Happy birthday to Fred Armisen. The “Saturday Night Live” stalwart turns 46 years old today. Currently in the middle of his 11th season on the show, Armisen is tied with Al Franken as the third longest-running SNL cast member of all time (behind Darrell Hammond and Seth Meyers with 14 and 12 seasons respectively).
Armisen has been a favorite during his decade on SNL, turning his popularity into many movie and TV appearances, as well as creating his own sketch show, “Portlandia,” on IFC. In honor of Armisen’s birthday, we’re looking at 10 of his best characters and sketches through the years.
10) “Obama Plays It Cool” (Saturday Night Live)
Portrayal of the current POTUS has always been a plum role for a “Saturday Night Live” cast member, and when Armisen was assigned to play Barack Obama, his spotlight intensified a bit. His performance wasn’t without controversy. For one thing, the multi-racial Armisen is of Venezuelan, German and Japanese descent, but he isn’t black, and some were offended that a black cast member was not given the role, especially considering the common complaint that Armisen’s impression of Obama was weak. Still, Armisen was SNL’s Obama for the president’s entire first term (before Jay Pharoah took over), which gives him a special place in SNL history.
9) Tino (Anchorman)
Armisen had two seasons on SNL under his belt when Anchorman was released in the summer of 2004. He played a small role in the movie as Tino, the owner of the restaurant where Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy performs jazz flute. Tino’s best scene — in which he serves a plate of fresh cat poop to Burgundy after the anchorman tells the city of San Diego to go fuck itself — hit the cutting-room floor. Fortunately, it was restored when the movie was released on home video in its “unrated” version.
8) Nicholas Fehn (Saturday Night Live)
Recurring “Weekend Update” character Nicholas Fehn can be seen as a precursor to the kind of comedy Armisen would later explore in “Portlandia,” i.e., lightly mocking stereotypically liberal cultural touchstones, in this case a leftist political comedian. Fehn is a modern-day Mort Sahl whose “skewed view” of the day’s headlines starts at pointlessness, and hilariously devolves into utter rambling nonsense. He’s a cutting parody of everyone so full of self-righteous hot air that they simply can’t seem to put together an actual coherent thought.
7) “Dream of the ‘90s” (Portlandia)
No sketch show — not “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” not “SCTV,” not “The Kids in the Hall” — has ever delivered a better opening sketch than “Dream of the ‘90s.” In this first sketch of the first “Portlandia” episode, Armisen offers a thesis statement for the entire series that follows. Armisen describes Portland, Ore. as a place that sounds like “an alternative universe. It’s like Gore won, the Bush administration never happened. In Portland, it’s almost like cars don’t exist; people ride bikes or double-decker bikes. They ride unicycles!” That’s the universe created in “Portlandia.” Every sketch is essentially another verse of “Dream of the ‘90s.”
6) Raul Alejandro Bastilla Pedro de Veloso de Morana (Parks and Recreation)
“Parks and Recreation” has become “Simpsons”-like in its ever-growing list of guest stars and characters that make up the world of fictional Pawnee, Ind. Fred Armisen was a standout with his one-episode (so far) appearance as the visiting vice director of the Parks Department for Boraqua, Venezuela, Pawnee’s sister city. Leslie Knope and her crew expect to astonish the Venezuelans with their American affluence, but it turns out that Morana and his staff live like kings in their country, and are appalled by Pawnee’s mundanity. Armisen mocks, insults, sneers at, condescends to and demeans Pawnee at every turn, behaving like an all-around loathsome person for the entire episode. It’s hilarious.
5) Fericito (Saturday Night Live)
Armisen debuted on “Saturday Night Live” in the first episode of the show’s 28th season on Oct. 5, 2002. He made his very first appearance on the show during “Weekend Update,” when he premiered his character Fericito, the Venezuelan nightclub comedian who explained to “Update” anchor Jimmy Fallon how to perform comedy Latino-style, i.e., with timbale solos, mugging to the camera, and plenty of catch phrases. Fericito was an instantly popular character, and continued to appear on SNL in “Weekend Update” segments as well as his own sketches. Armisen even appeared as Fericito on other TV shows and in live performances.
4) “The Californians” (Saturday Night Live)
The newest sketch on this list, it’s a little hard to believe that the hilarious “The Californians” debuted only just last April. But because this is “Saturday Night Live,” at the first whiff of its popularity, the show couldn’t keep from beating the sketch mercilessly into the ground, repeating it three more times since then, intent on making audiences sick of it as fast as possible. But even so, Armisen remains the star of each installment of “The Californians.” It was Armisen’s performance of the line “What’re you doing here?” that created an unlikely catch phrase and one of the most popular recurring SNL sketches in recent memory.
3) “Put a Bird on It” (Portlandia)
You know when you meet people who seem like they’re so gosh-darned happy 100-percent of the time that you have to believe they’re seething balls of rage underneath the chipper attitudes on the surface? In this popular “Portlandia” sketch, Armisen and Carrie Brownstein perfectly poke holes in the sort of jolly dicks who annoy us all with their shallow, hypocritical cheeriness, not to mention people who love to decoupage their garbage and sell it to suckers on Etsy for absurd amounts of money.
2) “SNL Digital Short: Cookies” (Saturday Night Live)
Here’s one of the best Digital Shorts that didn’t feature a song by The Lonely Island. In fact, it’s one of the rare occasions in which Andy Samberg doesn’t appear at all. Instead, Fred Armisen is left to run away with all the laughs as the one guy at a company meeting who gleefully snacks on cookies while his co-workers all despair over massive impending layoffs. Attentions quickly turn from corporate doom to Armisen, who continually spouts faux-guilty quips like “Don’t tell my trainer,” and “I wish I could stop. They should put one of the security guards on cookie patrol!” while shoveling cookies into his face. Armisen channels a bit of Paul Lynde (another popular impression of his) in the absurd performance.
1) “Mike’s Marbleopolis” (Saturday Night Live)
Armisen gave a pitch-perfect performance as Mike, an obnoxious salesman selling nothing but “mawble cawlumns” out of a warehouse store in Lynbrook, N.Y. His goods carry exactly the note of tacky, nouveau-riche douchebaggery on display in the real-life lives of the “Real Housewives.” Trouble in the bedroom? Stick a marble column at the foot of your bed and “you’ll be goin’ at it like the king and queen of France!” insists Armisen. With a hilarious assist from host Scarlett Johannson, “Mike’s Marbleopolis” became one of the highlights of Armisen’s SNL career so far. The show tried to bring the character back, but it never hit quite as perfectly as the original incarnation.