Friday, January 22, 2010

Archer and the Rising Star of H. Jon Benjamin

You may have never heard of H. Jon Benjamin, but you have most likely heard him.  In addition to his stand-up background, Benjamin’s been a staple of alternative, adult-oriented animation for years now.  And no, I don’t mean porn cartoons (NSFW).  He played Dr. Katz’s son on Dr. Katz, Jason and Coach McGuirk on Home Movies, and occasional guest roles on popular Adult Swim programs such as The Venture Bros. and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Benjamin broke into stand-up in the 80s, working primarily with David Cross and Sam Seder.  According to the font of all knowledge that is Wikipedia, he specialized in comedic group work.  This background surely influenced his often conversational delivery and his ability to improvise effectively on programs like Home Movies.

I didn’t know this, but he’s also worked in front of actual cameras.  Benjamin’s appeared on Parks and Recreation and Michael and Michael Have Issues.  Plus, he has a large presence on Comedy Central’s Important Things with Demetri Martin, which is one of those shows that is simultaneously about everything and nothing. 

Despite his seeming success in the live action world, for me his career is defined by his outstanding voice-work.  Thankfully, the folks at FX agree.  Benjamin provides the voice for the titular protagonist in Archer, the new spy parody cartoon from Adam Reed of Sealab 2021 fame.  Being such a big Benjamin fan (and following a recommendation from NPR’s David Bianculli), I decided to give the Archer pilot a shot.

Archer and his Mom (also his boss). Initially, Archer’s art style threw me a bit.  I spent the first thirty seconds of the episode trying to decide if I minded that it resembled heavily-lined Flash animation.  After pausing the video, I did some research and learned that the production process is the polar opposite of something like South Park.  Whereas Parker and Stone employ their grossly overpowered computer animation tools to churn out a facsimile of construction paper in about a week, each episode of Archer took a month and three separate animation studios to produce.  Color me impressed.  The character models are based on the likenesses of the voice actors, lending a slightly surreal quality to characters like Chris Parnell’s Cyril Figgis.  It’s not an Uncanny Valley situation by any means.  The end result is more like an animated, high-resolution Silver Age comic.  I’m not in love with the rigidity of the static backgrounds, but the overall style is pleasing to the eye and helps to evoke the era Archer is lampooning.

There’s very little in the way of specifics regarding Archer’s setting.  The International Secret Intelligence Service for which Archer works is wonderfully vague, which should allow the writers to parody Bond and other spy tropes as much as they want without worrying about historical fidelity.  Archer also taps into the Mad Men zeitgeist: secretaries as playthings, drinking in the office and whatnot.  As The Venture Bros. turns classic cartoons and nerd-culture on its end, Archer pokes fun at the classic spy stereotype by pushing the sex and violence so hard it becomes absurd.  Archer’s outlandish sexual habits are hinted at when he wakes up next to a woman with the red imprint of a ping-pong paddle on her right cheek (not the cheek on her face, of course).  And at the episode’s end, he initiates a Mexican stand-off with a If this doesn't just scream Bond parodyRussian mole who has his mother (and boss) hostage.  He gets slightly aroused at the thought of his oppressive mother kicking the proverbial bucket, and while everyone’s thoroughly grossed out he blasts four holes in the mole’s chest.  It’s, um, weird.

If it sounds unbelievably, bizarrely coarse, it is.  Despite the MA rating, I was still shocked by some of the language they managed to slip past the FCC (some lines felt like someone simply forgot to hit the bleep button).  While some of the laughs come from rapid-fire banter, I found myself guffawing most often when the dialogue put its toe just past the line.  During a brief flashback, Archer loses money betting on black in roulette and exclaims, “Black! Ass! Sonuvabitch!”  The camera pans right to a large African man in a dashiki standing nearby.  “Not you, Giant African Man,” Archer says quickly.  “I’m sorry, can I offer you a drink?  How about this expensive prostitute?” he adds, motioning to the woman on his arm.  I can definitely hear the familiar strains of Sealab, but the scenes move quickly enough that I’ve yet to encounter a soul-crushingly awkward pause.

The show, though stocked with a largely entertaining supporting cast, hinges on your enjoyment of Benjamin as Archer.  He deftly alternates between the two modes that made Coach McGuirk so enjoyable: relaxed, derisive conversation and surprised, disingenuous shouting.  He has no problem underselling a barbed insult, particularly when it’s a recurring joke.  But he’s also fully capable of neanderthal-like bellowing.  This excellent Home Movies clip is a perfect example of Benjamin alternating between the two. 

I do worry about Archer finding an audience.  Will the Adult Swim crowd care enough to brave FX, the channel that plays Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer twice a week?  Does your average Rescue Me or Damages fan enjoy cartoons, especially ones with excessive cussing and a vaguely 60s feel?  I walked away from the pilot feeling like I’d watched an odd Venture Bros. spin-off.  It certainly caters to that magical 18-34 male demographic.  I, for one, hope Archer doesn’t languish in obscurity.  I need more H. Jon Benjamin in my life.  And Home Movies reruns just won’t suffice.