A Conversation with Fred Arimsen
This interview was sent to the Believer as an audio recording. Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s voices have the tinny, compressed tone that comes from being transmitted over a laptop. Brownstein and Armisen are comedic actors (and musicians) whose sketch-comedy show, Portlandia, recently began its fourth season on IFC. A radio play written by Brownstein and Armisen can be heard on the current episode of the Believer’s weekly radio-show podcast, the Organist, on KCRW.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: One thing that we discovered when we were traveling together for the Portlandia live shows was that we were both pigeon-toed as children. What are your memories of being pigeon-toed?
FRED ARMISEN: I was so little that I couldn’t understand what was happening. I did not know that there was a word for it. I didn’t know there was any kind of description for it, so all I know is that I was this toddler and all of a sudden I had to wear this metal brace that was pretty much a flat stick that went from my left foot to my right foot. And in the middle for some reason there was this sort of screw. It was just this black thing that made it impossible to walk, but there were shoes attached to it and they were white shoes and they were facing outward and I hated it.
CB: Is it one of those memories that you remember because your parents have told you?
FA: No, it’s something that I remember very clearly. In fact, I haven’t talked about it that much with my parents.
CB: I also was pigeon-toed as a child, and I also have a very strong memory of those orthopedic shoes, which, like you said, are white and very generic. They look like nurses’ shoes, but for babies. And then this metal bar, which seems almost archaic. My guess is that they no longer use this device for pigeon-toed-ness. In fact, I imagine that now they just encourage it, like they just say, “Oh, you’re so special!”
FA: I have not seen it anywhere else again. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never heard stories, aside from these. I don’t know anyone’s kids who’ve worn them. And they probably didn’t work. I can’t imagine that they change the bones in your legs the way that braces change your teeth.
CB: I also had, in addition to the orthopedic shoes, leg braces. It made it so that I learned to crawl and then subsequently walk later than normal. And I don’t quite remember that, but I completely agree with you. Unless there’s some center that people with pigeon-toed children are going to, and it’s just out of the way and out of the country or in a basement somewhere, and they’re getting cured and then released into the wild, or released back into public, I just think no one cares anymore. Because it didn’t help me. I definitely am still pigeon-toed and the wear on all of my shoes is very evenly on the inside, even after just a couple weeks of wearing the same shoes.
FA: On the inside of the right shoe or the left shoe?
CB: Well, it’s actually on the inside of both. But I think it’s probably more pronounced on one. And I will say that this is something we’ve never talked about, and I don’t know if you ever wear these sorts of shoes, but being pigeon-toed is definitely a challenge if you’re trying to wear flip-flops. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in flip-flops.
FA: No. Unless it’s for, like, shooting something or, like, doing a character, I don’t ever wear them.
CB: Right, and just so the readers know, you’re not talking about shooting something. You’re not saying, “I wear flipflops only when I’m hunting.” You mean when you’re filming something.
FA: Yeah, yeah, yeah! And I don’t go to the beach.
CB: Yeah, I also very rarely wear flip-flops. I don’t think that it’s a very flattering shoe. I get angry in airports when people think a flip-flop is appropriate coverage for their foot. Also, the sound is unsafe to me. To hear that sort of clapping sound. I’m like, Your foot! That’s your most stable root to the ground! That needs to be solid; it shouldn’t have this echoey rubber sound. And also it leaves your foot open to too many possibilities. Your foot shouldn’t have that many possibilities when it’s out in the world. It should basically be protected.
CB: You don’t go to the beach and you don’t really like the sun. Where does that come from?
FA: Oh, my family lived in Rio de Janeiro, kind of on the beach, and for some reason I used to get headaches from the sun. So I think it just comes from that. And also we used to go to Venezuela and that was a very sunny place and we used to go to the beach a little bit, but I didn’t have a great time in general. I always felt very away from being in New York. I felt very away from everything, and when you’re a little kid you just want to be around your friends, and I didn’t have a very fun time. So I think those things just remind me of that. I say I don’t like the beach, but then sometimes when I go out there I’m fine. I’m fine once I’m there if I’m around people I like.
CB: Interesting that you associate the sun with a sense of loneliness and being apart from your friends. I feel like that’s very different than how a lot of people see the sun, which is like this time where they engaged or went outside.
FA: Oh, yeah. It’s the opposite for me.
CB: And for me it is that, because growing up in the Pacific Northwest there’s so many months of dreariness and of being forced to stay inside. Of course, as a kid I didn’t really care as much, but I really associate the summer—and especially as an adult—with being the time that I actually run into people, because everyone’s on their bike or walking around and I feel less lonely in good weather.
FA: But what about the beach? What about being physically at the beach? Are you happy grabbing a towel, sunglasses, lotion, and running out to the beach? Are you psyched? Do you run to it? What is it to you?
CB: I like the idea of just running toward the beach— but you’re right, that’s the image of California in the summer, getting out of the car and running—but I don’t run to the beach. In fact, as a child I went down to San Diego. It was one of the first trips I took. I was probably a preteen. And we had these friends where I was growing up, outside Seattle. Their last name was Applestein and, just as a tangent, I think when you have a stein in your name you suddenly realize you can just put that on the end of anything, and when you meet someone named Applestein you’re like, Wow. Anyone can get stuck with a stein! Anyway, so the Applesteins left the Seattle suburb I was growing up in, and moved to La Jolla, which is outside San Diego. It’s a very wealthy suburb, and I went down there on spring break one year. And my parents were like, “Oh, do you want to go visit Brittany Applestein in La Jolla on spring break?” And I thought, Yes! Oh my gosh, San Diego! Beach! I’m gonna be in a bikini! Then we went to this country club in La Jolla and I was surrounded by these very blond, tan, beach-oriented, sun-oriented, surf-oriented kids and teenagers who, in my mind, were just beautiful and sun-kissed, blond, and I felt very unworthy of the swimsuit that I had, and very pasty, and I think that really ushered in a sense of otherness. Like, up until that point I felt like I could fit in anywhere. “I’m gonna go to San Diego,” or “I’m gonna go here.” It was the first time I thought about regionalism or geography or even just [how] if you grow up in one place, you don’t necessarily fit in somewhere else. It was kind of right before I got sort of awkward as a junior-high-school kid, anyway. So that’s my association with the beach. I don’t love it either, but I do like the sun.
FA: I had the same relationship to blond people when I was a kid, in that my whole family was Latino, South American, Venezuelan. So my cousins and me: dark skin, dark hair. And people I knew who were blond, they just seemed like everything was ideal and perfect—just something about them. I just assumed they were happy. They had this magical life. And sometimes it actually still bleeds into today, where I have this quick feeling that if you have a blond family, everything’s just working out.
CB: I felt the same way, growing up in a secular Jewish family where everybody had dark hair: [everyone on] my dad’s side of the family has olive skin, and so does my sister. I have my mother’s pale skin, but blondness to me was very exotic. Especially kids in my school of Scandinavian descent—they were like little flashlights running around, little shimmery stars that I just sort of followed. There was this girl whose hair was just white-white. Like a Q-tip top, and I just couldn’t wait to be her friend. I just thought, How can I be invited into your family? Because you must have the perfect life to be that blond.
FA: And you must get along with the rest of your family. That’s another thing I just added to it for no reason. Just like, Oh boy, these blond families, it must just all work out!
CB: Right, like it’s all just a shampoo commercial for a blond family. I know! That’s so funny. We’ve never talked about this, but I feel the exact same way. There’s that cliché expression “Blonds have more fun,” but I think we’re talking about what people are really thinking. It’s not that blonds are less intelligent or are having more fun, but there’s just this perception that their life could not be too hard.
FA: I went to Sweden a couple years ago and it just seemed like the whole country was just perfect. Of course, I was in Stockholm so I saw only one side of it…
CB: Of course, these Scandinavian countries have their problems and their social woes and deficits, but they also are some of the wealthiest countries. Scandinavia is certainly very wealthy. And I wonder, can we think of any primarily blond country that’s really doing not so well?
CB: Blond people are going to start disliking us.
FA: Yes, but it’s so rooted in the way I was brought up. This is only what I know, what I experienced. Venezuela was, and is, really poor. It was just really chaotic. I lived in Brazil in second and third grade. Same thing: chaos, violence. It really was problematic.
CB: And we should say, just to not offend anyone, we’re talking about an aspirational trait. We’re not maligning it.
FA: No, no! I’m just talking about feeling inadequate. Coming from the point of view of having a Venezuelan family, it’s a very simple grass-is-always-greener thing.
CB: And as a Jew I think of someone like Ralph Lauren, who is Jewish but who created an entire line of clothing based on wanting to be blonder and more WASPy. It’s a very common thing.
FA: Yeah, but going back to being pigeon-toed, I want to say two things: one is that I didn’t realize I was pigeontoed until I was a teenager, until people were doing imitations of my walk.
CB: Who did impressions of you?
FA: My friends.
FA: Not like—it wasn’t a big deal. We would do impressions of each other, like just goofing around. Someone would do it and I always thought, Oh god, do I really walk like that? And it turns out that I do.
CB: Is being pigeon-toed something that you are sort of psyched about now, because you feel like you have this cool story?
FA: Yes. When I draw a mental picture of myself, it just adds character. This is almost an egotistical thing to say, but it’s almost an attribute, an invisible thing that you can use to your advantage.
CB: Right. But this category is very specific because it’s not something where clearly it’s, you know, an issue.
FA: No, no.
CB: It’s sort of one of those things that probably plagued you. As a teenager or even younger, you wouldn’t claim it, but as an adult you think, Oh, this is something you would tell someone you’re flirting with. It’s like having a scar.
FA: Yes. David Bowie had different-colored eyes, and I just thought, Wow, that’s the ultimate pigeon-toed!
CB: That is the ultimate pigeon-toed. Something you hated as a kid, but that as an adult becomes this kind of exoticism, almost.
FA: Yeah. There’s so many things like that, which I guess is sort of healthy. You grow to like yourself a little bit, to like certain things about yourself. It could be worse, you know?
CB: Yeah, I definitely think small deformities are like that. Things that are particularly large or small are like that. All the things that you would be mocked for at a certain age become these things that you’re talking about at a dinner party. And they get you laid.
FA: I went to the dentist two days ago and I have this chipped tooth. It’s so teeny but dentists always ask me if I want to fix it and I’m proud to say no.
CB: I have the exact same thing! I chipped my tooth on a microphone.
FA: That’s how I chipped my tooth!
FA: I chipped it on a microphone! And so I love announcing that, like, Yeah, I did it on a microphone, so…
CB: Yeah, me too. And what the dentist always tells me is “You know that’s going to continue to erode and you’re more susceptible to further chipping.”
FA: Yeah, bring it on!
CB: Exactly! I’m like, “Great, I want a giant triangle there.” You know whose teeth I love? Ian Svenonius’s.
FA: Oh, great!
CB: His teeth are so messed-up from shoving a microphone into his mouth as a means of performance and a singing style that he actually has a curvature—his mouth is formed to the shape of a microphone.
CB: And if you look at the teeth, they’re very worn-down in this kind of circular way up top. It’s kind of extreme. And then the other thing I’m pretty excited about is, as a kid I had a slight—well, probably more a pronounced—gap between my two front teeth, and of course immediately I had braces and was more than ready to get rid of it. But then as an adult, of course, the gap is kind of coming back and I really like it. I really like messed-up teeth on other people.
FA: Oh, me too. I really like it on other people. That is such an attractive trait to me.
CB: Yeah. What is a non-attractive add-on trait? Like I always think of this guy in Olympia who was objectively very attractive. If you just look at him you think, This is an attractive male. But he had a Red Hot Chili Peppers tattoo and I just thought, I wonder if anybody has gone on a date with this guy and thought, He’s smart, he’s attractive, he’s funny, and then, you know, he takes off his sweater and he’s wearing a T-shirt and there’s the RHCP logo? If someone was like, That’s it; no; I’m done. Have you ever had that kind of situation?
FA: I’ve looked at people and thought that about them. I usually haven’t gotten close enough for anything to become a deal-breaker—I’m saying physically—so it’s almost like the things that repel me—that’s a strong word, but—the things that I’m not attracted to, by that stage I’m not even engaging with them anymore. But for me the thing that actually makes me feel sad for people is when people make adjustments that go against whatever they are genetically, like when people put on contact lenses to make their eyes lighter. That kind of thing, where I’m like, That’s nothing to reach for. It’s better to be yourself.
CB: Yeah, I have a tattoo I’m kind of embarrassed about. I guess to make it sound less about us judging other people, there’s a million things about me that I think, That must be a non-starter for someone else. But I do really like when someone just kind of owns up to these things. Like if you made some crazy mistake one night and got a weird tattoo, or, like, you’re someone with crazy ear separators or earrings—if you just own it, I think that’s so much more attractive.
CB: That kind of unapologetic embracing of whatever you’re given, or end up with, or choose. Like, that is always so much more exciting, and also it’s something I aspire to. Yes, I’ve gotten the same haircut for fifteen years. I just have to own up to that.
FA: There’s something kind of sexy about it. It’s almost like not taking yourself too seriously. And the same goes
for aging. I’ll see some guy embracing the fact that he’s gray or bald and I really like that a lot. It’s a huge relief for everybody.
CB: Portland is full of people like this, just men and women who have gone gray and just wear the gray hair with pride. And you forget sometimes that after a certain age people have gray hair.
CB: I mean you never see that in Los Angeles.
CB: And you’re fighting only yourself. You’re not fighting some bigger fight. You’re making your own body an enemy.
FA: Your body’s like, “What do you want from me?”
CB: Ironically, not worrying about it frees you up to do things that would probably keep you young.
FA: I guess trying to turn back the clock helps some people to visually represent the person they still feel like internally. It is tricky. It’s definitely something I think about as I get older, because there’s just so many examples of what it means to age gracefully or honestly.
CB: Did your parents, when you were growing up—because your mom’s Venezuelan, did she speak Spanish and English to you?
FA: Yeah. A lot of Spanish, and also her family would stay with us sometimes—you know, her sister, my cousins, her mom—and that was 100 percent Spanish.
CB: OK, and then your father is German and Japanese. And were those languages used in the house?
FA: No. Not so much. In fact, he would speak Spanish a little bit, to talk to the rest of the family. The German side of his family wasn’t as close, like they didn’t come and visit. Mostly because they were in East Germany and at the time they couldn’t leave.
CB: Did you ever visit Germany as a kid?
FA: I did, yeah. And as a teenager, and I really, really liked it a lot. I have a half brother there who… my dad had a kid in Germany before he came over to the States, so that was fascinating to me.
CB: Did they tell you that when you were a kid, or did they wait?
FA: Yeah. They explained it. They were like, “There’s this…” He was in East Berlin, so he couldn’t leave at the time, but we were pen pals.
CB: Really? Pen pals.
FA: Yeah, there was definitely some discipline to it. It was a real thing.
CB: Absolutely, and it seemed like people wanted a pen pal. Like, you wanted to be a pen pal and you wanted to have a pen pal. And the more exotic the location of your pen pal was—that was sort of a currency. That was bonus points. I think mine was only as far as Canada. I definitely wrote to actors and actresses that I liked. Their addresses would sometimes be in the back of magazines. Like in the back of 16 or Bop.
CB: You know, and it would be like “Ralph Macchio, care of…” Or like “Ricky Schroder…” And I would write these letters. Eventually I figured out, after not getting any letters back, not even, like, an autographed eight-by-ten, like a fake autograph—I was so desperate but also so crafty—and I realized, Write to less-famous people. And it worked! I started writing to soap-opera stars and those people wrote back.
CB: Yeah. Me and my friend Catalina, we would go down the list of the soap stars from our favorite soap operas, which were Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless, and we would write to these people and we would get letters back. Sometimes handwritten letters! We were so excited. And it was so much more rewarding.
FA: I wrote to Vincent Price and he wrote back to me. Just a little autographed picture, but it was in ballpoint pen and it seemed real. I can’t remember how I got his address.
CB: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Did he send a little photo?
FA: A little photo. He had a hat on.
CB: That’s cool.
CB: I mean, you grew up outside New York City and Long Island, but not in New York City, and I, of course, was not near Los Angeles, except on the coast, but when you’re outside of those media centers, you want a lifeline to these people. You just want to be recognized or noticed. I felt like a lot of my letter-writing—and this kind of brings it back full-circle in terms of pigeon-toed-ness or any of those traits that, like, seem like a deficit but then turn out to be sort of a boon— was that I felt like I wanted to tell them that there was something unique about me. And at the time I wouldn’t tell them about being pigeon-toed as a kid, but I would focus on something else that was very traumatic in my life. Like, “Oh! I’m not getting along with my mom!” You just wanted to be recognized for something awful that they could help you with.
FA: Yeah. Well, that’s the reason I wrote to John Waters, because I was going through such a traumatic time.
CB: You’re just seeking validation—
FA: From strangers! It’s so weird that it’s a stranger.
CB: Yeah! Like that you wouldn’t just want a friend or a teacher or—
FA: Or a family member!
CB: Yeah, to just say, “Hey, you’re fine. You’re not a weirdo. You’re gonna be OK.” Or even a therapist. Like maybe you go to your school counselor or your parents send you to a psychologist, and you think, They’ll tell me I’m fine. And it’s like, no! I need this person on television or in movies to say, “You’re OK. And you’re gonna be fine!”
FA: How funny is that? You have all the resources around you and for some reason it’s that one person you need to get a hold of.
CB: It’s like it’s one thing to have somebody so close to you who can see it so clearly, to tell you, but it’s another thing to have somebody really far away actually acknowledge that you exist, because then you feel bigger than the house you’re living in and the city you’re living in. It’s like you belong to the world somehow.