Technology with attitude

CultureMob Roundtable Interview: ARCHER Star H. Jon Benjamin


I didn’t actually see actor H. Jon Benjamin until last year, when I got caught up with NBC’s brilliant “Parks and Recreation.”  Benjamin played Leslie Knope’s lawyer in the “Kaboom” episode, and I remember experiencing not-a-small amount of temporal displacement: how else to explain trying to reconcile Benjamin’s short, balding, nondescript frame with that voice?

You know the one I’m talking about.  Benjamin’s earthy, beyond-dry tones have enlivened Dr. Katz’s amiable slacker son Ben on “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist,” Couch McGuirk on “Home Movies,” the Master on “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” Carl on “Family Guy,” Bob from “Bob’s Burgers,” and now dissolute secret agent Sterling Archer on FX’s “Archer.”  Through voice alone, Benjamin has defined an iconic persona—no wonder the body threw me for a loop (and not just me: Benjamin appears as himself on the brilliant Comedy Central show “Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” which currently faces the threat of cancellation).

With “Archer,” we have the perfect mesh of form and content.  Physically, Archer is everything Benjamin isn’t: tall, handsome, with Steve McQueen-style ruggedness (Archer might prefer if I invoked Burt Reynolds).  That voice punctures the façade.  As “Archer” co-star Aisha Tyler told the Onion’s A.V. Club recently, Archer is the anti-Bond—the comedic realization of the psychic toll that wrapping a license to kill around unlimited wealth and ego can take on a person—and Benjamin’s voice cues us into the secret before we even see Archer [insert depravity here].

During a roundtable interview last week, Benjamin talked a little bit about his relationship with Archer, and the results were predicatably and hilariously Archer-esque.  Here’s what I mean: before the interview even started, Benjamin (I’ve bolded his responses) and the publicist moderator shared an….interesting exchange.

Moderator: Due to overwhelming response, we ask that everybody just asks one question at a time.  If you have any follow-up questions, just get back into the queue, and the operator will come back to you.

How do you get to the operator?  Sorry.

M: You will not be asking any questions, Jon.

I just want to get the operator, if you don’t mind.

M: You’ll just press zero.  And everyone, just a reminder, the third season—

It’s not working.

M: It’s not working for you?

Trying to get to the operator.  Could I please get to the operator?

M: Operator, are you there?

Operator: Yes, I am.

Oh hey.  How are you?

O: Good.  How are you?

This woman has too many rules.  It’s not fair for anybody to have to sit through that.

O: I can disconnect her line.

Yeah.  Let’s do it.

M: Okay, everyone.  Well, they’re unable to disconnect my line, so I’m going to go ahead and let you know that—

Operator, I need you to disconnect that woman’s line.

M: The third season of Archer will premiere this coming—


M: —Thursday, January, 19 at 10:00 p.m.—

There is nobody listening to me.

M: —only on FX.

The rest of the interview followed suit.  Enjoy!

Question: How do you balance all these projects, [whether it’s]…“Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers” [or the Comedy Central Show]?

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.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about voicing Sterling Archer?

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.

Q: How [did] you get your part on “Archer?”

It’s not a great story.  Adam Reed, the creator of “Archer,” God rest his soul, he called me—I think he had heard me do some other work on Adult Swim, and he called me to read the part.  I don’t know if other people had been asked.  I don’t know if I was first choice or like literally last resort—probably last resort, right?  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.

Q: How much input do you have on the interactions with the other cast members?  Do you get a chance to improvise?  Also, why do you think each individual show has been so popular with the masses?

Well, the masses are idiots, so they don’t know any better.  They’re too 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.

Q: For “Archer”…there’s a lot of yelling…Has there ever been a point where you want a few scripts which just have Archer whispering and not talking at all?

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 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.

Q: I was wondering besides Archer’s strong jaw line and dashing good looks, what other qualities do you feel you share with your character?

Besides those.  Well, obviously, personality wise, I can be a little shrilly, and that comes from the way I look; 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 my life and being American and white and rich—those things I share.  And I drink a lot in real life.

Q: On the show, Sterling and Malory [Archer’s mother] are always going at it.  In real life, cage match, you and Jessica Walter, who would win?

Cage match?

Q: Cage match.

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 the money I would.

Q: How in the world did you get connected with “WordGirl?”

You say it like it was community service.

Q: No, no, no.  With all the adult scenes that you’ve done, I’m just curious.

Well, actually, the company that made “Home Movies” made “WordGirl”…[It] started as an educational software company or something, and they made animated stuff for schools, like educational disks 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…”WordGirl,” I get more, shockingly, more noticed for than most of the shows I’ve ever done.  Kids watch a lot of TV.

Q: Now, Archer has done a number of bad.…things in all these seasons so far.  Has there been something that Archer has done that you’ve wanted to do in real life?

Sleep with a prostitute, I guess.  I just never had the courage and I think that would open the floodgates for me.  And I’d like to yell at a butler someday.

Q: Is there an [“Archer”] line that really stood out to 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 falsetto and quick.  It used to be “Danger Zone” or something.  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…That makes me giggle.

Q: Will we get to see any more of [crazed secretary Cheryl’s] ocelot or the Wee Baby Seamus [Archer’s sort-of-illegitimate son] this year?

I don’t think so…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.

Q: How do you look in a black turtleneck?

It’s been awhile since my bar mitzvah…I can’t imagine I would look good.  I don’t think anybody does.  Archer does look good and maybe Sammy Davis Jr. looked good and a few more—Bert Convy—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.

Q: Were you a big spy fan when you were a kid?

I was into the Torah, mostly, and into the movie Tora, Tora, Tora because it fooled me because I thought it was Jewish, and it was actually a movie about kamikazes; I thought that…this movie…was going to be crazily about the Torah—like Torah, Torah, Torah! And it had nothing—no Jewish—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, yeah, as a kid, it was strictly all about Judaism.  I was crazy for it.  So I didn’t have time for spy stuff.

Q: What was it like to have those serious moments like when Archer got cancer and when his wife was murdered?

Well, it’s always sort of difficult to—I don’t know—I can’t discern anything about acting when you’re doing…voiceovers, but it was definitely strange to do that.  It’s always odd when you have to cry or something—like for real, when…your woman dies, or something, and you’re crying…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 just standing in front of a microphone.  So hopefully the cries are believable.  I actually cry.  I actually cried a couple of times.

Again, “Archer” returns tonight at 10 PM EST on FX.