Does the experience of watching voice actors change animation?

Does the experience of watching voice actors change animation?

This January, fans who braved pouring rain to travel to the Theatre Of Living Arts in Philadelphia to see Archer Live! were greeted by Sterling Archer, not H. Jon Benjamin, who famously looks nothing like the dashing super-spy he voices on FX’s animated comedy. Instead of Benjamin’s beer gut and thinning hair, the audience got a muscular, black-haired Adonis who roamed the floor of the TLA in a tight black turtleneck sweater. As Benjamin played the part of the man behind the curtain, “Archer” mouthed his lines, acting as a false hypeman for the crowd. The joke is that the diehard Archer fans who paid for the privilege of seeing a cartoon come to life know what Benjamin actually looks like. Everyone who’s followed his career from Dr. Katz through Home Movies through Jon Benjamin Has A Van is aware of the humor derived from the canyon between Archer’s animated appearance and what his voice actor looks like in real life—more Bob Belcher than Sterling Archer.

The façade was dropped soon after, leading to a night of drawings come to life. As with any of these live-performance TV-show events, this one offered plenty of padding. The cynical take, for anyone unhappy with the ticket prices, was that the performance wasn’t so much Archer Live! as Archer DVD Extras Shown On A Big Screen. But even those DVD extras sometimes felt vital. The evening’s meat was more or less as advertised: The actors onstage—Benjamin, Aisha Tyler (Lana), Chris Parnell (Cyril), Lucky Yates (Krieger), and Amber Nash (Pam), along with executive producer Matt Thompson—reenacted scenes, answered questions, and took multiple breaks to shoot a T-shirt gun to the sweet sounds of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.” 

Yet in spite of all that, the “Sterling Archer” man-puppet who opened the show set the tone for the evening. The audience got the benefit of watching cartoons without the ’toon front. Does the experience of watching live actors change the way their animated characters are perceived? Not really. Archer is funny no matter what H. Jon Benjamin looks like in real life, but seeing these actors onstage creates a clear divide between performers who make a living being themselves onstage and those that don’t, and explores how the characters they voice mesh into Archer’s fabric. Nash, Yates, and even Parnell were considerably quieter than Benjamin and Tyler, stand-ups whose public personas are their paychecks. But when it came time for the more reticent to perform, they were completely absorbed into their characters. 

Actors make money off their brand, or their public personas. But using celebrity voices in animated film is a relatively new phenomenon; The Atlantic’s Scott Meslow pinpointed the watershed moment as Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. Celebrities as voice actors have proliferated throughout animation because it’s much easier to market a movie with a star, even if that star is only sitting in a studio for a couple of days in Burbank, rather than spending months on a set. Meslow talks about how celebrities in animation have come to play versions of themselves, and in some cases, their characters began to look creepily like them, with a few notable exceptions. (Steve Carell and Jason Segel in Despicable Me, for instance, are refreshingly unrecognizable.) While animation used to be sold based on the medium, lately it’s been sold on the voice talent behind the curtain. In those instances, actors can put their brand into a different context. Robin Williams can show that he can be hyperactive as both a man and as a blue singing genie.  

Seeing the actors from Archer in a different context, though, only highlighted the difference between the voice actors working off their own brands and those who disappear into their characters. Watching Benjamin and Tyler onscreen did not change the way their Archer characters read. Their in-person appearance augmented their character traits. No matter what Archer looks like onscreen, he fits perfectly into the brand Benjamin created. The same goes for Tyler. As two of the more famous members of the cast, they’ve been able to construct personas, and they’ve parlayed those personas into paychecks.

Benjamin isn’t at a Seth MacFarlane level, but he’s certainly more of a public figure than, say, The Simpsons’ Dan Castellaneta, in part because his shtick and his talents as a voice actor go hand-in-hand. Just as MacFarlane has a “naughty little boy” brand, a Benjamin character is easy to anger, self-serious, yet defined by a core of slackerism, a quality that seems almost inherent in Benjamin’s baritone and nasal outbursts. He’s the kind of the overly confident screw-up who doesn’t really know, or care, that he’s a screw-up. Benjamin almost certainly isn’t the characters he portrays, but his voice has a comforting familiarity. The live show’s opening, with its pseudo-Archer, was enough to make the division between Archer and Benjamin funny, but it’s significant that Benjamin projects Archer-esque character traits onstage. He demands attention and eyeballs. Just because he isn’t animated doesn’t mean that he drops his brand. 

Lana emerged in Tyler as soon as she spoke. As Tyler played up her own personable personality onstage, a less restrained, goofier Lana came through. She doesn’t ostensibly share many qualities with Lana—she prefers videogames and food to firefights and espionage—but her character was immediately apparent whenever she spoke Lana’s lines. When she assured people that she wasn’t actually Lana Kane, the crowd shot back, as if prompted, “But you look like her.” And she does. Both are tall and gorgeous with high cheekbones, but more importantly, both have a no-nonsense appeal. It’s worked for Tyler as a stand-up, as host of Talk Soup, and in various other talking-head TV appearances. 

The effect didn’t extend to the performers without established brands. In one of the better moments from the fourth-season première, “Fugue And Riffs,” Lana asks Malory if she’s ever met anyone less damsely in distress. “Pam,” Malory answers, referring to the character voiced by Amber Nash. In contrast to how Tyler still suggests Lana in person, Nash doesn’t scream her character. Nash was more quiet and reserved onstage, in spite of the positive reaction from the audience. Her speaking voice was different from Pam’s as well, with warmer intonations.

Jessica Walter, who plays Malory, didn’t show up in Philly, so when it came time to read a scene featuring Archer’s mother, Nash stepped in to play the part. When Nash took on Walter’s perfect perma-haughtiness (her own version of a brand), Pam disappeared from her voice and Malory emerged. Nash is a great example of the perfect supporting voice actor: She’s versatile, yet she blends seamlessly into her role, without using an already-established persona to inform her character. The experience of watching her transform from her established character to one she was approximating due to circumstances demonstrated her talent, showing how she could disappear within a character that wasn’t her own. Unlike screen actors, Nash doesn’t have the benefit of changing her appearance to portray her range, like Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman in The Hours. Performing live afforded Nash and her audience that opportunity. Nash’s strength as a voice actor is that she has no preconception to play off of. She’s a blank, which gives her voice a transformative quality. 

Chris Parnell is the sole actor in the Archer cast who’s publicly recognizable, yet has no persona to sell. Parnell has been on television in one capacity or another since he joined Saturday Night Live in 1998. One minute, he’s 30 Rock’s Dr. Spaceman; in another, he’s Suburgatory’s Fred Shay; in the next, he’s Cyril Figgis. He can play confident and all-knowing, or turn into a stew of neuroses. In each circumstance, his character takes over. The subtle changes reveal his versatility as an actor, whether he’s in ’toon form or not. 

Watching the cast of Archer perform live didn’t change the viewing experience of the show. It’s still going to be funny, whether the actors do more promotional live shows or not. But seeing a live version of Archer concretely demonstrates the strengths of familiar faces in an animated cast—like Benjamin, Tyler, and Walter—while also highlighting the importance of less-known people. It’s to Archer’s credit that those different types of actor—the branded and the blank slate—can exist in harmony, without overshadowing each other.