H. Jon Benjamin has achieved fame and glory because of his unique, commanding and versatile voice work, but the 49-year-old comedian doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a “voice actor.” In fact, he wouldn’t even recommend people seek the profession out without other sources of income. Despite iconic roles — cult or otherwise — in “Dr. Katz,” “Home Movies,” “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” to current series “Archer,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “Family Guy,” plus a highly-anticipated reprisal in “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” the Massachusetts native is still working toward having his own show.
Benjamin co-created the animated comedy “Freak Show” with longtime friend David Cross in 2006 and landed in front of the camera for “Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” but he’s far from done. Benjamin came up in the comedy world with sketch actors, working with his own troupe and competing against other groups for various television series. Below, Benjamin talks about what he learned from friends like Cross and Louis C.K., what he likes — and doesn’t like — about his current shows, and the impossible standards set by everyone’s favorite spy.
READ MORE: 17 Bits of H. Jon Benjamin Wisdom from ‘Archer’ and ‘Bob’ Himself
Did you have any interest in voice work before Dr. Katz? You’ve done a lot of sketch and a lot of other comedy, but from what I could track down, it seems like the first thing you really did was—
—”Dr. Katz.” Yeah. None, none at all, no interest in [voice work], not even aware of it as a way to… I suppose I was aware of it as a profession, but it wasn’t on my radar at all. There were like actors who, at the time, when I was doing sketch comedy, who studied theater and they knew about getting agents for commercial work and such like that. […] So it was a side project altogether. For me, that’s how it started. And um, I had never done anything like it before.
After the series caught on, did voice work become something you enjoyed, and then you sought it out or—
It was very makeshift when we started, and everybody involved was doing it for the first time, so they kind of knew how to make rudimentary animation. But the recording and the audio stuff was done in the guy’s kitchen. There was an audio engineer, kinda, but he was also new, and that ended up being Loren Bouchard who makes cartoons today (“Bob’s Burgers,” for one), so everybody was learning on the job, except for Jonathan, who was just doing comedy, so he knew how to do that. So yeah, I sort of fell into it.
I don’t know how many people traditionally seek out [voice work as a career]. I do get occasional notices about how do I get into voiceover, but that’s far less than, “How do I become famous?” Or, “How do I be an actor?” Or, “How do I get on Broadway?” […] Having done this for like a long time now, you see a lot of actors who are very uncomfortable doing voiceover acting as opposed to [on-camera], because it is a little different.
Is there like a trick that you have to help balance it?
I like the shows I’m in. If I see what you’re saying, I guess the thrust of my whatever advice would be to start with a much bigger picture than [just voice acting]. But look, I get letters from kids who are saying, “I do a million voices.” There will always be people like that. That’s great. That will be a natural transition to trying to do animation.
I have one voice, so I can’t answer those people’s questions.
I don’t know [if that’s true]—
[falsetto] I can do this!
But you’ve dabbled in a lot of different aspects of that voice.
I can, but it was more out of necessity than [anything else]. I did do characters when I started doing comedy because I was a sketch actor, but I wasn’t trained as such. I was in a sketch group which required you to do a gay character, an Indian accent, whatever. I would do my best. It’s not my strength, and I did it out of necessity, but doing voices in cartoons became more of…they didn’t want to pay actors to do it. I was already there. So you pay for two roles with one. You get a deal. […] You know, you’ve saved them the money of getting an actor. And in that first place I worked, literally everybody who worked there was in the show at some point. The guy in the shipping department, a secretary came down… Jonathan Katz’s assistant starred in a follow-up to “Dr. Katz” called “Home Movies.” The woman who played Melissa was Jonathan Katz’s assistant. She was just in the room, like, “You wanna do this?”
And they just liked her?
She was good! But it was just by chance. We didn’t audition people. it was just like, “You. Come here.”
I talk to a lot of comedians who seem to have an inner circle, where it’s like, “I like working with these people, I’m just going to find them.”
That’s predominantly how I work. Most of the jobs I’ve done, which aren’t many, were just given [to me]. And of course I prefer that. That’s the easiest way to do it. I’d not have to go to midtown for three auditions. That’s how “Archer” came about and “Bob’s Burgers.”
There’s that balance that everybody talks about in the entertainment business, of combining networking with name recognition.
Yeah, and it’s good to ride on coattails. You find the right situation, hopefully whatever constellation, people become famous, recognized for what they do, you hope they help you out. […] Everything came from doing a bunch of comedy with a group of very talented people who were doing like-minded shit in New York and before that when I was in Boston. It all came from just relationships.
Do you like having a stake in not just the character but the plot or the creation of the show? Do you like having a voice in that conversation?
Yeah, I do. I like the other side, too, which I’m enjoying now, because I’m in two shows where I don’t really have any creative involvement beyond doing the part and occasionally doing some improvisation, which is not technically… I suppose it’s creative, but it’s not extra work. I’m already there. But I used to in the shows that we started doing, everybody was pretty much equally involved in creating the show. “Home Movies” and shows like that which are almost wholly improvised, you’d always get sort of a guide outline form the people who wrote the show and then you kind of had to come up with stuff on your own, so there was a much deeper involvement.
What’s the thing that you really want to have that’s your own?
I think always you want to be the boss. I liked getting my particular style of ideas out there. A lot of the shows I do now don’t afford me that opportunity, but they’re great to do. But I’m always working on trying to get my own track going. That’s very hard to do.
Do you have an idea of what your own show would look like now?
I’ve written all facets of comedy. I’ve only had two shows on the air, I did a cartoon called “Freak Show,” and [“Jon Benjamin Has a Van.”] All my shows go one season, so I feel like the evidence is out there. I feel like I am not to built to last.
Since then there are so many more networks — so many more places to get a show produced — do you see that as something that’s opening up more?
Not for me, so much. I’m predominantly known for my voice work. My comedy show didn’t do so well, so I don’t think a lot of people gave a shit about hearing my comedy voice come out again. And like you said, there is a much wider net. But there are still more people who can fill those gaps very quickly. It’s hard to get your own show despite… I try every year. I write, like, two shows a year, pretty much. So since “Jon Has A Van” got cancelled, I think I’ve written four shows. So maybe one show a year. And I get paid to write them. So that’s good. I can’t complain there. A lot of people don’t have that opportunity.
Do you think that work ethic comes from where you started, the sketch comedy and the people that you knew?
Yes. Everybody I knew when we started, and everybody to this day, people who’ve gone on to a wide berth of different levels of success, but everybody worked incredibly hard to try and become successful for a time. People get rooted out along the way — and that’s always unfortunate, to see really funny people drop out — but most of the people I started with are doing really well now. And that was just from setting a foundation and constantly trying to put comedy out there. And you could tell, specifically, who was incredibly good. But I would have never known Louis C.K. would be who he is now, at the time. He was really funny, but there was always a seed of “he works a little harder than everybody else.” Those people you could always see, right away. David Cross was another guy like that. He started his own sketch show, you know what I mean? He was like, I want the 11:30pm slot on Thursday night, and I just wanna try something.
Is that something you wanna do? Is that something that you have in mind?
I was never like that. I learned to emulate it a little bit. But they were built for that. I need my rest.
Self-awareness is important.
[Louis C.K.] was just driven. And that’s a gene I think you have. You can learn it, but […] if you’re somebody like him, you have to have not just the drive, you have to have also the talent. But I used to be roommates with a friend of Louis’ who was a comedian. And I remember early on — this is beside the point but a great example of what Louis was like — at the onset of home computers, this was like 1990, he paid for and sent my roommate, Chuck Sklar, a computer so they could write scripts together. He bought it and invested in Chuck, and Chuck was like, “Louis bought me a computer.” And Louis, at that point, had no money. I think he borrowed the money to get the computer. But he was like, “I know I’m gonna pick you. We’re gonna write stuff together.” He bought him the tools. That’s an example of a guy who’s like, “I’m gonna do shit all the time, and I’m gonna make other people do it with me whether they like it or not.” He didn’t know he was getting a computer, but he was like, “Now I got a computer. Now I gotta do it! Like, a guy bought me a computer!”
Yeah, it’s not a pound of flesh, but it’s a good back-handed way to get something done.
Yeah, it’s a good little con. An expensive con, but a good con.
At the time I imagine it wasn’t cheap to buy a home computer. It was this big, huge, peach-colored IBM…
…showing up at his doorstep.
Yeah, that forced him to write it. So, I mean I guess I was never that kind of person. But I was the guy you could buy the computer for.
Shifting gears a little bit to what you’re working on right now: How did you hear about the “Wet Hot American Summer” TV series?
They called me. They had written the scripts, and I guess I can talk about it. I won’t spoil anything, but the can is in it. But they really did a good job writing and explaining — it’s a prequel, which was, I think, the initial joke: that they’re all 15 years older. […] And it’s really funny, I was privy to the whole, I think it was eight episodes, so it’s really funny. It’s going to be good.
Do you watch the stuff that you’re in?
That movie in particular? Yes. “22 Jump Street,” no. I have not seen that movie. Sometimes. I watch the animated shows. I’m a fan of both shows, and not just my work. I like both shows – they’re both really fun to watch. At first it’s a little strange, but I’ve been doing animated shows for so long I’ve learned to watch them without focusing on me. [But] I mean “Home Movies” — I don’t know if you’ve seen that show — but I did not watch that very much at all.
No. The other thing is, I had a kid and that just becomes such a huge part of kid’s lives, that the fact that I’m in that, that I do that job, is just remarkable to him. So yeah, it’s fun to watch animation with him. He’s 12 now, so he watches both shows. I shouldn’t say he watches “Archer,” but he does. But it’s a pretty loose household. Like we don’t smoke pot together, but that’ll be his bar mitzvah gift.
As to “Archer” though, I read that you record each part privately. That’s just you in the booth with a sound technician, maybe Adam Reed comes in to give notes?
Oh yeah, I mean they do it by phone. I’ll hear the directors in my headphones. Yes, everybody records individually.
Do you get advice or guidance while you’re doing it?
Yeah, for sure. It’s easy to fall into doing the same thing with “Archer,” too, because — I don’t want to say he’s a one note character — but it’s pretty demonstratively a guy yelling at everybody. So it’s easy to fall into the pattern of acting where I’m just blurred every line, yelling at everyone. So they’re good when they catch like, “Hey try that really softly” or they’ll have little ideas which’ll make a huge difference.
What’s it like for new actors to come in and work with you on “Bob’s Burgers,” where it’s more interactive and the whole cast is there together?
I’ve worked with some actors who have been guests on “Bob’s Burgers,” who are completely taken aback that we go off the script, you know what I mean? So it works both ways. Because they’ll be looking like, “What are you doing?” And [we’re] like, “No, it’s good. That’s just how we do it.” So they have to also adjust to whatever. You know, you have to adjust quickly to the environment that you’re in.
Does anyone come to mind as a favorite?
Well, Kevin Kline, who is obviously a classically-trained actor and an Oscar winner, although undeserved. But he won it. He was definitely taken aback, I think, when we first recorded because we were all…— it’s like going to a party where you don’t know anybody, which he’s very good at that because he’s trained as an actor. So he’s like, “I know I can play my part, but I didn’t know that was going to happen.” So he was very good at that, but he was shocked at how unprofessional it was. I think he was more like, “What are you guys doing here?” I mean, there’s a definite air at “Bob’s Burgers” of unprofessional-ness. You know, there are times where Eugene Mirman kind of gets up to do his line from sitting down and checking his phone. It’s voice over, so you can kind of do whatever you want. I think Kevin Kline was just like, “This is unacceptable.” But he adjusted really quickly, and he’s also really good.
Do you have a favorite that came from improv, whether on “Bob’s Burgers” or something you came up with on “Archer”?
Yeah, I think there was a really good scene between Eugene Mirman and I in “Bob’s Burgers,” when he was mimicking me [in the episode] and we went off script and we kept it going. And that made it in, where he was sort of pretending he was me and mimicking me, and he was doing a really good job of a son imitating his dad without it being on script, you know what I mean? So he was using like other examples of stuff we had done in past episodes. […] And that was like one line in the script, I think, and it ended up being a one minute scene.
Going from silly situations to a silly question, do you ever try to do any of the extreme things Archer does? Like try a drink that he made?
No, like a “Black Mexican?”
Yeah, which is actually a real thing, according to a couple of my sources.
Yeah, I have a friend who works for Miller-Coors and he knew of it before the episode came out.
That’s whisky and tequila? [Editor’s Note: Its base is tequila and a coffee liqueur.] I think there’s a “White Mexican,” which is whiskey, tequila and Bailey’s, maybe? [opinions differ] That sounds impossible to drink.
It really is.
Well, no one would order that, except now, maybe, if they’re “Archer” fans. I figure there are a lot of college parties that have “Black Mexican” night or whatever.
But it should probably be the ultimate end of a frat initiation, where you have to drink it to get in.
[laughs] Yeah, I can’t say I’ve ever tried even remotely… I’ve tried to sleep with a prostitute, but it didn’t work out, let’s just put it that way. It did not end well. It didn’t end at all.
I think “Archer” has the only pseudo-positive experiences with prostitutes.
Yeah. It takes an intrepid soul to go that route. That’s just me. I’m too afraid of consequences.
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