You know someone’s having a great run when you ask them about their new television show and they don’t know which show you’re talking about.
Writer, performer and producer Jon Benjamin is a long-time fixture on the New York comedy scene, and if you’ve watched an animated sitcom in the last 12 years, chances are you’ve seen his work there as well. He provides the voice of the titular characters in the FX spy spoof, Archer, for which we was nominated for an Emmy, as well as the Fox sitcom, Bob’s Burgers. You’ll also recognize his rasp as the voice of Ben Katz in Dr. Katz and Jason and Coach McGuirk in Home Movies — two beloved and critically acclaimed series.
Benjamin has done plenty of work with live action TV as well (including a stint as writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien), and he returns to that format tonight with Comedy Central’s Jon Benjamin Has a Van, a co-venture with FunnyorDie. In his new series, Benjamin plays a fictionalized version of himself leading an investigative team on a news magazine-type show. Oh, there are sketches also.
I recently spoke to Benjamin about carousels, his new show, and something called SemenX.
It’s hard to think of anyone in television busier than you right now, at least in comedy. How’s that adjustment going?
Well, it comes and goes. I don’t particularly see myself as being very busy right now. I tend to work a lot even if I don’t have stuff on TV. I work a lot with friends and make videos on my own. I do a lot of live shows in New York so even if I don’t have any voiceover roles or acting roles or whatnot, I keep myself busy.
So being on three shows right now — OK, two of them just wrapped — that’s normal? You don’t feel any busier?
No, I don’t mean that in a cocky way. I don’t mean I’m not busy. There’s a lot going on right now. But, it all seems to work itself out. I know it’s a lot on paper, but it feels OK.
Got it. So you’re not overwhelmed?
No. If this was my first time on the carousel, maybe. But I’ve been on the carousel for quite a while. I like to make carousel analogies. You ever been on a carousel?
It’s been a while, but yeah, I’ve been on one. They’re a good time.
They’re pretty fun. It’s also a good metaphor for life. It goes around and around and sometimes you want to get off, and sometimes you don’t. [Pauses.]
That’s very profound.
A lot of your work is and has been in television. Would you say that’s by design? Do you see yourself gravitating more toward film at some point?
I guess I would do more films, but I like being in New York, and it’s mostly television here. For one reason or another most of the work I get is with television shows, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Why do you have a film idea? Want to pitch me something?
Geez, put me on the spot. Umm…
What do you got? Give me something. Look around the room, and you know, if you see a cup and some books, say it’s about a guy who makes cups and his son dies and then he writes a book about it. You know what I mean? Just work with what’s in front of you.
Can it sometimes be as easy as that?
Going back to your work in television, you do a lot of work in animation. Do you have an affinity for cartoons? Or is this just how the chips fell for you?
It sort of just fell my way, originally. I met Loren Bouchard working on Dr. Katz back in the 90’s and Loren went on to create Home Movies and Bob’s Burgers and I had roles in both of those. Part of that is being in the right place at the right time, and then having a sweet voice on my part.
That’s a perfect segue into my next question about your voice. You sound a little bit different on the phone.
I got a cold, so I’m a little nasally. I’m usually a little deeper.
Are the voices of Bob and Archer pretty close to your natural voice?
Sometimes I’ll amp it up and drink hot tea or try to rough up my vocal chords in a way or lower it a little bit, but pretty much. I sound like a mix between this and what you hear on those shows. We’ll play with the pitch occasionally.
Does that come from smoking or anything? Are there…
I love cigarettes, I love cigarettes. I like a good beer. I love to drink. [Pauses.] Yeah. Who doesn’t?
I’m with you. I’m just wondering if there’s anything you do to alter your voice or is it just natural?
Pretty much my dad, you know, had sex with my mom. And then I came out. Magic happened inside them. And then I shot out like that. I don’t mean to be crass, but that’s what happened.
That’s the science behind it?
Yeah. You’re parents got together, and, you know, made love, and then you came out. You came up the way you are. It’s magic every time.
Yeah, but my parents gave me this high-pitched squeal. You’ve got that beautiful, golden, baritone.
Well, sometimes. But right now I’m under the weather and don’t sound so great.
Last voice question, I promise. Are there any ridiculous requirements in any of your contracts about preserving your voice?
No, not so far. [Laughs.]
Not yet at least. Tell me about the new show. I saw the “You Can’t Shoot Here” clip online. It was hilarious.
Like I said, Loren Bouchard, who I’ve known for years, is a really smart, great guy. He had been working on the show for a year or so getting the pitch together for Fox and they really liked it. It’s a classic dysfunctional family show, and I was psyched to be a part of it. I love working with Loren. It has a great cast. I’m friends with a lot of the cast, like John Roberts, Kristen Schaal, and Eugene Mirman.
No, no. I’m talking about Jon Benjamin Has a Van.
Oh, I thought you wanted to talk about Bob’s Burgers. Yeah, Jon Benjamin Has a Van. I love that show, too.
I’m sure you do. It has your name on it.
Yeah, it’s fun. I worked on that one with Leo Allen. What clips have you seen?
On the Comedy Central website they have the clip of “You Can’t Shoot Here.”
I was just going to bring that up. That’s my favorite thing that we did. “You Can’t Shoot Here.” You just walk into places and try to shoot, and they say you can’t shoot here, and we say we know. It’s very “Who’s on First?” You’re cornered into the concept, as I like to say. I’m glad you liked it.
Does that clip encapsulate the style of the show? Man on the Street interviews, different sketches, etc.?
It’s a chance for me to stretch my legs and do a lot different things. Some of them are Man on the Street. I liken it to you know when you get a really big party sub and it’s got a lot of mayonnaise on it, and you whip it against the wall, you just want to see what sticks? Comedy for me is the deli meats, the onions, anything that’s in that sub, and we just throw it against the wall. Whether it’s Man on the Street or hidden cam or more traditional sketch. Hopefully that meat sticks.
Is there any sort of social commentary/criticism aspect to it, in the vein of Da Ali G Show? Or is it purely silly for you?
It’s a combination. We had one sketch that got cut from the show which we fought for called “Goldman Sacks.” We would capture a Goldman Sachs employee in a sack and deliver them to downtown Newark, to one of the poorest parts of New Jersey, and just say “you did this.” We just filmed; the one guy wet himself.
Are you serious?
Yeah, it was great. But we couldn’t use it. The guy had it coming. You work at Goldman Sachs and you should be thrown into a sack and shown what you did to this country. You ruined it. I don’t have a problem with putting that on TV. But Comedy Central had a problem with that.
Yeah. I don’t have a problem making a little bit of a social statement.
I assume you’re also producing and showrunning for this one?
Yeah, it’s a mix. Sometimes, I’ll be more hands on directing and other times, I’ll let the director take over. Sometimes if I’m behind the camera too much it becomes a distraction. Sorry, I’m a little out of it right now. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.
No, no problem. Do you have a preference when it comes to having creative control over something vs. showing up on set to perform a specific task?
Definitely. I like to come up with ideas, figure it out, and do what I want to do. I’m not a Saddam Hussein about it; I listen. If someone has a better idea about how to make a sketch or video better, I’m all for it. My comedy is a meritocracy. I like the better ideas to float up. I have some talented friends working on the show like Gary Wilmes, Leo Allen, Andrew Steele, who’s writing with me, and Benjamin Berman, who’s a great director. They all had great ideas and I ran with it.
Did you have the cast in mind going in?
We had extras come in and people like that we didn’t know, but the core cast I knew very well and was excited to work with them.
I love the name. Was there much thought and effort put into that?
Well, basically we wanted to think of something that would allow me to drive around and shoot a lot of different things. This seemed like a simple, direct way of getting the show across to viewers. It’s kind of a hard show to explain. I think it’s better if you actually see it. I’m glad you like the name. We’re happy with it. It’s pretty silly.
And it’s a sweet-ass van.
Thank you very much. There’s an ass on the back.
Do you get to keep it?
No, I wish.
Earlier you said when you’re not doing television, you like to do live shows. Are you still doing stuff around New York? UCB stuff?
Yeah, yeah, I perform with friends I’ve been performing with for a while. People like Jon Glaser, Matt Hall, Patrick Borelli — guys I’ve been doing shows with for a while. They’re goofy and we have the same sensibility. I’m not doing quite as many shows as I used to cause I’m busy and I have a kid. Life gets in the way. Life’s a bit of a Hallmark card right now.
Your act isn’t what we would consider traditional stand-up, correct? It’s more performance-based?
Yeah, it’s more like performance art. Not terribly well thought out. A lot of improv. I think the last thing I did was my friend Jason Woliner found a product called SemenX, which promised to increase the amount of semen, the volume of your load if you will. I went on stage and talked about it for eight or nine minutes then I pulled out a big jar of what I claimed to be my load after a week of being on SemenX. It was kind of disgusting, but it got a laugh. That’s what I do. It’s a little upsetting, you might ask for your money back, but I have fun.
It pushes the envelope.
Yeah, if there was an envelope at the show, I would push it across the stage.
There’s your next bit.
Yeah, I’m going to credit you. I’m going to drive up to Vermont, and I’m going to get a big envelope and I’m going to push it across the stage wherever I’m performing.
Jon Benjamin Has a Van premieres tonight and tomorrow on Comedy Central at 10:30/9:30c.
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