An interview with H. Jon Benjamin “Agent Sterling Archer”
The third season of ARCHER on FX as 10:00 p.m. has started and if you didn’t catch the first show with guest star Burt Reynolds you missed more laughs than ever!
Getting a chance to talk with Sterling Archer himself, in the form of H. Jon Benjamin is not only exhausting but side hurting as well. In his career he has done everything from a guest spot on “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”, “Lucy, the Devil Daughter” on Adult Swim, and the PBS show “WordGirl”. He also has a non-animated show “Jon Benjamin Has a Van” which began last June on Comedy Central. Since 1195 Benjamin has been a voice to be reckoned with and now, I’m reckoning!
Hi Jon, thanks for joining me!
You’re doing double duty now with ARCHER and BOB’S BURGERS…
We all know how that’s going!
How do you balance them both?
Well, it’s a constant – tons of protein shakes and a very regimented workout schedule that keeps me energized. And the rest I just leave to my rabbi and my group of people who I consult with.
You’ve been ARCHER for quite some time now, what do you enjoy the most about being “Sterling”?
I like the way he looks. He’s handsome. That’s a big advantage. I’m not so handsome, and I like all the stuff I get to say, obviously. I like being rude, and it gives me a good opportunity to do that.
Do you even remember how you got the part of ARCHER?
It’s not a great story. Adam Reed, the creator of ARCHER, God rest his soul [joking], he called me – I think he had heard me do some other work on Adult Swim Shows, and he called me to read the part. I don’t know if other people had been asked. I don’t now if I was his first choice or like literally his last resort – probably last resort, right? Right?
Okay, you’re right!
So, yes, and then I accepted and then it worked out well. But I was tentative because I didn’t think I could pull off a spy. If you knew me, you’d know all the reasons why.
How was it working with Burt Reynolds?
What about him?
He is in the season premier…..
Wait, he was in it?
Ummmm…I believe so, yes.
Oh, man, no one tells me anything about this. That’s great. I can’t believe he’s still doing stuff. He should take a break. It’s been like 60 years. Like … just stop! I think they mentioned him – I think it was the natural – well, not the natural progression, but ARCHERS obviously referenced Burt Reynolds a lot, so I’m sure it popped into Adam Reed’s head to just to try and cast him. It’s funny that I should be calling like these people and you must think like they’ll never do it and then they’re probably like, “Of course, I’ll do it”.
You talked about BOB’S BURGERS mentioning there is a lot of adlibbing, would you say there is a lot with ARCHER too?
Very little. There is not a lot of room. The scripts are tightly written and he encourages sometimes on occasion, he’ll be like do you want to add anything and I’ll say no. So it’s not the same kind of production as BOB’S BURGERS, which is a lot of improving all the time, but the scripts don’t’ really require it.
Do you get much interaction or improv with Jessica Walters or Aisha Tyler? Why do you think the show is so popular?
Well, the masses are idiots, so they don’t know any better. They are to busy just staring at the light and cartoons are colorful. So don’t get me started about the masses. I’m really not a fan. But as far as interacting with the cast, I really don’t do any of that. They record everybody separately and once I tried to with Aisha Tyler, but that didn’t work out yet.
Your voice is pretty recognizable now.
So is yours, everybody’s is. Everybody’s different. It’s like a snowflake.
You yell a lot as Archer, how is that on your voice? Do you ever wish there was no talking?
I would love to…just once. It is, and I have to say, like I recently, whenever I finish – it’s not grueling or anything, but my vocal cords don’t recover for like a day after an ARCHER session. So they owe me. And it’s not like I’m at war, but it’s hard on the throat. But, yes, I would like to do that someday.
There are so many references in ARCHER like “Lord of the Rings” for one, do you realize some of them are unusual and people literally have to look them up?
Yes, I occasionally do as well. There’s like a 50/50 ration of me knowing and me not, but I’m always getting questions about that, and occasionally I don’t have the answer. I forgot to check. Fortunately, I’ve read some Melville, so that’s good. I knew a couple, but there is some stuff like the guy who invented or who started eugenics – I didn’t know that was him. So I’ll often times be asked, and the first season I always got the question about Johnny Bench or something that was said, which I did not know about him, or why. A lot of people ask me why did you say that. Nobody knew, but it’s a relatively educational show.
On the DVD set there’s a bonus feature of you becoming “Sterling Archer” in animation. Who decided to do that?
It was my idea, I believe, so I felt bad about it. I think it was my idea because it was actually made for this comedy festival that this comedian Eugene Mirman does, and I wanted to. Adam wrote the entire thing but I said we should do something to the show. They were doing an ARCHER event, so it was made for that and then they spun it off to ship it on DVD. But I think it was initially my idea.
Do you think Archer will ever be really happy?
Well, I don’t think it would behoove the show for him to be happy, so I assume that will be avoided. I think, by nature, he’s like a troubled character, so I don’t think he’ll ever be happy, but I got asked this recently, and I think my stock answer was that if his mother died, I’m not sure he’d be happy, but it would change everything for him and maybe he’d be happy. So there is some – I guess that’s not, but I just think that his mother created a lot of problems.
So some see you as the Mel Blanc of adult cartoons, care to comment on that?
Well, Mel Blanc was really good at voices, and I’m not, so he has the advantage, but I like being on the shows I’m on.
So ARCHER is handsome and dashing, do you share those qualities with your character?
Besides those? Well, obviously personality wise I can be a little shrilly, and that comes from the way I look and just having to go out in public is a struggle. So, yes, I think that my tension for anger and my general attitude – poor attitude – and failure to recognize authority and my sense of entitlement in life and being American and which and rich, those things I share, and I drink a lot in real life.
Do you get recognized from your voice?
I happens all the time in the steam room where I do most of my talking. It happens, actually, very rarely, obviously because nobody cares. But, on a few occasions, I’ve been recognized for my voice, and its just kind of hard – you have to be really keyed into that. Like there has been an occasion where like I’m ordering a tea at the coffee shop and the person behind the counter will get excited like, “Oh my, Archer’s voice is ordering a green tea”. But that being said it very rarely happens.
Archer and his mother Mallory are always going at it, in a cage match who would win?
Do you need the cage? I mean seriously?
Yes, she’s a tough cookie.
I mean she’s frail at best. I would say it’s definitely me, unless I let her win or something, which, I don’t know, for money I would.
So now that your sort of in control of your character, if you could tell Adam Reed that you wanted Archer to do a specific thing what would it be?
That’s a tough question. There is so much, obviously, like spy world stuff to explore and I’m sure he hasn’t gotten to all the possibilities yet. I guess I would want him to sing more, maybe. Maybe start a band, like a really bad blues band or something. You know, Jim Belushi style.
How did you get involved with WORDGIRL?
The company that made HOME MOVIES, their company started as like an educational software company or something, and they made animated stuff for schools like educational discs that kids could play. So, there was a prior show on ABC, I think. I can’t remember what it’s called – Science Court. So they had done a few of those, and I was asked to do a part sometimes, but that’s like – WORDGIRL I get more, shockingly, more noticed for that than of the shows I’ve ever done. Kids watch a lot of TV.
There are a lot of prime time animated shows including yours, why do you think people accept them so much more now?
Well, I don’t think it’s specifically been begging for acceptance. There have been tons of animated shows geared towards adults, I guess, in the last 20 years or something hasn’t it? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s any more part of the cultural fabric. I mean maybe because of the success of shows like SOUTH PARK and the SIMPSONS, for sure, probably did start a reason to copy that formula because they were so unique. Then I guess because it was a very niche world before that. Not the whole world but adults who would read graphic novels or something like that. So in that world, I think it was pretty common and it just sort of spun off. Now everybody has it. So I don’t know what I just said, but I think you’re right.
Do you like recording ARCHER alone?
It’s more efficient to record alone, obviously, so ARCHER is quicker to do, which is a benefit, I guess if I wanted to go shopping. It doesn’t take as long – it’s not as long of a process, but there are occasions when being amongst a group of people is a benefit for the show – not for me but for the show. So, it just kind of depends on the day I guess. I have done, I think, once I recorded ARCHER and then had to go record BOB’S BURGERS or vice versa, and that day was too long.
Let’s see, your character was controlled by a microchip at one point, then Archer had cancer – what’s next?
I think it does get crazier – not crazier, but there are definitely moments of pure craziness, as there always is I guess in the show. But I think, he returns back to his regular life, so he doesn’t go off the rails completely. The show gets back to what it did in the second season, which is focus on all the characters who work for the spy agency and stuff like that. So he doesn’t have any more like crazy flights of – but they go to space. They get to go to space, but I think that was part of the mission, so it’s not like he was just like ‘I’m going to space’ and take off.
Is there a line you like that stands out the most for you?
I get asked that a lot and I’m always at a loss because I never remember lines, but I do like whenever I have to say something really like falsetto and quick. I used to be like danger zone or something. And I really like doing his answering machine messages because they’re usually written out exactly as I do them. They make me laugh every time because in real life I do that stuff. So I like when he really messes with people on his answering machine. That makes me giggle.
Will we get to see more of the Wee Baby Seamus this year?
I don’t think so. Ocelot – I forgot about that. I think Seamus is – I hope he’s all right. I don’t remember doing a lot. I know we see the tattoo a lot. He has a tattoo of Seamus’s name, I think, but I think that’s all you get of Seamus. He’s probably already off in some very exclusive place.
Do we get to see if Archer takes on Barry Dillion again, the guy who killed his wife?
Yes. He’s sort of the most prominent nemesis to Archer but I, as well as the baby, I don’t think that character comes back as much after, but I’m not certain. I don’t remember, and I am sorry. I don’t think he comes back, but that character’s really funny and bionic.
Archer is famous for his black turtlenecks and is pretty protective of them, how do you look in them?
It’s been a while since my bar mitzvah. I can’t imagine I would look good. I don’t think everybody does. Archer does look good and maybe Sammy Davis Jr. looked good and a few more – Bert Convey, but I think nowadays it’s probably a huge fashion faux pas to be walking around like that, unless you like work at a club called Turtlenecks.
Did you like spy stuff when you were young?
I was into the Torah, mostly and into the movie “Torah, Torah, Torah” because it fooled me because I thought it was Jewish, and it was actually a movie about kamikazes. But I thought that it was like this movie that was going to be crazily about the Torah – like “Torah, Torah, Torah” And it had nothing – no Jews – there was nothing Jewish about it except maybe one – I don’t know. They didn’t mention that any of the pilots or the people killed were Jewish. So yea, as a kid, it was strictly all about Judaism. I was crazy for it. So I didn’t have time for spy stuff.
So now you have done voice work, what do you think of live acting like your show JON BENJAMIN HAS A VAN?
Well, we are waiting to hear if this comedy central show that I did is going to get a second season. I hope that it does. I liked doing it a lot. But, you know, voice work right now is predominately what I do. But it took a year to make that show, and it was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it, so I would probably like to do more stuff on camera.
Do you like doing the continuation of the stories more than single story episodes?
I think it’s very successful when they try and do more longer arcs, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a detriment when they don’t. The television I watch is probably more story – more narratives. But I don’t know – Adam Reed is so good at crafting narrative threads that run throughout everything that like it’s kind of always a combination of one-offs and I guess it’s like any sort of really good sitcom where you start to love all the characters. He does such a good job keeping it vibrant. I’m sort I said that – keeping it vibrant. I never wanted to use that. I never wanted to say those three words, but I think like when Archer got cancer and this sort of first of three-parter – those were really fun to do.
Was doing the episodes where Archer has cancer or his wife is murdered difficult or challenging or what?
Well, it’s always sort of difficult to – I don’t know – I can’t discern anything about acting when you’re doing it. There’s acting when you’re doing voice overs, but it was definitely strange to do that. It’s always odd when you have to like cry or something – like for real, when he was like, whatever – your woman dies or something and you’re crying. It’s so easy to do but its weird to – was that terrible? It’s not like a movie, I guess, where everybody’s standing around and people are watching and you really got to do it. There’s something odd – very false about standing in front of a microphone. So hopefully the cries are believable. I actually cry. I cried a couple of times.
Are we going to see more of your van show and your take on interstellar justice and, more importantly, do you get grief over some of the racy stuff?
We wrote half of the second season of the van show and we’re waiting to hear. But I’ve heard nobody watched it. That doesn’t seem like it’s encouraging but I hope we can do more of them. And the scripts we wrote are sublimely funny. I get asked that question a lot whether I’m shocked when I read some of the stuff I have to say, and I’m not. I’m not shocked.
And neither are we, thanks Jon for taking the time to rant, rave, and make it difficult to not laugh trying to be a serious journalist.
Okay folks, FX on Thursday nights, 10:00 p.m. is the new season of ARCHER!