In the new Showtime series Moonbase 8, Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, and Tim Heidecker play a trio of prospective astronauts training in a remote desert simulation in the hopes of one day traveling to the moon. Considering the screen personae of the three stars, you're right to expect absurdist comedy. And once again, Fred Armisen is playing the wide-eyed idiot, a character type he knows well. Of course "idiot" doesn't necessarily mean dumb in this case. Armisen doesn't play dummies, really; instead he projects an extreme archness and aloofness that ends up being aggravatingly unhelpful to whomever has the misfortune of dealing with him. Armisen has been honing this role to perfection since his early days on Saturday Night Live. Here are ten stellar examples:
Armisen joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2002, and quickly became one of the show's most indispensable cast members. In addition to playing the likes of Prince, Steve Jobs, Stuart from "The Californians," and a lengthy and ultimately controversial time as President Barack Obama, Armisen also built up a stable of wide-eyed idiots. We considered enshrining his impression of former New York governor David Paterson, but while Armisen's Patersen may have been a bit spacey, his frequent barbs directed at New Jersey take him away from the "wide-eyed idiot" vibe. Instead, we're going with Armisen's half of the "Weekend Update" Garth & Kat duo. Garth's improvised patter with Kristen Wiig's Kat really defined the classic Fred Armisen type.
Really, when it comes to this show, take your pick. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's myriad Portlandia characters were a menagerie of wide-eyed, crunchy, hippie types, whether they were cab drivers, store owners, podcasters, or just folks about town. Armisen's archness was used to great effect each and every time, and even more than SNL, this was the show that made him TV's wide-eyed idiot of choice.
On the acidic Hulu comedy Difficult People, Armisen played the role of Garry, older brother to Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner), who's as pleasant and uncomplicated as Billy is mean and tormented. Garry's one real source of trouble is his marriage to the stern and unyielding Rucchel (Jackie Hoffman), but despite whatever barbs or abuse he gets from Billy or Rucchel, Garry maintains that wide-eyed, even keel.
As with Portlandia and Saturday Night Live, Fred Armisen's role as a regular on Documentary Now has given him the chance to play a ton of different characters, most of them imbued with that innate Armisen archness. For the ultimate in Fred Armisen-style wide-eyed idiocy, we're going with his character in Season 3's "Searching for Mr. Larson," where he plays a preening documentarian obsessed with making a movie about The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson.
In a typically insane Kimmy Schmidt turn, Armisen showed up at the beginning of Season 2 in the role of Robert Durst, the infamous suspected murderer who earlier that year had been the subject of HBO's sensational documentary series The Jinx. On Kimmy, "Bobby" Durst was dating Lillian (Carol Kane), of course, though he mostly just puttered around and mumbled.
Since the animated show's inception, Armisen has voiced the character of Elliot Birch, father one of the show's main characters Nick Birch (Nick Kroll). While we can't exactly see the wide-eyed visage of Armisen in the animated medium, everything about Elliot's deeply sensitive, often inappropriate, and frequently clueless characterization is pure Armisen.
In the fourth and final season of Will Forte's daring post-apocalyptic comedy, Armisen showed up as a character named Karl Coperthwaite, who initially presented as a prison guard but who was secretly a cannibalistic serial killer. While "cannibalistic serial killer" doesn't seem to exactly match the wide-eyed idiot template, this role really shows the simplicity Armisen can bring to even the harshest of character types.
In the short-lived Amazon series Forever, Armisen played Oscar Hoffman, a straightlaced suburbanite who meets an untimely end. When his wife (played by Maya Rudolph) dies, their shared experience of the afterlife underlines just how dissatisfied they were with their former lives. It's a heady series, and Armisen and Rudolph's performances were great. Again, we see Armisen in the role of a distressingly normie character, who seems almost too dull to be true, and the show makes tremendous use of it.
In the Season 10 episode "The Surprise Party," Armisen plays Wally, a new acquaintance who gets mixed up in a scheme involving Larry spying on Susie (Susie Essman). Once again, Armisen is playing a simple, unassuming character, in perfect contrast with Larry's more combustible personality.
Most recently, Fred Armisen brought his wide-eyed vibe to the new Netflix special Sarah Cooper: Everything's Fine. Playing the socially-distanced producer for Cooper's increasingly bleak newscast, Armisen's preternatural calmness is the perfect foil for the special's cavalcade of apocalyptic and crazy-making news developments. Only Armisen could make this tiny, unassuming role truly sing.
Armisen's Moonbase 8 premieres on Showtime Sunday November 7 at 8:00 PM ET.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Fred Armisen, Big Mouth, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Difficult People, Documentary Now!, Forever, The Last Man on Earth, Moonbase 8, Portlandia, Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, Saturday Night Live, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt