H. Jon Benjamin Voices His Thoughts on Funny Voices in 2015
The voice behind the titular characters on <i>Archer</i> and <i>Bob's Burgers</i> talked to VICE about some of his favorite stuff from 2015, as well as what he thinks the funniest thing he did this year was.
Photos by Bobby Viteri
It's a little unsettling to talk to H. Jon Benjamin on the phone. More than anyone else, the comedian can claim to be the voice of a generation—literally, it's his voice behind the titular cartoon protagonists on the widely adored and seriously funny Archer and Bob's Burgers, not to mention Coach McGuirk from the cult Home Movies and Ben from Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Benjamin's is the most distinctive voice this side of Gilbert Gottfried: deep and resonant, but also layered with a childlike uncertainty. His characters tend to be insecure braggarts who love to talk and have hearts of gold buried under several layers of jerk. A classic H. Jon Benjamin line reading begins at a place of complete confidence, wavers, gets distracted by a tangent, and ends on a note of obsessive stoner speculation.
2015 has been a good year for Benjamin, not just his voice. He had a supporting role in Aziz Ansari's acclaimed Netflix series, Master of None, showed up in the Wet Hot American Summer revival, and, in a semi-trolling move he describes as "indulgent," put out a full-length jazz record on Sub Pop. It's called, fittingly, Well, I Should Have...* (learned how to play piano). He even wrote an inconspicuous essay for the latest issue of the literary magazine Apology, titled "Suspiria Cannabis Profundis." In a parody of the types of purple-prose weed strain descriptors you might find on sites like Leafly, the 49-year-old fabricated pot names like "Daddy Issues," which "leaves [smokers with] a deep feeling of regret and existential dread with a lingering premonition that things will just get worse."
"Jews like us can't handle weed today," he joked when asked about the essay. Frankly, I agree.
Recently, I chatted with the multi-faceted funny guy over phone and email about some of his favorite stuff from 2015, as well as what he thinks the funniest thing he did this year was.
VICE: Of all the various projects you were involved with in 2015, which one stood out the most and why?
H. Jon Benjamin: I am recognized a lot for Master of None. It seems like that show really touched a cultural nerve in a good way. I've also been to three restaurants featured in that show—Bamonte's, the Dirty French, and Morgenstern's Ice Cream—and people approached me at each and were like, "Oh my God, you're here." Now, I feel like people think I'm that asshole actor who shows up at the places that the TV show he had a small part in was shot at, but I swear it was coincidence.
What do you think is the funniest thing you've done professionally in 2015?
I would say a comedy bit called "Mystic River Pizza" where [comedian] Larry Murphy and I performed a scene from the movie Mystic River word for word for about ten minutes, then a delivery guy comes in at the end with a pizza. Boy, that actually doesn't sound funny now that I write it.
Do you personally think it was an especially busy year for you as a live actor?
Well, it's mainly been the case where I do very few live action roles not out of choice, but more out of not getting asked. This year, though, I was offered two roles in very well-received shows that were shot pretty close to one another, time-wise, so I suppose I worked more this year as an actor. But, to be clear, it might have been a total of eight days between the two shows I actually worked.
You're a pretty dynamic comedian—you write, voice act, live act, do sketch comedy, etc. Which comedic form do you enjoy the most?
Pretty dynamic? I'd say unbelievably dynamic. Writing is the hardest for me. It doesn't come as naturally as the other forms and I feel far more dread during the process. Acting and voice acting are more mercurial and maybe come a little easier to me. I guess that stems from wanting to be a writer when I younger, and not really considering acting or comedy as a viable profession.
How do you distinguish between voice acting as Bob and voice acting as Archer? If you did a Pepsi Challenge–style test where you heard a sound byte and had to guess which character said it, how would you fare?
Yes, I would win that challenge 78 out of 100 times. I think there are subtle distinctions. Archer is never not confident in his tone and Bob is always a little apprehensive, like a guy who's never quite sure of the next thing he's going to say. Also, Archer is always drunk and Bob is rarely so.
Looking back at 2015, what are some cultural things you'll remember the most outside your own work?
Well, I just saw the Dinosaur Jr. anniversary show, which was pretty great. The singer from Negative Approach, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, and some of Sonic Youth performed with them. For movies, I liked Ex Machina , When Marnie Was There, The Visit, Jafar Panahi's Taxi, It Follows , and I'm not sure it counts as this year, but I really enjoyed seeing Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain while really drunk with my friend Leo after a huge sushi meal when no one else was in the theater so we (or just I) farted a lot. Also, Eugene Mirman's wedding was a cultural touchstone, which included a really well delivered poem by Derrick Brown.
Can you tell me about how your "jazz" album happened? Did you approach Sub Pop with the idea?
I had been approached a couple times to do a comedy album, but I'm always too lazy to put together a set that would work. I had been doing this bit live where I would have a keyboard on stage and I start waxing on about how I grew up very privileged in a predominately poor city where many people had not a lot of options, except music, which elevated a lot of people out of the doldrums. Then, I would tell the audience that I wrote a song about it, but would just play a bunch of nonsense on the piano cause I can't play.
The bit never did that well, but I thought about expanding the idea to try and do an entire jazz album with me on piano where I'm not able to play at all, but the rest of the band plays through it as if it were a normal session. I called Tony [Kiewel] at Sub Pop to see if he knew a label that would do something this indulgent and he said they would.
What genre should this record be kept in at record stores?
I'm really not sure—maybe in the bargain bin.
Who are some other voice actors who you think killed it in 2015?
There have been a few guests on the shows I work on whose characters I really like a lot. David Wain's character on Bob's Burgers is really funny and silly and makes me laugh. Trump's been really funny to listen to. Also, I guess not technically voice work but the entire cast of Kung Fury. I watch animation mostly via my son, so we're watching a lot of Bob's Burgers, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bojack Horseman.
What do you have store for 2016?
I've been working on an anthology erotica show for IFC, where I play the narrator of a bunch of erotic tales, sort of like the Red Shoe Diaries meets The Diary of Anne Frank.
Did you achieve your New Years resolutions for 2015?
I promised to reduce income inequality. This year, I'll resolve to buy something extravagant. I'm like one year on, one year off the progressive agenda.
What are you looking forward to most in your own life next year?
More and more I do less and less; it's mainly about trying to get a good night's sleep at this point.