Voice actor H. Jon Benjamin relishes success of ‘Bob’s Burgers,’ ‘Archer’

By , on January 9, 2014


Photo: Facebook Page of H. John Benjamin
Photo: Facebook Page of H. John Benjamin

TORONTO—It’s not often that crack comic voice actor H. Jon Benjamin whose laconic drone enlivens the titular stars of animated comedies “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers” is recognized publicly by his voice, rather than his appearance.

But when it happens, it’s a memorable experience for the 47-year-old, who to put it delicately scarcely resembles the svelte, chiselled super-spy he portrays on “Archer.”

“Those have been the best reactions, because they’re like: ‘Oh my God.’ They didn’t know what I look like,” he conveyed in a recent telephone interview. “‘Holy (crap), that’s crazy.’ It’s like they’re meeting an alien. ‘That’s so funny. That’s you?’ They also end up being like, ‘Aww. This sucks. Too bad. I thought you were like Archer.’

“So I prefer the interactions where they already know that I don’t look like Archer. It just makes me feel less hideous to look at.”

If such aural recognitions are less frequent now, it’s likely because the profile of both Benjamin’s signature projects have simultaneously swelled.

“Archer” launches its fifth season on Teletoon this Monday. The daffy spy satire, which casts Benjamin as a womanizing, murderous narcissist with a booze-obliterated liver and a dysfunctional relationship with his mother, ended its last campaign with a semi-cliffhanger centred on the news that fellow agent Lana (Aisha Tyler) was pregnant.

Benjamin coyly promises that the storyline will provide a major shakeup, with the show’s deficient agency ISIS “totally changing.”

The show’s growth-challenged lead character, however, undergoes no such transformation.

“Everything seems to be with Archer like a test to become more of a whole person and it never seems to pan out,” Benjamin says with a laugh. “He’s constantly being challenged to get there, so it’s a really heightened way of dealing with it, especially considering what he does.

“You know, if there’s anybody that makes more mistakes and thereby can change from them, it’s Archer. So it’s not for lack of making mistakes.”

Benjamin, a Massachussetts native, has an accomplished comedic career both in live action and animation, but his longest stints have been in the latter field, with regular roles on “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” and “Home Movies” on his resume.

Regardless of the project, he sounds pretty much the same gravelly, weary, dismissive. When he auditioned for “Archer” prior to its 2009 premiere, he was reading the script for the very first time. He had no idea what the role required.

He immediately realized he was completely wrong for the part.

“When I went in for the show, I honestly didn’t know what it was,” he recalled. “I was like: ‘Oh, I’m just doing my voice…. (But) this is a spy.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. A spy would never be this Jewish.’ And they said, ‘No no no, that’s why I’ve called you. To do your voice.’

“I sort of felt bad. I was like, oh, I have the least spy voice in the world. But it’s what they wanted.”

He realized he was a fit in another way, however.

“I’m very good at I guess being aggressively a (jerk),” he says with a laugh.

Benjamin records both “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers” in New York. The latter is very much a team effort, with the cast’s East Coast residents gathering together in a studio and linking up with their L.A.-based co-stars for improv-heavy recording sessions.

“Archer,” meanwhile, he records alone, without seeing or hearing the rest of the cast. At times, the fast-paced show feels like a cacophonous blur of gun-shots and shrill one-liners, and Benjamin acknowledges that it takes a certain toll on his precious, precious vocal chords.

“I’ve blown out my voice doing ‘Archer’ because some episodes I feel like every scene description is ‘Archer yelling over heavy artillery’ or ‘Archer yelling over biplane.’ It’s so much ridiculous yelling. I think once in the middle, I couldn’t continue ‘cause I pinched my vocal cords.”

So does Benjamin, like an accomplished opera singer, take any special steps to nurture his voice?

“I don’t really have anything that works really well except for cocaine and the occasional ecstasy tablet,” he quips.

“Bob’s Burgers,” meanwhile, has become a rare critical and commercial success. Focusing on Benjamin’s put-upon patriarch, his mildly unsuccessful burger joint and his eccentric family, the show has been hailed by critics for razor-sharp writing and a subtle sweetness that calls to mind early seasons of “The Simpsons.”

Subtlety is generally in short supply amid Fox’s Sunday night animated lineup where “Bob’s Burgers” is scheduled alongside raucous Seth MacFarlane properties “Family Guy” and “American Dad” as well as the aged “Simpsons” so Benjamin’s show might seem an uneasy fit, but “Bob’s Burgers” was renewed for a full fifth season days before its fourth set had even begun airing in September.

Benjamin, for one, is thrilled by the success, even as he agrees that “Bob’s Burgers” is fundamentally different than the shows with which it’s packaged.

“I don’t know much about ‘Family Guy,’ I never really watched it so I can’t comment on it,” begins Benjamin, who has nevertheless appeared in a dozen episodes of the raunchy cartoon, “but even ‘The Simpsons,’ it has gotten like anything else I think after a while … (where) it’s much more of a ‘write as much funny stuff as you can pack in’ (show).

“I think ‘Bob’s Burgers’ was a bit of a relief from that kind of suffocating ‘how much humour can be packaged into one show’ (mentality). … I think it’s kind of more like a really well-done sitcom that doesn’t necessarily need to be animated.

“I hear a lot more people talking about ‘Bob’s Burgers,’ more and more. I think it’s really found its voice.”