Comedy

H. Jon Benjamin: The Voice of a New Generation

Comedy Features
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H. Jon Benjamin: The Voice of a New Generation

By his own admission, H. Jon Benjamin is not an especially good voice actor. For starters, he doesn’t have much range, which means almost all of his characters speak in his signature low-key bass growl. Emotionally, they’re likewise limited, rarely venturing beyond cluelessness, self-satisfaction or complete befuddlement. Occasionally, they do erupt into loud, angry tantrums, which only underscores their arrested development.

And yet, somehow, Benjamin has become one of the busiest and most popular voice actors around, his familiar tone a welcome sound on any show. In 15 years, he has voiced many memorable characters, including Ben Katz on Dr. Katz. On Home Movies, he played both the immensely self-delusional Coach McGuirk and the endearing spaz Jason Penopolis. He’s also cameo’d on Family Guy, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Parks & Recreation, in addition to his own (recently and sadly canceled) show Jon Benjamin Has a Van. Currently, he has two animated series in production: the deliriously vulgar spy spoof Archer on FX and the weirdly sweet (sweetly weird?) Bob’s Burgers on Fox.

Both shows have developed large and loyal cult followings, vaulting Benjamin to a level of fame that few voice actors ever achieve. During the course of our interview, he excuses himself to sign an autograph for a fan who recognized him on the street, despite the fact that he looks nothing like any of the characters he’s voiced.

His two current characters couldn’t be more different. Sterling Archer is a narcissistic secret agent with a crippling Oedipal complex and an exaggerated ego that routinely compromises dangerous missions. Bob Belcher is a blue-collar father and restaurateur struggling to keep up with the demands of his diner and the shenanigans of his oddball family. But they both sound remarkably alike. Benjamin doesn’t change his voice for them, doesn’t affect an accent or a different tone than his God-given deadpan. That voice, however, imbues both with a sense of dignity and humanity, no matter how crazy their actions or how loony their surroundings.

The lack of range may even be part of Benjamin’s appeal. It’s certainly the reason he was hired for Archer. “I remember going in and I didn’t even know what kind of show it was,” he recalls. “When I realized it was a spy show, I wondered if I should do an effete accent or something. I thought I sounded just like Coach McGuirk, but [series creator] Adam Reed said ‘No, that’s why we hired you.’”

Benjamin’s one attempt to devise a voice specifically for a character produced not only one of his best-loved performances but also a lot of teasing from the cast and crew of Home Movies. To play Jason Penopolis, the sweetly dweeby kid with a gift for hilarious non sequiturs, “I would just hold my nose,” he says. And sure enough, his voice effortlessly rises from his natural bass to Jason’s childish tenor. “People would say, ‘You’re the worst voice actor ever! No one actually pinches their nose. Real actors practice a voice.’ Yeah, that’s all I got. This voice and this voice.”

Even now, after more than a decade in the voice-acting business, Benjamin does not practice or hone his craft. “I never read the scripts before I go in,” he says, not exactly proudly. “That is half laziness and….well, it’s all laziness.” But there are dramatic advantages to his professional lethargy: “Sometimes when you read it for the first time, you do really sound naturally lost in some cases. It’s not a live-action show where you really have to get everything right. You can just sit there and do it over and over again. It’s not like it costs money.”

Sounding “naturally lost” is not only an essential aspect of Benjamin’s characters but also a tone that even the most dedicated voice actors can’t always achieve. Archer is a man-child in an adult world—never mind that everyone else in that world is a child as well. Bob is a well-meaning patriarch completely surprised and overpowered by his weird family. “Lost” is essential to both shows, which make good use of excellent ensemble casts and ingenious animation.

Creatively, however, the two shows couldn’t be more different. Archer is tightly scripted by Reed and his small team of writers, while Bob’s Burgers allows for much more improvisation. “For Archer, they record all the cast members separately, so it’s really quick to do,” Benjamin says. “I don’t want to come off like I don’t want to work, but it’s really easy.” That’s easy for him to say. The show’s sharp timing and bizarre ensemble dynamic are created in the editing bay, as Reed pieces the audio together line by line. “A lot of people have touted how natural the characters sound together,” Benjamin says. “It’s just really impressive the way he does it. I’m always surprised it feels so connected.”

Bob’s Burgers, however, creates a similar dynamic in a very different way. The cast members are all thrown together to record their lines together, a practice borne from producer Loren Bouchard’s previous shows (including the aforementioned Dr. Katz and Home Movies). It allows the stellar cast, which also includes Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal, to play off one another. “They do long records where they allow for a lot of fooling around and improvising. But it’s not like I have to go back again and again,” Benjamin says.

Both shows have found small but avid audiences, Archer for its ingenious vulgarity and Bob’s Burgers for its unique mix of family dysfunction and togetherness. And perhaps the common voice between them is much more versatile than Benjamin lets on. He may play the lead in both shows, but makes room for impressive ensembles of actors who bring a similar finesse to their characters. Ultimately, for a guy who can mouth the most absurd obscenities on one show or the most heartfelt—albeit somewhat nonsensical—fatherly wisdom on the other, perhaps an array of wacky voices is much less useful than one really good voice that’s immediately identifiable and relatable.

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