As H. Jon Benjamin was quick to note during our interview, no one really aspires to be a voice actor, to stand in a room speaking into a microphone for a living. But when that voice comes out of his mouth sounding like the sonic equivalent of sex, smoke, and whiskey, it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. For years he’s lent his voice to a variety of shows and films considered both cult classics and mainstream successes.
From Home Movies and Wet Hot American Summer to Archer and Bob’s Burgers, his voice is an identity in and of itself. With the fifth season of Bob’s Burgers underway and Archer starting its sixth, and now ISIS-less, season on January 8, Playboy talked with Benjamin about getting his start in comedy, how cartoons can escape the shadow of The Simpsons, and how the Belcher kids would fare as spies.
First of all, I think you’re the only person I’ve interviewed who boasts a film credit as “Can of Vegetables.”
I imagine that may be true, although there must be some old guy who did a commercial back in the day. Way back in the ‘50s.
Are you trying to tell me that you went method with that role?
Yes, I studied his work in order to do my part.
Did you know early on in your career that voice acting would be your focus?
No, not at all. It was never a dream of mine…to talk into a microphone in a booth. I feel like that would just be somebody’s twisted torture fantasy. I got started doing comedy, so voice acting, it was never an aspiration. It was just a product of, I guess…I was doing comedy and got hired to do one job, and that just spiraled out of control. Now I can’t stop doing it.
Where did you start out doing comedy?
In Boston. That was in the early ‘90s I suppose. Then, I did this show called Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, which was a show that Jonathan Katz produced out of Cambridge. So they did the show there and that was my first job, my first job in entertainment you can say. Unless you count working at a library as entertainment. It was entertaining, but I didn’t perform.
Was the move from comedy to working as a voice actor on that show a natural transition then?
Well, I think, in a way, because I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, it worked out well. It was an odd beginning to a very odd career. The show was recorded in the producer’s house, and he had made a studio out of his pantry. So, it was crazy. Very DIY. So it didn’t feel like, “this is your big break,” you know, when the curtains open and you’re on [The Late Show with] David Letterman. The door opened, and I was in a pantry. And that’s how it was for a couple of years. Working in Cambridge, you’re not in the hub of the entertainment industry at all, so we were very much in a bubble, and most of the show was improvised. So there was never any intention of becoming a professional voice artist. And to this day I’m working for really the same people I worked with 15, 16 years ago.
What drew you to Bob’s Burgers? Was it strictly working with [creator] Loren Bouchard, who you worked with on Home Movies?
Yeah, I’ve done every show Loren’s been involved in…and the hours are really good. So it’s hard to say no to that. I guess this is technically his third show, not including Dr. Katz, which he was the editor of, so we’ve done four shows together in succession. And, you know, these shows are lasting a long time. Home Movies went for five or six years, and now Bob’s Burgers is in its fifth season, so they have some staying power.
What’s the secret to Bob’s Burgers’ success?
My work. It’s me. People love me. It’s the H Jon Benjamin flair.
It has a certain luster after you rub up against it?
Yeah, maybe flair isn’t the right word. It’s that H. Jon Benjamin stank. It’s that disgusting mojo. But no, sorry, to answer in a more boring fashion: Loren is really good at making this style of show. I think Bob’s Burgers is a culmination of all the shows he’s done prior. He does it the same way, and works with the same people, so it works.
Is part of it that it’s so grounded in reality? It’s a show about our weird families and our weird friends.
I think so. I think there’s a couple things going on that make it work. One is definitely that. Pretty much every show is about family in some aspect. It’s funny too, so that helps. And yeah, I think what Loren does for a show, and I’ve said this before, is that he puts a real premium on keeping the characters grounded, and not just doing something for the sake of comedy. So maybe the characters are more real than your run-of-the-mill comedy. But it has to be funny. And also with Loren, there’s a quality of optimism that’s infused in the show, and that’s different too. It’s really not a cynical show at all. It’s a positive show, which is I guess the inverse of what most shows do that portray a family in crisis, or a struggling family. For some reason, this family…I don’t want to say they’re happy about their situation, but they’re certainly making the best of it.
And as a viewer, you end up not wanting to spend time with the characters on those family-oriented shows that are overly cynical or bitter.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. And I do think that’s Loren’s touch; that the family should be positive despite their circumstances. Not that they don’t get mad or unhappy, but they always bounce back.
The show has garnered a lot of comparisons to The Simpsons since it debuted. Is it tough to step out of that show’s shadow?
I think so. You’re obviously in a block of animation that was dominated by…well, it was Animation Domination [laughs], dominated by The Simpsons and Family Guy. It [The Simpsons] had been on for so many years, that I think it had gone through several iterations, and had become kind of a factory. Or at least the show felt like that; you were less invested in the characters, and much more invested in the comedy, the snark. Not that that’s bad. They were really good at it, and still are. I think that Bob’s Burgers was just different from the beginning. I think I compare it much more to The Simpsons when that show was just a short on The Tracey Ullman Show, where there weren’t many jokes, but the characters were really funny and you wanted to see more of them; more of that husband and wife, and their asshole kid. So I think Bob’s Burgers shares more of that spirit, rather than The Simpsons and Family Guy that became more of a delivery system for jokes. But I think part of the mandate of being on a network for so long is, “make the show funnier,” and I think Bob’s Burgers has really done well to keep the balance there and not make it just a 10 jokes per page kind of thing.
Sterling Archer and Bob Belcher represent two different kinds of men: the overly macho super spy, and the working class hero. Are there similarities and differences between the two? Does that extend to how you do their voices?
Archer is a really easy character for me to do now; I just raise my voice and bark out all of my lines. They’re very different characters for sure. I think Archer is far more cynical a guy than Bob, and a far less developed guy. I think Bob is really taking control of his life, as much as he can, and Archer is pretty much out of control all of the time. And Bob’s not a mama’s boy like Archer. Archer might as well have a pacifier in his mouth all of the time.
You’d think the secret agent would be the stable one.
I don’t know of any secret agents that are stable…well, I imagine. I don’t know any secret agents because they’re all secret. But I feel like that job, you’d have to be pretty fucked up to be a secret agent.
I bet a couple of the Belcher kids, especially Louise, would make great secret agents.
Gene would work in or manage one of those spy shops. That’s as far as you’d get. He’d just never be in that kind of shape, but he’d be great at running a gadget shop.
Do you have any other projects going on right now?
I just wrote a script with Leo Allen (Saturday Night Live, Comedy Bang! Bang!) for FX, a live-action comedy. So we hope something will happen with that. I find myself saying that every year. I write another script and nothing ever happens. So I’m working on that now, and I started a small business with Eugene Mirman called Flotsam, where we’re selling mystery bags online. So that’s a good one. I’m somehow a small business owner, and that takes at least twenty minutes of work a day. And I have a lot of time because voice acting, the schedule for the animation shows is pretty lax. So I’d like to do another live-action comedy, because my first one [Jon Benjamin Has A Van] kind of failed, or petered out.
Have you learned a few things from the first failure about writing a live-action comedy that you can apply this time around?
Yeah, I think honing in on a very simple idea. My first comedy show, although I liked it very much, I don’t think…people didn’t know what to make of it, I guess. Which was what I liked about it. There were a lot of moving parts, but it wasn’t simple. So yeah, I’d like to do that again before I shrivel up and die.
Kyle Fowle is a writer based out of Toronto whose writing has appeared at The A.V. Club, Esquire, Maxim, and others.