by Robert Winship
The world of voice acting is can be a prickly subject to tackle: often insular and steeped in a sort of underground hierarchy. It’s not a scene that you can just walk into. And maybe that’s a conscious retaliation against the misconception that voice actors aren’t really “actors”. An upcoming documentary on the subject, I Know That Voice, is promising a load of fulfilling reveals, but it could truly shed light on a world of acting that is overlooked by those outside of, say, Cartoon Network’s purview. It’s easy now to trace profit in the adult-oriented cartoon industry, as Fox’s primetime schedule is front-loaded with the likes of Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons, and Napoleon Dynamite. If nothing else, 20+ seasons of The Simpsons and the life, death and rebirth of Family Guy have taught people a thing or two about the populist merits of 2-D: namely you can’t always foresee the successes and sometimes, they won’t die.
Cartoon Network’s William’s Street has been sort of Steve Albini to the world of animation: a fuck-you producer of anti-pop and outright champion of misfit humor, while the larger networks, like aforementioned Fox, continue to plug animated giants, propped up by hit-or-miss newbies. But between those challengers the increasingly reliable FX network has found success in its popular spy-comedy, Archer. For the past three seasons, the dark comedy show grew from taking jabs at standard espionage tropes into a narrative that followed the hedonistic lives of the self-destructive, working family of Isis. Anchored by a string of comedy and television alumni, Archer brought the now widely recognizable voice of H. Jon Benjamin to a mainstream audience. Jon Benjamin has, in fact, been the voice of many more obscure and noteworthy characters, from the spot-on ramblings of Coach McGuirk (Home Movies) to Ben Katz (Dr. Katz) and several roles as talking Bible-fruit or monster-men in Aqua Teen Hunger Force/Aqua Unit Patrol Squad. Jon Benjamin has also lent his hand to the Family Guy juggernaut as the voice of Carl the store clerk and is well into the second season of Bob’s Burgers, leading the cast as patriarch of the Belcher family.
Strangely, Wednesday’s Black Cat stop had little to do with any of his voice acting. Rather, it was in the name of Benjamin’s live-action vehicle (literally!) that he traveled to DC, one of the few stops on a tour for Jon Benjamin Has a Van, the one-season Comedy Central investigative, sketch-comedy show. The whole performance was essentially a bonus feature to the cancelled show: a little like a variety hour by way of Tim & Eric Awesome Show. Jon Benjamin came right out at the beginning of the set. Maybe not right out…a young singer covering Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You” introduced Benjamin, who trudged out to tackle the refraining “So in love.” It was a funny way to start and pulled from Jon’s improv skills, which would come into play at the end of the evening. It’s not surprising that Jon (along with Has a Van regulars Nathan Fielder and Leo Allen) presented the evening as something less cohesive, like an epilogue to the show. There was no bad mood circling the act, just a few comedians performing in their own styles: sketch, video montage, slide-show, and stand-up.
A bit as plain as Nathan Fielder’s stupidly affected Jon McCain impression being used to order a pizza from Manny & Olga’s was timed well, though they were really just getting a few DC references in. Nathan’s college-level ambivalence played up against Benjamin’s curmudgeonly deadpan sarcasm like a sad-slacker generational gap. Jon spent much some of his solo time with a slide show, where he presented pictures of himself taking his 9-year-old son, Judah, to the park to get high for the first time. Similarly to Michael Ian Black, Benjamin’s derision of his own family was actually reassuring and kind of sweet in that they put him a real world role, not just as the talented voice of a misfit.
The transition time between members of the team involved some audience participation and pleasant goofing
about. Leo Allen was the most straightforward stand-up comedy, coming up perform a 15 minute routine concerning of the Salem witch trials, Hitler and cancer. But, in that it was so standard, it felt out of touch with the show as a whole.
The very last bits in the performance involved recruiting an audience member’s to the stage to them explain their day to Jon and the crew. The guys would then act out and mock (to some very liberal extent) the description of the day. I lost sight in how the show closed with a male stripper, one with whom I awkwardly conversed, but a twisted world of offbeat humor, you should expect no less. Jon Benjamin Has a Tour wound up more enjoyable than a comedy set at the Improv or local comedy cellar, when drunken people fill a room to be a part of a low-production comedy hour and in that experienced the seeds and remnants of comedy writing.