‘Archer,’ the Hilarious Animated Spy Series, Reinvents Itself
The fifth season of FX’s gut-bustingly funny animated spy series is like a cross between Breaking Bad and Miami Vice, says H. Jon Benjamin, who voices Archer. [Warning: Spoilers.]
The fifth season of Archer, FX’s animated comedy series about a narcissistic spy and his outrageous partners-in-espionage, opens with a bang—literally—as the New York City headquarters of the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) is blown to smithereens. Thus far, the show has been more of a randy office comedy than spy spoof; a demented cross between Mad Men and the Bond films. But no more. The ISIS gang is taking the show on the road.
“When I first heard about it, I was psyched,” says H. Jon Benjamin, who voices Archer. “We take it on the road, and so much crazy shit happens this season. It’s insane. It’s like Breaking Bad meets Miami Vice.”
For the uninitiated, the half-hour comedy centers on Sterling Archer, a Jon Hamm doppelganger and self-proclaimed “world’s most dangerous secret agent,” who spends the bulk of his time boozing, sexing, and bitching about scuffing up his bespoke suits. He’s got serious mommy issues thanks to his overbearing/lascivious mother, Malory Archer (Jessica Walters), who runs ISIS. There’s also Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), the world’s real best spy—and a stunning beauty, save her enormous hands—who can’t escape Archer’s shadow; Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), the bumbling, incompetent ISIS accountant; Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), Malory’s sadomasochistic, airheaded secretary who huffs rubber cement; Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), the head of HR for ISIS and a former bareknuckle fighter who’s a total party animal; Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates), head of ISIS’s applied research department, who is one of the “Boys from Brazil” (sharing the blood of Hitler); and Ray Gillette (Adam Reed, series creator), an openly-gay field agent and the only voice of reason within ISIS (besides the oft-ignored Lana).
As it turns out, over the course of four seasons and 49 episodes, ISIS was a Blackwater-esque operation that conducted all of its dangerous missions without government knowledge. So, the FBI decides to raid ISIS HQ.
“This is about conducting espionage operations for years with no authority or permission whatsoever from the United States government,” an agent says to Malory.
In order to avoid prison time, Malory agrees to fork over ISIS and cease all ISIS operations. There’s just one little matter left to tend to.
“What are we gonna do with literally—not figuratively—a ton of cocaine?” asks Archer.
Yes, the ISIS gang has amassed a ton of cocaine over the years, confiscated from various international criminals. Since they’re out of work and have nowhere left to turn, they decide to band together and form a drug cartel to sell off the coke—which Cyril estimates will net them $50-60 million—and retire forever.
“Well, how hard can it be… if Mexicans can do it?” asks Malory.
Archer was created by Reed, who thought of the premise while seated at an outdoor café in Salamanca, Spain. He was observing a beautiful Spanish woman writing in her journal at a nearby table, and had no idea how to approach her. So, he devised a character who could.
“Of course, a spy would have a perfect line,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
According to Benjamin, Reed was a big fan of his animated series Home Movies, and spliced together footage of Benjamin speaking on the show to pitch Archer to FX.
“I thought, ‘Why do they want this suave agent to have this nasally Jewish voice?’” says Benjamin. “I thought they were going to make me sound like James Bond or something, and I’m so grateful they didn’t because I would have been terrible at doing that voice.”
Benjamin, for his part, is one of the biggest voice stars around. He began doing stand-up comedy in Massachusetts, joining David Cross’s improv comedy troupe, Cross Comedy, before moving to New York. There, he voiced some characters on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, including a 7-foot rubber bong, and wrote and voiced a character for the animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. He even voiced the talking can of vegetables with a disturbing love of autofellatio in Wet Hot American Summer.
“I remember there was a lot of disagreement about that,” he says about the talking can. “They didn’t think it would make a whole lot of sense if a can said it could suck it’s own dick… because it has no dick.”
And, in addition to voicing Archer, he provides the vocals for Bob Belcher, the central character on Fox’s hit animated series Bob’s Burgers.
“It’s pretty different,” he says, of the recording process on the two hit shows. “On Archer, we all do it solo. I live in Brooklyn and record my vocals here while Adam talks in my ear, and then send them over, so everyone does their own separate part. On Bob’s Burgers, it’s more collaborative and usually it’s the group recording together.”
All the main characters on Archer were modeled after real-life people in Georgia, where the show is storyboarded and animated (Lana is based on a Hooter's waitress that once served executive producer Matt Thompson). The two-part episode where Archer thinks he has breast cancer is one of Benjamin’s favorites. While he’s experienced massive success with these two animated series, he admits it’s not easy to have your most recognized acting work be behind the camera.
“It’s tough, to be honest,” he says. “It’s a good and bad thing. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.”
His mood lightens when I ask him if women have ever approached him and requested he “do the Archer voice.”
“Can you put your mouth up close and just whisper into my pussy?” he says, laughing. “The Pussy Whisperer.” “No… nothing like that has ever happened. It’s mostly guys telling me to be their voicemail, and I’m just like, ‘No, definitely not.’”
Benjamin is currently busy writing a live-action pilot for FX, which he plans on starring in—in front of the camera. The fifth season of Archer, meanwhile, promises to be action-packed. After the ISIS gang discovers the treasure trove of cocaine, we’re treated to an absolutely insane montage of footage from upcoming Season 5 episodes. There’s Pam screwing the Yakuza out of a half million dollars worth of amphetamines, who then dispatch snipers to take her out; ISIS running afoul of a Sons of Anarchy-esque biker gang; Cheryl changing her name to “Cherlene” and becoming a country music sensation; a shoot-out with a rival South American drug cartel; Archer being seduced by a dominatrix; the group getting caught up in a CIA arms deal, the list goes on.
“I get a pet tiger,” adds a chuckling Benjamin. “It’s fantastic.”