Comedian Fred Armisen’s performance at Castro Theatre is indefinable

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Comedy is an unpredictable art form. What will make people laugh is subjective, variable and changes with the day, the hour, the crowd, the news and the weather. The material and delivery are braided into a tense union, and a stand-up comedian only gets one shot. The crowd laughs, or they don’t. Fred Armisen appeared at SF Sketchfest Summer Social on Sunday night. It is difficult to qualify whether the set was a success or not. As difficult as it is to say what makes something funny, Fred Armisen makes that task even harder.

Opening the show as Ian Rubbish — a character who is equal parts Iggy Pop, Russell Brand and Bono — Armisen warmed up the crowd with his political poseur talk and pretense of technical failure. There is no one-liner from this bit to quote; no moment at which to point and call hilarious. Laughter built in the crowd as Armisen lead us slowly to a critical mass of combined accent, affectation and expertly crafted awkwardness.

This is the brand of humor that made Armisen a bigger deal outside of his work on Saturday Night Live. His sketches on the weekly show leaned on the same kind of cumulative effect — a sotto voce runaway on the social awkwardness of Vladimir Putin or a songwriting duo with Kristin Wiig that makes up everything on the spot. It’s impossible to quote later; Armisen is not a quotable comedian. Stand-up artists are sometimes brilliant in encapsulation, like Louis C.K. They are sometimes snappy and endlessly repeated, like Eddie Izzard. Some lend themselves to seamless thievery by speaking on everyday familial issues, like Bill Cosby. By trying to explain a Fred Armisen joke, a fan finds himself trailing off into poor imitations of Armisen’s gifted imitations, reminding his friends that they had to be there.

For those who were there that night at the Castro Theater, Armisen’s skill is clear. He is a gifted mimic, tossing off bullseye vocal imitations of politicians, movie stars and even cartoon characters. He also frequently sketches a brand-new character midsentence, effortlessly sliding into the manner of a feminist bookstore owner or a stoned beachcomber. He stuck mostly to a prepared set, interacting with the audience on a limited basis. Fans of “Portlandia,” Armisen’s surprisingly successful project that lampoons a city only slighter stranger than San Francisco, were pleased by nods and references in the performance to the well-known sketches of his show.

Armisen is dry and cynical. He avoided the hot-button political issues to focus on petty annoyances. He whined and postured about the myriad indignities of being an aging hipster with the requisite number of digs about the city of San Francisco that are customary tribute for a local crowd. The Castro’s stage is small, but Armisen is not a physical performer. His small stature seems even smaller with a slight hunch and a hesitant step. It is impossible these days not to think of Robin Williams prowling through the house and accosting the crowd, bouncing around the orchestra pit like a superball. Armisen is contained and fitful, reminiscent of Andy Kaufman in both his studied strangeness and his subdued murmurings.

Armisen is funny, it cannot be denied. His is a unique and strange kind of humor. He did not light up the Castro so much as hold the audience in place with that nagging sense that they should be leaving, but they had to figure out where he was going with his line of oddities. He’s funnier within a framework; when asked, he cannot seem to explain why Portlandia has succeeded. This same kind of blind shooting is evident in his stand-up; for a professional, he seems to have an underdeveloped sense of what will and will not work. The resulting show was a good average: More jokes landed than did not. But not a single person who saw him that night sat thinking, “I should tweet that,” or “That’s a classic!”

Fred Armisen was good at the Castro. But you really had to be there.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].