Q&A: H. Jon Benjamin Talks ‘Archer’, the Plot Twists and Voice Acting
Archer had its fifth season premiere last night and if you were able to check it out, you were treated to some huge twists. I won’t post any spoilers for those of you who haven’t watched it yet, but if you’re a fan of the show, I’m betting you’ll love it.
Recently, H. Jon Benjamin, who voices the super-spy, and FX had a conference call to talk about the crazy upcoming season. Jon also talks about his voice-over work, acting, Bobs Burger’s and the possibility of more Archer live shows!
Check out our Archer interviews from this summer’s Comic-Con!
Archer airs on Mondays at 10pm on FX.
Do you know why they decided to go in such a completely different direction this season?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, I think there’s a lot of changes and a lot that stays the same obviously, but I think Adam Reed probably got very drunk one night while he was writing on his computer.
Watched too many episodes of Miami Vice late at night or something?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, I assume he’s of the age where he grew up on that show. I know I was, maybe, right, mid-40s. I don’t want to give away his age in case he’s been lying to people.
I mean I’m not exactly sure why is the real answer, but I assume it has something to do with wanting to kind of change the environment a little bit. But, the good thing is the characters are pretty much the same dynamics. They’re the same. It’s just more confusion, more of the same confusion.
What was your reaction when Adam first broke the news to you about how dramatically the series was going to be changing? Was everyone briefed at once, or did you get a late night drunken phone call?
H. Jon Benjamin: We all went to the briefing room, the briefing chamber underneath the briefing room and no, for the last couple of seasons, he’s had very kind of high concept ideas. So, I think he tells everybody individually. I don’t think we’re ever all in the same room for anything.
So, yes, like last season with the Bob Burger’s crossover, I think he had called me to tell me that, about that. So, I was forewarned about this change. But then, when he told me in detail what was going to happen, I was thrilled. I mean I loved the idea. But in fairness, I couldn’t reject it. I couldn’t say, “Don’t do that.” I don’t have that kind of power.
Was there any particular aspect of the changes that really surprised you or you just kind of roll with the punches with Adam now?
H. Jon Benjamin: Yes, it was more like not punches, but slight slaps and I rolled with it. I really love the idea that they’ve been operating without a license for all these years and also maybe the underlying idea that at any point in espionage as a whole, the organizations can eat themselves kind of thing. So, I thought it was a great way to change the show.
How did the character of “Archer” come to be? There seemed to be a lot of really interesting personality characterizations that make him up. Did one person or celebrity influence how you play him, or is there a lot of yourself you see in “Archer?”
H. Jon Benjamin: It wasn’t really based on anybody in particular, any celebrity. I think I had the initial idea to make him—try and portray him as suave, but I couldn’t really do that. So, I just played it by ear. I mean I kind of pictured him in a tuxedo a lot like James Bond. I just don’t embody that. I can barely get into a tux. Everything is odd fitting lately. Yes, I just kind of played him as a very hyper-aggressive version of me.
Of the other really memorable and hilarious characters you’ve played in animation like “Coach McGuirk” or “Bob Belcher,” do you really see yourself in any of those one characters particularly?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, I mean “Coach McGuirk” probably was…. So, it really had to kind of be me. “Archer” was, I think, initially inspired certainly from Adam Reed’s perspective. I think he wanted a spy version of “Coach McGuirk.” So, I they share a lot of traits.
You have such a brilliant way of balancing dry humor with absurdist humor and I was just wondering how do you keep that balance so fresh season after season?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, I really don’t. I think Adam Reed has a lot to do with that and the writing has a lot to do with that. So, I defer to that mostly. I think maybe I add drier elements, but the absurdist stuff is all in the scripts. So, there you go.
And he has no edit button whatsoever. So, that must be a gratifying experience for you, right?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, yes, it’s really fun to play. He’s a spy. So, he can do what he wants. I mean I guess he announces that he’s a spy a lot, which he shouldn’t do, but I guess when you’re carrying a gun, you feel better about yourself, but that doesn’t suggest carry a gun; just to feel better about yourself.
What did you enjoy most about recording for Archer Vice this year?
H. Jon Benjamin: The outfits. The outfits I wore were much better; all Miami Vice stuff that I wore while recording. So, that was fun to do, finally to get back to the way I used to dress.
What can fans kind of expect from season five? Is there a particular episode you’re excited for them to see?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, the first episode, obviously, really defines the whole change of what’s going on in the season. We haven’t finished recording the whole season yet, so there’s more to come. So, I can’t really pick the favorite except for the first one, which I think is a real—I don’t know if you’ll be shocked, but you’ll be hopefully duly surprised. So, be prepared. I would say definitely the first episode. It’s really fun to see what happens to ISIS.
Do you prefer the mystery around “Sterling’s” father, or do you feel that he should be revealed?
H. Jon Benjamin: I prefer the mystery I think. I think it fuels his anger. It’s both what makes him good at what he does and bad as a human being, which is fun to watch. So, yes, I mean maybe it will get resolved, but I’m not sure “Malory” knows.
What have been some of the biggest acting challenges would you say in creating a character using just your voice?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, it was very hard initially when I first did it, but that was like a long time ago. It’s hard to be sort of physically restrained. I mean I’m not tied up or anything, except on occasion from the night before. Well, whatever. That’s a little bit difficult when I started, but I guess I’m just kind of used to it now. I’ve been doing for so long. I get kind of used to just working alone in a booth.
But at first, it was definitely odd. I remember feeling that way, like how do you negotiate this. Like can I yell? Like am I too loud? Yes, so there’s a lot of like natural restraints, like being extra careful, which I wouldn’t do in a live performance.
Did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up, or did you have other professions in mind?
H. Jon Benjamin: I had a lot of professions in mind when I was younger I think – a fireman, arsonist, insurance adjustor, a lot to do with fire and fire making and fire prevention, tobacconist. I mean I definitely didn’t want to get into voice acting. I just was interested in acting and that was what I was good at early on. So, the voice acting part of it came just as a coincidence I guess.
You have worked really extensively with Loren Bouchard on some of the best kind of adult cartoons that exist. What do you love about working with Loren so much and do you see yourself working with him past Bob Burger’s or even with Brendon Small again?
H. Jon Benjamin: I don’t know. I work so closely with Loren still. Brendon I haven’t worked with since Home Movies. So, I mean he was great to work with, but with Loren, I certainly read that he’s made the claim that he won’t do a show without me. I’d hold him to that. I don’t know how many more shows he’ll do, but it’s great working with Loren. We sort of started together doing what we do now. So, it’s been a pretty parallel trajectory.
Loren started at editing my improvisation for Dr. Katz. Now, he’s making his own shows and I’m still doing the same thing. So, he’s really progressed. I’m just still doing the same thing. So, now I’m mad. Now, you’ve got me angry at him. But yes, I’d always be happy to work with Loren. He’s very passionate about what he does and that’s really a good foil for my dispassion.
How much of Bob Burger’s with Loren is improv? Do you do a lot of improv in that set?
H. Jon Benjamin: We do. I mean I think I’ve heard Loren claim it’s about 90/10. They do a lot of improv obviously that they don’t use, but I think they use about 10%-15% of the improv that we do. I mean the show is really well written and they’ve had I think pretty much the same writer since the first season. So, they do a great job, but Loren always encourages improv for pretty much every take we do.
Is there such a thing as too much or over the top with Archer?
H. Jon Benjamin: It doesn’t seem so. I mean it lives pretty within itself I have to say. So, as much as it’s over the top, it feels organic. You know what I mean? I haven’t seen them go way outside themselves, and that was a slight concern with like a Bob Burger’s crossover because that can get like, “Oh, why are you ruining it?”
But, he pulled it off. It was seamless. If you didn’t know Bob Burger’s, I don’t think you would have even batted your eyes at that. So, even when they do things very conceptual, it somehow still works for Archer.
Is there anything either in your performance or the story as a whole that you feel like maybe you didn’t push it to the limit, to sort of explore as much as they could?
H. Jon Benjamin: I had to cry a couple of times. I’d like to see more of that. That’s hard to capture in voiceover work. But I like to cry. I really like to cry.
Have you ever talked with Adam about when is it really set? They have the Internet, they have cell phones, but at the same time, they’re fighting the KGB and “Woodhouse” is talking about World War I.
H. Jon Benjamin: Time is pretty fungible in Archer I feel, yes. Sometimes Burt Reynolds seemed like he was of his time, but the car that he was driving was from the ‘70s. I mean they preserve cars. So, that’s maybe a sad example, but yes, there’s pretty much a very broad sense of time in Archer. I think it was that was from the onset. So, that was the world the way they structured it and I don’t think it’s ever really changed.
Archer is very well read. It’s almost deceiving. He can be talking for hours about the dangers of alligators, but then he’ll drop a Herman Melville quote on his enemies.
H. Jon Benjamin: Yes. Well, I think he was prep school educated it seems like, at least from the flashbacks. So, he had the luxury of probably some very expensive East Coast prep school and they’ll make you read a lot of books.
Does it come somewhat from your background, or was that just something you and Adam created for the character?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, I mean Adam Reed, I think, was a literature major in college. So, I think that mostly comes from him, although I’ve read Bartleby. I can tell you that.
You did a one-off appearance on Suburgatory a bit ago. Do you have any interest in pursuing any more actual on camera work, or are you quite happy living the life of a voice actor?
H. Jon Benjamin: I do. I do on camera work when I’m asked to do it. So, yes, I have no problem with it. I’ve worked on live shows of my own and I’m working on one now. Hopefully, you’ll see me in that. So yes, I don’t rule it out. I just rarely get asked.
Could you talk briefly about the experience of Iceland Ultra Blue?
H. Jon Benjamin: That was unfortunate. I loved that show. I wish it had gone further. So, yes, that’s one of my big regrets besides having a son. No, I like him. But, Ultra Blue was great. We made it. They aired it for like a month, I think, at 4:00 in the morning and they just never made more. We were excited to make more.
Did anyone actually believe that it was in fact a real infomercial?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, I think people were confused. That was our essential request to Adult Swim at the time, which was to not peep a word about what it was or who made it, or any information about why it was there in that landscape at that time, which is not a huge sell for a network. Maybe that’s why. We tried to not—in good part, they did sort of do that, but they didn’t continue with it.
But, we knew that once it had aired, we would give it away and then people would just enjoy it for what it was. But, people didn’t kill themselves, but I think there was a lot of like, “What the hell is this? Where’s the Squidbillies rerun that I want to watch” or whatever. So, there were a lot of angry e-mails to Adult Swim and a lot of it was confusing. I think at 4:00 a.m. when you’re that high, you really don’t know what’s going on anyway.
Since you’ve done a lot of non-voiceover work, do you do sometimes get recognized by fans?
H. Jon Benjamin: I do. Yes, I do a lot. Yes. Maybe just because I had TV shows and I’ve been on live shows a lot. I think combined with people who love Archer and stuff like that, they’ll know what I look like if you do a little research.
Have there been any discussions about further Archer live tours?
H. Jon Benjamin: They do them very like sporadically. There’s one coming up in Austin, Texas I believe this weekend. I think so. And then, I think it depends on the availability of the cast. I know Aisha works during the week every day. So, it’s hard to schedule a tour, but we’ve been doing them kind of as one-offs. So, I assume they’ll do more. It’s just that they’re sporadic.
When you’re in the booth, is there a different sense of collaboration by working off of other performers?
H. Jon Benjamin: Well, the way it works with Archer is I really just work off this guy named Matt Thompson and this guy named Casey who are producers of the show Archer. They’re on the line. So, I always work off them and sometimes we’ll do scenes together; like we would read together a scene and sometimes I’ll just do line reading, but they’re very good at directing me as to what they want. So, that works out well.