Everyone’s favorite animated baritone checked in from his “modest New York apartment” to discuss Archer season 7 with Animag editor Tom McLean. The new season is airing now on FX.
Animation Magazine: Tell us a little about the new season of Archer — we’ve all seen the preview with the homage to Magnum P.I. The move out to Hollywood and become detectives?
H. Jon Benjamin: It’s a little bite like season 5, which is, like, a departure for the Archer crew. They’re finding new occupation now, and Cyril is running the P.I. firm, and so Archer’s kinda working for him. Although that never exactly works out.
It’s funny how, y’know, they just put out this trailer with Magnum PI and Adam has now found another show from his and my childhood to gain inspiration from. So, yeah, they’re in this sorta China Town world of L.A. and they’re doing private investigation. But there’s always this backdrop of the CIA being involved, so they’re still serving The Man … or Woman.
Animag: Is there a change in the characters as well as the scenery?
Benjamin: The storylines change, and now the locations are obviously a little bit different — not on, like, an international scale — but the dynamics of the characters are always the same. That was kind of the case when they became drug dealers. I hope it gets another five seasons to find out what other occupations they can do to break the law.
Animag: …Or what other retro shows you can riff on?
Benjamin: [Laughs] Right. I mean, I’m hoping for McCloud, but I don’t know.
Animag: Do you record with the rest of the Archer cast?
Benjamin: They always record everybody individually. And the show is based in Atlanta, so we’re on the phone essentially with the producers of the show — Matt Thompson and Casey Willis. We’ll run through the scenes independently of other cast members … Some of the cast lives in L.A. — Chris Parnell, Aisha [Tyler]… Some live in Atlanta, actually, a couple of them. Amber Nash who plays Pam, and Lucky Yates. And I think it’s just me who lives in New York. Oh, me and Jessica Walter in New York. So I’ll see traces of her, like her tissues and stuff, but that’s about it. She either cries a lot, or she always has a cold. Or she does a lot of cocaine.
Animag: Do you do a lot of preparation before you record?
Benjamin: I don’t, I really don’t. Over the years, I’ve learned to prepare less and less. Which so far hasn’t detracted from my performance. But I just have never done that. And I always make fun of Chris Parnell because he prepares an extraordinary amount — which also pays off. So I’m not demeaning people who prepare, I just never have for the animation stuff. So often times — it’s not difficult, but it takes me a couple times to figure out the context of each scene, especially if I haven’t read the script before I got there. But, it’s easy to catch up quickly with the animation because we have a lot of time to run through the scenes, so it works out. I always think that it brings a freshness to the … uh … Or, I’m just obfuscating the fact that I’m lazy.
Animag: Is there much room for improvising when you record?
Benjamin: Not so much … The scripts are usually — they’re obviously extraordinarily well-written and really funny but a lot of times there’s not a ton of room for improvisation. Although occasionally — honestly, very little — sometimes we’ll kind of drum up a new line as we go if something’s not quite working. On the whole, the scripts are so tightly written there isn’t a ton of room for it. I mean, the only time really that we would be encouraged to improvise would be if there’s an “everybody” line and we’re reacting to something, we can kinda say what we want. On the whole it’s pretty rare that I improvise.
Animag: Do you like Sterling Archer? What keeps you coming back to the role?
Benjamin: Oh, wow … I don’t know! He’s like the Donald Trump of the spy world. He’s just like this sort of untamed Id, I guess, in the Freudian sense, which is really fun to play. He’s like, likable, but horribly arrogant and mean-spirited. It’s hard to go along with it, but he always sort of comes out likable still. And I think that’s maybe because there’s a sort of a vulnerability, I guess. He still works for his mom, so … I dunno, for some reason I feel like he’s this lost guy who wants to eventually just do right by his family — but that will never happen, because his family is such a mess. And was never there for him. So I guess he’s a bit of a layered character. You don’t have to like him for that, but I like that about him.
Animag: What’s it like when you see the finished episode — it’s probably a few months after recording that you do?
Benjamin: Yeah, probably like almost a year… I’m a big fan of the show. It’s funny, we’ve been doing it — this is the seventh season, so there’s been a lot of Archer. And my kid watches it all the time, so I end up seeing a lot of Archer, so I became a fan of the show outside of the fact that I’m in it. So I’ve gotten used to tuning out my own voice and just watching the show. But yeah, it’s always a surprise to see how well they come out, how funny they are.
Animag: Do you ever discuss ideas for the show with Adam and Matt?
Benjamin: No. I think Adam in particular — although Matt probably oversees the entire process of making the show — Adam I think completely independently comes up with everything himself, and on very few occasions he’ll discuss any ideas that would be good for an Archer episode or anything like that. So, he really works in a bubble. Maybe a literal bubble, connected to his house, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s all springing from him, from his brain. And Wikipedia — so I’ve heard.
Animag: What’s it like when you meet fans at conventions or events like Archer Live?
Benjamin: I mean, that’s the closest I can be to like, “Rock Star.” It’s not quite at that point, but Archer just has really loyal and, um, crazy fans of the show. So we did do Archer Live and it was fun to see people were really, really into it. We didn’t really discover that until maybe a couple years into the show and we started getting the sense that people were really watching it religiously and that a cult fanbase was really developing. But yeah, doing the Archer Live was funny … it’s funny to be an animated voice and have people, like, cheering wildly for you. It’s not like that’s ever been an expectation.
Animation has changed a little bit now, obviously, with that, uh, what’s that thing called … the Internet. Just the idea that I get recognized on the street as being Archer, that’s a funny dynamic. But now people, just the completist knowledge of shows, it’s so much different now because of the resources they have. They can just check everything out … I had done animation, you know, 10 years or more before I did Archer and I don’t think there was a single occasion where someone said “Oh, hey! Coach McGuirk!” [from Home Movies] But that happens constantly now with Archer, people know what I look like and are huge fans of the show. Somebody put my picture up online!
Animag: So, you’re on two very popular shows right now: Archer and Bob’s Burgers. What’s that like?
Benjamin: It’s different. They produce the shows very differently. Well, only in the sense that recordings of the episodes are done as an ensemble with Bob’s Burgers, we record together. Although some of us are in New York rather than most of the voice actors are in L.A. and the production is in L.A. But we’ll record scenes together more akin to live action. We’ll do a scene, we’ll do it together, and there will be more playing around with dialog and more improvising for each scene. So, it takes a little longer.
Animag: And there’s also the Bob’s Burgers Live! Show…
Benjamin: It’s a bit of a different show. Bob’s Burgers Live! is more of a stand up show, everybody in the cast does comedy, so we all do sort of stand up sets for Bob’s Burgers Live!, and the we do some Bob’s Burgers-centric material. Archer Live is a real fan experience kind of show. We perform scenes, we do a bunch of bits involving Archer and parts of the show. So they’re a little bit different. We haven’t done Archer Live in a while…
Animag: Growing up, did you imagine you’d be in animation?
Benjamin: No, no. I”m trying to think what I imagined myself doing … maybe electrician?
Animag: What were your favorite cartoons as a kid?
Benjamin: I grew up in the ‘70s and I was very young, so Warner Bros. stuff and Bugs Bunny and that stuff. I was a big Mighty Mouse fan. And as I got older I think I pretty much stopped watching animation — until I was in it.
Animag: Yeah, a lot of that ‘70s stuff is hard to go back and look at…
Benjamin: Yeah, it’s funny. Like, I was watching Mr. Magoo recently. Man, that was bizarre to watch it now. It’s so funny, it’s so different. It’s like Fellini. It’s kind of like, odd and slow and there’s very few jokes, really. I actually liked it. It’s almost like if you go back now and watch — and this is maybe specific to Mr. Magoo — but that was bizarre but I was like, wow, I’m shocked I liked this when I was a kid. It seemed like they were just trying to get it out and finish the animation … it had a real odd quality about it, but I liked it. It was almost avant garde.
I mean, that wasn’t the case with like Bugs Bunny, that show had a lot of jokes. And Woody Woodpecker. All that kind of stuff was really, really funny. There were occasionally some shows that just felt like, “Oh … uh … that was weird.”
It was obviously way harder to produce animation back then. Now at least you’re able to watch like, even South Park for instance, you can literally get a topical animation show on television. That’s really remarkable.
Animag: Why do you think you’ve had such success with animation voice acting?
Benjamin: I mean, I’ve been asked that a lot and it’s been really hard to answer. I don’t know, really, why. People say it’s a good voice. I mean, I dunno. I think it’s probably more about how I started doing animation. It was not about being a voice over actor, it was about being funny. The first show I did was sort of early ‘90s, mid-’90s called Dr. Katz and it was a completely improvised show, so it wasn’t about having a funny voice or reading a bunch of lines, it was about kinda developing an honest character … It was just happenstance, and that’s how I got into animation. It’s definitely untypical. Most of the people I know who are very good at voice work are really good at voice work. I would never say that about me.
Animag: There are those people who can do five or 10 different voices in a show.
Benjamin: Oh yeah, I know. Like, I’ll have to do a bunch of voices for Bob’s Burgers and I always do terrible. I suck at that. You know because [speaking in a strained falsetto] I go like this or something. I’m just not very good at it. Where, there’s some people who I know who can do like 120 voices or something like that. That’s a real skill. I don’t have that.
Animag: Can we expect more seasons of Archer after the seventh?
Benjamin: I hope so! For what it is, Archer is still as funny a show as it was when we started, if not funnier. I would hope that Adam would want to do more and the network will want to do more. Because it’s still such a well-done show. As long as the quality stays up, it’s worth doing more. It’s an unusual show in that it’s driven by one guy, so as long as he can keep working — we just have to keep him working. And he, I think, has very high standards of what kind of show he puts out, so it’s good. So, I hope so.