Executive Producer Matt Thompson on the Ever-Changing World of ‘Archer’

Matt Thompson has been one of the driving forces behind FX’s Archer from the very beginning. Working alongside series creator Adam Reed, Thompson has served as executive producer since the animated, acclaimed project began in 2009, and he’s still with the show in that capacity this season as it moves to sister station FXX. Thompson spoke with us in late March to discuss Archer’s looming eighth season – which premieres tomorrow night – as well as the evolution of the series and its characters, and the celebrity he’d most like to bring in for a cameo.

We’re coming up on the eighth season of the series. What element of the show now would’ve never entered your mind in the first season or the gestative stage?

Now that we’re inside of our eighth season, there are things that are happening now that just never, ever occurred to us. Adam had come from the world of making really cheap – you’re supposed to say affordable, but cheap – cartoons. We always had this joke when we were making our shows, which is, “Is that $100 funny?” We’d make decisions based upon, like, “If I show an octopus with a backpack on fighting a dinosaur, I have to spend $100 to draw that.” And so we would constantly be joking in our old shows, which were like, “Look at that thing over there, isn’t that funny? Oh, yes it is, that thing over there. But oh, we can’t see it.” It was always a matter of we couldn’t see the joke, and it’s always funnier to see the joke. Always.

So even in our first season, it’s really rough for me to watch it, because we won’t cut around the room, we won’t show characters leaving the frame. And this has allowed us to be pretty free. We can do whatever the heck we want, because we’re not concerned about it. The budget is going to take care of itself by now. So we will have extended car chases, we will go to outer space, we will go back to 1947, because we can and we’re not worried about our budget. FX has been an amazing partner from the standpoint of, “We want you guys to make it look and be awesome and have no constraints,” and they are not hampering us and saying, “No, let’s try and watch our budget really tightly here. Let’s just think of the greatest thing to do, convince us why this is the greatest thing to do, and then do it.” And they’ve always been really great about that.

So the budget has really impacted the storytelling. It’s allowed us to go off. Unlike other cartoons, we aren’t reusing the same bedrooms, the same clothes, the same set you might find on a regular show, especially a regular animated show. At this point we’re almost throwing away almost all our drawings every season, and that’s insane to think of for a cartoon – just to say, “Now everybody lives in a different place, everybody wears different clothes, everybody’s got different hair.” That’s a crazy, crazy thought for an animated thing, but it allows us to constantly be fresh. It just infuses in the staff, it infuses in our thinking. We’re not tired of this thing at all. There’s a lot of stories we can tell here, and the first box that needed to be opened was the money box. It’s not an unlimited budget, but there isn’t a heavy clamp on the budget, and that means you can do what suits your fancy best.

This new season is set in film noir. Were you a fan of film noir growing up? What is it about that genre that makes it something many different series can utilize?

The reason why this genre works for us is because a lot of the basis for film noir is one person trying to succeed against all odds and constantly getting beat up inside. “Stop or you’re dead!” It kind of just fit this tale that we wanted to tell of Archer – of this broken man, against all odds, trying to do the right thing, even though the right thing is not necessarily naturally inside of him. That is all part of film noir, when you really boil it down. And that is Archer, a lot.

This has always been a series that pivoted into different settings and framings every season and couldn’t churn out relatively identical copies of a comedic template. How much more challenging does that process become with every season?

I think to some degree you can make an argument that it’s less challenging. I have a very difficult time telling the same story and the same joke over and over again without it becoming stale. And once you get to an eighth season of a TV show, I just feel there’s a precipitous drop-off on people’s interest. And I think that’s one of the reasons we don’t want to keep giving you mission-of-the-week and the same story over and over; we want to allow these characters all to be slightly different but yet the same, and it keeps our interest. When we’re interested, we’re going to be better storytellers.

How do you do the eighth season of a show when you’re not changing your set, when you’re not changing your storylines and keep it fresh? I don’t know if it’s possible. That’s one of the reasons we first did the cocaine season in season 5 and we got such joy out of it. We’re like, “Okay, hold on a second, nothing really, really changed in that season. Pam was still Pam, Archer was still Archer, but yeah, there were slight shift in things.” And that thought, to have a show where you recognize the players and you recognize the personalities, but yet now it’s slightly different, it’s really cool to me personally. And I hope others enjoy it as much as I do.

Take a character like Mallory, the mother and the boss of her son, Sterling Archer. She kind of lorded things over him and intruded into his life, and a lot of things about her are the same, but a lot are slightly different. Now, her name is no longer Mallory, her name is Mother, and she’s no longer employing her son, she’s employing a kind of a sexy private eye to do her bidding. No longer is her bidding within the law, it’s strictly that she’s a mob boss. She’s like, “Go kill that guy!” She doesn’t worry about the subtleties and trying to play within some sort of rules and sort of obfuscate her wants and desires. But you still recognize her. You still recognize Mallory and Archer’s dynamic, but everything has slightly shifted, and I think there are new jokes that come from that, new patterns, new relationships. You still have the old ones to fall back on or use if you want to, but now you have a double-ended playing field, and I find that freeing.

Along those same lines, which of the main cast of characters has evolved in a different way than you might have envisioned when the series began?

It’s 100 percent Pam. In the pilot episode I think she had one line. She was supposed to be the put-upon human resources director, and then she became just kind of almost like hedonism embodied. She’s a blast to be around, and this season I think she’s taken the biggest shift once again.

It’s so hard of a shift, we don’t know if she’s a man or a woman. And the line we’ve been using around the office is, “Frankly, why do we gotta gender-identify?” Pam is living as what looks to be a man – we’re not quite positive, and it makes things incredibly interesting for me and her storyline this year. She’s evolved so much that she is not a man or a woman…or is she? I don’t know. It’s up to the viewer to figure that out. She keeps changing and it’s killing me, but it’s still her and it still feels like her. She goes by Poovey this year, which is her last name. She’s not going by Pam. Everybody’s calling her Detective Poovey. It’s a shift that allows her to do different things, but I guess the best phrase is, “Everything has changed while staying the same.” And she’s lovely right there in that space.

One of the most most common and enjoyable vibes I get from Archer – and this is just me talking – is comedic exasperation. And H. Jon Benjamin’s greatest gift, among many, is his amazing ability to convey the buildup of frustration – the slow burn. When were you as producers really aware of how talented he is?

From the beginning. Jon has an ability for a couple things: the No. 1 thing is there’s something inside of his delivery and his voice where he can say the world’s most awful things, and I find them to be amusing instead of awful. And that’s very important, because Archer is an awful person. If you think about all the things Archer has done, he’s horrible. But somehow Jon and his delivery and the sound of his voice and whatever it is, gives him a likability.

And you’re right about that exasperation – that’s essential to his character. Whenever the character of Archer is bitching about something is when he’s at his best. You put in roadblocks and make him bitch his way out of them. And I think that Jon is like that too. He’s a contrarian. That’s a good word for Jon Benjamin. Jon Benjamin is a contrarian. If you want Jon Benjamin to do something, the quickest way to not get it done is to ask him to do it. Jon loves to do the opposite, and he finds comedic joy in bucking the trend or bucking the system. And a lot of that is inside of Archer. Archer is a contrarian. He likes to screw things up for his own amusement at times. And I think that is inside Jon as well.

But the number one thing I noticed about him again is he says awful awful, awful things, and I do not feel bad about the character. I don’t think the character is a heartless, sexist jerk that cares about no one but himself. I think he’s an amusing, obtuse fool with a good heart, and that’s all because of Jon Benjamin.

You’ve corralled incredible guest stars over the years – Burt Reynolds, Bryan Cranston, Patton Oswalt, Kristen Schaal, Jon Hamm, George Takei and Fred Armisen, among many others. Is there still a holy grail guest star out there for you? A Sean Connery or a Gene Hackman or Jack Nicholson you can coax out of retirement?

This season, the greatest thing about all of our guest stars is that Jeffrey Tambor is back for a large part of the season, and Jeffrey and Jessica [Walter] being together – just as a selfish fan of Arrested Development – is a great joy. Plus we’ve just always loved Jeffrey, so to have him back after so much time away is just a great, great joy. That is my number one thing, and also Eugene Mirman is all over this season as well, and he just delivers his character with a lovely creepiness I can’t get enough of.

I would say if there’s one person who I’d love to see in Archer, it’s Daniel Craig. Because people don’t realize how funny Daniel Craig is and how much it makes sense to get him inside of this world somewhere. I would absolutely love to do something with him, but I wouldn’t want him just to be like a super-spy or something like that. It’s almost like I’d want him to play exact opposite of that in some manner. I don’t know what it is, but it would have to be something that’s worthy of him.

So I would say my number one would be Daniel Craig, and also, we’ve got to find a way to do something with Jeffrey Donovan. But Jeffrey Tambor, Eugene Mirman, Keegan-Michael Key is back; Keegan is funny in everything. You want to make sure you have something good enough for them and meaty enough for them to make it worth it.

The animation this season is especially beautiful. You’re clearly out to make people laugh with the show, but do you think the art department receives enough credit for its contributions?

They don’t, and every year it changes in terms of the one department we should be singling out. And I think this season there is a composite department that has done all the different lighting effects. Obviously I think the backgrounds are beautiful, I think they’ve really done a great job on characters this season, but to look at what the composite department has done – and nobody even knows what a composite department is on a cartoon; they’re the ones that put the effects and the lighting on when everything’s done – has really helped bring the show to life.

If there’s one thing look-wise I’d want somebody to take away from this season is, look how the light is falling on that scene. It’s beautiful, and that’s because of some very talented individuals.

Another thing the show does exceptionally well is that it uses silence and the pregnant pause for comedic purposes. In this age of noise and color and blur, is that maybe an underrated art and crucial part of comedy for you?

It is, and it’s because largely of how Adam and I grew up. We grew up making 15-minute shows for Adult Swim, and because of that, when you’re trying to do a 15-minute show, you don’t necessarily write a 15-minute show. You jam a lot of information inside. And you notice in our editing, we’re moving, we’re moving, we’re moving.

And so we realized early on in those Adult Swim shows, that when you’re moving and everything’s going by so quickly, an abrupt halt where you stop and do nothing is powerful. And when we first figured that out – this is about 2001 – because we’d been forced into very, very fast timing to get our information out, that’s when it really became apparent to watch what happened with the pregnant pause. It really drilled it home for us, and I think it’ll always be with us.  

Adam Proteau writes about entertainment, culture and sports; his work has appeared in outlets including The Hockey News, ESPN.com, The Toronto Star, Playbill.com, The Canadian Press, and TheGlobeAndMail.com.

Executive Producer Matt Thompson on the Ever-Changing […]