Archer Interview: H. Jon Benjamin Explains Archer Vice

The fifth season of Archer is shaking things up Miami Vice style. We sat down with lead actor H. Jon Benjamin to explore why.

Archer had a major makeover last night during the Season 5 Premiere, when it became Archer Vice: The show about a group of former bumbling spies now playing as bumbling cocaine dealers. How did we get here?! For answers on that and other pressing issues we turned to Sterling Archer’s vocal doppelganger, H. Jon Benjamin. Besides being the smooth tenor behind the Agent Formerly Known as Duchess’ voice, Benjamin first made hay in the quirky animated world in the progenitor for so many of these shows—Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. He has since done work on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Upright Citizens Brigade, Home Movies, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, and many more of hilarious shows. Yet for so many fans, he will first and foremost be the most impressive superspy who ever donned a turtleneck. Thus, we were ecstatic to be able to sit down with him last week during a conference call and have him shed light on the new direction of Archer…Vice. I watched all the shows last night.  I was blown away.  H. Jon Benjamin: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I haven’t seen any yet, so I’m glad that you were blown away…No. I’ve seen the first episode.  So I know what you were saying. I was wondering; do you know why they decided to go in such a completely different direction this season, sort of changing so many things?  Well, I think there’s a lot of changes and a lot that stays the same obviously, but I think Adam Reed probably got very drunk one night while he was writing on his computer.  Watched too many episodes of Miami Vice late at night or something? Well, I assume he’s of the age where he grew up on that show. I know I was, maybe, right, mid-40s. I don’t want to give away his age in case he’s been lying to people. I mean I’m not exactly sure why is the real answer, but I assume it has something to do with wanting to kind of change the environment a little bit. But, the good thing is the characters are pretty much the same dynamics. They’re the same. It’s just more confusion, more of the same confusion. More craziness.   Yes. What was your reaction when Adam first broke the news to you about how dramatically the series was going to be changing?  Was everyone briefed at once, or did you get a late night drunken phone call?  We all went to the briefing room, the briefing chamber underneath the briefing room and—no, for the last couple of seasons, he’s had very kind of high concept ideas. He tells everybody individually. I don’t think we’re ever all in the same room for anything.  Like last season with the Bob Burgers crossover, he had called to tell me about that. So, I was forewarned about this change. But then, when he told me in detail what was going to happen, I was thrilled. I mean I loved the idea, but in fairness, I couldn’t reject it. I couldn’t say, “Don’t do that.” I don’t have that kind of power. Was there any particular aspect of the changes that really surprised you or did you just kind of roll with the punches with Adam now? It was more like not punches, but slight slaps, and I rolled with it. I really love the idea that they’ve been operating without a license for all these years, and also maybe the underlying idea that at any point in espionage as a whole, the organizations can eat themselves kind of thing. I thought it was a great way to change the show.  How did the character of “Archer” come to be? There seemed to be a lot of really interesting personality characterizations that make him up. So, did one person or celebrity influence how you play him, or is there a lot of yourself you see in “Archer?” It wasn’t really based on anybody in particular, any celebrity. I think I had the initial idea to make him—try and portray him as suave, but I couldn’t really do that. So, I just played it by ear.  I mean I kind of pictured him in a tuxedo a lot like James Bond. I just don’t embody that. I can barely get into a tux. Everything is odd fitting lately. I just kind of played him as a very hyper-aggressive version of me.  So, any of the other really memorable and hilarious characters you’ve played in animation like “Coach McGuirk” or “Bob Belcher,” do you really see yourself in any of those one characters particularly?  Well, I mean “Coach McGuirk” probably [had to kind of be me in a way]. “Archer” was, I think, initially inspired certainly from Adam Reed’s perspective. I think he wanted a spy version of “Coach McGuirk.” So, I they share a lot of traits.  As we’ve already said, Season 5 is probably the biggest departure for the Archer series.  What did you enjoy most about recording for Archer Vice this year?   The outfits. The outfits I wore were much better; all Miami Vice stuff that I wore while recording. So, that was fun to do, finally to get back to the way I used to dress.  You had mentioned earlier about Bob Burgers episode that you did from last season. Are there any other characters from your past that you’d like to see do another crossover episode? Like what other characters would you like to see done?  You mean like in Archer or anything? Yes, in Archer if you could.  Oh, man…Wow. I suppose Katz or something, or maybe like “Jason” from Home Movies should walk by, but all grown up now.  A spy in training perhaps? He’s be like 18 now. That would be fun, to see him grown up.  Can you talk a little bit about how “Lana’s” pregnancy will change the dynamic with “Archer” this season since usually they’re partners?  Yes. Well, she’s moving a little slower and carrying some extra weight. Doing what she’s doing this season and being pregnant, there’s a fairly huge conflict of interest.  Do you prefer the mystery around “Sterling’s” father, or do you feel that he should be revealed?  I prefer the mystery I think. I think it fuels his anger. It’s both what makes him good at what he does and bad as a human being, which is fun to watch. So, yes, I mean maybe it will get resolved, but I’m not sure “Malory” knows. What have you found to be some of the biggest acting challenges would you say in creating a character using just your voice. Well, it was very hard initially when I first did it, but that was like a long time ago. It’s hard to be sort of physically restrained. I mean I’m not tied up or anything, except on occasion from the night before.  Well, whatever. That’s a little bit difficult when I started, but I guess I’m just kind of used to it now.  I’ve been doing for so long. I get kind of used to just working alone in a booth.  But at first, it was definitely odd. I remember feeling that way, like how do you negotiate this. Like can I yell?  Like am I too loud? So, there’s a lot of like natural restraints, like being extra careful, which I wouldn’t do in a live performance.  Is there such a thing as too much or over the top with Archer? It doesn’t seem so. I mean it lives pretty within itself I have to say. So, as much as it’s over the top, it feels organic. You know what I mean?  I haven’t seen them go way outside themselves, and that was a slight concern with like a Bob Burgers crossover because that can get like, “Oh, why are you ruining it?”  But, he pulled it off. It was seamless. If you didn’t know Bob Burgers, I don’t think you would have even batted your eyes at that. So, even when they do things very conceptual, it somehow still works for Archer.  One thing I’ve always really liked about the show but wondered: have you ever talked with Adam about when is it really set? Not to give away the spoiler of what’s to come, but they have the Internet, they have cell phones, but at the same time, they’re fighting the KGB for … the coding machines and “Woodhouse” is talking about World War I. So…. Time is pretty fungible in Archer I feel, yes [Laughs]. Sometimes Burt Reynolds seemed like he was of his time, but the car that he was driving was from the ‘70s.  I mean they preserve cars. So, that’s maybe a sad example, but yes, there’s pretty much a very broad sense of time in Archer. I think it was that way from the onset. So, that was the world the way they structured it, and I don’t think it’s ever really changed.  One thing I’ve always found interesting of “Sterling Archer” is that he’s actually very well read.  It’s almost deceiving.  He can be talking for hours about the dangers of alligators, but then he’ll drop a Herman Melville quote on his enemies.   Yes, I think he was prep school educated—it seems like, at least from the flashbacks. He had the luxury of probably some very expensive East Coast prep school and they’ll make you read a lot of books.  Does it come somewhat from your background, or was that just something you and Adam created for the character? Adam Reed, I think, was a literature major in college. So, I think that mostly comes from him, although I’ve read Bartleby. I can tell you that.  Could you talk briefly about the experience of Iceland Ultra Blue? That was unfortunate. I loved that show. I wish it had gone further. That’s one of my big regrets besides having a son. No, I like him [Laughs]. But, Ultra Blue was great. We made it; they aired it for like a month, I think, at 4:00 in the morning and they just never made more. We were excited to make more. Did anyone actually believe that it was in fact a real infomercial?  Well, I think people were confused. That was our essential request to Adult Swim at the time, which was to not peep a word about what it was or who made it, or any information about why it was there in that landscape at that time, which is not a huge sell for a network. Maybe that’s why. We tried to not—in good part, they did sort of do that, but they didn’t continue with it. But, we knew that once it had aired, we would give it away and then people would just enjoy it for what it was. But, people didn’t kill themselves, but I think there was a lot of like, “What the hell is this?  Where’s the Squidbillies rerun that I want to watch” or whatever. There were a lot of angry e-mails to Adult Swim, and a lot of it was confusing. I think at 4:00 a.m., when you’re that high, you really don’t know what’s going on anyway. [Getting back to Archer] this whole season so far is kind of a throwback to the 1980s and Miami Vice with recurring jokes to cocaine addiction. So, I was wondering what are some of the aspects of that whole ‘80s cop show you or Adam are most looking forward to this season. …Well, I mean it certainly seems like a lot, yes. Archer seemed to start in the ‘60s [to] late-‘70s in a way with this kind of nod to James Bond and that’s sort of progressing through the decade.  I can’t wait for the ‘90s. But yes, I was a teenager when Miami Vice came out, and that was such a huge show. So, I was excited when I heard that the whole format was sort of like the James Bond backdrop or landscape. The show kind of maintains itself. It just sort of transitions into this kind of ‘80s world more so, but it’s not really a lampooning of Miami Vice I think. Can you foresee “Archer” sincerely trying to become a would-be father to “Lana’s” child in the future?  I think that there’s always the hope or there’s always the desire to probably do that, although I just don’t have a lot of confidence in “Archer” as the character to commit to that kind of thing yet. I think he’ll be more like one of those guys who might be able to raise a child when he’s in his mid-60s. So, I think he wants to do that, but I think his emotional issues, deep, deep emotional issues would always get in the way. Speaking of the emotional issues, if there’s one life lesson “Sterling Archer” needs to learn, what do you think that is?   I think he probably needs to sort of get over these issues with his mother, but that’s hard to do. Most people can’t. I think he probably needs to cut the line with his mom and just go somewhere and write an autobiography. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!