Jon Benjamin talks Comic-Con, Bob's Burgers & a Comedy Central Van
Comedian and voice-over actor Jon Benjamin is one of the funniest performers in the world that most people are unaware of. Benjamin began his career in voice-over as Dr. Katz’s lethargic song Ben, and soon followed up with the iconic Coach McGuirk from the short-lived Adult Swim classic, Home Movies.
His unique deadpan delivery has become his trademark, and with Benjamin flying well below the radar of Hollywood, he's been notoriously known for turning down work, instead opting to choose projects in which he can collaborate with friends, with the end result always being smart, original and unique comedy. A rare breed of comedian, Benjamin has let success come to him on his own terms, instead of chasing it down like a Hollywood slut. His star has recently been on the rise with FX renewing his animated show Archer for a third season, while FOX picked up Bob’s Burgers, his other show where he’s the lead actor for a second season. This summer Benjamin will step out of the vocal booth and into the spotlight as the host and creator of his new show for Comedy Central, Jon Benjamin Has A Van. Adding to the list of Comedy Central's fake news programming, JBHAV combines man in the street videos with investigative journalism in a way that only Benjamin and his crew are capable of delivering.
SanDiego.com recently had a chance to speak with Benjamin from his home in New York City and discussed the evolution of his new show, discovered some of the special guest stars that’ll be appearing this season, and if he’ll be making another appearance at Comic-Con this year.
How often do you have to fly to Los Angeles when you’re working on voice-overs for Archer and Bob’s Burgers?
Jon Benjamin: Two times a day, five days a week. I’m kidding. I record Archer in New York and Bob’s Burgers as well. They’ve developed technology, probably years ago to connect people. I don’t go to L.A. that often. I did go frequently for Jon Benjamin Has Van; we shot most of it in L.A. So I would go out there for three week stints to shoot, and then come back to where I live here.
How long has the concept for Jon Benjamin Has A Van existed in your mind?
JB: I’ll go with the analogy; it would’ve been like if I fucked something seven years ago and the host gave birth six months ago. I shot a lot of videos that were sort of the basis for the idea of the show, starting probably in 2004 or whatever year in the early 2000’s that you want to write. When we pitched the show a year and a half ago, we used those videos as kind of a starting point. So it evolved from there.
So you finally pitched a show to Comedy Central.
JB: I did. Well no, I went and met them and I showed them these videos and then they were like, ‘Let’s make a show with these videos,’ which were videos I had made over the course of four or five years; short pieces that I had just made on my own with my friend Bill Buckendorf. We just made a bunch of videos for a live show. So I had those and I went in and it was sort of one of those things where I was told, ‘Go in and they would like to do something with you, so pitch a show.’ I didn’t really have anything; I just had those so I showed them that and they were like, ‘Oh let’s make a show with that.’ But that actually made me have to come up with an actual show, because that wasn't really enough for a real show.
You kind of set yourself up with a deadline to create the concept for an actual show.
JB: Yeah, a little bit like that. That’s basically more how it was. They liked those so they were like, ‘Let’s do something.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh no.’ But it occurred to me I didn’t want to do just that, so me and my friend Leo Allen started trying to expand the idea a little bit. Then it turned into the show that you saw.
Whose ass is that on the back of the van?
JB: It might be mine. It might be my dad’s. It might be yours.
In the episodes that I saw, the show starts out like a news program and then slowly evolves into a dramatic story that has little to do with what triggered the original news story.
JB: A little bit yeah. I mean it sort of does deteriorate or devolve.
Was that always the way you planned the show to look, or did it go through a gestation process?
JB: We shot a pilot where we shot a bunch of funny videos and then we shot a bunch of the news story videos as transition pieces between news stories. So it was a much different kind of show. Then when they picked that show up we actually changed it much to their surprise. Because we watched it and we started writing more of those, and it became very uniform - we thought it wasn’t that interesting. So we wanted to make it interesting for us while we were writing it. We sort of transformed the show into what you saw. So it did come out of just basically an unwillingness to have to do this show that they bought.
How lenient has Comedy Central been with the show?
JB: In no way was I surprised when we gave them a script for a different show then they bought. They were like, ‘Well that’s just a very untraditional way of working together. We already bought this other show, why are you giving us this? You’re doing it backwards basically.’ Which was a very fair perspective to have. But we explained why we wanted to do it, and then they were very agreeable and they were actually really cool about it.
Would you describe Jon Benjamin Has A Van as being geared towards comedy nerds and people towards the back of the room?
JB: It depends on the room. I don’t know. I hope not. We didn’t make it for any specific group of people. We just tried to make it something that was funny for us.
You take some pretty risky chances in some of the episodes, like removing the sound in the "Breakdown" episode.
JB: I don’t care. I mean I really don’t. I think we thought it was funny and there was definitely concern; I never felt that concerned but I can see why. I think that’s a good example of people who follow comedy very closely, are going to be into that joke and maybe it will alienate a lot of other people. I agree about the risk, but it didn’t feel like a risk when we were shooting it or writing it; we just thought it was funny. I hope people enjoy it. I wasn’t doing it specifically to alienate people but I think there is a little bit of that; going as far as possible. Comedy Central was definitely concerned about it, but they were cool to let us do it.
So Comedy Central gave you carte blanche?
JB: Yes, which to me felt like they could care less. I’m always a little bit taken aback when they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah do whatever you want.’ Especially when you’re a performer, you always want feedback; positive or negative. They were like, ‘Do whatever you want.’ And it’s kind of like, ‘Oh you don’t give a shit, do you? You don’t care about the show.’ When they said that I never took it at face value.
Would you say the "Breakdown" episode was the farthest you pushed the envelope this season?
JB: As far as meta-concepts; we didn’t go beyond that. There are some very conceptual jokes that will play out for long periods of time.
How many episodes will we get to see the, “You Can’t Shoot Here” sketch?
JB: Those were all one-offs, so just one. We had a lot more stuff but we only cut one. It was really hard to get on too because we made that on the fly and we didn’t have any releases which was difficult, so we had to blur everybody. It worked out. It was really funny because we went back sort of retroactively to try and get people to sign those consent forms, and everybody summarily refused, especially the people in the beginning who worked at this fashion store. I got pulled out by security because I personally went in with a consent form and asked him, “Hey, do you remember I came in…” and he remembered me right away. It was from a year ago and he was still mad about it. So I walked in and I was like, “Hey I’m sorry my name’s Jon Benjamin, I don’t know if you remember me?” And he was like, ‘Yes I do.’ So I brought the piece on my computer and was like, ‘I want to show you this thing,” and he was like, ‘We’re done here. You’re out. I don’t have time for you.’ Then I got taken out by security. He called the guy over and was like, ‘Jose, take this gentleman out please.’ It was funny because I was literally protesting as I was dragged out by my arm. It was very dramatic.
Can you tell us any guest stars will be appearing in the episodes?
JB: Yes, there are many very funny guest stars. Bob Odenkirk did an episode. Patton Oswalt did one; David Cross was in a very brief thing. Tim and Eric were in one. Chris Parnell, who I work with on Archer, was in the same episode that Tim and Eric were in. And Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts from UCB. So a lot of people.
Will there be an appearance from Yo La Tengo in any episodes?
JB: Unfortunately they’re not. We wanted to do something with them for promotion but it never happened, so they’re not in it.
Did you have anything to do with Yo La Tengo putting the option of “Sitcom Theatre” on their spinning wheel tour?
JB: No I did not. They make up stuff on their own I think.
Did you get a chance to see that tour last year?
JB: No I didn’t. I missed it but I heard it was funny. I saw clips of it online.
Yeah I saw video of them reading the dialogue from an episode of Seinfeld somewhere in the Midwest, with a lot of people heckling them.
JB: Right, it looked like they struggled through some of the stuff. I guess with that idea you’ve got to really commit.
Will you be coming out to the San Diego Comic-Con this year and will you be doing any panels?
JB: I might be doing the Archer panel this year. I think I was contacted about it and I wouldn’t say it was fun last year but I like going to Comic-Con. There were a huge number of fans for Archer that were excited, and I like when people get excited to see me.
How was last year’s Comic-Con being that it was your first time experiencing it?
JB: I actually kind of tried to avoid everything. I mean I walked around a little bit, but I was very antisocial. So maybe if I go again, you’ve got to butter me up. It’ll take maybe five or six visits to get warmed up to it. But it was crazy. I most likely will go and do the Archer thing.
Will the public ever get to see another incarnation of Midnight Pajama Jam?
JB: I don’t know, maybe. Jon Glaser’s really busy he does his own show and I have to find the puppets. I don’t know where they are.
Would consider yourself to be at the apex of your career right now?
JB: You can only hold out so long and when it comes to you, you become a slut. You become a total slut. I hope I’m not at the apex, but I’m not getting any younger, ya know.
There's a quote that’s been attributed to you and I want to know if you actually said this and what it means: “If you do nothing long enough, something’s bound to happen.”
JB: Yeah, I think I did say that. I don’t know; it’s like poetry. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.
Do you still go out around New York and perform once and awhile?
JB: I do, but I do it a lot less frequently. It’s harder to do certainly when you’re making a show which I’ve been doing for the last six months. I never did a huge amount of performing to begin with, but friends of mine who perform a lot more always offer up shows. I don’t do it as frequently as I used to but I still perform a couple of times a month or when someone asks.
Do you have any summer vacation plans lined up?
JB: I might take my kid to Europe this summer and show him where America came from.
Does Jon Benjamin have a message for the children?
Jon Benjamin: Don’t pick your nose and eat it. How about that?
Jon Benjamin Has A Van premieres June 14 and June 15 at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.
Watch Jon Benjamin host the Comedy Tent at The Bonnaroo Music Festival on Sunday, June 12 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. by clicking here.