Adam Reed walks us through Archer’s third season (Part 1 of 3)
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In its third season, FX’s animated comedy Archer hit new heights of lunacy and climbed in the ratings. The season began with a three-part episode—which aired in the fall after episodes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia—then played out the rest of its season in the winter. Throughout the season, the show dug even deeper into its characters, offered up a number of great spy missions (including one in space), and forced lead character Sterling Archer into increasingly depraved situations, not that he seemed to mind much. Along the way, Cyril Figgis became a field agent, Archer hooked up with Pam, and Archer’s mother Malory murdered the prime minister of Italy. Series creator Adam Reed—who’s had at least partial script credit on every episode of the show—recently talked with The A.V. Club about the process of working on all season-three episodes.
“Heart Of Archness, Parts 1, 2, and 3” (Sept. 15, 22, and 29, 2011)
Archer’s grief over the death of his fiancée, Katya, leads him to the Pacific islands. When his mother sends someone to bring him back, Archer instead falls in with the pirates who capture the two of them. He becomes their leader… temporarily.
The A.V. Club: Did you have goals you wanted to accomplish with this season before you sat down to start writing it?
Adam Reed: Uh… no. [Laughs.] I felt season two wandered around a little bit more than I wanted it to, so I wanted to maybe get it back toward spy-agency stuff a little bit. I think any show—any action comedy—benefits from having a villain. And we didn’t really have one. We’ve had guest villains come in, but never a nemesis for Archer. I guess the main goal was to set Barry up as his nemesis.
AVC: When the order was initially announced, was it for 16, or was that something people got confused about?
AR: It was, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was a weird misunderstanding. I said, “Yeah, I’d love do 13,” and then somebody said, “Oh hey, we want to do three episodes early with the Sunny season première.” I was like, “That’s great!” So I was operating under the three-plus-10 model, and then I went walking through Spain, so I was gone. And while I was gone, I don’t know how it got miscommunicated, but it became three-plus-13. So I read about it when I was out in the boonies, and I was like, “Whaat?” By then it had already been announced, and I was like, “Hey, so about that, that’s too many.” And they were like, “Well, we already announced it, so get on it.” And so we tried to keep up with that schedule, but I was just falling farther and farther behind. So I said, “How does 13 sound?”
AVC: How much work did you put into making “Heart Of Archness” a whole story that was told over 66 minutes?
AR: I guess probably the same amount as just writing three, but the challenge was that writing the second part was hard because it’s basically just a second act. So I had to try to make a stand-alone three-act in 20 minutes of what’s essentially just teeing up the third act of the larger work.
AVC: Did you try to tell three separate stories for those three episodes?
AR: I think it was probably just different groups of people bickering in each one. In the first one, it’s Archer bickering with Riley [Patrick Warburton], and in the second one, it’s them all bickering with Noah [David Cross], and in the third one Lana and Ray show up and everybody’s bickering. Just escalating the bickering.
AVC: You had big guest stars in this episode, and this season. What’s the process like going out to get guest voices for shows like this?
AR: Well, a lot of times, I’ll have the idea in my head of who I would like it to be, and then sort of write the script with that voice in my head, and then we add the person. We’ve gotten really lucky that usually they say yes. I think several times when I’ve had to go to some swanky Hollywood party for FX, I’ll meet these actors I think are great, and we’ll get to talking, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, Archer’s good.” And I’ll say, “Hey, will you do a voice line?” “I’d love to!” And then I go write something for that person.
AVC: How did you get Patrick Warburton and David Cross?
AR: Well, Cross is a good friend of Jon Benjamin [who voices Archer], and I’ve wanted to have him on the show forever, so I kept bugging Jon about that. Warburton, I think, when we were talking about having this basically—well not basically, but very similar to Brock [from] The Venture Bros., if he and Indiana Jones had a baby. So his voice was in my head.
AVC: You frequently raise the mystery of who Archer’s father is. Do you have an answer to that in your head, or is that just something you like to fuck around with?
AR: I guess the smart thing to say is that yes, I know who his father is. But I can’t share it for numerous reasons.
AVC: So the story is that Archer goes off and shirks responsibility and becomes a pirate king, and the rest of the ensemble is not in the episodes as much. How do you balance the story of whatever Archer is doing out on his so-called “mission” and what’s going on back at ISIS?
AR: That’s a challenge. The show originally was gonna be 90 percent Archer all the time. The office cast, in the pilot, were really there to sort of comment on and help illustrate what a dick Archer was. So we really hadn’t given it any thought. As I’ve mentioned before, we were going to kill off Cheryl in the pilot, but then we got Judy Greer. You know, “Well, we’re not killing her.” As the ensemble grew, it became much more interesting to see what they’re doing as well, and try to find ways to get them involved in the mission, or have whatever they’re doing in the office mirror the mission. But yeah, it’s kind of hard, because a lot of times, like with going to outer space, they all have to go. It’s too far for them to even be on the phone with each other. So a lot of times, I try to find excuses to get everybody to go do whatever mission.
AVC: Was there a character this season you felt got a little lost in the shuffle?
AR: You know, I’ve been unfair to the very talented Aisha Tyler. Lana has to lay a lot of pipe, and I don’t get to write as funny for her as I’d like to, and as I know she’d be great at, because everybody else is such a doofus that she often is the one who has to explain to all of them—and to us—what’s going on, and sort of rein in everybody’s idiocy.
AVC: This trilogy follows up the end of season two, which was treated surprisingly seriously. How careful were you to accurately reflect Archer’s “journey of depression,” you might say, while still keeping it amusing?
AR: Well, for it to be funny, it’s important for it to also be dramatic. I don’t know how to explain that, but they’re sort of flip-sides; you can’t have one without the other, because otherwise, you don’t care about it. So I wanted that to be as sad as possible, and then just what we know about Archer, I guess we assume he’s going to bounce back. And then it’s also a cartoon, so I think I write that stuff as seriously as I can, and then count on the audience knowing it’s gonna end up being funny at some point. Maybe not right then, but later.
AVC: When you sit down to write these episodes, do you have missions in mind that you’d like to send him on every season?
AR: There’ll usually be five or six where somebody will say, “Outer space. Do that,” so that’s in the back of my mind. For season three, I knew I wanted to end with a two-part epic in space, one of the reasons being that outer space was all in the background, clothes and rocketships and guns and everything, so it cost a whole bunch more to make that than, “Hey, we’ve lost something in the office, and we all need to look for it together.” [Laughs.] Which, I should write that down, that’s a good idea. We wanted to sort of amortize costs over two episodes or more.
I forgot the question—Oh! The missions. Yeah, it’s sort of like they’ll just be on Post-Its: “Outer Space,” or “Ray’s Hometown.” And then as I’m going through the season, I’ll go, “Oh, we haven’t gone to West Virginia. Let’s go do that this week.”
AVC: It’s not as expensive to send everyone to outer space as it is on a live-action show, but how much of your budget goes into creating these new environments every year?
AR: You know, I don’t know. It’s a pretty big chunk, because they’re all done in 3-D first. We get a really good rate. I think that in the long run, it’s been more cost-effective for us, because rather than redraw and repaint every angle of Malory’s office as we need it, we just render that wireframe out again from a different angle. Then they just paint it; they don’t have to draw the whole thing. So I think it’s probably more cost-effective, but it’s still a big chunk of money. I think that now there are probably eight people painting background, so it’s a lot.
AVC: What was the genesis of “Heart Of Archness”? Did you just want Archer to go off with pirates, or did you have something more complete in mind?
AR: [Laughs.] Always. When they said, “Hey, we want to do these three episodes together,” I wanted to deal with Archer’s grief over Katya getting killed, because I thought if he just came back and it was business as usual, it sort of takes away from the realness of the characters—if he didn’t even have a bump in the road after this horrific loss he’d suffered. And then I was like, “Maybe he could run away from home.” And then I thought, “Or maybe he could run away from home for all three episodes rather than just one, and then business as usual in the second and third episodes…”
It just sort of grew. FX was pretty cool about it when I was like, “Hey, I want to do this weird thing that’s unlike any other episode of Archer, where it’s a three-parter…” You could just hear the groaning and eye-rolling, and I’m like, “And… he gets to be a pirate.” They had to sort of be convinced a little bit about it, because they want to bring in new viewers, and they weren’t totally sure this was the way to do that.
AVC: Do you think it was a success at bringing in new viewers? The ratings were up this year.
AR: Yeah, I think that was part of it. Also, FX is just short of getting a billboard on the moon about Archer. So I think that has a bunch to do with it, how much promotion they do for the show.
AVC: It seemed in the first season, when it was so low-rated, the show was out in the wilderness to some degree. What do you think changed as far as that’s concerned, with the network or studio?
AR: They’ve just really stayed behind it, and they’re constantly promoting it. It’s like “Team Archer,” over there working on the show. “Hey, we’ve lined up these interviews,” and, “We need to do this,” and, “Here’s this thing we’ve submitted you for.” So they really build it up, and I think it also helps that all their other shows are doing really well, so Archer gets mentioned a lot in the same paragraph as Justified and Sons Of Anarchy; Archer’s in the article somewhere. So I think that helps a lot—their brand is really healthy, and we benefit from that a lot.
AVC: So returning to that question of when you were building this story, was it originally just supposed to be three typical Archer episodes that were standalone?
AR: I’m sure that’s what they were envisioning, but pretty early on, I wanted to do this weird three-parter; I just wasn’t sure where it was going to be. And then it just happened to be pirates. ’Cause the kids like ’em.
AVC: Did you do any research into modern piracy?
AR: I did. One of my weird things is that I constantly, constantly use Wikipedia on these Archer scripts. If a bad guy draws a gun on Archer, I start thinking, “What kind of gun would this guy have? Let’s go look… What’s a creepy, weird, sort of rare gun?” And I’m on Wikipedia looking up Mauser C96 pistols, and then click, click, click, click, and I’m reading about Family Feud, and just hours go by. So I did actually read a lot about pirates, old and new, but especially the new pirates.
AVC: Have you found out anything you just had to work into the episode?
AR: Not really. I think a lot of that research probably ends up not making it onto the screen, it just crowds up my brain. I can’t think of anything “real” about modern pirates. There’s something called a dhow, which is a modern pirate ship that looks like something out of Jabba The Hutt’s fleet, but we couldn’t get that drawn, because it was ridiculously expensive.
AVC: The character of Rip was really this traditional pulp-adventure hero; how did you come up with him?
AR: Basically, a combination of—well, I guess probably not Indiana Jones, because Indiana Jones was a scholar. But one of my favorite shows ever is Tales Of The Gold Monkey, so he owes a lot to that, which in turn owns a lot to Raiders [Of The Lost Ark]. I was nuts about that show. So he’s kind of like if Jake and Corky had a baby.
AVC: The David Cross character, this guy who’s been kidnapped by the pirates and is now Archer’s servant—where did you come up with him? Do you think we’ll ever see that character again?
AR: We thought about having Noah show up and just get a job as an entry-level dude or a temp at ISIS, ’cause I think David Cross is just hilarious. But also, he’s probably more hilarious than that character, who wasn’t as fleshed-out as I would’ve liked.
I forget the guy—there was a Rockefeller or somebody, some rich guy went missing in Borneo? [Michael Rockefeller. —ed.] It was in the ’60s or something. One of the super-richest guys in America. This guy from one of the top families in America was an anthropologist, and he disappeared somewhere, in Malaysia or somewhere. So I was thinking about that a little bit. At home, nobody would ever know what happened to this guy. He’s just living out his life as a pirate slave somewhere.
AVC: By the end of this episode, you have Ray in a wheelchair. You mentioned at the Television Critics Association press tour that at some point, you forgot he was supposed to be in a wheelchair. Was that just supposed to be a throwaway gag at one time?
AR: I wanted to keep him in the wheelchair, again, to not have things be Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, where you come back after falling off a building with a Band-Aid on your head. I want this stuff to have consequences, like Archer’s steadily worsening tinnitus. I guess in whatever script I was working on, I had Ray run into the room or something—oh, it was the episode “Crossing Over.” One of our producers read the scene and said, “So is he rolling in the room, or is he running in the room?” And I was like, “Oh shit, right!” So I just briefly forgot.
AVC: You write all the scripts on your own, but who do you bounce these ideas off of?
AR: Well, this season—season three—a guy named Chris Provenzano has started writing a couple scripts. He actually wrote “Skin Game” [with Reed], which I thought was a fantastic script. But Casey Willis, our producer, is our main arbiter of what’s good here, as far as Archer goes.
AVC: Do you and Chris ever feel constrained by not having that traditional “writers’ room” TV thing?
AR: I don’t. I’ve never actually worked in a writers’ room; I’ve worked in a room of writers on a daytime talk show, and I hated it. The times I’ve tried to write with a group of people, I’ve been really bad at it. I like to go off by myself and just type for 24 hours straight, and then give the script to somebody. But sitting around the table and bouncing ideas off each other just drives me insane. It’s like being in a staff meeting—a funny staff meeting. I don’t see how people do it. So I don’t feel constrained.
AVC: You’re based in Atlanta instead of Los Angeles or New York, correct?
AR: We are in Atlanta.
AVC: What do you think that adds to the show or to your process?
AR: Well, we sort of work in a vacuum here, really, ’cause the show’s only on for two, maybe three months a year. Then there’s this brief flurry of news and press, and you get to watch it on TV, and you get emails from friends and family. And then it goes off the air, and it’s like it never existed for the next nine months, and you work on it again.
Most of the staff here is local, or at least Southern. Atlanta’s got a pretty big animation community, and a lot of these folks have come from either the Art Institute of Atlanta or SCAD or UGA. I don’t know if it makes us any different, or how to qualify that difference. Is my lame answer to that.
AVC: It’s certainly a show with its own voice. Do you think that isolation from the larger Hollywood process helped that voice?
AR: I think the show itself—because it’s set in that weird, who-knows-what-time-it-is setting—I think that separates it a little bit. There’s not another show out there, probably, where you don’t know what the hell year it is.
AVC: At the end of these episodes, you raised once again the question of Lana and Archer’s “will they or won’t they” relationship. How interested are you in playing that out over many seasons?
AR: I think it’s brought in more as needed. One of my overarching themes in season four as we’re sort of plotting that out—I say “plotting that out,” but I mean we’re just sort of thinking about it—is for most, if not all, of the characters to evolve a little bit as far as having healthy, grown-up relationships—not with each other, but with significant others. Archer’s maybe not quite ready to do that yet, or not quite able to do that yet, so the goal is, like, all the kids hit puberty, and then Archer’s watching them like, “What are you doing? What is this?” He can’t even relate to what they’re doing. But that might all fall apart by the end of the season. I don’t know.
AVC: What’s your production process like on this show, and did you have to speed it up to meet the fall airdates?
AR: It stayed pretty much the same. Basically, there’s all this overlap, but I’ll write a script and then FX will read the script and then send it back, and the notes are pretty minimal these days, because we know what they want. And then we record it, that’s always the first thing.
We record all of the actors separately over two days, and Casey Willis and I direct those sessions. And then we get all the raw voice tracks, and we don’t do individual, numbered takes like a lot of shows do, where it’s “Okay, page seven, line 13. You have two seconds. Go.” We just turn on the machine and read it as a scene, back and forth to each other, and ad-lib, and keep it rolling, and it’s a little bit more organic, I think. Then we give those hours and hours and hours of raw V.O. takes to this guy, Brad Zimmerman, our editor, and he edits it all together to sound like it does.
Then we put storyboards to that, send that to FX. So somebody, while we’re recording, like the minute I finish the script, the storyboard department gets it and starts drawing furiously. Also, when I finish that script, the background artists and the character illustrators, they get the script and start. “All right, who new do we have in this episode? What are they wearing? What backgrounds do we need to create? What existing backgrounds can we use?” We have a costume department and a costume designer, so Kat Shea, our costumer, is going out and getting vintage clothes and dressing up models, and somebody is photographing them, so the illustrators will draw from that.
That’s all happening while we’re waiting to hear back about the notes on the storyboard cut. Then we get those, and we just start animating it. Well, I say “we.” They start animating it, then replacing the storyboards with the actual animation, and then it gets tweaked over a couple of weeks. But start to finish, I think it’s five weeks per episode. But there’s a lot of overlap. I turn in a script every three weeks. So there’s all this weird overlap, and I never know what’s going on.
AVC: You said FX usually doesn’t have many notes. Was there a time this season when you had a big struggle over something?
AR: No. There haven’t been. The very first couple episodes [of the series], I was coming from Adult Swim, and there it was just trying to surprise Mike Lazzo [senior executive vice president in charge of Adult Swim], which was always really hard to do, because he’s this pop-culture savant who has seen everything. We just tried to make stuff as crazy as we possibly could, and that isn’t the show FX wanted, and it really wasn’t the show I wanted, but I didn’t know how to write anything else, really.
So in the pilot, I think Sterling’s mouthing off to his mom in her office, and she hits a button, and machine guns come out of the desk and just strafe the room with bullets, and [FX was] like, “Yeah, no. Nobody has a machine gun in their desk.” And I’m like, “Okay. All right. Great. That’s gone.” So it wasn’t necessarily a struggle, but we were just figuring out where we wanted the show to live, as far as reality. And I had never done character motivation, really, or thought about the relationship dynamics. It was just like, “Hey, let’s go blow some shit up.”
AVC: They’re all such well-thought-out characters. Do you have a character backstory for them?
AR: [Laughs.] It comes up as we go, and I sort of like that. Like, Pam being from this, I picture it as a 2,000-acre Wisconsin dairy farm, it was just a throwaway line, basically, from season one. Cheryl goes, “I dunno, Pam, I didn’t grow up on a cheese farm.” And she’s like [sighs] “It’s a dairy.” Then later on, when we’re having Pam talk, it’s like “Oh yeah, she mentioned she was from a dairy,” and that just gets built on and built on, until now I’m just crazy about the fact that she’s from this dairy, and has a racing team sponsored by the dairy.
AVC: When you toss out a biographical detail like that, do you write it down somewhere?
AR: I just keep it in my head. And sometimes I’ll forget, but usually, they stay in there pretty good. And sometimes they’re never mentioned again, like we talked about Cyril’s dad being a school superintendent, and in that scene, it seemed like his relationship with his father was hugely important, but then we never talked about it again.
Then things like Cheryl being a billionaire, I had thought about and kept in the back of my head for probably a whole season, until there was a chance to write an episode about it.
“The Man From Jupiter” (Jan. 19, 2012)
Archer is dismayed to learn that his mother’s new boyfriend is one of his biggest heroes—movie star Burt Reynolds (who voices himself).
AVC: Had you hoped to have Burt Reynolds back? It seems like you started an arc at the end of this episode with him.
AR: Yes. Then for schedules and so forth, we didn’t get a chance to have him back this season. But yeah, that was sort of left dangling when reality and our show [Laughs.] aren’t necessarily all on the same schedule. But it was a lifelong dream.
AVC: Do you have a list of people you’ve always wanted to have on the show?
AR: Yes. Yes, I do.
AVC: Who are some other people you’d love to have on there?
AR: Eugene Mirman. He’s the only one that comes to mind right now.
AVC: How did you go about breaking this story of a Burt Reynolds movie in 30 minutes with the Archer characters?
AR: Well, the idea was just Burt’s dating Malory, and then it was, “Great. There’s your skeleton. Now let’s jam in as much Burt Reynolds stuff as possible.”
AVC: Had you seen all of those Burt Reynolds movies?
AR: [Beat.] Oh, I’ve seen all of them, Todd. So many times. I am a huuuuuuuge fan of the Burt Reynolds movies. Like, my mom got me into Hooper when I was 8. It was just one of those things, drop the kids off at the movies, but I think she had to buy a ticket, too, because it was PG. [Laughs.] Then she went out the back door. Yeah. Maybe I did not see At Long Last Love. And I don’t think I saw The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. But other than that, I think I’ve seen all the Burt Reynolds movies. Certainly the core 12.
AVC: What would you say are the best Burt Reynolds films?
AR: Well, Deliverance is great. It’s sort of its own thing, though. But of the comedies, Smokey And The Bandit is good. Cannonball Run is good. I really love Hooper. And I think The Longest Yard is great. I love all of them. That’s a boring answer.
AVC: For this story then, did you consciously work in a lot of references to those films?
AR: No, I tried to, but it’s mainly, the action stuff is all nods to the movies. The car chases and all that stuff is just stolen straight from his movies. We talked about Gator a lot. Oh, that’s another one I love! Archer has him tied up and talking about writing the Gator sequel. Which, as we know, was itself a sequel.
AVC: It would be so easy to make Malory the character who just sits back at HQ and tells everybody what to do. How do you keep her vital as a character in her own right, with her own stories and things going on?
AR: I think part of what I liked about her is, I think you only get to see the very tip of the tip of her iceberg, because she doesn’t interact with the characters in the same way they interact with each other. We have this come up a lot when we have spec scripts, or when anybody else writes Archer. A lot of times, they’ll have Malory having these very frank and just inappropriate conversations about sexuality or very personal things with the rest of the staff, and it might be well-written and funny, but it’s just absolutely something she would never do intentionally, is let these people in close enough to know her that well. So I love that she’s just made up of 90 percent secrets.
AVC: One of the things you hear a lot about on live-action shows is that the characters evolve to be more like the actors. Is that the case here? If so, what does Jessica Walter bring to that character?
AR: No. Not like the actor in real life, because Jessica is the sweetest lady I’ve ever met in my life. I never use this word, but she’s so classy. So a lot of times, I’ll write something, some obscure dirty joke, and I have to explain to her what it means. She’s like, “Okay, what is this on page four?” “Oh, just read it, and it doesn’t matter.” “Adam, I want to know what it means if I’m saying it.” “Okay, it means this.” And she’s just like [aghast noise]. [Laughs.] I think a lot of times, she does it just because she likes me. Every time she’s in the booth, I feel like she’s doing me a huge favor. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you land on the cast for this show back when you were assembling it?
AR: Well, Jessica Walter, we sent the character description to all the agents, and we described Malory and said, “Think Jessica Walter,” and then her agent e-mailed us back the next day and said, “How about the actual Jessica Walter?” Then I absolutely flipped out. Like, literally hyperventilating. Then we sort of stopped the presses and said, “Wait. If she’ll do the pilot, we can leverage that and go make a list of people that we would really love to have on this television show.” So it went from random audition people that we didn’t know to, “Hey, now we can call Chris Parnell’s agent, and see if he’d be interested.” And so forth. It’s all her.
AVC: How much time does one of the actors spend recording their lines for a given week’s episode?
AR: It depends. A really Archer-centric episode, or like the one where he and Lana are stuck in the swamp, they were probably in the booth for an hour and a half, maybe two hours. But I’d say the average is probably 30 to 45 minutes.
AVC: Do you guys need to give much direction to them now, after three seasons?
AR: No. And we didn’t have to give them much direction in season one. Especially after the pilot, once I knew who these people were, when I write it, I know what I want them to sound like, and I can hear their voices in my head. Then they come in and say it basically just the way I heard it in my head. It’s really painless. I’ve been to or sat in on other V.O. sessions where they’ll have an actor do literally 80 takes of one short line, and after 10 times, if it’s not working, there’s either something wrong with the line, or it’s never going to work. I’ve heard directors absolutely exhaust actors.
So we don’t do that many takes, really. It’s pretty painless. Usually if there’s any direction, it’s because it’s not clear in the script, because of some weirdly phrased sentence, if they’re supposed to be mad or happy. [Laughs.] Or I’ll have to explain what an X-19 laser beam is or something.
AVC: Have any of the characters shifted from the original conception based on the work of the actors?
AR: I think all of them have, to some extent. Cheryl was originally this weepy, clingy, mouthy doormat of a secretary, and now, she’s this basically clinically insane billionaire who likes rough sex. I think a lot of that has to do with Judy, who does the crazy really well in the booth. She’s got this really sweet voice, but then a lot of times, there’s this layer underneath there of just seething rage.
Pam, the same thing, was just going to be this sort of motherly HR person. And because Amber [Nash] is such a gifted improv-er, Pam became this other crazy sexual omnivore. That is not to say Judy Greer is in real life crazy, or that Amber is a sexual omnivore. I can’t speak to either of those things. But those are the two main examples, and those characters’ screen time has grown the most over what they were originally envisioned as, just because they’re so nuts.
AVC: You’ll have characters that seem like they’re just going to be one-shot or background characters, like Krieger. How do you know when one of those characters is popping?
AR: Probably from A.V. Club comments. [Laughs.] Or the network will say, “Hey, we’d like to see more of that Krieger.” Because he didn’t talk for like, the first six episodes, and there was talk of not ever having him speak, just having him be this terrifying guy that would walk by with a dead pig under his arm. But Lucky Yates has this great bass voice. And Krieger’s voice is so deep, and the things he says are so scary, but you can hear the smile in his voice when he talks. To have him say these creepy things with this sort of avuncular, happy-go-lucky guy really makes me laugh.
“El Contador” (Jan. 26, 2012)
In the wake of Ray’s injury, Cyril is promoted to field agent and sent into the jungle with Lana and Archer to track down a drug lord.
AR: That came from the challenge of wanting people to go on the missions, but having a plausible reason for doing so. Chris is another actor that I wish I wrote more and better for, because he’s often the foil to Archer. If that’s the word I’m looking for. [Rapidly.] And also, Archer slaps him a lot. So I wanted a way for him to be able to be in the mix more often, and not just back at the office.
AVC: In this episode, you raised the idea that he might actually be kind of good at this. How do you approach character growth without destroying the core of the show?
AR: I guess very tentatively, and then often forgetting the growth that they’ve made [Laughs.] in subsequent episodes. Or ignoring any growth that they’ve made, because in later episodes in season three, Cyril does prove to be not as adept as he might seem.
AVC: Do you worry that having too many competent characters on the show would kill the humor?
AR: I do, and that was one of the things in the pilot, and the first couple of episodes when we were developing the show, I had Archer a bit more stupid, but I didn’t want him to be a bumbling guy who accidentally gets it right. I wanted him to be physically good at his job, but not necessarily all that smart, and FX wanted him to be a lot smarter than I did. I was arguing that if he’s that handsome and that good with women and he’s smart, you’re not going to root for him.
AVC: A lot of this episode takes place out in the middle of nowhere, and you have a long scene where Archer is wandering around talking to himself. You do a lot of that with H. Jon Benjamin on the show. How did that technique evolve?
AR: I think Jon’s a lot funnier than I am. [Laughs.] A lot of the direction with him in the V.O. booth is getting out of his way, and usually we’ll do whatever line or scene a couple of times through, and then I’ll say, “Okay, now one, and just do whatever.” A lot of times that’s the best one, and it’s not mine, but his. [Dryly.] Which is why I hate him.
AVC: How much improvising or ad-libbing do the actors do?
AR: It’s really not a ton. Some characters are happier to do it than others, and some really don’t like having to do it at all. I’d say Jon and Lucky and Amber do the most. Well, they all do. But a lot of that doesn’t make it into the script, because they’re overwritten. Each one’s like, 36 pages long, so it’s really tight to get in there. So a lot of times, the ad-libs get cut because we need to keep plowing through.
AVC: It does seem like in the past, you’ve had some trouble with more Cyril-centric episodes. What do you think about the character sometimes makes him hard to write for?
AR: I don’t know. That’s a good question. And I think maybe early on, I wrote him into a corner that has made it hard to have episodes about him be as… I don’t know how to phrase it. I wish I had done a better job by him. But I have a plan for season four that I hope is going to make it better for Mr. Cyril.
AVC: You try out a lot of character permutations. Are there some where you’re surprised how well they work together?
AV: I like when Malory and Cheryl are just talking a lot. You can just hear the hatred in Malory’s voice, but I think she’s also just wildly curious about this crazy, insane person that works for her. And also wouldn’t mind having some of her billions. So that one, I like a lot. I like when Pam and Lana talk together. And Woodhouse and anybody is good.
AVC: You’ve got this crazy drug-lord character in this episode. Was that from your research?
AR: Oh, that was from my real life, Todd. [Wryly.] That’s my drug dealer. It was all pretty embellished. Actually, that story was by, we had a writer’s intern for the summer that was a college kid who turned in a spec script, Tesha Kondrat, and it was fantastic, so the story was hers, and I just fleshed it out. All of the animal-hunting and people-hunting and everything was from her fevered brain.
AVC: It sounds like you do read spec scripts for the show. A lot of shows won’t do that. Why is your policy different?
AR: Because I think it would be great to have a great spec script come in, and then you’re like, “Awesome, we just found a writer!” [Laughs.] Because obviously they’re looking for work. So yeah, we read them all the time, hoping that one of them will be really good and then, boom, free writer. Well, not free writer, but, you know, cheap.
AVC: As you move in to producing other stuff in this deal with FX, have you considered bringing on more of a writing staff for Archer?
AR: Yes. And that search has been ongoing and time-consuming and laborious and hard. But yeah, we’re always looking, not necessarily for a writers’ room where we’re all physically sitting in Atlanta, but for a staff, or a stable, if you will, of writers scattered, well, probably just in Los Angeles, where they write stuff and then just turn it in, and then we’d tweak it a little bit and put it on television.
AVC: This episode returns to the season-one trio of Lana and Archer and Cyril, who were the love triangle at the beginning of the show. How much did you think about that history while working on this episode?
AR: I don’t know that I did, really. It was just fun to have them all together, because I think one of the dynamics I like is that Lana is more efficient in many, many ways, than Archer, as far as her job goes. And probably a little, not necessarily smarter, but has more common sense. So when they’re all three together, I think Archer bullies Cyril a little more out of insecurity. I think it’s because he has someone lower on the totem pole than he is.
AVC: You talked earlier about working Lana into these storylines, and the character does seem like she’s sometimes there just to yell at Archer. How do you keep her funny?
AR: Well, Aisha is just inherently, wickedly funny, so even when she’s doing all this exposition or explaining why they have to defuse the bomb or whatever, it comes across as funnier than 99 percent of the people in the world saying it. It’s something I struggle with, because Aisha is funny, but in these scripts, all of the other characters are such idiots that unless we introduce a narrator at this point, I haven’t yet found a more effective way to tell everybody what’s happening. [Aside.] You watch a lot of TV. It’s too late for a narrator, isn’t it?
AVC: It is too late for a narrator, yes.
AR: [Laughs.] Shit. Yeah. That would really be jarring. [Adopts British accent.] “Sterling Archer woke up in the morning and had breakfast.” [Drops accent.] Wouldn’t work at all.
AVC: I would like to see you try, just to see what would happen. Just for an episode.
AR: [Laughs.] Where they all have a fever and are hallucinating.
Tomorrow, part two will cover episodes six through nine, beginning with “The Limited” and ending with “Bloody Ferlin.”