In the last year, Emmy-nominated voice-over actor Jon Benjamin has played everything from a glib superspy (Archer) to a put-upon pop (Bob’s Burgers) to a talking cabbage (American Dad!). But tonight at 10:30 p.m., the deep-toned, dry-witted 45-year-old will step in front of the cameras for Comedy Central’s new surreal sketch show Jon Benjamin Has a Van. (Another episode airs tomorrow on its regular night, also at 10:30 p.m.) It's a mix of long-form sketches and man-on-the-street gotcha stunts, with Benjamin starring as a jerky news reporter named ... Jon Benjamin. We spoke to the real Benjamin, not the fictional one, and the open-book interview subject was happy to chat about anything, from Carol Kane's awful voice-over technique to a near-hookup with someone who mistook him for the Die Hard star.
Was this show born out of a lifelong fascination with local newscasters?
No, but I did initially want to do a show called Sunday Night, which was sort of based on CBS's Sunday Morning — those really slow human-interest stories. And there was a show in New England, where I grew up, called Chronicle, that told boring Americana stories. I always had an affinity for poking fun at it.
I don't even know if Sunday Morning is still on.
It's still on. It always felt like nobody was watching that show. It was like pirate radio. We watched a bunch before we made the show, and some of them really are excruciatingly slow, and then they have that moment at the end that was like two minutes of just a creek and birds. It was really mesmerizing. As a kid, if you were high — holy shit. That show would drive you insane.
You've been doing voice-over work since the nineties, but this is the most time you've ever spent onscreen. Is that by design?
Look at me. I mean, really — look at me. Let it sink in. No, actually, nothing’s ever clicked. I'm a little bit of a reluctant on-camera performer, but I’ve had opportunities to do stuff, and they’ve either fallen apart or I failed. And the other shit I do keeps coming along — opportunities to do voice-over stuff. So I’ve done that, predominantly. And I'm lazy. Doing parts in animated shows is, like, excruciatingly easy at times. Almost oppressively so.
Sounds like a good gig.
It’s great. When you have to work once a month for two hours, it’s a really good schedule. It allows me a lot of time on the Internet. I should be doing more with my kid, but I don't. Sometimes I’ll take him somewhere. I took him to Washington, D.C., a year ago. God, that’s good for like, five years, and then we’ll go somewhere when he’s 12.
Van has a lot of man-on-the-street segments, like the bit in which you harass moviegoers mid-film.
We did that twice. Initially, we went into a chain theater in Manhattan, in the middle of the day, for one of the Harry Potter movies. I wanted a bunch of people to tell me to go away. The first guy I saw was an old man sitting by himself. I said, “Excuse me, sir. Do you have a second to discuss gay marriage?” And he said, “Sure. Fire away.” And I didn’t have any questions. I’m like, “Wow, you literally ruined my bit.” He was happy to talk to anybody. He’s probably still there, unless he’s passed on. In which case: Thank you for the interview.
You moved to Boston after college and started doing comedy. Had you been performing prior to that?
No, not at all. I was really shy. Well, not shy, but short. My friend Sam Seder, who now does a political podcast, was starting to do open-mike stand-up, and he kind of enlisted me to do bits for him.
Were you doing stand-up?
No. The first bit we did, we’d go up as a comedy team. He would tell jokes, and I would just sit behind him and not say anything, and occasionally I’d read the paper or something. The only way I would do anything was if I didn't say anything. I would be terrified.
And now, with Bob’s Burgers and Archer, you’re talking all the time. Do you move around a lot when you record voice-overs?
I just go in and slouch. Some people flail around like they’re onstage, which is hard to do because you have to keep your mouth there. Carol Kane was on Bob’s Burgers — I’m not sure if she was in one of the episodes, or if her part got cut or something — but she would literally move around. And she was just crazy. She had no concept that you just had stand in front of a mike, and she would do her part she would like be drifting away: [In a fading Carol Kane voice]: “Oh, Bob, I think ... ”
Have you been recognized for your voice?
A couple of times.
And how has that gone?
The guy at the bike shop where I often go, he recognized my voice. He’s very excited. And I’m very excited, because I like the bike shop. And there was one guy at a hotel — this was a while ago, in Cambridge — who was a huge fan of [Adult Swim’s] Home Movies, and he said, “I’m totally gonna hook you up with free porn. I know the guy who can switch it.” So I went up to the room, and I didn’t immediately turn on the porn, but I took a shower, and as I was getting dressed, I heard a knock, and this guy just came in the room. He was like, “You smoke pot? I’m on break.” So porn is on, and there’s this guy sitting there, rolling a joint. I was like, “I just took a shower, dude. You can’t come up on your break and hang out with me.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
You also once played an unlikely Bruce Willis impersonator on Human Giant. Has anyone ever mistaken you for the real deal?
Somebody actually has. And I kissed him. I’m not gay, but just for a story, I almost went home with him. I was at a bar by myself in Paris, ten years ago. There was this American-themed bar called Tennessee, which had all these American knickknacks and shit. At the time, I was losing my hair, and he was drunk enough to really think I was Bruce Willis. So we started talking and he was like, [French accent] “Dee Hard! I love you in Dee Hard.” I just sort of played along, like, “All right. Yippy ki-yay.” And we drank for a long time, and I was really fucked up by the time we left and went outside. He said, “Bruce Willis, come to my house!” And I’m like, “I gotta head home.” Then he embraced me and kissed me on the mouth, and I kinda kissed back, but very like, “Whoa, hey.” At that moment, I was like, “I should fuck him. It would be amazing, ’cause he thinks I’m Bruce Willis. I’m in France, and I will have the best story ever.” But I couldn’t. I wasn’t drunk enough.