All words: Robert Winship
H. Jon Benjamin’s name may not immediately ring any bells, but to hear the highly quotable comedian and voice actor, you’d recognize him as the voice of Sterling Archer or Bob of Bob’s Burgers. His lineage with alternative comedy goes back to early performances with David Cross and hits many culty beloved shows and movies through the past decade (Dr. Katz, Cheap Seats, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.) There’s no schtick, though plenty of curiosity to underscore his prevalence and voice work. BYT sat down with Jon to talk about Jon Benjamin Has a Van (the tour/the show) as well as his stint in a Billy Joel cover band and gay romance novels. We daresay we commandeered the interview!
Brightest Young Things: How are you doing?
Jon Benjamin: Good, I’m good, man, how are you?
BYT: I’m pretty well. Thanks for talking to us. I just wanted to start out by saying that you’re being interviewed from the Pentagon, so let’s keep it All-American.
JB: Well, it’ not the first time.
JB: No, no…probably not. I don’t think I’ve even been.
BYT: So you’re starting off the tour tonight? Tonight is your first night of performing?
JB: No, tomorrow night in Boston and I think Wednesday night at the Pentagon–there in the middle
BYT: Do you have specific material planned for DC or are you just gonna go with whatever?
JB: No, not particularly, but I’m sure we’ll figure something out, you know, DC-related. It’ll be like the Capitol Steps
BYT: We can appreciate that.
JB: Like the Capitol Steps gone wild.
BYT: What is more wild about this how than a show we’d see in DC, at the capitol?
JB: (Laughs) Well, Celine Dion won’t be there. So, you can count on that. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a show at the capitol, I don’t know what they’re doing anymore. It’ll be like the tree lighting, without a tree.
BYT: And without, who was it? Yanni or…Peter Cetera was there last year!
JB: Peter Cetera did the tree lighting?
BYT: He was at the tree lighting. I don’t know if he lit the tree, but he lit up the stage.
JB: (Laughs) We’ll swear a lot, probably. So, you know, if you like that. It’s geared toward nine to twelve-year-olds.
BYT: So, what brought on the idea for a tour, from the show. Was that something they came to you with?
JB: No, well, you know, we do this Comedy Central show that has since been cancelled, but prior to it being cancelled we planned a show to ring in the second season, then we got cancelled. So, the joke’s on us. So we kept the tour because we had already set it up. We truncated it a little bit. When we set it up it was going to be a bigger tour, but now..it’s bittersweet. Or not even bittersweet, just bitter.
BYT: Did you have a lot of material filmed for the second season? Was it ready and they just didn’t pick up?
JB: No we had written some episodes for the second season, we hadn’t shot anything. They’re not that dumb. they cancelled us after we had written about half the shows of the second season.
BYT: I think I read in AV Club you were trying to take the second season in a little bit of a different direction. Is that true?
JB: Yeah, well, I think the show started to…it’s unfortunate, in a way, because I think we sort of found a good formula for the show by the end. So, we took the premise away–the van and all that. We still called it Jon Benjamin Has a Van, but the van wasn’t a catalyst for the story anymore. We just developed much more narrative stories for each episode, so it was less sketchy in the second season, the way we wrote it.
BYT: So, what can we expect in you actually coming to the Black Cat, here in DC on this tour? What are you doing?
JB: I’ve never been there. I hear its a really great place. Leo Allen and Nathan Fielder who both worked on the show will kind of trade off performances. Leo does stand-up, so he’ll do stand-up. Nathan will do some more performance-y stuff and he’ll show some videos. And we’ll show some videos from the show that we didn’t air. there’s a couple sketches that went unaired that we’ll show and the rest, we’ll play it by ear. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll leave. We’ll leave anyway. We’re gonna leave anyway after that.
BYT: You’ll just leave earlier, go get shit-faced earlier.
JB: (Laughs) We’ll be like the Replacements, we’ll just walk off.
BYT: Speaking of bands that walk off, is there any band you’d like to tour with. The Black Cat brings in a lot of indie alternative bands. Is there anybody you’d like to tour with?
JB: Well, you’re at the Pentagon, so I’ll say the Charlie Daniels Band? No, I don’t know. I’ve never really toured with a band, i think i’d just be a bummer to tour with. If I traveled separately, it would be fine, but I think i’d just be one of those guys…like a loner in the corner. Like, oh, we’re touring with that guy.
BYT: He went back to the hotel at 9:00, when we finished our set.
JB: Yeah, there’d probably be a lot of that. We did tour once with this fake band that I was in called Matter of Trust, which is, specifically a Billy Joel “Matter of Trust” cover band. We only covered “Matter of Trust”. So we played it over and over again and I’d like to tour with that some day. We did one show with the New Pornographers and Belle & Sebastian. I’m friendly with Carl [Newman] from the New Pornographers, so he gave us the slot in the middle of the show, but Belle and Sebastian was not aware of what we did and they didn’t seem pleased.
BYT: At all?
JB: Well, they were sort of separate anyway. We met them briefly, I think, when we got off after the New Pornographers, in the middle and the came on after us. Sort of their show. When we walked off and they were coming on, it seemed tense or just confused, I don’t know. they just gave a look. I don’t know how to do an accent from where they’re from. Are they Swedish?
BYT: They’re kind of Swedish, they’re Glaswegian, I think…is what you say.
JB: They’re Glaswegian, right, right. So they just sort of stared blankly at us, like ‘that’s not what I wanted to come on to’
BYT: They’re very sincere, you don’t fuck with Glasgow. So, you work with a number of comedians on Jon Benjamin Has a Van and then the cast of Bob’s Burgers is a pretty solid group, with Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman. Are there any comedians you still want to work with? You’ve worked with a lot between all of the Adult Swim shows and Dr. Katz. Is there anybody left that you still like to do work with?
JB: Like I’ve been through them all. Right, I need fresh blood, somehow. I don’t know, there’s plenty of people I haven’t worked with closely and even those people I don’t work with on Bob’s Burgers I haven’t really worked with them on a show or, a show of my creation. I think I probably will not be doing a comedy show like Jon Benjamin Has a Van again. So I’ll probably have less opportunities to work with my friends who are comedians as much as I used to in the past. I’m gonna try and do more narrative shows on TV now. At least that’s what I’m working on now. So, I don’t know. I’ll work with less funny people.
BYT: So, narrative TV in the vein of what?
JB: Well, I’m going out now, trying to sell a show that’s much more a narrative, like a single-camera sitcom kind of show. So, if it comes up, I guess there’s plenty of people I haven’t worked with that would be good to work with, but that kind of show will be as experimental. It was easy to find people, friends that I worked with and just plugged them into roles in a sketch-style shows, you know.
BYT: Do you have any plans to do what’s pretty popular right now, in podcasting or releasing a book: Jon Benjamin Has A Book?
JB: (Laughs) It’ll become a little cottage industry. Jon Benjamin Has…and fill in the blank. It’s pretty much been severely unsuccessful up to this point, as a cottage industry, so I don’t think I would have the patience to do a podcast. Maybe once a week. But I’m not sure I’d be good at it. So, I have no plans to do it.
BYT: Do you get a lot of requests to show up on those kinds of podcasts?
JB: Sometimes, friends of mine have then and I will occasionally do them. I’ve been on a few, like Marc Maron’s a while ago and I did one recently with this comedian Dave Hill.
BYT: I would like to see you back with the Sklar Brothers, I miss Cheap Seats.
JB: That was okay right? And they have a podcast right?
BYT: Yeah, Sklarbro Country is what it’s called.
JB: I have plenty of time, I should do something like that. Yeah, I feel like it just wouldn’t work. I’ve had a lot of requests to do a…you know people just want to hear me talk. You know what I mean? Fans of the animated shows just want to hear my voice. So, I was considering doing a weekly podcast where I read from a book or something. Jon Benjamin Reads a Bunch of Really Shitty Books.
BYT: What book would you read? What book would be worth recording?
JB: Well, I’m kind of a collector of really terrible books, a little bit. A little bit. Like, if I’m anywhere traveling or even here in New York, I’ll kind of go look through used book stores and find the worst kind of books. So, I have a ton of those things at my disposal.
BYT: How do you pick? What is your method for finding the worst book in a bookstore?
JB: Well, like I’ll see a title of a book that’s like Federal Fag [real book] and then I’ll buy that for sure. So a lot of it’s title-related. So, It’s like, I have to buy that, how can I not buy Federal Fag. That’s a good book to read, maybe I’ll bring that to Washington.
BYT: Jon Benjamin Reads Federal Fag
JB: You know, I know I have it. I’ll find it and bring it to Washington and read a passage from Federal Fag.
BYT: I will hold you to that.
JB: (Laughs) If I don’t are you gonna be at the show?
BYT: I’ll be at the show.
JB: If I don’t, yell out “Federal Fag”. Yell it out and I’ll remember. I’ll bring it.
BYT: I’ll just have people start chanting that.
JB: You’re probably gonna have to yell that out and it’s not exactly a good thing to yell out in a crowded room.
BYT: Maybe, if people are drunk enough.
JB: But, I’ll explain it, like, I know that, don’t worry…don’t kick him. (yells) “FEDERAL FAG!”
BYT: What is the book about anyway. Sorry to keep harping on this.
JB: It’s exactly what you’d imagine. It’s one of those things where you can’t believe that. I think it’s a government employee of some sort, I can’t remember. I skipped it, but an employee who skipped it.
BYT: From a romance angle or a political angle?
JB: It wasn’t like a thriller, it was like a romance. It was sort of a gay romance novel and he worked for the government. He was hiding his homosexuality. Just like real life.
BYT: Just like real life! Like everybody here in the Pentagon.
JB: Well, no…like 85%.
BYT: Speaking of that sort of gay awkwardness, I have to ask…on the ‘Little Italy’ sketch [JBHV, Episode 2] how was it filming, basically you writhing naked in a bed?
JB: (Laughs) It wasn’t as difficult for me as it was for everyone else. There was a lot of build-up to it. We had kind of a small crew anyway, but they took it very seriously. And I didn’t care, I just took my clothes off. But everyone was like, what do you want to do? How do you want to do this? Do you want us to get the women out? We did do that, it was just me and the cameraman, alone, kind of and the sound guy was outside. So, I think it was just me and the cameraman. And everybody made a big deal about ‘Be respectful’ and ‘ I know you’re getting naked, you might be uncomfortable’ and I was. I’m not exactly loving my body at this point. I’m in a terrible fight with it. Then we finished. But you could hear people laughing, hysterically, like muffled. But I just thought it was all the silence, you could hear the bed. I was just assuming people were imagining what was going on. Then I walked out of the room where they were shooting and there was 35 people gathered around the monitor. So I’m like, ‘That’s not what a close set is, you’re supposed to not see any of it.’
BYT: So, for a moment you were like a porn star.
JB: I walked out and everyone was kind of just watching. They had just watched everything anyway. ‘I though you guys were not gonna…this is a closed set.’ They were like, it was, no one was in there. But it went quickly. I didn’t waste time on that one.
BYT: Well, it was just as awkward to watch, but it was hilarious.
JB: It was a lot easier, I imagine, than, to do it with somebody.
BYT: With a tiny person.
JB: Yeah, there was…it wasn’t really a sex scene, but I had this reaction Jackson sketch within the show. I had to get in bed with a 70-year-old woman. And it was really awkward and we had to simulate having sex.
BYT: Ugh! That is terrible.
JB: It was just…I felt terrible.
BYT: Did you apologize afterward? Did you buy her a drink?
JB: She was really way less wary of it than I was. She was like ‘Shit man, you wanna do it? Lie on top of me.’
BYT: Just another day?
JB: Yeah, she was a real actress. It was in the summer, it was really hot and I stunk and I’m sweating and nervous and I didn’t want to get on top of her and I just felt bad. It was terrible. She was like, ‘That was fun.’
BYT: I’m sure. So you can’t feel that bad about yourself. But that’s why I think doing it alone is better than having to do it with someone else. In real life too. As long as it’s only one person filming.
JB: (Laughs) Even without a camera, I feel like I’m just much better at being alone.
BYT: I’m sorry to hear that.
JB: Well, it’s not your fault.
BYT: I have just one more question and I guess it’s a short one. Do you have any plans or are you in talks to reprise your role as the talking can of vegetables in the Wet Hot American Summer prequel?
JB: I don’t know. I read they were making another one. I don’t know if they will put that in. I assume they might right?
BYT: They have to!
JB: Yeah, I would think so right, it was breakout character. Sure, I would definitely do it. Yeah, I wouldn’t be honored, but I would do it.
BYT: You’ve got a lot of fans out there, I’m sure…a lot of vegetable fans.
JB: I know, for a long time, more than anything else, I think when someone found out that was me, they were shocked. I mean, that movie was, and rightfully…that movie captured a lot of peoples…
BYT: Summer camp experience?
JB: Something, it captured something.
BYT: Well, thanks for talking to us. Excited to see you at Black Cat and Federal Fag! So please find that.
JB: I will, I’m going to go look for it now.