H. Jon Benjamin is one of the most prolific voice actors working in TV today. As the central character on “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers,” his growly baritone is as recognizable as it is an instant shot of personality for any character he voices. (Plus, how many actors can claim that their involvement in two shows led to a crossover scene that also doubles as a tribute to David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”?)
Six years ago, Benjamin added to his string of title characters, this time playing a fictional version of himself on the criminally short-lived Comedy Central show “Jon Benjamin Has a Van.” Part sketch show, part investigative news team parody, it helped give birth to a wave of comedian-led metashows that yielded some of the best comedies of the decade. It took the “Daily Show” correspondent model familiar to many of the network’s viewers and built a budding backstory to an intrepid news team that covered everything from border security to Broadway.
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“Review” and “Nathan for You” — arguably the “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” of Comedy Central’s recent run — take some of their DNA from “Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” quite literally in the case of Nathan Fielder, who played the “Van” sound guy/boom mic operator. “Jon Glaser Loves Gear,” an under-the-radar delight on the truTV lineup, also represents a refined evolution of that style of TV subgenre parody, complete with the host’s name right in the title.
Though the show ran for 10 episodes, you don’t need to look further for greatness than the opening episode, which immediately signaled that this would be more than a riff on “Vice News” (nearly two years before “Vice News” even existed). Consider “You Can’t Shoot Here,” a veritable Mobius strip of a man-on-the-street bit, where a single straight-faced joke confounds a litany of some of New York’s finest lobby attendants.
There’s something about the pairing of Benjamin’s deadpan delivery and the overarching commitment to the premise that somehow managed to spin comedy gold out of some unsurprising reactions to camera crews in public places.
And then there’s “Cash Stall,” the most basic of “Cash Cab” parodies that somehow feels like the most perilous. Like “You Can’t Shoot Here,” it’s indicative of how the show’s rapid-fire hopping from segment to segment gave it plenty of chances to land something memorable.
Just watch his delivery on “So…you don’t want to play ‘Cash Stall’?” and tell me that this show didn’t deserve to run for at least seven seasons.
Later installments of the show would have the regular trove of high-profile guest stars, from Bob Odenkirk and David Cross to Patton Oswalt to Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker. But all of what made the show memorable went back to the unique approach of the host at the center, bringing a smirk and a stare to a different kind of field piece setup.
Full episodes of “Jon Benjamin Has a Van” are only available for purchase, but the show still has plenty of clips available through the Comedy Central website. As “Bob’s Burger” and “Archer” head into their offseasons, it’s a fun way to dig into another side of the career behind one of comedy’s great voices.
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