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Adam Reed has been creating animated shows with a distinctive sense of humor for more than a decade. In 2000, he and co-creator Matt Thompson went underwater with Sealab 2021, a takeoff on the short-lived ’70s show Sealab 2020. The series aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block for five years, developing a cult following that would follow Reed to his next Adult Swim venture: Frisky Dingo. Now Reed has taken his comic sensibility to FX and aimed it at the spy genre with the animated comedy Archer. Following a narcissistic, playboy spy with mommy issues (with Jessica Walter as the voice of his mother, he’s all but guaranteed to have them) and a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the right time, Archer is James Bond meets Arrested Development minus any sort of filter. Reed talked to The A.V. Club about the genesis of Archer, getting away with the show’s risqué material, and which actor he’d like to have do a voice on the series.
The A.V. Club: Where did the idea for the show come from?
Adam Reed: Have you seen James Bond? No. It was our past two cartoons. We sort of established adventure genre and tried to crack it open and mess it up as much as we could. So we had an undersea laboratory [in Sealab 2021], which I guess is not that well-known of a genre, and then we had superheroes [in Frisky Dingo]. So global espionage just sort of seemed to be the logical next step.
AVC: You mentioned James Bond. Were there any particular spy films or TV shows that influenced you as you were creating the show?
AR: I watched a lot of the James Bond movies, certainly, both the old ones and the reboot with Daniel Craig. I watched a lot of the Matt Helm films with Dean Martin, which just have these great car scenes where it’s rear-projected, and they just start making martinis out of a bar in the glove compartment. But strangely, [in] the original Matt Helm books, he’s just this super hardass assassin. They sort of made it into a sexy romp for the movies. The books are very, very dark. I also watched OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies, which is a French film. They just made a second one, I think, which is based on like, 100 novels. They’re just fantastic. They’re set in the ’60s. A lot of the visual inspiration definitely came from 1960 James Bond movies and OSS 177 and also Pink Panther movies.
AVC: There’s a lot of conflicting ideas and images in the show. The computers look kind of dated, but they use cell phones. The KGB is still a big threat, but then the characters will make reference to Dane Cook. Where or when does this show take place?
AR: Well, it’s sort of intentionally ill-defined, if it’s defined at all, which I guess it really isn’t. I really liked the design aesthetic of the mid-century modern for furniture and the early ’60s stuff for the clothes. But then, personally, I’m a huge fan of 1970s muscle cars. Cell phones is just a laziness thing because it’s so much easier to have somebody have a cell phone than have to go to a phone booth. So we’re sort of, I guess, cherry-picking the best and easiest from several decades.
AVC: Would you say that it’s sort of an alternate universe that has elements of different time periods?
AR: You know, I don’t know if I’d say an alternate universe. Although that might be the easiest way to define it. I think that could sort of lock you into something at some point. You know what? I just think it’s ill-defined.
AVC: Why did you decide to make the KGB and Russia such a big threat? It almost feels like the Cold War never ended in the show.
AR: It does. Part of that was just my personal weariness with real life, especially. But also, in thriller fiction these days, everything is always about terror. I get enough of that on the news, so I didn’t want to deal with fundamentalists or any sort of thing like that. I just wanted to keep it as lighthearted as the Cold War was, which obviously it was a fun time for everybody.
AVC: Bombs, nuclear war. No big deal.
AR: No big deal. I was telling somebody about in grammar school we used to have the duck-and-cover drills where we’d have to go down to a fallout shelter in the basement. We’d sit on our butts on the ground next to the wall with a textbook over our heads and our knees sort of drawn up to our chest. I don’t think they still do that. They’re sort of sobering. You leave recess and come in for the apocalypse drill.
AVC: At a recent Paley Center panel, Aisha Tyler said that the characters were drawn before the actors were cast.
AR: They were.
AVC: Some of the actors really look like the characters. Was that just a coincidence, or did you give the animators sort of an idea of who you were thinking of for the roles?
AR: No. It was all a coincidence. Those are all local models from Atlanta. We used real people and dressed them up in period clothes. Lana’s character model is a flight attendant here in town. Cyril is a guy we know who runs a restaurant. So we just grabbed people around here, and then it was just sort of a fluke that they ended up looking like, to some extent, their real-life counterparts. Aisha’s hands aren’t as big as we always make fun of Lana for having. The model for Archer is an electrician here in town and is exactly that handsome and also really nice. So there’s just no reason to like him.
AVC: Your guest cast has a lot of actors who have distinctive voices or comedic styles: Jeffrey Tambor, Maggie Wheeler, who everyone knows because of that voice on Friends, Audrey Wasilewski, Rachael Harris. Do you write the characters with them in mind, or do they just come in and audition and then you get to play with that?
AR: We write them with them in mind, or we’ll have the script and now that more people know that Archer is a TV show, we can call and say, “Hey, Rachael Harris, would you like to be in the cartoon?” We’ve been really lucky. Usually, people say yes. Not always, but usually. Ron Perlman has done a guest spot. Hopefully, we’re going to have him back. We’ve been really lucky—and it also helps that a lot of these people work on other FX shows. I think FX bullies them into doing it.
AVC: Have you been getting requests from actors who are fans of the show and want to do a voice?
AR: Not yet, although that would be pretty great. But I don’t think we’re there yet. Now we’re just at the stage where they don’t immediately say no.
AVC: Is there anyone who’s on your wish list?
AVC: Is there anything FX has said, “This is not okay. You can’t have this on the show”?
AR: We did have to tweak the season opener. The girl was originally 14 because I did a bunch of Wikipedia research and found out that that is the age of consent in Germany. They said they didn’t care where it was the age of consent, it wasn’t the age of consent on FX. The only other one was Archer threw an infant, really a newborn, to disarm a villain. They said that was going a little too far. The baby was going to slam into the guy’s chest, which I’m sure is terrible for a baby.
AVC: Do you feel like you can get away with a little bit more because it’s animated and it doesn’t seem as real?
AR: Oh, I absolutely do. I think the animation helps divorce the violence from reality. The sex certainly doesn’t look all that realistic. I think the fact that it’s animated, we get some leeway because of that.
AVC: Have you ever self-censored?
AR: Sometimes. It usually doesn’t get that far. I’ll usually do that in the script phase before it gets to the storyboards or the animators or the illustrators.
AVC: The show’s not just pushing the boundaries with language and content, but also with the references. I just discovered a site the other day that was the 10 Most Obscure Archer Jokes Explained.
AR: I saw that.
AVC: What did you think of that?
AR: I thought it was pretty neat. I’m shocked that somebody took the time to do that. I thought it was pretty interesting. As a frustrated English major, it’s nice to have people pick up on these really obscure references.
AVC: Are you a fiend for these obscure literature references and pop-culture references?
AR: I like them. Probably I’m more of a fan of the literary references than the pop-culture references. But I do go to the pop-culture well quite frequently because people, I think, are sort of inherently ready to laugh at that. It’s a free laugh almost. Usually, everybody gets it. If you make a Star Wars reference, everybody’s familiar with that. It’s a common reference that most people can relate to—Bartleby, The Scrivener, probably not so much.
AVC: It was surprising to learn at the Paley panel that Cheryl was not meant to stick around in the show until you cast Judy Greer and decided to keep her around.
AR: Yeah, it was going to be a running gag that Archer kept impregnating Malory’s secretaries. Whenever it happened, they would gas them with sleeping gas and just leave them on the steps at Bellevue Hospital with no ID or memory of what just happened. But when Judy agreed to do the show, Cheryl became a much more important character.
AVC: What other adjustments have you made as you’ve discovered what works, what doesn’t, and with casting?
AR: Really, we haven’t changed too much. I almost said, “The formula.” I mean I guess it is somewhat of a formula. It seems like they either go to some exotic place for a mission or they stay around the office and bicker for an episode. They continue to do that in season two. There are a lot of exotic locales, but also plenty office-bound bickering.
AVC: Season two seems to explore a little bit more of the characters’ relationships with each other and the backstories. Was that a goal for this season?
AR: Yes. It’s one of the things that FX, in our script notes, spends a lot of time discussing is character motivation, which at Adult Swim was never really a consideration. It was just, “Have that person say something funny.” But now we spend a little more time explaining why that person said what they did.
AVC: Has there been any push from FX to make Archer a little bit less cruel?
AR: There hasn’t been from them. Sometimes, the notes will say, “Can he be more of a dick in this scene?” for example. I’m just finishing the final script of season two. There was a discussion of whether one thing that Archer did was too mean just to be mean. So we’re going to wait and see how it plays after it’s recorded.
AVC: Viewers do seem to have an appetite right now for mean characters. Sue Sylvester on Glee is one of the cruelest characters on TV, but people love her. Do you worry about going too far with Archer? Or since FX is okay with it, is it the meaner the better?
AR: Well, I think he has these little flashes where you can sort of see behind the façade—unguarded moments. And you can see from the flashbacks and references to his childhood that it was probably terrible growing up with Malory Archer as a mother. But then, just when you think he’s growing as a character, he’ll do some other awful and self-absorbed thing. We just try to keep a balance, I guess.
AVC: How much of the show is improvised?
AR: I would say overall, probably five to 10 percent maybe is improv.
AVC: Do you have a particular line or moment where one of the actors improved and you thought really made it better?
AR: The Johnny Bench line was an adlib. It was totally apropos of nothing. There was no hidden meaning to it. But people really picked up on it. I think that was in one of those obscure jokes explanations. That just was blurted out in the booth. We all just laughed about it because it was so ridiculous and then it turns out that Johnny Bench had gigantic hands.
AVC: Is it more difficult with the actors all recording in different cities while you’re basically on the phone with them, or does it allow you to focus more easily on the rhythm of the dialogue?
AR: I prefer it. In fact, now for whatever reason, if we’re recording in the same room, I get a little distracted because I’m watching the actor instead of listening to the actor. The way we do it now, they’re on the phone, and we’re sitting here with scripts in front of us taking notes seriously and marking takes and doing some adlibs. I can really focus on the words and not the surroundings.
AVC: Final question: What happened to Pam’s dolphin? We haven’t seen it in a while.
AR: I think it comes back this season. I think we definitely see the dolphins. We’re very frugal, and if something gets drawn, you’re usually going to see it again. I know it appears in a flashback in season two. I don’t think it’s featured as heavily, although there are some other dolls.