a football stadiums.
I think they could do 20 nights at Wembley Stadium, minimum.
Yeah! People would freak out!
And it will never happen.
There’s not even a hint of, “Maybe they’ll do it.” There’s none of that. Now I’ve got a question for you. Would you rather see XTC back together and do a show or the original members of Kraftwerk?
Kraftwerk. They’re down to just one original member. It’s almost a tribute band these days, but everyone from the Autobahn days is still alive. It would be incredible.
I never understand those things. In the world where you have to make a living, how bad can it be when it would make people happy? It’s still show business. Is it that bad that the four of you can’t get together and do a tour? It’s so strange to me.
I think these are beefs that go back decades and often they are tied up in legal issues that really cause insane bitterness. With the Smiths, there’s the added factor that Morrissey is just completely inflexible about everything.
Yeah. That’s different. The Smiths, not only do we want them to do a reunion, everyone understands how much they don’t want to do it. It’s not going to happen.