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EW Enters the Danger Zone

One of the best shows on TV is about spies, sex, and drugs... it's also a cartoon; EW investigates the world of ''Archer.''

Image credit: FX

Archer

''These trunks feel light,'' says actress Amber Nash, standing in a sound booth at an Atlanta recording studio. ''Do you swear they're full of cocaine?''

Nash is taping her contribution to the fifth-Season Finale of FX's hit spy series Archer. On the show, she plays Pam Poovey, the coke-addicted human resources director of the International Secret Intelligence Service (a.k.a. ISIS), a privately owned company of spooks. Given this information, anyone unfamiliar with Archer might assume it is a serious espionage drama along the lines of its network sibling The Americans. In fact, it is an animated comedy — but one like no other.

Created by Adam Reed and executive-produced by his longtime creative partner, Matt Thompson, Archer is notable for its outrageous sense of humor (if you don't appreciate jokes about cancer, Hitler, and/or Japanese ''tentacle porn,'' this is not the show for you), its array of running gags (subjects include Burt Reynolds and ''Danger Zone'' singer Kenny Loggins, both of whom have guest-starred as themselves), and its high-profile cast. H. Jon Benjamin, who voices the titular patty-flipper on Fox's Bob's Burgers, is the oversexed alcoholic spy Sterling Archer, while Jessica Walter from Arrested Development is his boozy mother, ISIS owner Malory. Then there is Aisha Tyler, who portrays the beautiful if ''man-handed'' agent Lana; Chris Parnell, who voices wimpy ISIS accountant Cyril; and another Arrested vet, Judy Greer, who plays the agency's sociopathic secretary, Cheryl.

At least that was the job and the name of Greer's character until recently. For the fifth season of Archer, Reed — who either writes or co-writes each script — has reconfigured the show to a degree virtually unprecedented in TV history. In the premiere episode of what has been rebranded Archer Vice, the FBI shut down ISIS, which prompted Cheryl to change her name to Cherlene and embark on a career in country music. The rest of the now-unemployed ISIS team have become de facto drug dealers as they attempt to offload a metric tonne of cocaine before Pam can eat it. As if all that weren't seemingly foundation-shaking enough, this season has tracked the pregnancy of Lana, who, EW has been granted permission to reveal, will give birth in the Season Finale. (Archer airs Mondays at 10 p.m.) ''I was worried the audience was getting bored,'' says Reed, 44. ''It's like breathing new life into a marriage: 'Oh, let's meet in a bar and pretend we don't know each other.'''

But the really strange thing about Archer is that one of the most visually distinctive and impressive animated shows on TV is overseen by two people who have at best only moderate enthusiasm for the genre outside of their own work in it. ''Animation just doesn't interest me that much,'' says Thompson, 44. ''Adam and I, if we're going to watch something on TV, it's going to be sports or drama. And I'm not going to watch Japanime crap. I don't need to see people f---ing squids.''

Reed and Thompson first met in the mid-'90s when both were working at the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network, Reed as a lowly production assistant and Thompson as a producer for on-air promotions. ''We liked to go to bars and we liked not going to staff meetings,'' says Reed. ''We were crappy employees, actually. If I worked for me right now, I would fire me.''

One day Thompson did drag himself to a meeting to brainstorm ideas for shorts that could play between cartoon shows. With nothing in his idea vault save a raging hangover, the producer formed his hands into the shape of mouths and began to talk. ''I was like, 'Talking hands!''' Thompson recalls. ''And Adam and I ended up doing this talking-hand show for a year and a half.''

That show ''starred'' a pair of hand-cowboys called Haas and Lil' Jo, a nod to the old TV Western Bonanza and just one of many references that undoubtedly sailed over the heads of pint-size Cartoon Network viewers. ''It was for 2-to 5-year-olds, but we would write all these crazy [things],'' recalls Reed. ''Like, we'd do a shortened version of Apocalypse Now. Lil' Jo would say, 'The horror! The horror! More Smurfs coming up!'''

Cartoon Network next tasked the duo with writing a show called A.M. Mayhem for the comedian Carrot Top, which debuted in 1995 and proved a less enjoyable experience. ''Carrot Top was nice,'' says Reed, ''but there were a lot of people pushing and pulling in different directions.'' In the meantime, Reed and Thompson came up with their own idea for a show called Sealab 2021, which parodied Sealab 2020, a short-lived '70s cartoon about an underwater research base. ''We were convinced we could do a dirty show out of an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon,'' says Thompson. ''We sat around for a week overdubbing it with different lines, and we showed it to our bosses and they said, 'This is cute — we need you to keep making this Carrot Top show.' We were like, 'No, this is genius.''' Unwilling to continue writing Mayhem, Reed and Thompson left Cartoon Network and Atlanta, driving a U-Haul to New York for a fresh start. ''Which is something I would never recommend to anyone,'' says Thompson. ''This is like straight to porn, you know? It's like, I'm going to need to blow 20 dudes for rent.''

They found work producing short films about the making of movies, which satisfied their landlords — if not their burgeoning creative instincts. A few years into their New York stay, they recut the pilot for Sealab 2021 and pitched it again to Cartoon Network. This time their ''genius'' idea was better received by executive Mike Lazzo, who had been handed a chunk of the late-night schedule for a grown-up-friendly network-within-a-network called Adult Swim. Sealab 2021 became a staple of Adult Swim after its launch in September 2001 even though, or more likely because, it often seemed to have more in common with the avant-garde high jinks of the Dadaist movement than with, say, The Simpsons. In one episode, the cast — which included CHiPs actor Erik Estrada — merely redubbed the dialogue from an old Sealab 2020. ''We would rack our brains trying to figure out something that Mike hadn't seen before,'' says Reed. ''That led to a lot of things where he would go, 'Well, I haven't seen that — probably because it's not good — but we'll try it.'''

Sealab 2021 inspired a cult following but was canceled after four seasons. However, it got Reed and Thompson back to Atlanta, situated in a small house on the east side where they'd go on to make their next Adult Swim show, Frisky Dingo. ''We had eight people total, and that was counting Matt and Adam,'' says Archer art director Neal Holman, who worked on Dingo. Archer's Lucky Yates, another Dingo alum who voices ISIS scientist and Hitler clone Dr. Krieger, recalls that the recording booth was a repurposed closet. ''It was hot as balls,'' he laughs. ''If you were claustrophobic, it would have been your worst nightmare.''

Frisky Dingo, which made it out of the closet in 2006, concerned the densely plotted misadventures of a skeleton-headed albino monster named Killface, and managed to confuse at least one of the people who worked on it. ''I remember thinking, 'I'm not smart enough to watch this show,''' says Amber Nash, who voiced Killface's assistant, Valerie. While again treasured in some quarters, the show lasted just two seasons.

To recharge his batteries, Reed embarked on the El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage walk that terminates in northwestern Spain. By the end, he'd dreamed up three new projects. ''I called my agents and I said, 'I have this idea that I think is really good,''' he recalls. ''They listened and said, 'No, that's a terrible idea.' I said, 'I have this other idea that I think is really good,' and they said, 'That's a terrible idea.' And I said, 'I have this idea about a spy, it's basically James Bond but he's a total jerk,' and they were like, 'That's a good idea.'''

Reed and Thompson struck a deal with FX and cast Benjamin, already a voice-over vet with roles on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies, in the lead. ''Jon's voice is suave, but it's goofy at the same time,'' says Reed. ''He can say the most terrible things and [you still think], 'Yeah, I would be friends with that guy.''' For the role of Archer's mother, Reed wanted the closest thing they could get to Jessica Walter — which turned out to be Jessica Walter. ''We sent out the casting notices and the one for Malory said, 'Think Jessica Walter from Arrested Development,''' remembers Reed. ''Her agent emailed us back and said, 'How about the real Jessica Walter?''' And the rest of the cast flowed from there.

The show's look was inspired by ignorance as much as anything else. Explains Reed, ''I don't want to say I'm not a fan of animation. But I'm certainly not a student of it. So I wanted it to look as realistic as possible.'' And it does. Archer boasts near-photo-realistic backgrounds and decidedly uncartoony characters, often based on photos of actual, costumed people. The show also features eye-popping action sequences, which, thanks to advances in technology, have gotten more eye-popping and action-packed with each passing season. ''We used to be very conscious of a car never doing a big turn because that would cause 16 paintings of a car turning around,'' says Holman. ''And now it's 'Let's go nuts!'''

The days when Thompson and Reed operated out of a residential home are now just a memory. Their company, Floyd County Productions, occupies the entire second floor of a city block in Atlanta, where around 150 people sit silently in front of computers, hard at work animating both Archer and Chozen, the FX rapper comedy produced by Danny McBride's company, Rough House. ''We don't have a no-talking rule,'' laughs Reed. ''They're just quiet, hard workers.''

The size of the Floyd County workforce is a testament not just to the man-hours necessary to produce the show but also to its hit status. While ratings were patchy during Archer's debut season, they gained traction the following year. January's season 5 opener was watched by 1.7 million people — its highest-rated premiere yet. Earlier this month, FX announced that it was renewing the show for two more seasons. Reed and Thompson's creative relationship has evolved over time, with the latter focusing more and more on the technical and business side of things, freeing up the former to concentrate on penning scripts. ''It kills me, but I'm smart enough to realize I can't write like him,'' says Thompson. ''The fact that there's no writers' room and that he writes all these shows by himself? It's f --- ing freakish.''

Having completed writing the current season of Archer, Reed is working on a pilot script for a new show about two highwaymen in a postapocalyptic future (''I pitched it to FX as Mad Max and the Sundance Kid'') while also plotting out what will happen next to Archer, Malory, Lana, and the rest of the ISIS crew. ''I think we will sort of un-reboot,'' Reed says. ''Get back to some spy missions. Lana's going to have a baby, so I see some funny things with getting her co-workers to babysit. I wrote this down the other day: 'Somebody walks in on Pam chewing up Vienna sausages and then spitting them into the baby's mouth like a gorilla.' And — I just realized — we have to get a baby! Maybe they'll draw a baby from scratch. I'll have to ask them about that...''

Adam Reed's Favorite Episodes:

Skytanic (Season 1)
The ISIS team joins the maiden voyage of a luxury airship to investigate a bomb threat. ''Structurally it's a Scooby-Doo episode,'' says creator Adam Reed. ''You've got the mystery, you've got the misdirection, and then at the end there's the unmasking and everything is fine. It's straight-up Scooby-Doo!''

Swiss Miss (Season 2)
The script for this episode — in which Archer acts as a bodyguard to the horny 16-year-old daughter of a German billionaire — was altered after FX raised some understandable concerns. ''In Germany the age of consent is 14,'' says Reed. ''So in the first draft of the script she was 14. The standards lady was like, 'This is FX, not Germany.'''

Placebo Effect (Season 2)
A cancer-stricken Archer discovers he has been given fake chemo drugs and embarks on a vengeance-fueled rampage. ''People would email and be like, 'I just survived cancer and these episodes helped me feel better,''' says Reed. '' 'I don't know if murdering people is the best thing — but it really helped.' That was a neat feeling.''

Southbound and down (Season 5)
Archer drives from New York to Texas in an extended homage to Smokey and the Bandit — the show's umpteenth tip of the hat to Burt Reynolds, who guested in season 3. ''I've always been a huge fan of his,'' says Reed. ''He actually signed my script. I'm going to get it framed.''

The man with the golden voice
Archer star H. Jon Benjamin talks cartoons and cocaine

How have you enjoyed playing an oversexed alcoholic cocaine dealer on Archer Vice, as opposed to an oversexed alcoholic spy in previous seasons?
[Laughs] There's not much difference. There's not a lot of progress emotionally. I don't think Archer's been doing a lot of the cocaine — that's the one thing I was surprised about.

What do fans say when they stop you on the street?
It's mostly moans of disappointment. It's just ''Aw'' — heavy sigh — ''look at that little Jew.'' Pretty much everyone else in the cast of Archer looks like their animated character except for me. Aisha Tyler is tall and black and very beautiful. Chris Parnell looks like his character. Jessica, who plays Malory, looks a lot like her. And then there's...the other guy.

Why aren't you just ''Jon Benjamin''? Is it a SAG thing?
No, it was actually a joke from Dr. Katz. I neglected to fill out my credit sheet, and my girlfriend at the time did it for me and said, ''I've put down a very pretentious name for you.'' It wasn't that pretentious. And it wasn't a great joke. But for some reason it stuck.

You're the star of both Archer and Bob's Burgers. Do you ever feel greedy?
No. I don't get paid a lot. I'm in animation! I would honestly say I deserve maybe at least one more [role]. Yes, three would be fine.

Animating Archer
After an Archer script is storyboarded (1), illustrators are photographed for visual reference (2). Those shots are combined with a 3-D background render with placeholder skeletons (3). The characters are then moved around like puppets (4) while background artists turn the render into a photo-realistic environment (5).

Originally posted Mar 21, 2014 Published in issue #1304 Mar 28, 2014 Order article reprints