Aisha Tyler has a lot her plate these days. And it’s a big plate.
She’s a co-host of the CBS daytime show The Talk, the star of the Canadian drama XIII: The Series, has a weekly podcast called Girl on Guy, her stand-up dates and the wickedly funny, Archer.
On the hit FX show, she voices Lana Kane, a beautiful and deadly Agent for ISIS who just so happens to be Archer’s ex-girlfriend.
I talked to Aisha in a conference call where she talks about stand-up, voice work and Archer.
Archer airs on Thursdays at 10:00pm on FX
How did you get involved with the show?
Aisha Tyler: I got the script through my agent. I had known who Adam Reed was because I was a huge fan of his from his Sealab 2021 days. I was obsessed with this kind of ridiculous, crazy kind of cockeyed show and just thought he was brilliant and loved what he and Matt [Thompson] had done with that show. I got the script, read about 1/3 of it, saw that there were curse words in it and said, “Yes.”
It was also quite funny, but I just couldn’t believe what a great combination of smart and funny it was. And I remember thinking, “This will never make it on the air, too smart and too funny,” but thank God for FX. And I say that without any …. They let the show be what it is and it’s just a joy to make it. It’s really wonderful.
With Archer, you’ve done stand up where phrasing and timing can make good writing better and great writing unforgettable. How does that work when you’re working on a script for Archer? How much is writing and what do you do with the phrasing and the timing that adds your own touch?
Aisha Tyler: That’s a very good question. I’m confident that every actor on the show has their own process so I can only tell you about how I work. The scripts are always hilarious when we get them, thank God. I’ve worked on programs where you think, “I’ve got to do something with this.” But with this show you pretty much just can’t wait to get in there and say these words.
That being said, I think Adam and Matt and the other guys on the show are passionate about comedy. There is joyfulness in the moment that we’re in the booth making the show. So for me what I do is I just kind of attack the lines and I try to come up with the funniest way to say these lines. Sometimes I’m just—this is kind of a business term—laying pipe. I’m like, “Hey guys, we’ve got to solve this issue for the German Chancellor because his daughter is about the get the clap,” or whatever it is. I’ve got to say that stuff.
But usually my goal is to just come at the lines from 20 different angles and just try to find the best possible way to say it that’s going to be the funniest and kind of drive the story best from my aspect of it. Usually I do it until I hear the guys on the other end of the line laugh and then I know I rang their bell.
But sometimes we’ll do a line a bunch of different ways and then we’ll just go—Adam or Matt or Casey [Willis] will go, “Try this. What about that?” And I’ll go, “Hey, what if I said this.” So sometimes we’ll do some improving on the fly. I hopefully know ‘Lana’ well enough now that I’m able to pitch something to those guys. They’re pretty open-minded.
I think we all are really passionate about comedy and we all really love the show. So it’s definitely always a collaborative thing. It’s not like—we’re never wrestling over who’s driving the truck. Both guys are driving the truck but I think they know that I love ‘Lana’ and love the show. So if I come and pitch something we usually kind of get a crack at it, and then they just chop it up however they like.
What do you find so passionate about standup? What is passionate to you about that?
Aisha Tyler: It’s how I got my start in the business. I’ve been doing it now for about 18 years. There is something incredibly electric and visceral about having a conversation with a group of people in a live environment. It’s very different from everything else I do. I’m very lucky. I feel very fortunate to do all the things I am able to do because I have my scripted television. I have drama. I have comedy. I have talk. I have my podcast.
I do a lot of different things, but with standup where you’re in a room full of people and there’s this heat and there’s this intensity—I don’t turn into a different person on stage but I turn into myself on eleven, if that’s even possible because I’m usually on like 10.7 all the time anyway. There’s just something incredibly invigorating and exciting about that.
Every show is a little different. I really get to say exactly what I’m feeling. I feed off of the audience’s energy and there’s that immediacy of knowing right in that moment whether something’s working or not. You’re working without a net. If you fail you fall to the floor. There’s nobody to catch you. Definitely there’s nobody to blame, but that’s what makes it so exciting. Standup is kind of the skydiving of the performance world because it’s all you.
When you read a script, either for a film or a TV show, what is it in the first few pages that really grabs you and makes you know that this is good writing? And then also the flip side, what bugs you and isn’t good in the first few pages?
Aisha Tyler: I’ll answer the second question first. If it starts out with any kind of a velvet painting description of the silhouette of a nude black woman with a giant afro, I’d probably either think I’d found an old Pam Grier script or it’s not the movie for me. Not that I don’t like afros. I’d love to wear an afro, just not nude. And also typos. I will say I’m a total snob and I feel like if you can’t have an assistant proof your script and get the typos out, you’re probably not going to know which end of the camera to put the film in.
On the up side, for me as an actor, it’s easy when the script is pedigreed. It’s easy if you know you’re going to be working with Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino or something like that. You say yes no matter what because you know you’re going to be in deft hands. I think if there are more question marks about the script you just want to see that there’s something in there that you can do. If I look at a script, I’m reading the entire story. That’s important
But what I really want to know is if I get my hands on this role can I do something exciting. Can I contribute to the film, because in the end if I don’t win it this film doesn’t win? So I’ve got to know can I make this better. Can I bring something to the table that’s going to be extraordinary? Sometimes you read a role and it’s a great movie and it’s a great role and you realize, “This is not the role for me. I’m not going to be able to do my best work here. This is not a fit.”
So really what I do is I look to see can I do something? Do I have some great transcendent idea that I can bring to this that’s going to really elevate the material? And then sometimes you look deep into the script and you see how much money they’re going to pay you and that sometimes drives your decision as well.
You’ve done a little bit of voice work before this and I’m wondering if you’re interested in doing any more?
Aisha Tyler: I love doing voice work. I think it’s very liberating. It becomes much more of an academic exercise. Not in a negative way in a positive way to just be not thinking about anything else but how funny you can be. You’re not worried about your looks or your wardrobe or your makeup or anything like that. So in that way it’s very refreshing.
As a standup comedian, who were your biggest influences when you were growing up? Who made you want to become a standup comedian?
Aisha Tyler: When I was very young I don’t think I even had a sense that comedy was a real job. I did not discover standup comedy in earnest until I was in college. I do remember vividly my dad taking me to see Live on the Sunset Strip when I was a kid, probably when I was way too young to actually see that concert, inappropriately young. But also … Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. I’m like repeating every single line of that special to my friends in the street.
But the person who inspired me to start standup comedy actually was Steven Wright. I saw a Steven Wright concert when I was at Dartmouth. He came and he was just so elegant and erudite, and you know how abstract his work is. It made it feel more accessible.
Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were these kind of giants. They were like rock stars, and Steven was just much more of a literate, studious comedian. And that made it feel like there was room for me in there somewhere. And I think after I saw him live I went home and started making little notes.
Is it more difficult to be funny or to think that they’re funny when they are very good looking actors?
Aisha Tyler: I want to try to unpack that in a way that doesn’t devolve into douche baggery. For my own part, I was a very unattractive kid. I’m six feet tall. I’ve been this tall since I was about seven or eight years old. I am borderline legally blind and had glasses that proved it every day. If you would like me to burn a small anthill, I could’ve done that with my spectacles. And I was also a total social pariah. So my comedy comes out of outsidership.
I think comedy’s, in the end, about reliability, which is why some people feel like if someone is “attractive” they won’t be funny maybe because they have no problems, maybe because they can’t relate to me in my own problems. But my comedy’s always been about self-deprecation. It’s always been about relatability.
I think it’s not really about what you look like; it’s about how you perceive yourself. So if you get out there and you’re worried about your hair and your outfit, then sure it’s going to be hard for people to relate to you. But if you get out there and you’re honest and you tell the truth, that’s really what communicates with people. So yes, comedy is never pretty and it shouldn’t be precious. That should be the last thing on your mind when you get on stage.
I had a woman come to me once back to me when I was still on Ghost Whisperer and she said, “You’re from TV and I didn’t think I wanted to come to the show because I was like ‘this girl is just going to be worried about her hair the whole time and how she looks’ and you did not care how you looked on stage.” I was like, “No, I really didn’t.” And she was like, “And you look like ….” I was like, “Thank you, I think.”
In the pursuit of comedy everything else should be secondary. I guess I would say that to somebody who’s trying to be funny no matter what they look like. Comedy is about honesty and not about your hairstyle.
How isolating is it to do voice work? What challenges do you face with keeping up that chemistry just because it comes across so well in the final product? It must be difficult for you to do.
Aisha Tyler: Some of that is just acting, just acting skill. Not like I’m like, “That’s just because I’m awesome.” That’s not what I’m saying. But I think some of that is knowing the character, knowing your own character, knowing how your own character feels about the other characters on the show and how they relate. And then because this is not an ensemble drama, some of it is just commitment just to being funny. The architecture of the show, quite honestly, there’s a percentage of it that’s in the hands of the editors. We deliver our funniest work and then they cut it together really, really beautifully.
At this point now, I feel like I know ‘Lana’ really well. And I know how ‘Lana’ feels about ‘Malory,’ how she feels about ‘Archer,’ how she feels about ‘Pam,’ and that infuses the way that I deliver my lines. And that’s just something—actually I think it’s probably gotten easier over time rather than harder.