“Late Night” likes its recurring comedies like the popular one “Closer” and “Day drinking” in which host Seth Meyers plasters himself while the sun is still shining with celebs like Lizzo, Rihanna and Ina Garten — but it’s hard to beat the simple genius of Meyers politely asking his 20-year-old pal Fred Armisen to launch his first celebrity fragrance . or Armisen’s plan to come up with a competing Oscars show.
Unofficially “Time to Ask Fred a Question,” it’s a short improv exercise on steroids: When Armisen appears on the show as a casual bandleader, Meyers asks the drummer an absurd question (“I heard you did a bid on Twitter?”) They’re the ones who Armisen doesn’t and can’t anticipate: Seth comes up with the questions himself, often at the last minute, as he walks from his dressing room to the stage. (Armisen learned this during our interview; he thought it was a joint effort between showrunner Mike Shoemaker and Meyers.)
And from there it’s two minutes of Armisen’s big wired riffing, just like his alternative Valentine’s Day holiday. “It’s called getting to know each other.” So we only celebrate the people you know something like that well. We meet them occasionally, every couple of years. These are really important relationships. If you don’t know their last name, just recognize their face.”
Before the show, Meyers lets his studio audience know how the bit works. “There’s an extra thing that they can be extra excited about because they’ve been tipped off that he’s doing what he feels is a magic trick with them,” he told IndieWire. “And that makes it contagious in a really fun way.”
When the question comes, Fred has to quickly switch from percussion to comedy mode, which means ripping out his in-ear monitors (to play in the house band) and going along with Meyers’ nonsense. This is Rule #1 of improv: “Yes, and.” Rule #2: “Not only that, but” is the tricky part.
“We’ve known each other for so long and worked so closely together … (Meyers) knows what subject matter to ask a question,” Armisen told IndieWire. “I’m deliberately trying to clear my mind before he asks.”
“The only reason I’m enjoying it is because I’ve become so comfortable with how awesome Fred is,” Meyers added. “I wouldn’t be happy with that if I put someone in his place who doesn’t enjoy being there.”
Armisen doesn’t just have to make it funny, it has to make it funny just believable enough. One way Armisen does this, Meyers says, is to vary the type and length of responses.
“It has music in it, and it’s about Fred’s musical background,” Meyers said.
“The settings are also perfect,” Armisen said. “They’re not meant to blow my mind or be so complicated that it’s too challenging… (they) always have that conversational ability.”
Meyers says that if he tries too hard to be funny about the question, he feels like the audience is trying to figure out what Seth will Armisen to say, and it undermines the bit. “There is so much comedy in the concrete,” he said. – If the question is specific, then I gave Fred less room to move.
If this all sounds a lot like “SNL: Weekend Update’s” Garth (Armisen) and Kat (Kristen Wiig), it is. Meyers also orchestrated the unusual recurring musical gag, with Armisen making up thematic lyrics on the spot and Wiig (doing her best) to stick perfectly to her words.
Why does this all work so well? “I think we’re all happy that we’ll never know Fred well enough to outlive him,” Meyers said. “And it’s ticklish, too.”
Armisen has been drumming — and answering “Ask Fred” questions — for Meyers all week. Tonight, however, there will be no “Ask Fred a Question”: Armisen steps in as Meyers’ first couch guest. It doesn’t matter, we have YouTube.
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