Episode 204: The Zoom-Ins, The Framing. I Was Enchanted

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Heard On BETA
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Comedian Fred Armisen is still drumming up laughs. He talks about how he’s made a career out of combining music with comedy. And writer Brian Raftery makes the case for 1999 being the best movie year ever. Also, “Top Chef” contestant Kwame Onwuachi on how he overcame the obstacles to become a professional chef.

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  • Comedian Fred Armisen Has Always Been Able To Drum Up Laughs

    Throughout his storied and prolific career as a comedian, Fred Armisen has always maintained a musical and rhythmic sensibility to his art. That’s not surprising considering he began his entertainment career as a drummer.

    Armisen was on the road supporting his new comedy tour, “Comedy for Musicians but Everyone is Welcome” when WPR’s “BETA” caught up with him.

    Following on the heels of his 2018 Netflix one-hour special,” Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers” the new tour melds Armisen’s two passions of music and comedy into a fresh live experience that could double as an interactive music history class.

    The show will feature Armisen highlighting and discussing music he’s discovered and will also focus on his love of punk rock music and punk rock drumming in particular.

    “I’m always going to be a punk. I grew up on punk and being a drummer, it’s the crossroads of everything that I love,” Armisen said.

    In 1988, Armisen left New York to form the Chicago punk rock band, Trenchmouth. He was hoping to follow in the footsteps of his favorite drummer, Blondie’s Clem Burke.

    “He really is everything I love about punk rock drumming” Armisen said. “(Clem’s drumming) is theatrical, but not overly theatrical. So, it has just enough shine and glitter to it, but also very, very 4/4.”

    Armisen’s own drumming was self-described as “frenetic” and has a lot of high end. It has a Latin influence, but still maintains his punk rock passion. That Latin influence stems from Armisen’s years in Brazil as a child.

    “That was my first witness to that style and it always stayed with me. To this day, samba music really does affect me and I know my sister feels the same way,” he said.

    This influence would surface in perhaps one of Armisen’s funniest recurring SNL characters, Fericitio — the Venezuelan nightclub comedian who pumped up his crowd with “frenetic” drumming before rimshotting his own catch phrase, “¡Dios Mio!”

    After years of watching peers eclipse Trenchmouth, Armisen soon soured on the music industry. So, in 1998 he took out his frustrations by making a short comedy film mocking the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas.

    “I had a chip on my shoulder, so I thought I’ll make fun of it. I’ll do a video where it’s making light of, if anything, ambition and planning,” he said.

    Ironically, the video became the inception point of Armisen’s comedy career.

    “For as much as I made fun of trying to go to a music festival to try to make it, it took me going to a music festival until I made it, doing comedy,” he said.

    Armisen began showing the video at clubs in LA. It became his act in a way. Word began to spread around town and soon Armisen had landed an audition for “Saturday Night Live.”

    Pivoting to a full time career in comedy didn’t mean Armisen had to abandon his identity as a drummer. He was often able to create memorable characters behind the drum set, including the aforementioned Fericito and Mackie – the senile, big band drummer for washed up Vegas lounge act, Buddy Mills (played by Chris Kattan).

    “In a way, when I was doing those sketches, I just felt like well ‘here’s my version of getting to make a living playing the drums,’” he said.

    He was even able to tap into his drumming background when playing non-musical characters. Armisen states that the ability to craft a song and find its rhythms and its arc translates really well when creating a good sketch.

    “It’s really very related,” Armisen said. “More than anything, my training, not just from drumming, but just from being in a band, there was value to it. I think I did learn a lot about people’s attention spans and being on a stage.”

    Armisen carried that musical sensibility to his next big project, the IFC sketch comedy-series, “Portlandia.” His co-creator was Carrie Brownstein, guitarist for the punk rock giants, Sleater-Kinney.

    The long-running series satirized the quirks and tendencies of the Pacific Northwest city and featured numerous musicians along the way including, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Tweedy, Aimee Mann and St. Vincent.

    Armisen said that the music scene was always going to be just such a natural evolution of the show.

    “It was just inevitable. It’s just what our world is anyway,” he said. “It’s something that we both know and its people that we both know.”

    “There’s also a quality you get to a musician performing in that way that you don’t get with comedians. There’s something a little weirder about it which I liked,” he added.

    Fred Armisen will be performing “Comedy For Musicians but Everyone Is Welcome” on Saturday, May 18, at the Majestic Theater in Madison, Wisconsin.

  • Pop Culture Writer Brian Raftery On The Best Year In Cinema History

    From cult classics “Office Space” and “The Blair Witch Project” to box office record breakers “The Matrix” and “The Phantom Menace.” From iconic directors like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese to burgeoning auteurs Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell — 1999 is arguably the best year in cinema history.

    The output was so rich that pop culture writer Brian Raftery and his friends play a party game to see if a person can name all of the hit films from the year.

    “No one could ever get all of them,” Raftery admitted to WPR’s “BETA.”

    Raftery is attempting to cover as many of these films as he can with his book “BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. How 1999 Blew Up The Big Screen.” With over 130 interviews with the filmmakers, actors and producers involved in the films, Raftery still only scratches the surface.

    “I think I covered about 30 movies in the book and I had to cut at least 10 to 15 that I really wanted to get into,” he said.

    He may just have to put out a sequel.

    In 1999, Raftery had graduated from college and moved to Manhattan to intern for Entertainment Weekly. He covered many of the films contemporaneously and even then, the zine knew that Hollywood was experiencing something unique.

    Raftery attributes some of the embarrassment of riches to coincidence, as films can spend years in pre-production and being released the same year isn’t uncommon. He also cites the indie filmmakers trend. Following the transcendent success of “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, studios were on the hunt to find the next great independent filmmaker.

    “If you look at the list of first-time directors that year, you have Brad Bird making ‘The Iron Giant;’ you have Spike Jonze making ‘Being John Malkovich;’ you have Sofia Coppola making ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and on and on,” Raftery said. “And, it all happened in a period when Hollywood really needed some new ideas.”

    “The studios recognized there was a lot of excitement and momentum in the world of independent film, in the world of music videos and in the world of TV commercials and pulled from all of these different places,” Raftery said.

    Revisiting these films 20 years later, Raftery remarked on how prescient they were and identified the common themes that permeate a lot of them.

    “One of the really big themes is identity. This idea of ‘Who am I?’ ‘Could I be someone else?’ ‘Is there a way of changing my life?’” he said.

    This concept surfaces in films like “Office Space,” “Being John Malkovich” and very overtly in “Fight Club” — one of 1999’s standout films.

    Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, David Fincher’s “Fight Club” starred Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. It was a satirical and stylistic treatment on late 90’s masculinity and self even if its biggest fans didn’t view it through that lens.

    “They are making a movie that either you think is very funny or you find deeply nihilist,” Raftery said. “It came out just a few months after Columbine and it’s a very provocative film. It’s a very disturbing movie.”

    Raftery said in a pre-9/11 world, there was more time for navel gazing in society. There was also another haunting dilemma looming over that year — the Y2K threat.

    “Y2K and the new millennium was this sub-conscious deadline where we’re really speeding into the future,” Raftery said. “That idea, whether it was articulated or not, runs through these films and gives them an electricity and a relevance that I think has kept them in the conversation 20 years later.”

    Raftery also talks about the mutation of storytelling in films and how many films in 1999 reinvented movie narratives. He cites Christopher Nolan’s “Following” and “Run Lola Run” that toyed with the non-linear structure “Pulp Fiction” had mainstreamed a few years earlier.

    “While a lot of films had clearly played with narrative structures, in 1999 you see these movies where a lot of narrative laws are being entirely thrown away or rewritten. I mean look at the ‘Blair Witch Project,’” he said.

    Raftery doesn’t believe we will experience another movie year like 1999. There are several factors, but chief among them is that in 1999 television began taking over some of that cultural space movies occupied. He also argues 9/11 skewed studios and audiences toward putting a higher premium on escapism in movies.

    “If you look at 20 years ago, where these movies would grapple with real, real, real deep issues like identity and death and oppression and bigotry and a lot of interesting ideas,” he said. “A lot of the movies now are superheroes and zombie movies. They’re movies about immortality.”

  • Kwame Onwuachi Tells Story Of His Culinary Coming-Of-Age

    Once Kwame Onwuachi decided to become a professional chef, he didn’t waste any time.

    Before he was 27 years old, he’d opened — and closed — one of the most-talked-about restaurants in America. He’d also launched his own catering company and appeared as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” He’s captured all of this in a memoir called “Notes from a Young Black Chef.”

    “My love of cooking came from my mother, actually,” Onwuachi told WPR’s “BETA.” “I started cooking kind of out of necessity. She had a catering business that she operated from the house. And me and my sister were her first two employees.”

    When Onwuachi was 10 years old, his mother sent him to live with his paternal grandfather in Nigeria for the summer.

    “I was veering off on the wrong path, as that’s easy to do growing up in the South Bronx,” he recalled. “And she wanted to nip that in the bud and send me to a place where I would pretty much appreciate all the opportunities that I had here that I took for granted.”

    Onwuachi discovered a newfound appreciation for his imagination during his time in Nigeria.

    “What I remember most about it is kind of the creativity that was sparked. You know, we didn’t have electricity so me and my cousins that were out there, we had to figure out how to recreate that environment that we were so used to back in America,” he said. “You know, turning on the Playstation or Dreamcast which was out when I was there. We didn’t have any of that. So we had to make up games. And that’s what really kind of sparked my creativity.”

    At the end of August, he called his mother to find out when he was going to be able to come home.

    “She told me I’m staying there until I learn respect. It was eye-opening,” he said. “You know, I pretty much just dropped the phone and walked out of the call center in shambles. And then, you know, spent the next two years in Nigeria, learning respect.”

    Just before he was about to return to the United States, Onwuachi’s grandfather told him he had connected with his home and his ancestors and that this deeper understanding of Nigeria would shape him as a man.

    Onwuachi points to a defining, transformational experience that made him realize he wanted to be a professional chef.

    He struck up a conversation with the owner of a store in Soho. She mentioned she was having a big launch party and that she needed a caterer who could make miniature strawberry cheesecakes. Even though he wasn’t a caterer at the time, Onwuachi told her he could do it even though he’d never made a cheesecake in his life. So they agreed to have a tasting the next morning. Onwuachi went back home and made cheesecakes all night long.

    “So, first time horrible. Second time, it was gritty. Third time, I like curdled the eggs. Now we’re at, you know, about nine hours. It’s 7 a.m., 6 a.m. in the morning. You can start hearing the city coming alive. And at that moment, I looked at the kitchen. It was a mess. But I hadn’t been on my phone this whole time. I hadn’t stopped to talk to anybody. I was so focused on making this cheesecake. And at that moment, I had never done anything like that. I never have been as focused on anything,” he said. “You know, I have ADHD. At that moment, I was like this is what I need to be doing. This has calmed me.”

    A few years later, Onwuachi was attending the Culinary Institute of America when he did an externship at Thomas Keller’s restaurant, Per Se. While working at Per Se, he experienced some abuse.

    “Unfortunately, it’s what happens in the industry,” he said. “You go to these extern sites or internships and you’re rode really, really hard. Some places harder than others. There was definitely some times of what I felt was some underlying racial tension from some of the cooks, some of the people that were in charge and it’s unfortunate because you’re there for a passion. You’re there to give something your all. You’re there to put your head down and just work,” Onwuachi said. “Having to feel that you’re already not equal because you’re at the bottom of the totem pole in the hierarchy, but then to add on another level of something that you can’t control. And that’s something that I used to talk to myself about. ‘I was born this way, I was born with this color skin. It’s an unfortunate circumstance.’”

    Onwuachi remembers a time when a TV producer told him he wouldn’t make it on television because his cooking wasn’t Southern enough.

    “I had to do a tasting for her in order to get on this show essentially. And I did a three-course lunch. And she told me my food was too refined and my skin was too dark. In order to do this type of cuisine, I would need to be white essentially. And I don’t think she was being malicious in her delivery. She was just a person that was in the business and giving it to me straight about what the audience was looking for at the time,” he said.

    A few years later, Onwuachi appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

    “My last elimination challenge we had to do a fast casual concept. I chose to do chicken and waffles. I used to do it a lot when I did catering. And I used Eggo waffles, or not Eggo just like store-bought waffles, instead of making my own,” he said. “I couldn’t procure a waffle iron honestly until halfway through the preparation. And by then, my mind was already made up. I was like super nervous. So I thought like I could toast them in butter and fry the chicken and season it really, really well. That didn’t really turn out well for me.”

    In November 2016, Onwuachi was able to open his dream restaurant, Shaw Bijou, in Washington, D.C. The restaurant closed in January 2017. Onwuachi wanted to tell his life story through the food he served at Shaw Bijou.

    “I told probably an anecdotal tale throughout like 18 courses essentially. So the first course was about my grandmother who’s Jamaican. It was like jerk duck prosciutto with chicken liver pate, spice andouille and a couple other things. So that was like the cheese and charcuterie board,” he said. “And you come into the kitchen and there’s chicken and lamb over rice, which I ate in New York City all the time from the halal carts. But instead we did lamb sweetbread on a basmati rice chip glazed in chicken jus with a white sesame emulsion and Kashmiri pepper puree. So like the hot sauce, white sauce. It was like that, like little tales that surrounded my life all put on a menu.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Fred Armisen Guest
  • Brian Raftery Guest
  • Kwame Onwuachi Guest

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