Spy guy Archer returns in TV’s saltiest showWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
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In his first 10-episode season, secret agent Sterling Archer was beaten, shot with a spear gun, thrown through the windshield of his car, stabbed, flung from an exploding yacht and had a microchip inserted in his brain via electric drill.
But he’s in for an even rougher journey through Season Two, according to show creator and principal writer Adam Reed.
“A lot more bad things happen; the brain chip, a devastating illness, gunshots, throwing stars, samurai swords, a lot of impacts to the head; we just keep smashing him,” Reed told Toledo Free Press Star.
“Archer’s” DNA consists of James Bond movies spiked with Penthouse Forum letters, a scale for physical punishment adopted from Warner Bros. cartoons and an “Arrested Development”-style wit. The series begins its second season on the FX network on Jan. 27.
Archer, voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, is a spy for the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), which is run by his mother, Malory (Jessica Walter). He works with his ex-girlfriend, the impossibly sexy Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) and a colorful group of office mates and adversaries that includes characters voiced by Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, Jeffrey Tambor and George Coe.
Reed, whose background includes such adult-aimed animated fare as “Sealab 2012” and “Frisky Dingo,” said the second season will run 13 episodes.
“We’re currently editing episode 11, storyboarding episode 12 and I’m a week behind turning in the script for episode 13,” he said.
“Archer” has earned fans with its audacious mix of high-brow humor and gutter wisecracks, pushing the limits of raunchy language and themes.
“It’s pretty easy working with FX; we get a lot of leeway,” Reed said. “I just turned in a script in which someone calls Archer a ‘cockbrain’ and they asked me to change it to ‘dickbrain.’ It’s a subtle difference in language.”
Reed said he feels lucky to work with a cast that can see the humor in the R-rated scripts.
“They are all really good sports,” he said. “At times I have been embarrassed to ask Jessica Walter to do a scene, and I’ll say, ‘I’ll just go ahead and apologize in advance for this’ and she’ll say, ‘No it’s fine, I get it.’ There have been times when she’d say, ‘I don’t understand this joke,’ and we’d explain it and she’d say, ‘Oh, Adam — all right, let’s do it’.”
The series is noted for its seamless dialogue and rapid-fire vocal energy, but Reed said the cast never records together.
“We tried a long time ago to put six actors in a booth together, but it just doesn’t work,” he said. “The actors are all over the country and we direct them over the phone; Jessica and Jon are usually in New York City, Aisha and Judy are in LA, Parnell is in LA or New York.
“Our editors make it sound like they were in the room together. It’s a standing rule on our show: Nobody ever listens to anybody, they’re just waiting for the other person to stop talking so they can talk.”
One of the show’s signatures is that its rotating series of weekly villains almost always get away, but fans expecting any reprises will have to hope for a Season Three.
“We have new villains, none of the first season villains made it into the scripts,” Reed said. “Maybe if we do another season we can start a Legion of Doom for Archer villains, so they can join forces.”
Reed recognizes that he has created a spy who inspires complicated feelings even among his fans.
“Jon has been amazing in creating the voice. People ask, ‘How come I’m rooting for this guy when he’s such a jerk?’ and I think a lot of it is Jon’s delivery,” Reed said. “There’s a lot packed in the dialogue, and he says a lot of terrible things but he doesn’t come off as hateable, or as hateable as you’d think.
“Jon does a lot of interesting things with his voice. He uses pauses in sentences where people wouldn’t normally pause, and it makes his voice just super interesting to listen to.”
The scripts also provide the audience with some insight into why Archer is who he is.
“The flashbacks to his horrible childhood make him more sympathetic than his actions and words would let you believe he could be,” Reed said. “He’s a walking id; all of us would like to tell off the person at the grocery store or bank or DMV, but society doesn’t allow that. Archer does it to everybody, all the time. He drinks as much as he wants and has sex with whoever he wants and has all this money and great stuff. There’s a lot to envy on the surface, but not very far beneath it.”
Reed emphasizes the work of his cast in making “Archer” special.
“Parnell as [comptroller Cyril Figgis, who has an affair with Lana] is amazing — as I am writing the words, I am hearing the voices in my head — and he comes in and reads it exactly, every syllable, as I heard it when I wrote it,” Reed said. “Cyril goes to some dark places this season, including some time in a mental institution.”
Reed also gives credit to his strong female cast.
“Jessica Walter as Malory is the anchor of the show; it revolves around her manipulations,” he said. “Once I got over being intimidated by working with her, it has been excellent. In every script, she brings such experience; in one episode this season they are at the Grand Prix, and Jessica says, ‘You know, I know a little bit about Monte Carlo,’ and someone will whisper to me, ‘she was in the movie “Grand Prix” with James Garner!’ All these places we do in ‘Archer,’ she’s been there, done that.
“This season, Judy Greer’s Cheryl starts experimenting with inhalants; her personal relationships with the men in the office have fallen by the wayside. I think they have smelled the crazy.
“In one episode, Pam (Amber Nash) comes back from Jamaica and is being obnoxious about how great it is. The network is using the picture of her in dreadlocks in all the press materials, trying to solidify her base among Rastafarians and Crystal Bowersox fans.”
The breakout character on the show is Lana Kane, voiced by Aisha Tyler. Her signature use of “Yup!” to end a conversation and “asshole” to describe Archer punctuates her tough-as-nails spy persona.
“‘Yup’ is one of Aisha’s actual things she does, and we started using it,” Reed said. “I may overuse it, but it just cracks me up. Aisha is very, very funny, and not to sound sexist, but she has a very male sense of humor. She can out frat boy a whole house full of frat boys. She is a great ad-libber, so it’s fun to hear her read what is written, and then say, ‘let’s try this’; her ideas are always solid to excellent.”
The heat Tyler imbues her character with transcends the limits of animation; just talking with her on the phone is enough to make a married man feel like he is cheating.
Speaking to Toledo Free Press Star from the Toronto set of her new spy series “XIII,” based on the French graphic novels, Tyler is open and funny and speaks with a honey-coated politeness she does not employ when voicing Lana. Tyler’s career has included stints on “Talk Soup,” “Friends,” “CSI” and “24,” but there is nothing on her acting resume that suggests the raw sexuality of her “Archer” character.
“I have done a voice on ‘The Boondocks’ on Adult Swim, but ‘Archer’ is a unique show on television, unique in its comedic voice,” she said.
Tyler added that the remarkable resemblance between her and Lana was a fluke.
“The illustration predated my casting; Lana’s look was clearly defined,” she said. “They didn’t have me in mind when they created her but through cosmic coincidence she looks very much like me.”
Tyler said she draws upon her stand-up comedy background when voicing the character.
“The scripts are so well-written and funny, and as a stand-up comedian, my background is to find a way to make a line sound the funniest it can be — how do I make these three words or this phrase sound as funny as I can?” she said. “I jump around, get physical, use the space; we just did an episode where we’re racing cars, and you have to create that energy; you just accept that you’re going to look ridiculous in that tiny room.”
Tyler said her writing background helps her appreciate the careful balance “Archer” walks between ambitious references and sex jokes.
“From my creating stand-up and from my time on ‘Talk Soup,’ we would sit around trying to figure out how to make words sound as funny as possible, arguing over things like, which sounds funnier, chest or torso?” she said. “I really love Lana, and at my gigs I am often the only woman in the room, so you can’t shock me. This show is funny, and it’s for grown-ups; there’s no apology for that. It’s smart and sophisticated but also shocking. It’s literary and very obscure and then there are these filthy and sophomoric jokes. When I read the first scripts, I thought, ‘I’ve just died and gone to comedy heaven’.”
Tyler said she and Reed collaborate on the readings of the lines.
“We have a complementary creative sense; he is so funny, and hopefully he thinks I’m funny; we play a lot,” she said. “We once had a 15-minute discussion over which sounds funnier, ‘ball-slappiest’ or ‘ball-slappin’est’; you can call it crude or bawdy, but a lot of thought goes into everything we do and it pays off because fans say, ‘I’ve seen this episode seven times and every time I find something new and hear a joke I didn’t hear before.’ Adam layers a lot of gems into the show.”
Tyler said she is pleased with the second season arc.
“I am really proud of the show, reaching farther with the characters, and it’s sexy, it’s a spy show; there’s this Bondian element to it. It was a little more office-driven in the first season, and the relationships are still there, but you see us get out more and do a little more espionage in Season Two,” she said.
The famous “Yup!” is also a source of pride.
“I get a lot of requests for ‘Yup’ as a ring tone; one website compiled all the clips of Lana saying ‘Yup’,” she said. “Adam is convinced that was something I said, so I am happy to contribute; it’s like my version of ‘The Larry Sanders Show’s’ ‘Hey now!’”
Tyler is an avid video gamer who recorded a voice for the most recent “Halo” game.
“I love video games, it’s cool to hear your voice in a game,” she said. “I can imagine an ‘Archer’ videogame with Lana and Archer running around shooting terrorists, her calling him ‘asshole’ and him yelling ‘Danger Zone!’ It’s a no-brainer; I’m sure FX is on it.”
Tyler said she hopes the series continues and wants to remain a part of it.
“I’d love for it to go on; it’s a joy to make,” she said. “We could go as long as ‘The Simpsons,’ 20 years, make some feature films; we’d love it.”
The man: Questions, answers and laughs with Archer’s alter ego
H. Jon Benjamin has many live action credits, but his true calling is apparently breathing life into animated characters. He has performed on “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” “Family Guy” and the PBS children’s show “Word Girl,” and now voices two title characters, Sterling Archer on “Archer” and Bob Belcher on “Bob’s Burgers.” During a telephone interview with Toledo Free Press Star from his New York City home, Benjamin ducked some questions, took some head-on and treated all of them as part of the absurd theater of his line of work. His delivery is slow, deliberate and funny in a way cold words on the page cannot convey.
Star: There is a lot of adult content in “Archer,” but you have quite a few adult shows in your background.
Benjamin: I started in porn, so I’m working my way slowly toward more mainstream stuff.
Star: Even with different characters on completely different shows, your cadence is distinct. I told my wife, “That voice on ‘Word Girl,’ that’s Archer!”
Benjamin: Just you and your wife watch “Word Girl?”
Star: We have a 4-year-old who watches.
Benjamin: I was going to say, if it’s just you and your wife, you know, that’s cool, if you’re like, “I work all day, then go home to the wife and watch “Word Girl.” We learn three new words a week; what do you do?”
Star: Talk about working on the tone and pace of the dialogue when you’re recording separate from the cast.
Benjamin: You make it sound hard, but it’s really in the editing and scripts. I am as surprised when I see it as you were. If you were surprised. I don’t know if you were.
Star: I was surprised that as much as the show depends on the back and forth in the delivery of lines, that none of you ever work together.
Benjamin: It is surprising. I didn’t meet the cast until the second season.
Star: I knew you weren’t together, gathered around a microphone like on “Prairie Home Companion,” but even crediting the technology, if the performances weren’t special there’d be nothing there.
Benjamin: Well, you know how terrible “Prairie Home Companion” is, but it is interesting how well it comes out.
Star: Do you have a favorite line from the first season?
Benjamin: Every time I say “mother.” It makes me feel like, oh, my mother. I love her.
Star: There are websites devoted to the quotable lines, like “Danger Zone!” The one that gets repeated a lot is from when you described one woman as the “Pelé of anal.”
Benjamin: I definitely remember that one. That could have been anything but Pelé made that line. It could have been Baryshnikov or Nureyev, but no, they had to go way back to the New York Cosmos; that only appeals to so many people; the kids had to go look that up, you know, “What’s a Pelé?”
Star: Are you happy with the quality of Season Two?
Benjamin: The stories are great; there are lots of surprises. I have one storyline that covers three episodes; no one’s getting lazy yet.
Star: Have any of your employers, like the PBS “Word Girl” crew, ever expressed concern about you also being the voice behind lines like “Pelé of anal?”
Benjamin: I keep trying to slip “anal” into “Word Girl,” but they keep cutting it out. There’s nothing wrong with kids learning about it. I’m not saying go do it. Knowing about something means knowing what not to do, too.
Star: Do you have any voice-over actors that you consider inspirations?
Benjamin: There aren’t that many famous for just voice-overs. Can you think of any?
Star: Dan Castellaneta from “The Simpsons.”
Benjamin: Yeah, but he’s my age, so I should probably resent him. Under duress, I would say Jonathan Katz is an influence. I worked with him on “Dr. Katz,” the first animated show I did. I never planned this path, I just got in the back door. That’s an anal reference. See what I do? I can’t get away from it.
Star: You back doored your way to an Emmy nomination for best voice-over work for “Archer.”
Benjamin: I had never been nominated for anything.
Star: That had to be cool to wake up to.
Benjamin: It’s never cool waking up for me, no matter what happens, but I was excited; I’m a big fan of the show.
Star: You lost to Anne Hathaway for her guest spot on “The Simpsons.”
Benjamin: I didn’t know that.
Star: Sorry to break that news.
Benjamin: No, I knew I lost (laughing). You didn’t break that to me. That would be funny though, if I had still been waiting: “Hey, when are they going to decide on that?”
Star: Looking forward to more seasons?
Benjamin: That would be great. Great for me, great for you, great for everybody. I was just checking “The Simpsons,” they’re past 20 years. I’d like to see Archer that old.
Star: I can’t imagine they can keep him alive that long, the way they punish him.
Benjamin: That’s true, but James Bond’s still kicking.
Star: Yeah, but they have to go through different actors. You don’t want that.
Benjamin: I would actually vote for a different actor every four seasons so Archer could directly follow the Bond reference. So after me they have to find a Roger Moore.
Star: He’s probably available.
Benjamin: (Laughing) A Roger Moore type, not Roger Moore. But that would be great if they replaced me with Roger Moore.
Star: They’d have to get George Lazenby first, for just one show.
Star: You’re also the lead voice on “Bob’s Burgers;” any difficulty in switching back and forth between Archer, Bob and the other voices you do?
Benjamin: They’re stuck with what they get, unfortunately, but it seems to be working. One day I did both on the same day, and “Bob’s Burgers” does six-hour recording sessions, with a lot of improv. I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but that was one rough day; I worked, like, seven hours. I guess I do sound like an asshole.