A year ago, Comedy Central announced that H. Jon Benjamin—of Home Movies and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist—would be getting his own sketch show, and fans were psyched. Benjamin is a favorite at live comedy shows (he used to host a show in New York with David Cross and Todd Barry), and has appeared in many funny projects like Parks And Recreation and Human Giant. Plus he voices the leads on the beloved animated shows Archer and Bob’s Burgers. Jon Benjamin Has A Van, which premières June 14, is a chance for Benjamin to take the reins of his own half-hour sketch-comedy show. It’s loosely based on news-magazine programs, finding Benjamin reporting on ridiculous fabricated events in an earnest deadpan, or shooting silly gonzo-style pieces like “Cash Stall” and “You Can’t Shoot Here.” Then, once each episode gets started, the conceit breaks down, and Benjamin’s news team—including co-writer Leo Allen—ends up playing a role in a new show-within-a-show sketch. Before Jon Benjamin Has A Van’s two-day debut (a second episode launches June 15), The A.V. Club chatted with Benjamin about Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! comparisons, deceiving Comedy Central, and why he hates working.
The A.V. Club: There are a lot of man-on-the-street segments in Jon Benjamin Has A Van. How many of your interviewees are real, non-actor people on the street?
Jon Benjamin: I’d have to take a guess, but I’d say 21.7 percent—people wandering around on their way to work.
AVC: What about Cash Stall, the Cash Cab-like game show in bathroom stalls?
JB: I don’t want to say if that was real or fake. I’ll let ya guess. [Laughs.] That means it was fake, right? Yeah.
AVC: The show resembles Tim And Eric in the way you don’t know if the people you use are part of the act or not.
JB: Yeah. I love Tim And Eric, but we actually had to fight against it being so much like Tim And Eric. Everybody involved had been working on that show for so long; there were occasions where we had to pull back. They just had to have a strong sensibility. For example, the editor had to be aware that if somebody took a sip of something, they shouldn’t make that huge, cartoon slurping sound.
AVC: Why did you fear the comparison between shows?
JB: I don’t honestly see them being that similar. I mean, little things… We didn’t dwell on finding as many strange people, but we used a lot of their casting, so a lot of the people who were in that show did stuff for us, which had its good and bad moments.
AVC: Tim And Eric’s production company is involved, as is Comedy Central and Funny Or Die. How did all three come together?
JB: It was a bidding war. [Laughs.] No, I’m not sure why so many people became involved. It started with Comedy Central and it kept snowballing with new people coming on board. It was pretty much first-come first-served, unfortunately. I knew Andrew Steele, who is the head of Funny Or Die at the moment, and I met with him about producing the show when I was in L.A. And we had known each other anyway, so it worked out fine. So that’s how they got involved. So he, in turn, set up a bunch of stuff. He set up the connection with Absolutely, and unfortunately, nobody else got involved after that. Otherwise the show would’ve been half production cards, at the end. It’d be called Production Cards. [Laughs.]
AVC: After the last time we spoke, you mentioned after the interview that the show shifted from how it was originally conceived. How so?
JB: It started when we made the pilot. It’s not entirely different, but we built on what we did in the pilot and changed it from there. When it got ordered to a series, we didn’t completely change it, but we took the elements of the pilot and expanded on them. We added the whole story element—how the story breaks down, or how I become part of the fake story that I’m doing—in some fashion. We expanded on that part without telling Comedy Central, who were, um, not unpleasantly surprised by that. Initially, [the first episode] wasn’t the pilot. It was a different show: a couple street pieces and a couple interviews, and that was it. It never went anywhere else.
AVC: What was the attraction to add the secondary story, the show-within-a-show element?
JB: Well, we wanted to fuck over Comedy Central. No, no, we started writing and realized that if we did 10 of those episodes, it would become boring for us. At least it was for me. Leo Allen, who I worked with and wrote the show with—we started writing a bunch of interview sketches in the room, and after a week we were like, “Wow. We wrote a lot of these.” It felt like the show wouldn’t be as exciting to us if we did 10 of those. Basically, we had decided to write the last episode first, where we would completely go away from the formula of the first nine—we decided, “Let’s write that one first so we have it out of the way and can return to writing what we’re supposed to write,” figuring that Comedy Central won’t care by episode 10 that we’re writing something totally different. So we did that, and because we enjoyed it, we did more of that. It’s like doing cocaine. Once you do it once, you’re like, “Wow that’s enjoyable, let’s do it again!” But it’s not for everybody. Writing. Not cocaine. Cocaine is for everybody.
AVC: So Comedy Central was unaware you changed the format after they ordered the 10 episodes?
JB: [Laughs.] Right. We didn’t tell them we’d decided to, like, break down the story and make it a little more thematic. And so we wrote, like, two more like that. Then they were asking for scripts, and we showed them. Then we had the conversation. They were uneasy about it at first—it was wrong to do what we did—but we said, “This will be good.”
AVC: How involved was the pitch for the show?
JB: I think that’s why I felt a little less compelled to tell them everything, because they were pretty low-key. When I went in to pitch the pilot, I didn’t really have any idea as to what I was going to do, so there wasn’t a full pilot in the presentation. We had just thrown it together. We never really discussed whether this would be a good series or not, or how it would go over the course of each episode, or if there would be an arc or anything. There wasn’t much discussed, so the first real discussion was when we completely changed the nature of the show—then they were upset. But they quickly got over it. They weren’t—I wouldn’t say upset, but more, “Why would you do that?”
AVC: Which is a fair question.
JB: It was. But, you know, I do think it came out better, and obviously part of that was because we enjoyed writing it more, whereas the other way seemed more like a task.
AVC: What about the news-magazine format initially appealed to you?
JB: When we were trying to figure out what the show would be, those street pieces were the first thing Comedy Central responded to, because they’re short and quick and funny, so they liked that stuff. I didn’t want to just do that, because that would get old very quickly. Leo and I talked about shows we liked, and I always gravitate to the most mundane things. We started talking about Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt, that kind of show that had very long-form and sometimes boring stories. I’ve always liked shows like that. There was a local version of that show when I grew up in Massachusetts called Chronicle. It always told a story of, you know, “There was a guy who lived in a shack and painted dolls”—big half-hour stories. [Laughs.] Or a guy who makes lures, or something like that. So we decided, “Yeah, let’s potentially bore people.” But then it took its different form after we started writing those, because we thought, as funny as they were, they were dry.
AVC: How trusting of your creative vision was Comedy Central throughout the process?
JB: I’ve been pretty fortunate. I’ve never worked for a show or was on a show where I didn’t have a lot of control creatively, but then again, I haven’t worked on a lot of shows. I’ve had the good fortune in the few that I have worked on, and in this show, they basically let us do what we want. In the prior show I worked on with David Cross, Freak Show, with Comedy Central, that was a little more difficult. They were more involved. There were a lot of arguments over what could be in the script and what couldn’t. But even that wasn’t a huge thing. I know people who write for networks, and Loren Bouchard, who works on Bob’s Burgers now, tells me stories about Fox’s involvement, which is pretty significant. They’re constantly having to rework things, and it’s a real process. But this show seems to be more of the norm for me. It’s kind of like, we just do it. There were little arguments along the way, but nothing spectacular.
The more I do this, the more I work on my own material, the more selfish I get, which is a good thing. I start to only want to do it my way, and really argue that. I’m not sure whether that’s important, but I do think I’m right most of the time. [Laughs.] You end up not really arguing with Comedy Central, but because comedy is so subjective, you end up arguing with everybody about it. You end up arguing with the editors, the producer, the director, the actors. It’s very hard to get exactly what you want done, because there are so many people involved in the process. But the only other process would be to be really lonely.
AVC: Do you struggle with control now, even as the creator and head writer of your own show?
JB: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I argue with the guy I write it with, with Leo, and then once you get through the process of actually trying to make it, the task becomes even greater, because there are so many different perspectives involved [throughout]. Some people are very clear about what they want; I guess I’m still learning to do that.
AVC: You’ve been experimenting with video sketch for a while; you mentioned in the previous interview that you and Jon Glaser used to play around with a video camera on The Jenny McCarthy Show.
JB: I think I started making videos in the early ’90s—that was before video! We started making sketch videos when I started doing comedy. For each show, we’d try to make a video and show it, but I don’t know how unusual it was. It was definitely harder and preceded the ability to show everyone, because, you know, you had to have a VCR to show it. So sharing was more difficult… Some of the street videos from the new show, I started to make in the early ’00s. Some of those ideas are 10 years old. And fortunately, I didn’t put a lot of them on YouTube or anything like that, so I can “borrow” them from myself, for this, which is good. One we had in the pilot, which was this video that I made in 2003 that we couldn’t use it for legal purposes. I killed someone. No, I bought a Staples shirt on eBay, and I went to Staples in it. When people came up to me, I told them that I didn’t work there, so there was a lot of confusion, like, “What are you talking about?” I’d be like, “Oh, I don’t work here… Oh, my shirt. Yeah. I have a Staples shirt.” That’s the benefit of being bad at distributing video.
AVC: So what have you learned about making sketch-comedy videos, after so much experience?
JB: I’ve learned to wait ’til an idea is worth making. That’s not really a lesson I’ve learned; I sort of always did it that way. But there’s no reason or need to make videos prior to when you make a show, because then you need material for it. It became harder to do that, but I learned to not make them just for the sake of making them for the show, and write something else. I guess it was more about turning down the notion to make double the amount of them, because you try to come up with stuff, and it’s just not as good.
AVC: After your recent voiceover saturation, what’s been your experience being back in front of the camera, particularly as the lead?
JB: I need to lose some weight. I’m getting really fat. But I’m getting older, and I just can’t stop eating wonderful food. Rich, wonderful food. [Laughs.] There’s a vast difference between doing voiceover and doing on-camera for the show—it’s working for five days in a row, and I’m just not good with work. With voiceovers, it’s just two hours straight, one day a month. So the schedule—there’s a lot more lenience.
AVC: What do you mean you’re “not good with work”? You’re not good at completing it?
JB: It’s physically hard for me to work. I start to break down, physically. My joints start. I get weepy eyes. I don’t sleep well. I was never a hard worker, I guess. So the voiceover work ethic is really great for me—couple days a month, two hours a day.