During his long stint on Saturday Night Live, Fred Armisen embodied everyone from President Obama to Steve Jobs, and he ranks right up there with Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, and Will Ferrell as one of the most adept chameleons in the show's history. He's still cranking out the impressions; he turned up on last night's episode of FXX's Man Seeking Woman as Jesus Christ. That guest appearance (along with a fresh episode tonight of his IFC series Portlandia) seemed like a good excuse to talk to him about his portfolio of impressions -- and the ones that didn't make the cut.
Favorite impression: Prince
While Armisen cites Penny Marshall and Michael Bloomberg as two of his favorites, his absolute favorite is Prince. "I'm a fan of Prince, so I've been doing a Prince impression since I was 16," he tells us, adding that the Purple One went so far as to praise the impression when the pair met in person. "In his way, he made it clear that it was cool. I think he went, 'It's cool,' which for me is enough. I'll take it."
Most meta impression: Steve Jobs
Another memorable encounter arose out of an impression when Armisen met late Apple impresario Steve Jobs. "He was opening a store on Fifth Ave in New York," says Armisen, "and they were like, 'Steve might be here, we'll try to arrange a meeting.' And it was like meeting a rockstar. They were like, 'He's near the building, just wait here.' And then suddenly there he was. And we talked for a little while. He was really great. It's one of the highlights of my life." But did Jobs like Armisen's impression? "Yes," recalls Armisen. "He did a very quick impression of the impression."
Armisen says the hardest impression he ever did that made it to air might have been Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, adding that "it was sort of athletic -- not how I usually talk." But on the whole, the comedian says he doesn't strain himself in most instances. "I feel like everything that's come my way has been in the wheelhouse of what I do, so it's never felt impossible to me."
Unfairly criticized political impression: President Obama
Picking Armisen -- who has Venezuelan, German, and Japanese heritage -- to portray President Obama on the show received some criticism back in 2008, but the actor says he has no regrets about impersonating the commander in chief. "I really loved being part of that political campaign," he says. "Lorne asked me on a Tuesday before the Saturday that I did it, and he always presents it as 'Do you want to try it?' and my answer is always 'Yeah!' It was a chance to be a part of the SNL political world. It was a blast, I loved it. I feel very fortunate."
Believe it or not, Larry David wasn't the first person to play Bernie Sanders on SNL. That distinction goes to Armisen, who played a kooky version of the Vermont senator in a cut sketch from 2013. Describing what it feels like to watch the impression he originated become a national phenomenon, Armisen says, "It's kind of like your past giving you a high-five."
"It happens a lot, where people will play somebody who then goes on to do more," he adds, and recalls another impression he pioneered before its subject attained notoriety. "Another one of those was Robert Durst. I was watching The Jinx and they showed a clip of SNL and me playing him," he recalls with excitement. "And of course when I played him I had watched some videotape from the news, but he obviously wasn't as famous as he is now."
As for what he thinks of David's iconic Sanders impression? "The same feeling you had, whatever feeling you had, that's the feeling I had," he tells us. "It's such a collective feeling. It's so cool when things work on TV, and when that happens we all feel the same way."