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Vulture TV Awards: The Year’s Best Male Comedy Performer Is H. Jon Benjamin

This week, we’re presenting our Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best in television from the past year. Vulture contributor Julie Klausner kicked things off with an epic opening monologue, and now we’re straight-up dishing out the virtual hardware. Amy Schumer already has her Vulture. Up next: Best Male Comedy Performer, as selected by Vulture television critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

The nominees are:

H. Jon Benjamin, Archer and Bob’s Burgers
Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Adam Driver, Girls
Danny Pudi, Community

And the winner is...

WINNER: H. Jon Benjamin, Bob’s Burgers and Archer
H. Jon Benjamin is one of the MVPs of TV cartoons, with a voice that is not merely recognizable but seems to capture something essential about the American man. This would be astonishing in just one series, but Benjamin stars in two: Fox’s Bob’s Burgers and FX’s spy spoof Archer. Benjamin, a longtime stand-up comic who drifted profitably into voice work years ago, is not a Mel Blanc–style chameleonic talent; while he’s a versatile actor, his two best-known performances have pretty much the same rhythm and timbre. And yet somehow they strike very different notes.

Bob Belcher is the nearly hapless schlemiel, the soft-bellied dad who blusters and fails but is redeemed by his sweetness and his love for his wife and kids, who form one of the few completely functional (if eccentric) families on TV. He’s a lovable loser in the grand old sitcom tradition, and he’s never more endearing than when he’s halfheartedly puffing up and trying to dominate somebody else; you can tell his heart’s not really in it, and his resolve is so weak that sometimes he can’t even get through a demand. You can practically hear the energy draining out of Bob’s voice when he realizes he has no chance of getting what he wants; it sounds as if somebody had pulled the plug on his masculinity and you got to hear the machine gradually shutting down. He’s never more alive than when he’s terrified or injured and screaming in pain. Misery makes him electric. Benjamin has the best male scream since Dan Castellaneta’s Homer Simpson. On my personal bucket list: hearing both actors perform scenes in which their characters are horribly wounded.

Sterling Archer, in contrast, might be the fictional character that Bob fantasizes about being. He’s the id to Bob’s superego, a natural-born-killing-and-screwing machine, a narcissistic stud. His oblivious brutality would be unconscionable if the show weren’t populated by a rogues’ gallery of comic sociopaths whose very existence is a grimly hilarious reminder of how not to be. Archer’s voice is redolent of the frat house; he’s the guy who’d paddle some poor pledge half to death and then go to jail for it because he ordered his girlfriend to record it for posterity and she got pissed at him and uploaded it to YouTube. He is male entitlement personified, James Bond reconfigured as a Judd Apatow dude-bro. (“Hi, I'm Sterling Archer. You may remember me from the strip club, and hopefully from what was hands down the best sex I've personally ever had.”) That he is a psychological prisoner of his mother makes his hypermasculinity explicable and hilarious. Benjamin’s existentially weary voice shows us that even Archer is bored by Archer, and must keep pushing himself to new extremes of outrageous excess to feel anything. (“Woohoohoohoo! Two personal records! For breath-holding and number of sharks shot in the frickin' face!”) Benjamin seems to be defining both Bob Belcher and Sterling Archer from somewhere deep inside of himself, rather than leaning on virtuoso voice tricks. He’s the vocal version of one of those lovable Everyman movie stars who can really, truly act: the Tom Hanks of animation. 

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson