Backstage at the Lincoln Theatre, Fred Armisen is downplaying his knack for accents. “I probably have a while to go before I’m really trained enough to know where people are from,” he says, after asking if I’m from Baltimore. (I grew up in Laurel, Md., less than 20 miles from his impressive guess.)
He says he can do five New York accents, as well as the Midwest, Chicago and Southern California. “The South is very hard,” he says. “I can do three versions of it.”
Onstage minutes later, he demonstrates each with almost preternatural command, launching into the differences among the various provincial accents in Canada, and explaining how the D.C. dialect is unique from the cadence found in Maryland and Virginia. Then he begins taking requests for which regions to try next.
His talent appears effortless — even casual — despite undoubtedly reflecting years of skill-polishing effort.
Armisen’s sold-out show, “Comedy for Musicians but Everyone is Welcome,” updates his Grammy-nominated Netflix special, “Standup for Drummers,” with new jokes and more guitar. And this particular performance brings his career full circle.
The comedian, best known for his roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “Portlandia,” first performed in the District at the original 9:30 Club in 1988. He was a musician then, playing with his friend Damon Locks, who grew up in Silver Spring. They eventually moved to Chicago, forming the post-hardcore band Trenchmouth. But the group’s links to the area’s underground scene remained “because we idolized D.C. music so much — or copied it. We wanted to be part of that — [at the venues] d.c. space, 9:30 Club and a church we’d play with [local punk band] Nation of Ulysses.”
Back then, travel and accommodations consisted of “vans all the way and sleeping bags,” a far cry from the luxurious tour bus currently parked behind the venue.
Armisen’s transition from music to comedy wasn’t entirely planned; a short film he made 20 years ago changed the trajectory of his career. “Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and SXSW,” in which he trolls the Texas festival’s attendees, was “the turning point when I really started doing comedy instead of music.”
“I went to the festival thinking, ‘What do all these people know about making it in the music business? Why are they having all these meetings and speeches about how to get booked on the radio?’ ” Armisen said. “The irony is they were right, and I was wrong. Because I went to SXSW, my career got started.”
The short, which went viral before viral became a corporate comms objective, now feels like it’s part of a late ’90s time capsule — complete with a cameo from Janeane Garofalo. It’s like something that might’ve been shot for Big Brother magazine. But Armisen’s early comedic chops are on full display.
He spent the next several years honing his craft on television, including appearances on HBO’s “Reverb,” “Late World with Zach” (starring Zach Galifianakis) and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
But it was when Armisen began on SNL in 2002 that his career really took off. During his last few years on the famed late-night sketch show, he pulled double duty as he co-created and filmed the cult-favorite and Emmy-nominated series “Portlandia.” And after leaving “Saturday Night Live” in 2013, his comedy résumé remained impressively dense, with appearances ranging from a weird turn as Robert Durst on the comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to voicing several of the characters on the puberty-centric animated series “Big Mouth.”
Last year, he starred alongside his friend and fellow SNL alum Maya Rudolph in the critically acclaimed “Forever,” which he says will not receive a second season, calling it “a finished piece.”
And he’s gearing up for the Season 3 premiere of “Documentary Now!,” his Emmy-nominated IFC mockumentary series with Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, which starts Feb. 20, nearly two and a half years after the second season’s conclusion.
What started as a side project for Armisen has morphed into another tenant of his offbeat brand: “We love it but it’s not some little show. We have to travel to places, and really get into it, build whole worlds and film styles,” he said, explaining the delay. And he hedges on a fourth season: “It’s always going to be a maybe.”
Armisen’s constant output can appear dizzying. At his core, he is still the hustling teenage punk auditioning for CBGB. At 52, he is insistent this approach to work does not inhibit his personal happiness or stability.
“I try to kill my schedule. I try to kill every month, every week. I just want to get through the year by doing too much,” he said. “I want to obliterate my mind and not be able to think. I don’t want peace, I don’t like calmness or sitting down. I want to constantly be overworked, because I can. Because I love it.”
Armisen’s concert is proof of his ever-expanding workload. His set ends with a medley of his songs from SNL and “Documentary Now!,” including Blue Jean Committee’s “Catalina Breeze,” the Bjelland Brothers’ “Sparkling Apple Juice,” and even — briefly — the sex song from “Bob’s Burgers.” (By request, Armisen also slips into “Weekend Update’s” Garth: “Great to be in Washington . . . ”)
After the show, Armisen cheerfully greets the show’s attendees as they exit onto U Street, gladly signing merch and posing for pictures. But there are few signs of exhaustion for the comedian, who premiered “Documentary Now!” at Sundance Film Festival before this leg of the tour, and following his stop in Washington, will head to New York for another concert before it’s off to Los Angeles for the Grammys, where he’s nominated for best comedy album. Then it’s back to touring.
So no time to rest in between? “Maybe when I’m 80 I’ll take a break.”