When looking to cast
the intelligent and sexy superspy Lana Kane on the brilliant FX comedy Archer, Aisha Tyler seems like such an obvious choice.
She graduated from Darthmouth College and was on the fast track to becoming a lawyer when she decided to pursue a career in comedy, which means she is both smart and funny. And as a self-described “guy’s girl” with an interest in video games, beer and sci-fi, she seems like the perfect person to deliver the witty and obscure lines of dialogue written by show creator Adam Reed.
We recently caught up with Tyler to discuss her roots in stand up, her enduring role on Friends and life as a superspy on one of the funniest shows on television, which returns tonight with all new episodes.
How did you get into comedy? When did you decide its what you wanted to do for a living?
Well, I did a lot of improv and sketch in high school and college. And I think in college is when I first started seeing other people do stand up and realizing it was actually something you could do as a job. Because before that it just kind of seemed like something magical that only a few special people did. Even though there were like the Steve Martins and the Bill Cosbys, I had no sense that it was a profession.
So I didn’t really figure out I wanted to be a stand up until I graduated college and I was working and watching the precursor to Comedy Central, which was this terrible network called Ha and thinking, “Oh, I could totally do this.”
Everybody before they start is like, “Oh, this looks so easy.” So I just started writing jokes down and I started on January of 1993, so I’ve been doing it like 18 years now.
When did you feel like. “I’m good at this”? When did you start feeling comfortable as a stand up comedian?
I never walked around like, “I’m so awesome.” I really loved it probably from the very first time that I did it. But I feel like when you’re a young comedian, you always have an overinflated sense of your own competency. You’re like, “Oh, people don’t see how great I am and how funny I am.” And you slowly almost work backwards from there and start to realize “No, I’m not, I definitely could work harder and I definitely could be better.” But I always knew it’s what I wanted to do. From the very first day I knew it’s what I wanted to do.
Were you always interested in acting as well or was that something that came along once your career started taking off and you started appearing on television?
I studied sketch and improv in high school, so I stem from sort of broad form comedic acting, but as soon as I got to LA I think I started studying acting and studying shows that I love. I remember just watching every episode of Friends and really knowing that show inside and out because it was comedic acting.
The old path for a lot of stand up comedians would be come to LA and then you get a deal for your own show. Obviously, that’s how Seinfeld did it and how Ray Romano did it and there’s so many guys who had gotten these deals. It used to be kind of hand in hand if you were a stand up comedian and you were getting any attention in town that you were thinking about the fact that you might at some point act in a show that was based on your act.
It sounds so calculating, but I think once I got here I realized I needed to be a better actor. I started studying pretty intensively. But then, of course, I started auditioning for stuff and started getting it, so it kind of was both calculated and organic.
What was it like, both for your career and simply being a fan of the show before you were on it, to have that reoccurring role on Friends?
I think it was a huge amount of legitimacy when I got that. It was like the hugest show on TV, pretty much and it wasn’t a little role. All of the guest stars previous to that, 90 percent of that had been huge names like Sean Penn and Brad Pitt and, I can’t think of his name right now, Magnum, P.I. …
Thanks, Tom Selleck and Reese Witherspoon. So I just was trying just not to crap myself the whole time I was doing it. Talk Soup, I think the biggest audience we were getting at that time was maybe a million people. And I went from getting a million people a week to getting 25 million people just in the U.S. So it definitely changed a lot of things. It just gave me this air of legitimacy, like, “Okay, she’s a real actress, she’s on this show.” So yeah, it definitely changed everything.
Is it weird to think your episodes of that show are going to exist forever on syndicated cable? They are probably on somewhere right now.
I guess so, yeah. In a lot of ways it’s odd. I’m grateful for it because you’re always in front of people. A lot of things we do in this business, you make something and it just kind of goes into this big gaping black hole of obscurity and no one ever sees it again. So it’s great that that show has such an amazing third and fourth and eleventh life and people watch it all over the world. I did a series last year that aired in Europe and everybody there knew me from Friends, but also from 24. Amazingly, I’ve been just lucky to get some big shows that have had long lives. I’m mostly just stoked and grateful.
According to your IMDB profile, you are known for Death Sentence, Ghost Whiperer, Bedtime Stories and Balls of Fury.
How did they pick those? We think you would agree, that’s not what you should be known for.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t know. I have no idea, it seems just like bad algorithm math that picked those four shows, right? But those are all things I’ve done and Ghost Whisperer had a huge fanbase and that’s in syndication now on Ion, so people see that and they watch me die every approximate like nine weeks or so. You’ve got to take the whole resume, you know? You can’t cherry pick.
How did the role of Lana on Archer come along? What was the audition process like for that?
I just got sent the script by the show creator and he asked me if I wanted to do it and I said yes. It was very simply. I didn’t need to read the entire script. I read the first five to 10 pages and it was so funny, I just called my agent and said, “Yes, I’ll do this. Absolutely, right away.” It was very simple.
Did you find out why they had you in mind for the character? It seems like the perfect character for you because you’re smart and you’re nerdy and with the stuff that you’re into, we could see them saying, “Of course we need to get Aisha Tyler to play Lana.”
Well, everything you said is so sweet. I know Adam [Reed] really well and I don’t think I’ve ever actually asked him what his thought process was. I think they were looking at a lot of different people for it and I think he must have seen me on something or knew me from something and just thought, “This girl’s got this great sense of humor,” not that I think I’ve got a great sense of humor. But I feel like that’s what the thought process was. But I’ve never actually asked him and I should.
I don’t know. You know, you don’t want to know. Adam is like, “Ah, whatever, you just were around. You didn’t seem like you had anything going on in your life is why I asked you.”
Or he just thought you had big hands or something, which is why he wanted you.
He did. “Who looks moderately like a cartoon who has giant hands?” My hands are not that big, they’re long and delicate.
What was it like the first time you actually saw the character on screen with your voice? Did you ever get to see Lana in advance?
No, you know they animate the character to the dialogue, so we never see them in advance. I saw drawings and I saw the very first scene. But it wasn’t until after I’d recorded my episodes that I saw the very first scene of the pilot where Archer is in like the fake dungeon getting zapped by the guy who ends up being the Russian mole.
So no, you’re just using your imagination and you’re trying to be as funny as you possibly can to deliver these lines in the best way possible. I didn’t see it again until it was done and it had gotten ordered. I don’t even think I saw the pilot when it was made. I don’t think I saw any of it until it was aired.
Then I was just so happy. I loved the show when I read the script, but part of me thought it was never going to make it on the air because it was just too funny and too dirty. Then when something like that does make it and you see it so beautiful and so beautifully animated, I’m just happy to be a part of the show and I’m so proud of it.
You just go in and record your lines by yourself instead of doing it like a radio play. What’s it like to record the show that way? Did it take some getting used to?
No, I don’t think it took any getting used to. I’d done a good amount of different voice recording and I did a Disney feature. For me, because I come out of stand up, it’s very easy. I’m an actor but I come out of this comedy tradition. Comedy’s really about just trying to solve comedy problems. How are we going to make this funny? So we’re just working on those same problems in the booth. The writing is so funny and it’s so strong that your job as an actor is “What’s the funniest way to deliver this line?” That’s really what we do.
And that’s a blast. It’s very intense, but it goes by very quickly. For me, anyway, I just say the lines over and over again and then when I hear the people on the other end of the line laugh, then I know I got it done.
How often do you actually interact with the other cast members?
Very infrequently. About a third of us are in New York, a third of us are in LA and a third of us are in Atlanta and we all record separately. But sometimes I’ll see Judy [Greer] or Chris [Parnell] going in or out of the recording booth on any given day. But generally we don’t see each other that much.
We’ll see each other just if we’re doing like a panel or an event at a comedy festival or if we’re at Comic-Con. We all like each other quite a bit, so we’re all psyched when we’re together. But it’s just a few times a year and usually it’s very briefly. We all saw each other for about an hour this week for the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, but we won’t see each other again until maybe April or May.
What are those panels like and specifically what was it like getting to do Comic-Con?
I remember when in the middle of the first season I wrote myself a note in my to-do list that said, “If the show gets a second season insist that we go to Comic-Con.” I thought I was going to have to make a big sell. “Oh, you’ve got to go, it will be so great.” And I called the guy who runs PR for our show at FX and I was like, “Look, I really think we should go to Comic-Con.”
And he said, “Oh, we’re already going.”
I always have wanted to go to the Con. I was a really nerdy kid growing up and I was a big sci-fi fan and I’m still a fangirl. I just love it. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.
You really get to see the fans at these things. It’s different than going to do like a critics or a publicity thing. These are people who are really passionate about the show. But also, I’m a fan too. So when I go, I get to see all the people on shows I love. I get to go to the Game of Thrones panel and I get to meet the guys from Supernatural. I get to hang out with my friends who are on other shows when we don’t get to see each other all year long because we’re all working.
I’m really good friends with Maggie Q who is on Nikita and I only see her a couple of times a year. One of those times is at Comic-Con when we’re all down there for a week and we can hang out, so I love it.
I go to everybody else’s panel. I went to Zach Levi’s panel, I went to Jared Padalecki’s panel and I went to the Nikita panel. I just go and support my friends too, which is really fun. I’m also a big gamer, so I went to the Gears of War panel at the Nerd Machine this year. I’m friends with all of the guys who created that game. And I was on a gaming panel.
You have done voice work for Halo: Reach and for the downloaded content for Gears of War 3. As a gamer, it’s got to be fun to be able to play the games you’re in.
Yeah, I did voices for games I was a fan of before I was in them. It’s very exciting to love a game and then and then be in an iteration of that game. It wasn’t like I was introduced to gaming because someone asked me. I was a fanatical gamer and talked about it all the time and that’s why they called and asked me if I wanted to be a part of the game.
When you play those games, do you actually go online and play against your friends?
I play with just my friends in private parties. I don’t do a lot of Xbox Live. For a long time, I didn’t do any because I really felt like that would be the end of my career because I’d just play all the time. I just wouldn’t want to leave the house. So I kind of limit it to playing my friends or they’ll come over and we’ll play. I actually find it more enjoyable to play someone when they’re next to me so that when I kill them I can laugh right into their mouth.
Do you talk a lot of trash when you play? Do you get really competitive?
I’m pretty competitive. I’m not a big shit talker. But my friends all love playing, so we just laugh a lot. If you kill someone, they’re like, “Oh, fuck you” and everybody laughs their heads off. No one’s ever mad at each other, but there’s just a lot of like if I get a gravity hammer and I run around and execute everybody, everybody’s all pissed at me and just chases me around in circles. It’s just mayhem. It’s just bloodsport and mayhem.
You do a weekly podcast called Girl on Guy. What was the idea behind that and how has that been progressing?
It’s been going great, to answer that question first. It launched in August and hit a million downloads in the beginning of October. We made the Best of Comedy Podcasts of 2011 by iTunes. It’s been doing really, really well.
It originally was an idea honestly for a television show. We pitched it around and everybody told me, “Oh, it’s not going to work. Guys aren’t going to want to watch a show with a girl hosting it.” So I just made it anyway and it’s hugely popular. And it’s hugely popular with guys.
But it really came out of my own interests because I was raised by a single dad and I’ve always been kind of a “guy’s girl.” I was raised on motorcycles and action movies and video games. That’s always been stuff that I’m passionate about and I wanted to make a show about stuff that I love and that I was into. And a lot of women listen to it too, but it’s about stuff that guys typically love brought to you by a guy’s girl.
So the show is really just about stuff and now people really. Originally it was going to be more topical but really it’s evolved into a show about people I’m interested in. It’s not just about me. I talk to athletes, I talk to a lot of musicians, I talked to Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, I did an interview with Questlove from The Roots and the lead singer of Clutch Neil Fallon. I just mainly talk to people – not always men, it’s maybe like 90 percent men, 10 percent women, but it tends to focus on topics that are of interest to guys, but it’s got a really broad appeal.
You are reportedly an avid home brewer. How long ago did you start doing that and what made you interested in it?
I used to be a much more active home brewer than I am now when I was in my 20s and the early part of my 30s. I just don’t have as much time to do it as I used to. But we had a whole group of friends and we all used to brew. I’m from the Bay Area and brew pubs are huge and there are a lot of great microbreweries up there.
We used to brew every couple of weeks, then we’d all bring all of our beers together and have these tasting parties. In the beginning, some beers are good and some beers are bad. At the end of the night, all of the beers are delicious.
We brewed all of the beer for our wedding and I love it. I’d love to get back into it more actively. It’s just now I have three jobs, so it’s harder to find the time.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
It’s funny, I could tell you what I would have wanted to do, then I could tell you what probably would have happened. I probably would have wanted to be a chef or a restauranteur. But I was on the fast track to law school. I probably would have ended up being an attorney. That was what I was planning on doing when I started doing stand up.
Have you always had an interest in cooking?
I love food. I’m a huge foodie. Both of my parents are really outgoing, but my dad is this like really funny, social guy. I also love the conviviality of owning a restaurant and interacting with people. It’s probably why I’m a comic because I like to interact with people a lot.
But I love food. I love to eat and I love wine. I’m a crazy kind of home cook. My hobby for a long time, which I don’t do as much honestly because of time, would be to go to a restaurant and eat a meal and then come back and replicate it at home. I used to do that a lot. I’d go eat a meal, figure out everything that was in the meal, then go home and essentially cook the exact same meal and like copy it perfectly in my home kitchen.
I still love to do stuff like that. For the holidays, we had a bunch of people over and I cooked this huge Bo Ssäm meal out of this David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. I’m the kind of person that if I made burgers, I would make the buns from scratch, which again the home brewing thing comes into that. Once you realize you can make stuff from scratch, you don’t want to buy it anymore. You feel like, “Oh, it would be a little bit better if I did this or if I did that.” That was the whole thing I loved about brewing was that if you loved a beer and you thought, “God, this beer would go great if there was some chocolate in it or if I added more hops.” I love the math of figuring that stuff out.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I speak fluent French. I’m a big Francophile. That probably links to the food obsession. I also speak functional Russian and functional Swahili and I studied the violin until I was 13. And now I can’t play a lick of it anymore though. I miss it.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Archer premieres tonight at 10 pm on FX. Check back next Thursday for another interview with an Archer cast member. For more information on Aisha Tyler and to find out how to download her Girl on Guy podcast, visit her official website.