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Your butt, 'Portlandia's' jokes 

How a stalled music career turned Fred Armisen into one of pop culture's most hilarious comedic voices

Fred Armisen (right) lounges with "Portlandia" co-star Carrie Brownstein.

Scott Green/IFC

Fred Armisen (right) lounges with "Portlandia" co-star Carrie Brownstein.

Fred Armisen is a sucker for what he calls "meat purveyors" — those restaurants with house-made charcuterie and chalkboard menus that could pass for butcher shops. They're everywhere these days, just like suspendered mixologists, plaid, and Armisen and his "Portlandia" co-star Carrie Brownstein.

In January 2011, Armisen and Brownstein hipster-bombed cable with their sketch comedy show "Portlandia," which riffs on the kinds of people that have the luxury of worrying about things like charcuterie and plaid. It takes place in a light-dappled, rain-free version of Portland, Oregon.

Even if you don't have IFC, or cable, or a TV (like many of "Portlandia's" residents), chances are you know what it means to "put a bird on it." Clips from the show's first season went viral fast. In "Put a Bird On It," a couple that looks cast from the Regretsy archives emblazons everything from tote bags to toast to birds with avian silhouettes, thereby transforming them from common goods to art. "Is it Local?" goes down the rabbit hole of locavorism when a couple's concerns about the pedigree of a restaurant's chicken entrée devolve into questions about "Colin's" chicken life and chicken friends.

"Portlandia" airs on IFC and is the channel's most successful series ever, the first season pulling in more than 5 million viewers. The show's popularity is rooted in the fact that it's of its time: "Portlandia" is not so much about Portland as it is about popular culture, and that makes it about everywhere. The Internet and social networking allow trends to catch on, be bastardized, and fizzle out in a fraction of the time they used to. A similar online agility helped popularize "Portlandia," along with a realism grounded in the palpable chemistry between the show's two co-stars.

When Armisen calls to talk during a break in rehearsal for "Saturday Night Live," the conversation instantly feels familiar. The discussion drifts in and out of personal tangents on both sides because he's as interested in asking the questions as he is in answering them. Even to a stranger on the phone he exudes warmth and humor, which may partly explain why the same people the show lampoons are often its biggest fans.

Now, in time with Season 2, Armisen and Brownstein have taken the show on the road. "Portlandia the Tour" comes to Atlanta on Feb. 23 at the Variety Playhouse. The tour logo is indie concert poster meets DIY wedding invitation, with the tape from a wood-grained cassette unraveling to spell out "Portlandia the Tour." There are birds on it. For the show, Armisen and Brownstein will sing some of the show's original songs ("Dream of the '90s"), perform as some of the series' more popular characters (feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace), and generally just hang out on stage with each other and some of their famous friends. In Seattle it was Dan Savage; in San Francisco, Dana Carvey had a cameo.

For Atlanta, "There's someone I'm trying to get, but I don't even know if it's a yes, so I can't spoil the surprise," he says. "But it's someone who was in a really popular pop group, a trio. And I really used to love them. They're not really a band anymore; they're just singers. Oh, god! I love them so much. I can't say anymore because I haven't heard anything back."

Armisen has spent the past 10 years performing on "Saturday Night Live," doing memorable impressions of Barack Obama, Prince, and legally blind New York Gov. David Paterson. He and Kristen Wiig sometimes pair up as the hilariously daffy singing duo Garth and Kat to perform poorly planned improvisational ditties.

Armisen has a knack for honing in on the nagging quirks of people and places, including himself. "Everything we do [on "Portlandia"] is not very far from what we're like," says Armisen, 45, who's usually seen wearing a hoodie and his horn-rimmed glasses. Brownstein, 37 and a full-time Portland resident, is most well known as a former guitarist and singer for the now defunct riot-grrrl band Sleater-Kinney.

Armisen has always harbored a desire to be famous. "Entertainment, television, and music mixed together spoke to me as far back as I can remember," he says. "Things like horror movies and Carol Burnett and the Beatles spoke to me more than anything. I believed in the Beatles like a religion. I couldn't believe that anyone would want to do anything else."

Arimsen's cracks at comedy didn't go over well in junior high. "I got sent to the school psychologist because they thought I was crazy," he says. "I was kind of upset by it because I thought I was trying to be funny, you know?"

Then he discovered John Waters. "In a crazy coincidence, I heard a radio interview with John Waters, and he was talking about shocking people as entertainment. And I was like, 'What is this?' I was 14 or 15 and I went out and bought his book called Shock Value and I had never read a book in my life. It gave me hope. I was like, you can be a weirdo and make something of yourself," Armisen says.

"So then, I wrote to him and he wrote me back. And then I wrote to him. And then he wrote back. And we became pen pals. And later, when I was 20 or something, I met him in New York and then again. And every once in a while we would sort of see each other and catch up. I recently I saw him in December or January."

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