H. Jon Benjamin
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The actor: If something’s funny, there’s a very good chance H. Jon Benjamin has been involved in some way, shape, or form. He’s appeared in episodes of Parks And Recreation, Human Giant, Michael & Michael Have Issues, and many web series. But his on-camera work is only a tiny part of what makes Benjamin a comic stalwart. His voice can be heard on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Home Movies, Freak Show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and now both Bob’s Burgers and Archer, series that just kicked off their first and second seasons, respectively. Benjamin’s currently working on Jon Benjamin Has A Van, a sketch show that begins with him traveling in a van to report mock human-interest stories, then devolves into a show-within-a-show; it debuts on Comedy Central this summer.
Archer (2009-2011)—“Sterling Archer”
H. Jon Benjamin: I was asked to do it, and I accepted. That’s the end of the story. The only misgivings I had about doing it was that I was in Arizona visiting my parents—which I often have misgivings about—and I got a call from [creator] Adam [Reed], who I didn’t know. He was like, “I’m doing this spy spoof, would you read the pilot on the microphone?” Basically, I had to do my own legwork and find a recording studio in Tucson. They have a couple.
The A.V. Club: How quickly did you have to find one? Later that day?
HJB: No, not like later that day. It wasn’t an emergency. [Laughs.] “We have to get this pilot in by 10 o’clock tonight—would you please help, sir?” No, I think it was some time later that week. For some reason they didn’t want to wait until I got back to New York.
AVC: How was Adam Reed introduced to you? Did he always have you in mind?
HJB: I’ve since been told that he did. I’m not sure he’s telling the truth. He worked on Adult Swim shows, so I assume he knew of me from whatever shows I’d done on Adult Swim, or Home Movies.
AVC: Having done so much voiceover work, is there like a little voiceover club, where you see the same people at auditions and at work?
HJB: We have our own private club now. It’s a townhouse down in Tribeca. You know, where voiceover people can hang out and be themselves, without feeling overwhelmed by having to go to public places.
Bob’s Burgers (2011)—“Bob”
HJB: Bob’s Burgers was a much more grueling process. It was akin to a difficult labor, as opposed to when a baby just slides out. If you know what I mean. Archer was like that woman who’s already had 10 babies, and there’s no problem; it just falls out, basically. Bob’s Burgers was like the first labor where there’s not a lot of room, so you really have to push. And you refuse the epidural, so you’re going to push it through no matter what—15, 20 hours.
AVC: Is part of it dealing with Fox, versus dealing with FX?
HJB: Well, for Bob’s Burgers, as far as I remember, we kept having to go back in and redo stuff. Part of that was, I assume, Fox’s involvement in making notes and wanting to change things. We did a lot of preliminary recording for the pilot over the course of six months. We’d get calls to come back in to redo scenes. It’s not like that hard, because all you have to do is take the subway a couple stops and go to a recording studio, but there was a lot of that. Archer, we did the pilot one time, and it all was very smooth.
AVC: When you work on multiple voiceover projects at once, how do you keep them all straight in your mind? Do you stand a certain way in the studio to remember the character, or something?
HJB: Well, I have over 100 IQ. So I know when I’m at Bob’s Burgers. I read the name at the top. It says Bob’s Burgers, I’m literate. [Laughs.] I don’t consider myself a very good actor. I’m not bad, but there’s not a lot of range in characterizations for me. Which is being brought up now because I have two cartoons airing where I sound the same in both. It’s hard to avoid, “Wow, you really didn’t do much to change anything.” [Laughs.] And I can’t argue with that. The only thing I can say is that I wish they’d come out at different times. I wouldn’t have to answer this question. Like, couldn’t you have waited a few years to put Bob’s Burgers on, so I could avoid that question? It’s funny, when I used to do this character Coach McGuirk on Home Movies, I would hike up my pants. I had the same voice, but I’d hike up my pants, and for some reason…. [Laughs.] It’s not heady stuff. With Bob, I slouch. I don’t know if I do it the whole time, but the second I do a line, I try to slump over a little. It’s really rudimentary—really highlighting what a naturally bad actor I am. For Archer, I don’t know what I do. And that’s my acting lesson.
Home Movies (1999-2004)—various characters
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (1995-1999)—“Ben”
HJB: There was the hiking of the pants, plus I did two characters on Home Movies. One was another kid who was always sick, so for him I’d hold my nose. One side of my nose, not both. So that was the distinction. Which has been the one way-out-there thing I’ve done for a character.
AVC: The episodes of both Home Movies and Dr. Katz were only loosely scripted, right?
HJB: I remember on Dr. Katz, there was no script really at all. There were just scene outlines. They were thematically linked, like, “Ben buys a pig—talk about why you want to buy a pig.” By the third season, there were a couple writers because the budget had gone up by probably $2,500. They didn’t do away with improv, but it got more structured. It was kind of the thing where everybody gets busier. I moved to New York, and when it’d initially started—the first two years—we taped in [co-creator] Tom Snyder’s pantry, which he’d put a mic in. In his kitchen, where he’d do dishes, like most kitchens. For two years we did it in that. At the time, I had more time, and I was, you know, carefree! (Don’t write that like I meant it.) So they could call you to work on a scene that you did the other day, because you’d just be going over to the guy’s house.
It was much more of a rehearsal process. There was no end to that rehearsal, they just kept on doing it until they eventually made the show. The editor Loren Bouchard, who does Bob’s Burgers, he’d sit there and edit all the time. He was addicted to, like, “Oh, just come by!” At some point, it’s hard. You have to stop and make the episode. Once the whole operation got busier—and after Dr. Katz, Home Movies came up, and they had two shows going—you have to make it move faster. It was fun. It wasn’t a ton of fun, but I remember it being fun at the time.
AVC: How did you meet Jonathan Katz?
HJB: I was in this group Cross Comedy, which was David Cross’ sketch group in Cambridge, and Jonathan was a stand-up. He would do our show a lot. Cross Comedy would have a slot at Catch A Rising Star, a once-a-week show that became really popular, where instead of stand-up, Cross had convinced the club manager to let him do his show. As it became more popular, more renowned comics in Boston would come and do it, because it was fun. Katz started doing that, and that’s how I met him.
AVC: If you’re recording in some guy’s pantry, presumably you’re also recording with a lot of other actors around. What has the shift been like toward recording voiceover in isolation?
HJB: Actually, for Home Movies, everyone did it together. And Loren continues that with Bob’s Burgers. But Archer does not. We all record separately. It’s just different. I’d done small parts on shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force where you just go in and say your line and leave, but those are really short things. They just do it differently. I like being alone, but I like being alone in general. I sweat a lot. I like it when they have big huge recordings where, like, Usher records. Huge rooms, a piano in the back, all these big monitors, Persian rugs on the floor. You can be, like, 30 feet away from the other actor.
AVC: How often does that happen?
HJB: Only when we recorded at Usher’s. But I insisted on it.
Family Guy (2006-2010)—“Carl”
AVC: When you do small voiceover parts for a show like Family Guy, how connected do you feel to the big picture?
HJB: None. Family Guy—I don’t do a lot for that show. It’s barely a character. Seth MacFarlane is clearly a very busy man, because you always wait for him. It really feels like Charlie’s Angels. They put you in the booth, and you hear the guy like, “Seth’s on his way. Seth’ll be two minutes—two minutes ’til Seth.” Then you hear him: “Hey Jon, line 362, go ahead.” “That’ll be three dollars.” “Alright, 371.” You do that for three lines, then, “Thanks man!” Then you hear him being ushered out. I picture secret service around him. Not that he’s unfriendly, but there’s no time at all.
Late Night With Conan O’Brien (1998-2000)—sketch actor
HJB: I worked a lot on Conan as an actor, and when I moved to New York, a lot of my friends were on the first staff of that show. I started doing bit parts, which was the first thing I’d done on camera in front of a live audience. I’m credited as a writer online, but I was never a writer. But being on the show was primarily what I did in New York for two years when I first moved there. It wasn’t a steady job, but I’d do a few things a week.
AVC: Did you have a steady job when you moved to New York?
HJB: No. I mean, I primarily did live shows and parts on Conan, then go back to Cambridge and record twice a month, Home Movies or something.
AVC: And you were making enough money to afford living in New York?
HJB: Yeah. I mean, I lived modestly, but it wasn’t bad. Now I am. But my spending’s out of control. We didn’t get paid a lot for those animated shows until much later on. With Dr. Katz, I’d make like $700 an episode or something. It was not a lot—you only did one or two a month. Now, I demand total luxury.
The Jenny McCarthy Show (1997)—various
HJB: Oh God. I can’t even tell you what that was. It was, you know, another attempt to exploit the many talents of Jenny McCarthy. I used to have this comedy partner named Mike Lee, and we went out to write on it together, so we shared an office. There were a bunch of other writers including Will Forte and Jon Glaser. So we found this little clique of people on the writing staff who had a lot of fun together. It was a fun show to work on, it was just really uncomfortable to watch. I don’t think I ever watched more than a few times. [Laughs.]
The best part was probably that Jon Glaser and I started making these short films together. It was like a mutiny. There was a guy—I don’t remember his name, but one of the producers—he’d do the film stuff on location. We befriended this guy, and he’d never tell the producer when we’d go out and shoot stuff on our own. The show had a big budget; it was on MTV and Jenny McCarthy was this, like, budding star. So we’d come back and turn in these films, and the guy would be like, [snaps] “What the fuck is this?!” He did have that stupid stereotype producer voice. Some of them actually got on.
We never worked with Jenny McCarthy, I think I met her twice; we sort of had our own show-within-a-show. There was a running bit called The Paramedics—two ambulance guys who had the highest percentage of deaths. The majority of the show was spent doing our own thing, and in that sense it was really good.
AVC: Do you always prefer to go off and work on your own?
HJB: I’d be a terrible part of a staff, and that goes back to when I worked for my father’s company. He had a small business, and I was terrible at that too. It really does embody Archer, which is why I’m so comfortable playing him.
AVC: What was his business?
HJB: He ran an electrical supply company—selling fixtures and light bulbs, stuff like that.
AVC: So were you just really bored working for him?
HJB: No, I was pretty young, so it was one of those things where there was no way I was going to get fired. I was constantly acting out and fucking around. Never do my work. To some people there, that behavior was reviling. But I’m so lovable. People who worked there—guys who had to work there, that’s how they made their living. They had families and stuff. And I was just this little asshole running around. It was like a playground. He had a big warehouse area with shelves, where all the stock would be. There was a mini-forklift thing I’d drive around. But, you know, people were trying to work. I worked there off-and-on from when I was a teenager until maybe my third year in college. If I couldn’t get other work, I could always go back there.
Paid Programming (2009)—co-creator
AVC: Paid Programming was a fake series of infomercials you did with David Cross, airing on Adult Swim at 4:30 a.m. with no explanation. My favorite part, though, is that you and Cross insisted on keeping your affiliation secret.
HJB: It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, and it was an abject failure. I’m perplexed why. I have to say that Adult Swim—who was very difficult to work with on that project—at least semi-committed to it, though there were a lot of hiccups. The guy who runs Adult Swim kind of announced it at one of those Dragon-Cons, or whatever. David and I were like, “The one thing we didn’t want to do is make it like any other show,” meaning like, “David Cross, the comic genius, makes another show!” You know, use the celebrity to get the show going. We were insistent on not doing that. The people who go to Dragon-Con are the ones who are going to discover this show on their own, and I felt strongly that discovery is such an important part of TV and nerd culture. It would have been so great if it had worked. I’d done this thing called The McCain Girls that was like that, and that was the template for Paid Programming. Now, so much stuff is made like that, stuff that’s seemingly real. It’s already kind of passed. But two or three years ago, it was the honeymoon relationship with YouTube, where you’re scouring that shit trying to find little gems and sending them around, like, “Is this real?”
AVC: TV is willing to take risks, but they still need that marketing angle I suppose. Especially with a show that’s going to air at 4:30 a.m.
HJB: Yeah. And to their credit, they did run the show at 4:30 a.m.; they didn’t advertise it at all. Adult Swim watchers, at least from what I was sent, were furious. “What the fuck is this? Dude, I’m high, and that’s supposed to be an Aqua Teen rerun. They’re selling out!” They kept it on for like, three weeks. Our hope was to do more of them, but the idea of starting it that way was important to us. We knew that eventually, yeah, everyone would figure out it was a show, like everything else.
Introduction to The Room screening in New York (2009)—“Denny”
HJB: The best part is that I’d never seen The Room before that. It had been about six years of people saying, “You’ve gotta see The Room.” Cross saw it early on, and I’d known about it from the billboard out in L.A., so I’d laughed at that. Cross was invited to do that and he was like, “You have to come and play Timmy,” or whatever his name is.
HJB: Denny. So I asked what I had to do, and he said, “Just put on this wig.” I didn’t look up anything about the scenes. So Cross came on pretending to be Tommy Wiseau. He walked out, and when people saw it was a fake Tommy, everybody booed; then when they discovered it was Cross, they loved it. He did this intro, then he called me out and everybody cheered. He was like [vaguely Eastern European accent], “Oh hello Denny, how are you? Oh hi Denny, you come to visit!” And I had no idea who Denny was. I just had a wig and a ball.
So Cross is making all these very obvious references to The Room and people are loving it. Then I come on, like, “Hey Johnny!” And people scream, “Denny!” He’s like, “Oh hi Denny, what are you doing? Want to play catch?” “No, not really!” People were confused. It was dead silent whenever I spoke.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)—“Can Of Vegetables”
HJB: I auditioned for another part in that movie; I was friends with those guys. I didn’t get it—it went to A.D. Miles. The best story there is that they recorded a scratch track—not the official movie version of it—to use as a template before. Then we went back in to record the polished version, just applying the same lines to picture. We had come up with the line about me sucking my own dick; I think I just said that, we were fucking around and I had said it on the scratch track version. And they were like, “You gotta say that, let’s leave it in.” So I was recording it, doing the line different ways, and David Wain and Michael Showalter got a phone call. They left, and it was just me and the audio engineer. There was this awkward waiting, and he pushed the button and said, “Hey man, really funny stuff.” I said, “Yeah, it’s really funny.” “Yeah, except for the thing about sucking your own dick. I mean, a can wouldn’t say that. I don’t wanna take over the process, but, uh, if you’re cool, you should say stuff like—I jotted down some ideas, and I bet those guys would love it.” I was playing along, like, “Yeah, that would be a huge help! I don’t wanna say this! It doesn’t make sense! A can is an inanimate object!” And the guy’s like, “I know! That’s why I was thinking you should make it funny! Like, you should say, ‘I stew my own vegetables a lot.’” I can’t remember what he said, but it was something that was like—geez, the lamest. And I was like, “Oh that’s great!”
Then the guys walked back in: “Sorry Jon. Alright Peter, let’s do another one.” [Laughs.] And I was like, “Well, listen, I stew my own vegetables all the time.” David Wain and Michael Showalter go, “What are you doing?” “I just think it’s funnier to say I stew my own vegetables than suck my own dick.” “Why?” “Because it’s a can.” “No…definitely say suck your own dick.” It was this totally waste-of-time argument that I was doing. I was like, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll say suck my own dick, but—I dunno, stew your own vegetables is pretty funny.” “No, that’s not funny at all.” We were overtly insulting this guy, who was sitting there grimacing. They never knew about it.
After, the [engineer] guy was like, “Those guys were assholes.” And I said, “Yeah, no shit.”