One on One with H. Jon Benjamin
Even if you don’t recognize his face,
chances are you are familiar with H. Jon Benjamin’s smooth baritone voice. From Home Movies to Archer to Bob’s Burgers, Benjamin has lent his memorable pipes to a variety of colorful characters on quirky animated shows.
We recently caught up with Benjamin to talk about the new season of Archer, his trip to the Super Bowl and his time spent research softcore porn for work.
[To hear the audio version of this interview, click here.]
Let’s start, if we could, with your trademark voice. When did you end up with this voice? Was it just at 13 you hit puberty and wake up one day with it?
It’s part of the singularity. It’s just biological and technological. I don’t know, it’s been a long time coming. I don’t think I sounded like this in puberty. But everything kind of lowers as you get older.
Mainly your voice and your balls are the things that drop the most. Maybe it’s because I’m tired all the time.
So the key to your success has just been not getting enough sleep?
[Laughs.] Yes, it effects your vocal quality.
How did you get into acting? How did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I didn’t pursue it actively. I got into comedy when I got out of school, got out of college. So, I sort of got into what I do now through doing comedy. And mainly I did sketch comedy, like in school when I was younger. I suppose there was a lot of acting involved in that. And then, doing animated shows was just came about from getting cast in one show called Dr. Katz. And that was when I was doing comedy in Boston, Massachusetts. And they produced the show there, so they cast it locally. And I got the part. So that’s how it started.
Did you know Tom Snyder or was that just an open casting call, or how did that work?
Well no, I knew Jonathan Katz and I think he requested me to audition. I knew him through doing comedy, Catch a Rising Star and various other comedy clubs in Boston.
And so that lead to the other stuff, you did Dr. Katz and then Home Movies and all those other Tom Snyder shows?
At the time, I did do some characters. I remember when I auditioned for the show, I auditioned for his father, which was an old Jewish man. Thankfully that didn’t work out. That would have been a much different and much worse show. But I think that was the beginning of me doing animation, but the beginning of me using my own voice. Which now seems to be, it’s like a mandate.
You’re unique in that way – you do a lot of animated stuff, but you just do your voice, where a lot of other voice actors do a variety of voices. But you have a voice that is obviously very distinct and recognizable. Have you tried doing other voices?
Yeah, I have, but I’m reluctant to do it. I have done it, like I said. When I started doing comedy, I was doing characters and performing in a sketch group, which I guess you could compare it to Saturday Night Live, that stuff. And early on in my comedy acting career, I’d audition for stuff like Saturday Night Live. Characters are something I would do, I just don’t do as much of it anymore. And it is odd. I don’t know. There’s no good answer for it, other than I haven’t tried that hard.
You had your sketch show a few years ago and you pop up in some live action stuff. But was there a point where you decided to focus more on voice acting or was that just what kept coming along?
It kept coming along. It was more that that work was always consistent, especially through Tom Snyder’s company – which went on to be not his company – but there was a lot of work to be had there. It didn’t prevent me from doing other work, but it detered me a little bit, I suppose. And it was much more fun and the schedule was better. I never had to work very hard, which has always been a goal of mine. And parts just came to me. So I wouldn’t pass that advice onto others, but that’s just the way it happened for me.
How did Archer come along? Was that just an audition you went out for?
No, again that was Adam Reed, who created Archer, had seen Home Movies, a show that was on Adult Swim that was created and produced by Loren Bouchard and he liked me in that. I think he really wanted Archer to be the coach character that I played in Home Movies. So, I didn’t know this until a couple years ago, Adam told the story that he made a demo for FX with Coach McGuirk, but they animated Archer. So they just took one of my rants and said, “This should be the guy,” so that was my audition. I didn’t know about it.
I think he was going after much bigger names in the acting world and I think he wanted to sell me which would have been a harder sell than Matthew Perry or whoever – somebody that was immediately known by the network. Because all of the other people on the show were pretty famous actors. They all are. More so than me, because I had just done animation. So I think that was his way. He never called me to ask permission to do that, he just did that. Assumed I’d say yes and I did.
One thing that is sort of bizarre about the way Archer is recorded is that you go into a booth and just record your lines. It’s not done like a radio play. Is that more challenging for you or can you just find the rhythm of it?
Well, it’s definitely different in the two shows that I do now, they record them quite differently. One is with the group, Bob’s Burgers, and the other, Archer, I do it alone. But I am reading with the producers; two of the producers usually read with me. So you are kind of performing the scenes as they’re written with somebody. It’s just a little more isolated in that you’re not working with other actors. But Archer works really well like that I think specifically for the reason they do it that way, which is they want more room to edit the lines and take space away or sometimes add space when they want to. More likely, take space away, because of how rapid fire the dialogue works on that show.
With Bob’s Burgers, do you have more room to play around with it? What is the difference with doing an ensemble recording all at once?
I think Archer is very specific in it’s style; the way he wants the banter. So in a way, I think it works better and maybe I’m being redundant, recording everybody separately and being able to take my line and push it right up against Aisha Tyler when she recorded hers. So it’s really fast paced. It’s written that way and I guess that makes it easier for them to piece it together like that. You know, like [David] Mamet-esque or something. It’s not, but you know what I mean, it’s a style.
Bob’s Burgers is far more naturalistic in the way the whole process works. They do have scripts, but the actors work together, which has its own dynamic. It sometimes slows things down and it depends on how the actors move together in the scene. It turns out more naturalistic because of that. So two very distinct ways of doing it. You know, what you see is what you get.
I’m not saying that like an insult.
With Archer, how often do you see the other cast members? Is it mostly just Archer Live events?
Pretty much then. Only then and press events. At Chris Parnell’s annual pool party; private pool party . That’s about it.
And you guys are all kind spread out, too. Are you in New York or are you in LA?
Well, I live in New York. Some of the cast lives in Atlanta. Some of the cast lives in LA.
When you go into record, do you run into Jessica Walter going in to record her lines?
You know, I never have. I don’t even know if she exists. I’ve seen her at a few events, but I’m not sure that’s really her.
Yeah, you can’t be sure.
It could be just somebody, I have no idea. Maybe she’s been replaced.
I know there was a doppleganger for Ronald Reagan. They used to use him to fool assassins – just follow that guy instead of the real one.
Do you think Jessica Walter has a lot of assassins after her? Is that what’s happening?
I’d imagine there’d be one or two people who want her dead. One or two countries, I mean.
So how did the Bob’s Burgers role come about?
Well Loren Bouchard created that show and he’s been very generous in offering me a role in pretty much every show he does. He built a show with a cast in mind. That was another case of, he was asked to develop a show for Fox after he did this show on Adult Swim called Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil. That was what was what became Bob’s Burgers. The developed it for over a year and he sort of hand-picked the cast, so he pegged me for Bob.
We really enjoyed Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil, by the way. That was such a cool show.
It was a good show. That was really fun to do. And that was one of the shows that was a lot more improv than script. The script was very loose in that show. And that was always the way Loren did the shows I was in. There were three of them. That was the way they operated. And Bob’s Burgers, of course, still does a lot of that, but obviously it needs to be a bit more efficient.
For a network show, that show is really fun and sort of unique. You don’t normally see stuff like that on a network, even on Fox. It’s a wonderfully bizarre show.
It’s always a shock when a show gets to be made. And Fox, to it’s credit, gave Bob’s Burgers the time to find it’s footing. I think it has really developed into a really great show. And it’s certainly much different than all the other animation on Fox.
What is that experience of doing Archer Live like for you? Coming from a sketch background, do you enjoy getting to do the live stuff?
Archer Live is really more like a fan event. There’s not a lot … we should figure it out.
We were at the one in New York that you guys did last year. It was enjoyable.
It is enjoyable. It’s a great. It’s a really well-meaning disaster.
They should put that on the poster. That’s a good tagline for it.
Yeah, I think they should use that for any horrible event.
They are all well meaning. The best intentions.
Like the Sudan. “A well-meaning disaster.”
Yeah, no – they are really fun to do and mainly because the fans are so excited to see some of the scenes being performed live and clips and a bunch of stuff like that. So yeah, they’re good. And I think they are doing some more of them. They do them sort of piecemeal; sporadically here and there.
What was it like making Jon Benjamin Has a Van and what do you think happened with it? Did it just not get the traction Comedy Central wanted?
I think there were elements … not elements, that sounds too science fiction. There were people at Comedy Central who didn’t like the show, I think. There were people in America who didn’t like the show; people who watched it. I think it sort of split. I really like a lot of it. And I think we needed a little more time to develop because it wasn’t your traditional sketch show. We were trying to do something unique. We did write a second season, not a full second season. They had commissioned four scripts or five. And we had really kind of honed in on what the show could be at that point and unfortunately … I definitely feel like we needed more time.
What was great about that show was the way that you would take a premise and take it to this absurd level that was really fun. Maybe that’s what threw people off about it, but that was also what was so enjoyable about it.
We were planning on doing more of that and less of everything else in the show, the one-off, random “and now something totally different” kind of stuff. When we tooled the show for the second season, we kind of pushed that even further so it really was the sort of one discursive narrative that was hopefully funny. And that was, I think, a lot of what people didn’t like.
Well, they are wrong.
So we were going to do way more of what people didn’t like. There was a big disconnect between the idea of people needing to define the show as a sketch show. That’s fair. It did have elements of that. But I think then people say, a lot of times you watch a show on Saturday Night Live and it’s four and a half minutes and you hate it. You’re like, “Oh my god, that sketch went on too long,” and then you do a 22-minute version of that. So we were doing that.
I didn’t ever consider it, particularly, a sketch show, in the way that the Kroll Show is or Key and Peele, both of which I like. But it was never a show like that. So if you’re gonna define Jon Benjamin Has a Van as a sketch show, then sure, that’s a pretty bad sketch show. But if you’re going to define it as something else, then maybe we could get it into a better place.
Are there any more shows that you’re trying to develop?
I am. I’m always trying to develop some new shows. Leo Allen and I, who worked on Jon Benjamin Has a Van, just finished up a script for another kind of odd show that we want to get out there, which is an anthology show that I narrate. It’s like erotic stories. So we finished a script for that. Hopefully we can get going on that and then I don’t know what comes next.
Where did that idea come from? What was the inspiration?
It came from me watching late-night softcore pornography. Not willfully, I don’t seek it out. If I seek out porn, it’s going to be hardcore. This was just a perfect happenstance of me clicking through channels and finding that kind of porn that you really don’t see anymore at all because everything is on the Internet now. So it’s funny when you see this weird, retro, kind of hotel porn. Skinemax or stuff like that. And I got really into watching them. I know it sounds like an excuse to watch softcore porn, but there is no really good excuse to watch softcore porn. It’s grueling. It’s so stilted.
And then Leo and I started developing ideas around that and then we started watching more. There was a series called The Red Shoe Diaries. They made a ton of them, like five seasons of it. So it was its own show, late night, I think on Cinemax or Showtime or something.
Did you watch all five seasons to prepare?
No, I couldn’t get through it all. I got through like a season and a half. David Duchovny, his first role was, I think, this. He was a young actor. He was the narrator. He was the conduit that stories were told through and it was extraordinarily convoluted the way they kind of couched why they were presenting pornography. There’s a lot of Jewish guilt. A lot of the softcore, they were female-forward, or they pretended to be. So it was always about empowering women to explore their sexuality. But it was just so men could jerk off.
But not feel bad about it.
Well, that seems the prevailing conceit. The running theme, it was always about women taking ownership of their sexuality. But it seemed pretty hollow.
It’s still nicer though. A lot of hardcore porn these days seems angry at women. It’s nice they at least pretended. There’s something noble in that.
The Red Shoe Diaries, had this like, moniker of Zalman King, he was Israeli, he’s the guy who made it, he put his name on it, like a real family business. So that was also kind of a funny element too. It was sort of this one guy’s vision of getting really stilted softcore porn out there. So you don’t see that anymore either. And we were kind of a little bit inspired by maybe some British comedy that we really liked. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and stuff like that. So it’s along those lines.
So you’re the David Duchovny role of narrating the whole thing? That’s the idea?
Yes, yes. And then we kind of dissolve into the story.
That sounds awesome.
Yeah, it is. It came out really well. And I’m sure it’ll never get made.
At the very least, hopefully the pilot ends up somewhere that it can be seen.
Yeah, we’ll try. I mean we’ll definitely try that. So we’ll see.
What do you think you’d be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I was really slow starter. I still am. I’m just waiting for me to start. And it’s getting really late. I was pretty content when I was younger doing comedy as a hobby and picking up odd jobs here and there. But I’m glad that my career got going. I think I maybe would be teaching in a really annoying prep school somewhere in New Hampshire or something. I feel like that’s probably where I would have ended up.
Was that the other jobs you were doing? Were you substitute teaching or was that a path you were on?
I did go to graduate school and I got a degree and I shunned that trajectory. I went to graduate school for history. There was a point where I was going to get a doctorate. I was just far too uninspired and that would have taken a long time. And I would have had to learn Polish or something like that and that was really hard; a terribly hard language to learn. And there were so many better candidates.
In my graduate class, if there were a list, I was at the bottom. Like if you were going to rank everybody, one through 16, I was like 15 or 16. But it’s just like, because the other kid took acid or something and it fucked him up and he had to leave school. So I got a masters and I thought the idea of teaching was always like, I could do that because I have the credentials. So, I guess the true answer would be probably teaching at a prep school. And then getting fired for dating one of my students.
[Laughs.] But she was 18.
Oh yeah, and mature for her age.
Yeah, I don’t teach junior high. I’m not a pedophile, I’m a pervert.
Yeah, totally. You watch classy, Cinemax porn.
It sounds bad now. I was divining a scenario, that’s not necessarily the way I live my life.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
Everybody knows I’m Jewish, I constantly say that. I’m very shy. Probably not a lot of people know that. I’m not dreadfully shy, but I’m uncomfortable around people.
Do you get recognized? Do people hear your voice and kind of spin around and want to talk to you?
Yeah and I get recognized a lot more in general because of popularity of the animated shows. Also, I’ve been on TV a lot and I have my own show and I’ve done a lot of stuff. I’ve done a lot of performance. So I get recognized a lot more than I used to and surprisingly enough people follow my career. I have a bunch of fans now. So I do get recognized a lot. I also think people certainly follow shows like Archer and find out who’s in the cast. I do stuff now that you don’t have to go find on a microfiche. You can find me on the Internet in two seconds if you like Archer. So, in a way I can get recognized a lot more for just doing animation than I used to.
For fans of Archer, is there anything you can say about the season?
Well, this season is really good. I know people were kind of uneasy about when it switched to Archer: Vice and it was a big idea. Adam changed the show a lot, but I think it’s back to what people loved about. I think what people took away from the season, and I loved season five, but what people took away from it was that it was high concept and everything changed. Even though, not really. But, people like routine. And Archer is back to this very familiar territory of the characters bickering whilst doing a mission. But the really good thing is the developing story about Archer and Lana having a baby. And Archer pretending to raise it.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we didn’t touch on?
No. Go Patriots. Do it again next year.
You’re a Patriots fan?
I just came from the Super Bowl, yeah.
Oh, how was that?
It was really good. It was great. I’m a Patriots fan and it was one of the best Super Bowls ever.
What were those last few minutes like for you? How was that experience?
The second half was excruciating. It was a good game all the way through. Very intense. So it was crazy. Everybody was tense the second half. In the beginning of the game, it’s the Super Bowl, everybody’s screaming. Basically, just throughout, just non-stop screaming. And then by the second half, even the stadium quieted down.
It was just a great Super Bowl, in terms of the game itself. It was highly entertaining.
I mean, yeah. I took my kid, who’s not a big football fan. And he … it was kind of a chore to be there. And it is a bit of a chore to be there. It’s a crazy spectacle. It’s like spring break for middle-aged men. So my kid is kind of like, “Get me out of here.” But the game itself, he was like, “This is great, this is a really good game”. So even he, it turned him around. They’re all not going to be like that. It was cool to be there.
Often times, the game itself is usually the least interesting part of the Super Bowl, sadly.
Yeah, that’s true. Finally, a game was better than Katy Perry.
Which is not an easy thing to do. She had a giant tiger. So that’s tough.
Yeah, it was like a golden lion, right?
And sharks, there were dancing sharks.
Yeah, there were. It was a lot of animal husbandry going on.
And the return of Missy Elliot, which we were all rooting for.
Yeah, I was actually surprised. Everybody was like, “Who’s that?”
Well, everybody around me were older men who were like “Who’s that?” to everybody, including Katy Perry.
Hopefully you were able to explain Missy Elliot’s career to them.
Yeah, I was a fan of hers. That was a little secret. I was like, “Cool. That was good.”
That was the best part of the halftime show.
That was a good surprise. I mean, I like Katy Perry flying around because that made me laugh. The best part was, you’re right, Missy Elliot.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Archer airs Thursdays at 10 pm on FX. You can find more interviews with Archer cast members here.