For H. Jon Benjamin of ‘Archer’ and ‘Bob’s Burgers,’ it’s all in the voice
Even if you haven’t heard of H. Jon Benjamin, if you’re a fan of a particular brand of eccentric comedy, you have heard him.
A longtime stand-up who cut his teeth around the alt-comedy circuit with the likes of David Cross, Benjamin got one of his first breaks in a regular role on the animated series “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” a show that proved to be a friendly spot for his fellow comics to appear in the ’90s and early ’00s.
“At the time it wasn’t particularly viable, but it was a job,” the 52-year-old Benjamin remembers, speaking by phone from New York City. “Just getting a job doing improv and doing what I was trying to do onstage was remarkable.”
That series was produced by Loren Bouchard, and that relationship led to his appearing in the subsequent Adult Swim series “Home Movies” followed by his current role as the father at the center of Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers,” which is in its eighth season. On the other end of the animated spectrum, Benjamin plays Sterling Archer in FXX’s “Archer,” an unhinged and absurdist take on the secret agent genre created by Adam Reed that on Wednesday returns for its ninth season.
In addition to leading an eccentric show of his own in 2011 with Comedy Central’s “Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” Benjamin has appeared in a diverse set of key comedies, including a surreal cameo as a can of vegetables in the cult favorite “Wet Hot American Summer.” And yet, in one of his stranger — and more divisive — comic ventures, Benjamin released an album on Sub Pop in 2015, for which he hired professional jazz musicians to back him on the aptly titled goof “Well, I Should Have ... (Learned How to Play Piano).”
We chatted with him about becoming a stand-out voice, and how well jazz can take a joke.
I have to ask, are you between piano practices? How’s that coming along?
I tried man, I tried. I did two lessons. Yeah, look, I wanted to learn how to play piano and I realized how difficult that is at my advanced age. In fairness, I only gave it two tries. But I’m pragmatic, so in two hours I did realize that I think it would take me 20 years to learn how to play.
Did that record end up upsetting anyone?
Yeah, some people. I actually had a good correspondence with [music critic] Ben Ratliff. I was actually reaching out to him because we were working on a couple of follow-up ideas for the album, and I just happened to write him because I’d read his stuff – I’m not a completist jazz fan, but I’m a jazz fan so I knew him. I wrote him, and he did immediately take issue with the album. He was like, ‘I’m aware of it, I wasn’t a fan.’ So he was in that camp. I hadn’t encountered a lot of that, there was a good group of jazz people who just appreciated the mention.
It’s not always a scene known for its humor.
No, and he did get across that I think it’s reflexive in the jazz community because of the nature of how people make fun of a very important medium of music. It’s become sort of part of the vernacular of humor as in: easy joke. Which I totally agreed with, and I tried to explain why my album was different. I think I might have made a little headway, but I didn’t totally convince him. (Laughs)
But he was nice about it. I had my particular arguments about why my joke was not that joke, like, “Anybody can play jazz.” I get that’s what people might take that joke for, but that was not my intent. The joke for me was that I really tried to sort of be able to play and take my intuition and use that, which I do think is kind of essentially jazz, to a degree.
Let’s talk about your day jobs with “Archer” and “Bob’s.” Do you now find yourself getting recognized for your voice?
A lot more than I used to, yeah.
I imagine it makes for some strange attempts at take-out orders.
I often tell the story of the barista at my local Starbucks, her name [like the character voiced by Aisha Tyler on “Archer”] is Lana, she has a name tag. So I started doing the Lana thing to her five years ago. Like, “Lana!” and she would always be like, “Yes?” And I would be like, “Lanaaaa!” and she would say, “Yes? Can I take your order?” And I would just say, “I’ll have a tea, thank you.”
So she never caught up to the joke until like a year and a half ago and she was like, “Oh my God! I saw your show.” That was a good two-year inside joke I was having with myself.
When did you realize that this was a viable career path in comedy?
Probably from when I got my first job in animation, which was “Dr. Katz.” But even that, it’s not like live-action work. You’re not going to a set every day and experiencing this communal sense of doing something with a group of people. It’s a little more isolated, although “Bob’s Burgers” does record with the cast together. But in terms of time committed, it’s perfect for me. I’m a good one-day-a-week employee.
Is there a difference in how you approach your voice for Bob versus Archer?
I’m not like a classically trained actor so I never have a particularly good answer for this, but I think I differentiate the characters now pretty easily. Bob is a lot like me in real life, I think, trying to find the next word to say to family, to anybody. Archer is a lot more confident and aggro. It’s pretty much just that; there’s the same voice, but there’s a different tone.
I think Archer has – it’s kind of the privilege of the aristocracy, I guess. Archer thinks everything he says is important. And Bob is the product of who he is, and probably a little less confident in exposing himself.
The last season of “Archer” got sort of hard-boiled with its trip back to the noir era. Was it strange to do darker stuff with the show?
It was sort of heading in that direction in prior seasons, some were more zany than others. But I think that story was the biggest departure for the tone of the show, and I really liked it.
It doesn’t really matter to me – I don’t have a say, which is one thing, but approaching the whole season like that doesn’t affect the character that much. Even this season [“Danger Island”], which is kind of a big switch, I do think the tone is a little different than last season as in there’s a bit more hard comedy, which is kind of the sweet spot for Archer.
You also have a memoir coming. It’s called “Failure Is an Option”?
I think it’s subtitled “An Attempted Memoir.” It’s a bunch of semi-related personal stories about failure in my life. The threadline is I fail at a lot of stuff.
As everyone does, really.
Exactly, I’ll share mine in order for you to relate to yours. It will connect us.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language and violence)
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.
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