H. Jon Benjamin, His Voice and His Van

Scatterbrained and frivolous, the manic intensity of Aladdin’s Genie is distinctly that of Robin Williams. Likewise, Shrek’s Donkey overtly exudes Eddie Murphy’s singular rambling hysteria. These characters are personas inseparable from the entertainers who voiced them, and for that reason we are in fact doubly entertained. Via some sort of meta-casting, now a staple of modern family features, Disney branded its fool archetype as a vessel for anachronism (see Donkey, also), a postmodern gesture aimed at the deconstruction of formula. And utilizing Williams and Murphy aided this end, as their animated personas’ relentless impertinence was amplified by the fact that the audience recognized the actors imbuing the ‘toon, and thus attended to their asides with pre-tickled fancy.

However, while Genie and Donkey were given life by gentlemen whose physical appearances are famed and iconic, another inimitable voice actor has accrued plenty of parody power from within the recording studio. He’s the man behind Sterling Archer, the spy spoof stud of FX’s Archer. He’s also a dejected patriarch named Bob Belcher on Bob’s Burgers, FOX’s first Flash-animated series. His presence on Home Movies and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist helped cultivate the older-audience-directed sarcasm now shepherded by the indispensable Adult Swim programming. H. Jon Benjamin is a Generation X slacker hero who is making Generation Y crack up, and now he is on the loose in America.

On his new Comedy Central series, Jon Benjamin has a van. The show is called Jon Benjamin Has a Van. Rife with Tim and Eric-esque randomness – in fact, many of that show’s staff and writers are working for JBHAV – Benjamin’s fake news investigation format allows spontaneity and ad-libbing à la Archer but the chiseled façade behind which Benjamin typically hides (as Sterling) is gone. Fortunately, Benjamin’s insidiously deadpan misanthropy is just as effective coming from his portly, salt-and-pepper features.

Although the show maintains a basic structure, each episode’s theme is cleverly elusive throughout the seemingly unrelated sketches, but the scripted skits and hidden-camera segments are ultimately tied together “into a head-splitting narrative that keeps catching you off guard, even when you think you’ve figured out how the formula works [Onion A.V. Club].”

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Explaining his writing process, Benjamin describes a deconstructionist approach that recalls the shaggy dog aesthetic seen in full force on Archer and creator Adam Reed’s previous cartoon Frisky Dingo:

“Basically, we had decided to write the last episode first, where we would completely go away from the formula of the first nine…figuring that Comedy Central won’t care by episode 10 that we’re writing something totally different. So we did that, and because we enjoyed it, we did more of that. It’s like doing cocaine. Once you do it once, you’re like, ‘Wow that’s enjoyable, let’s do it again!’ But it’s not for everybody. Writing. Not cocaine. Cocaine is for everybody.”

Redolent of the esoteric skits on the cult-favorite Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the chaos of Benjamin’s show is clearly aimed at an audience who are bored by formulaic comedy television, and Benjamin himself is the perfect figurehead for such a postmodern programming movement. His voice is inextricably emblematic of the Archer brand of inside jokes and tangential gags, and as Benjamin steps into the spotlight he joins the likes of Louis C.K., Zack Galifianakis and Brian Posehn, preeminent roundish, lonely men whose vulgar and despondent humor is rapidly gaining mainstream cultural currency.

While we wait for Season 3 of our beloved Archer to air in September 2011, Jon Benjamin will continue to sate our appetite for awkward, ham-handed protagonists and uncomfortable non sequiturs.

Which Jon Benjamin role is your favorite?

Alejandro Gomez I was born in the blond sunshine of southern California, and reared in the blond Scandinavian casserole of suburban Minnesota. My parents are neurologists, and so I love my brain for all of its wackiness and resent it for all of its neuroses. I feel exactly the same way about America, which is why I like to write about it. Twitter: @deaddad

View all posts by Alejandro Gomez

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