H. Jon Benjamin of Archer
The actor behind television's most suave secret agent discusses the show's fourth season, the benefits of having such a recognizable voice, and his most challenging roles
Jan 16, 2013
Few voice actors are as present on television today as H. Jon Benjamin, who currently stars in two primetime animated shows named after the characters he plays on them; not only does he voice super-suave secret agent Sterling Archer on FX's Archer, but also the patriarch of the Belcher family, Bob, on Fox's Bob's Burgers.
But there's a good chance you're familiar with his work, even if you haven't seen either of his current series. Benjamin also played a variety of roles on the cult animated program Home Movies, and has lent his recognizable voice to many other films and television series, including The Venture Bros., Family Guy, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and Wet Hot American Summer. He also appeared on his own sketch show, Jon Benjamin Has a Van.
Archer, the hilarious spy spoof which has made Under the Radar's annual best TV Shows list every season it's aired, returns this week for its much-anticipated fourth season (January 17th at 10PM on FX.) The veteran voice actor spoke with us about the series, his illustrious career, and how he'd cut it as a real-life secret agent.
Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): You were offered the Archer role from the show's creator, Adam Reed. What was your first impression of the series, from that pilot script?
H. Jon Benjamin: I was paying more attention to my job, at first, than to the show itself. At the time I wasn't offered a lot of parts, so I was excited to do it and thought the script was really funny. Actually, I was more nervous about playing a spy while being nasally and Jewish, which probably isn't the way most spies are. I kept thinking, "why me?" But, that was Adam Reed's choice, and he got what he wanted.
Were you familiar with Adam's previous shows [Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo] before you started working with him?
No, I'd only heard from a few other people who had told me his previous show was very funny. Since then, I'd heard that Adam had known me from this show called Home Movies, which was on Cartoon Network. I think he patterned the role after a character I did on that show.
One thing that's so great about the show is that it's so character-driven. The characters have evolved over time. Do you see any differences in the way Sterling Archer is written, or how you portray him, now, compared to early on in the show's run?
Do you discern a difference?
Maybe not with Archer as much as the other characters, such as Cheryl or Pam, or even a character like Woodhouse, who have taken on a lot more depth as the show's gone on.
Yeah, you knew a lot about Archer from the very beginning. That was the focus. The other characters started to develop more later. But I guess I—Archer—he's pretty much stayed the same. Maybe he's more aggressively arrogant. And I'm certainly louder now. I've definitely gotten progressively louder.
Archer's always been a huge asshole, but as the series has gone on it seems like he's been getting shit on a lot more.
Well, I guess life gets complicated. He got cancer. He's had some scares. He's fallen in love, like, 20 times. Everything's pretty accelerated in that world, but there has been a lot of shit happening to Archer recently. But he doesn't seem too humbled by any of it.
Do you think he's just getting what's coming to him, sometimes?
Well, I don't wish cancer on an animated character. [Laughs] His job is death-defying all the time, so it's a weird conundrum. I can't imagine how being that exaggeratedly involved in near-death situations all the time must affect you psychologically. But he drinks a lot, so I guess it evens out.
The show really rewards its audience for following along week to week, with all of the recurring jokes and lines that come back later. Do you have any favorites Archer-isms of your own?
Even though I hate to do it, I sincerely like the "Danger Zone" thing a lot, and I really like doing the answering machines. That's very similar to my answering machine message. I like that it's a running joke that he does that. But they don't really say "danger zone" any more, I guess.
Are there any ways you find yourself able to relate with the character, personally?
Uh... I wear a turtleneck, sometimes. Um... and I... sleep with prostitutes. [Laughs] And I hate my mom. Well, maybe not hate, but resent.
How do you think you'd cut it as a secret agent?
I'm pretty crafty. I think I'd be better at a desk job than as a field operative. But, I'm a good liar, and I'm familiar with disguises. [Laughs] I feel like I've worn a lot of disguises in my day, so I'd feel quite comfortable with that.
You record your lines for Archer on your own, in a studio. I'm wondering how you get direction working in that way. Is what Adam and the crew want from you pretty clearly laid out in the scripts?
Well, there's Adam and Casey [Willis], who's a producer on the show, who are usually on the phone. And we'll usually read through a scene two or three times, and they'll ask me to do something a little differently. I've definitely ignored the stage directions sometimes, like, being really lazy, where I'd say the line all wrong. They'd just laugh at me, and then explain why I should do it differently. But on the whole, we just sort of read through the scenes one at a time.
You're doing an Archer/Bob's Burgers crossover this season. Was that crazy to do? Are you just having a conversation with yourself at points?
Well, it's not like that. Archer doesn't meet Bob. Archer is Bob. It's complicated. It opens with Archer being Bob, essentially, and he's trying to figure out why. It's like Bourne Identity. He's Archer, but for some reason he's a guy who works at a hamburger store. A hamburger joint, actually. Sorry. Hamburger stores no longer exist.
At first, when I started watching Bob's Burgers, it was because I was thinking, "hey, oh, there's that guy, with that voice that I like..."
I know! It's a really great voice.
Do you find other fans following you from one project to another, in the same way they might follow, say, a leading man from movie to movie?
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe. I've done three animated shows in a row where I'm using this very voice. I think people enjoying hearing me again when I'm doing something else. Sure.
Between Archer, Bob's Burgers, and Jon Benjamin Has a Van, for a period of time it felt like you were on half the TV shows I was watching, except—
There are only six shows on television now?
Shows that I'd been watching. [Laughs] My estimate was probably off. There were also shows you weren't on, like Breaking Bad, or Mad Men...
No, I wish that I were. That would be nice. That's the way it's perceived, the way that those three shows all sort of came on at the same time. But they were separated by production schedules and so forth, so it wasn't like I was on constantly. Like I couldn't stop being on TV. And also, I apologize, if that's what you were looking for.
Are there any shows, animated or not, that you'd love to be part of?
Shows that are on TV right now? Not really. I love the shows that I'm doing. I'm not necessarily a huge fan of a lot of animated shows. I've watched a lot of South Park, that's a show I've really enjoyed in my 40s. [Laughs] South Park actually started when I was doing a show called Dr. Katz, which was on Comedy Central. South Park came on around the same time, so I sort of knew that show from its inception. I'd like to be in the movie Inception, too.
There was an internet meme a while back that put Archer lines on Mad Men stills that worked really well.
Oh, really? That's funny.
Sterling Archer would probably fit really well with Don Draper in the Mad Men world.
They're of similar times, in a way. I don't think Archer's specific. They certainly look alike, right? And there's a similar style. It's seems as if Archer takes place in the 1960s, even though it doesn't, really.
Now that you've done an Archer/Bob's Burgers, what other shows would you like to see Sterling Archer cross over into?
Fox and Friends, maybe.
You could do an Archer/Jon Benjamin Has a Van crossover.
We could do a three-way, with Archer, Jon Benjamin Has a Van, and Bob's Burgers, all in the same show. It's tough, because Jon Benjamin Has a Van got cancelled, but at least it would be good to have the van animated somewhere. Even if it just drove by in the background. And then I'm in it, like, "Hey!" Just a quick little thing, where I'm like, "Hey, guys!" Or, "Get out of the way!"
You could somehow run yourself over.
That would be worth it.
You've done both animation and live comedy. If Archer had the budget of a show like 24, where they could somehow afford to blow up as many things up as you guys do, but do it as a live action show, would you reprise your role?
I certainly would not get cast as the lead in that, right? I feel like the studios would want someone more marketable.
At this point, to a lot of people you already are Archer.
When I was doing Jon Benjamin Has a Van, I used to get a lot, well, it wasn't exactly hate mail, but people saying "Now that I've seen you, it's ruined Archer for me." [Laughs] It's a little mean, but I can understand.
What's the most challenging voice acting role you've had?
I used to play this character, Jason, on Home Movies. He was, like, a little kid. I mistakenly set it up where I had to hold my nose on one side to do it. It was an improvised show, so sometimes I had to do that for a very long stretch. It hurt, because I'd have to press hard. I wouldn't say that it was challenging, but it hurt a little.
I was kind of hoping you'd say it was the talking can from Wet Hot American Summer.
Why would that be challenging? I didn't have to be in the can to do it. They didn't make me simulate being a can, which was nice, although I probably would have done that. It would have been funny to walk into a recording studio and see a huge can of vegetables, and then they say "get in."
Outside of the often-repeated "Danger Zone" lyric from Top Gun, I don't think we've ever heard Sterling Archer sing. With such a distinctive voice, would you ever consider doing music?
I don't know if I can fashion myself singing. I play drums a little bit, and I have a lot of friends who are in bands. I've sung as a joke, you know? I don't think I'd be good at it.
Finally, can you give us any clues as to what sort of trouble might be in store for Sterling Archer this upcoming season? Are there any scenes or episodes that you're eager for fans to see on-screen?
There's a two-part finale, with a very big finish in the end. I can't tell you exactly what happens, but there's a lot that leads into that.
The fourth season of Archer premieres on Thursday, January 17th at 10 p.m. on FX.