The jokes fly as fast as bullets. And the targets—every race, creed, color, religion, stereotype, gender, sexuality, and boundary-pushing deviance—receive a direct hit straight to the funny bone. Go undercover with ‘Archer,’ the gayest show on television.
by Steven Foster
He is movie-idol handsome.
Strong-lined, angular face with a cleft, dimpled chin, arctic-blue eyes, and luxurious jet-black hair. His perfect pecs and an abs-olutely fabulous six-pack fill out a Savile Row suit as sensationally as a black turtleneck or, as he calls it, “tactical garment.” (So gay.) Below the belt, his crotch bulges with a concealed weapon. His bubble-butt backside was on display in short-shorts during an undercover mission to South Beach. (So gay.) He has a killer job (literally) and a stunning penthouse where he beds supermodel-hot Russian agents and gorgeous, trashy escorts in equal number.
He’s also selfish, vain, arrogant, racist, sexist, lazy, and stupid. His narcissistic id is so me-me-me myopic that if he weren’t so damn good at his job, he would be the most loathsome himbo alive. The lost Kardashian.
His name is Sterling Malory Archer (middle name the same as his mother—let’s not go there…yet) and he is the biggest asshole on television.
And, with the exception of Louis CK, he’s also the funniest—an achievement made all the more remarkable because Archer isn’t real.
Archer is a cartoon.
EXT: TRAIN – NIGHT
Archer and Bilco, the Canadian freedom fighter, fight on the roof of the speeding train. Out of bullets, Bilco throws his empty gun at Archer, hitting him in the face.
Archer: Wow, and I thought I was mad before.
Bilco: Why? Did you see some old black lady sitting in the front of a bus?
Archer: What is your deal with calling me a racist?!
Bilco: You’re American.
Archer debuted in the fall of 2009, and was FX’s first foray into series animation after years of rumored exploration into the genre. At first glance, Archer seemed like a strange fit on a netlet famous for previous phenoms like Nip/Tuck, critically acclaimed award bait like The Shield, Damages, and current prestige trophy-chasers Justified, Louie, Sons of Anarchy, and American Horror Story. Archer doesn’t sit politely by these gold-standard series, but it’s not the redheaded stepchild in FX’s lineup either. Fox’s rowdy, undisciplined little brother is no stranger to farting at the broadcast dinner table. FX also airs the rebelliously sleazy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a proven slacker smash. After a rough first quarter, The League wisely punted its fantasy football premise, switching tactics to locker-room-humor sex comedy. Beloved Louie continues to bring the class factor. But the universally loathed dog-comedy Wilfred needs to be put to sleep, and Unsupervised, FX’s second animated series, needs serious supervision. Unsupervisedhas all the appeal of a teenage boy preoccupied with his own
boner—might be fun for him, but nobody else is really getting off on it. And Unsupervised will be riding hard on Archer’s impeccably tailored comedy coattails. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll turn around and shoot the series like he would a rival agent.
But this is the beauty and freewheeling thrill of FX. Network prez John Landgraf lets programmer freaks Nick Grad and Eric Shrier play mad scientists with sometimes mixed, but often marvelous, success, and FX’s menu is a zesty palate thrill compared to Bonnie Hammer’s boiled-potato blandness over at USA. After all, it wasn’t Hammer who just seduced epically meltdowning madman Charlie Sheen back to television with a series, appropriately titled Anger Management. And FX did that without even seeing a script.
It’s that kind of leaping-without-a-net lunacy (or crazy-like-a-FX brilliance) that brings us to Archer, the gayest show on television.
Comedy is subjective. You may adore the poverty-slut pandering of Two Broke Girls. Perhaps you find the meta of Portlandia revolutionary. No matter what lights your comedy fire, there’s no debate about this: Archer is flaming.
INT: MALORY’S OFFICE – DAY
Malory tries to calm Nicolai, the head of the KGB.
Nicolai: What if the Cuban does not fall for the honeypot?
Malory: Ooh, I think he will. I’ve got my top man on it. Or, possibly, bottom.
Archer has been called an animated mash-up of The Office and Get Smart—which isn’t just lazy journalism, it’s lousy reporting. The former is never this deliciously nasty and the latter was never, well, this smart. Yes, it’s essentially an office comedy set in the world of espionage and international intrigue. But in the halls of the top secret ISIS agency, the jokes fly bullet-fast and with deadly accuracy to each offending—and offensive—target. But just because the jokes are sometimes rude doesn’t mean they’re cheap. The Hollywood Reporter beamed that Archer is “brilliant” with “dollops of genius while being wholly original.” Entertainment Weekly called it “the best animated series on television.” As Sterling Archer would say, “Duh and/or hello!”
Archer’s unique comedy island erupts volcanically, while blooming organically from jungle-maze plotting that tweaks all the standard spy-movie tropes with affectionately mocking, winking glee. In Archer, throughlines not only roundelay, they ricochet like a superball in a speed dryer. And the crackpot jackpot cast knows how to nimbly deliver the lines and the goods. One minute they step on each other with such spastic interruption, it would make an autistic kid seem well-behaved. (If that offends, then you queens better have a fainting couch nearby when you watch Archer.) Then, lightning-quick, the actors slam on the vocal brakes to play the silence and work a beat…3, 2, 1…before dealing a side-splitting deathblow joke. It’s like the Krav Maga of comedy. Stunning work, but the real wow factor is that, except for a few frames of bowling with the FX advertisers, network up-fronts, or occasional Comic-Con panel, the cast is never in the same room together. They voice their parts solo in sound booths in Atlanta (where Archer production is based), New York, or Los Angeles. The spy games on Archer aren’t the only assignments these in-demand maniactors have.
The bi-polar H. Jon Benjamin, wicked-perfect as superspy Sterling Archer, recently starred in Comedy Central’s Jon Benjamin Has a Van. Playing Archer’s fellow agent/former girlfriend, the beautiful but “man-handed” Lana Kane, Aisha Tyler holds court on the CBS gabfest The Talk. Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell voices accountant Cyril Figgis, whose 12-inch penis has attracted both Lana and choke-enthusiast secretary Cheryl (The Descendants’ Judy Greer). Voice vets Amber Nash and Lucky Yates play the plus-sized, omnisexual HR director Pam and R&D deviant Krieger, respectively. And starring as the cocktail- and cock-crazed, money-mad matron of ISIS (Archer’s boss and mother) is Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter, who, if she doesn’t win an Emmy soon, should at least be charged with grand larceny for walking off with the show.
The sole voice of reason at ISIS is the final lead character, Ray Gillette. Ray is the way-gay agent who made his first appearance in episode 5, the one where Archer hit its massively homo side and, coincidentally, its creative stride.
“The Honeypot” was the rainbow-colored riot where Archer’s mother, Malory, ordered Archer to pull a “honeypot” assignment—sleeping with the enemy in order to get valuable intelligence. Except this time, the enemy was a gay Cuban spy who possessed a
sex tape of Archer’s mother with the KGB head who may or may not be Archer’s father. “Honeypot” saw Archer truly beginning to master the jawdropping, oh-no-you-didn’t! sex jokes, race slams, and stereotype-poking while keeping the jibes fully integrated within its spy movie conceit. By the next episode, gay Ray would join the cast as a major player.
Ray, by the way, is the only character not played by a seasoned pro. Ray is voiced in full-on, totally out, sibilant sass by none other than Archer creator Adam Reed.
INT: BLIMP CARGO HOLD – NIGHT
Agent Ray Gillette walks Archer and Lana through how to diffuse the bomb via cell phone. The connection cuts in and out, and Ray grows angrier over Archer’s ignorance of the NATO phonetic alphabet.
Archer: First letter, B.
Archer: Thanks. Second letter, (static).
Ray: M as in Mike or N as in—?
Archer: (static) as in (static)ancy. God! You, of all people.
Ray: Me of all people what?!
Lana: Ray, can I shoot him?
Ray: In about five seconds, hon.
“His voice is basically my voice,” Adam Reed explains in a pleasant, middle-of-the-road masculine timbre, slight Southern tang detectable, though hard to determine if it’s from his North Carolina birthplace or his Atlanta residence. But when he voices Ray, the accent vanishes and the pitch is higher, a tad more gay and pinched. “And as for him being gay with a pencil-thin mustache and handsome and super-well dressed, I don’t know where that came from. But I like that he’s one of the best people on the show as far as, you know, not being a horrible person. He’s usually the voice of reason.”
A fine compliment, but that’s really not saying that much in this crowd. For example, in one of season 3’s upcoming episodes, the gang shows up at Malory’s apartment to help her hide a dead body. That wouldn’t be so bad if that body didn’t happen to be the Italian prime minister shot dead, leather-strapped to a seat-less arm chair, wearing a latex bondage suit, shades of that other little FX hit American Horror Story (what is it with FX and S&M fetish wear?), with an eggplant-shaped “marital aid” inserted…wait. Do his parents watch this show?
“They don’t,” sighs Reed. “Years ago when I had done Sealab and I went home and I was like, ‘Mom and Dad, sit down. This is my new TV show!’”
Reed showed his parents his cartoon, one of the first shows to air on Cartoon Network’s wildly successful adult-oriented animation block, Adult Swim. Sealab 2021 was a redubbed, perverse reworking of a shockingly boring 1970s Hanna-Barbera save-the-oceans cartoon. Even children, then at the mercy of only three channels, stayed away in droves. Comedy rarely ages well, and the Sealab redux is fairly painful to watch today. But at the time, it was a hit with slackers, stoners, and animation enthusiasts hungry for something to go with those late-night bongs, Doritos, and Mickey big mouths. His parents, however, were not exactly in this dazed and confused demographic.
“They watched an episode, and they were just really quiet,” Reed recalls. “And my mom turned to me and said, ‘We just want you to be happy.’”
Sounds a lot like conversations many gay people have had with their parents—a similarity Reed sees vividly.
“It’s like I came out to them with my sense of humor. Ugh. Christmas is ruined.”
Reed’s next show for Cartoon Network would not make Mom and Dad any more proud. Frisky Dingo was a sci-fi splatterfest that had a hard-on for brazen sexuality and skewering corporate America. It was literate, incisive, and, of course, too smart for the network home of Squidbillies. Cartoon Network pulled the plug after two seasons. But Dingo, with its superhero-in-the-office leitmotif and its thick-lined, comic book, photo-influenced animation, was a harbinger of all things Archer.
EXT: SOUTH BEACH CAFÉ – DAY
Archer’s cell phone rings. It’s Archer’s mother, Malory.
Archer: Mother, I have nothing to report yet. This is a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Malory: How hard could it be to talk a gay man into having anonymous SEX?!
Rick Santorum’s pinhead might explode (along with the noggins of most social conservatives) if exposed to Archer, but it’s probably the most red-white-and-blue show in animation today. Virtually every animated series is, like American manufacturing jobs, shipped elsewhere—Korea, mostly. Archer, however, employs everyone stateside. This proximity gives Reed tremendous control. When actors ad-lib in the booth, Reed can have the storyboard adjusted accordingly, revising the animation sequence with only mild aggravation to the art department.
“It’s all done here in Atlanta,” Reed says proudly. “Atlanta has got a great animation community. We’ve learned to make [cartoons] in a cost-effective way, which FX also likes.”
FX isn’t the only one. The dream cast can work remotely by just ducking into a recording studio, receiving Reed’s direction via phone patch, and be out of the booth in just a few hours. And while voiceover is an entirely different discipline, most actors jump at the chance to flex a different form of acting muscle. Voice acting takes away all the usual tics and tricks of the body, limiting you to one instrument and, while not every actor has the chops to pull it off, many enjoy the freedom that it provides, as well as the challenge.
Archer’s credits reveal hires as shrewdly planned as the jokes, with celebrity guest stars in witty bouts of elbow-nudging, in-the-know stunt casting. Reno 911 dork-studs Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant padded their previous gay-for-pay résumés by queening it up as gay assassins. Ron Perlman went against his hetero stud iconography by playing a Cuban queer. Jessica Walter’s Arrested Development spouse Jeffrey Tambor shows up as one of her character’s many lovers. This season will feature Bryan Cranston, George Takei, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, and, playing himself, Burt Reynolds—on whom both Archer and Reed both have an enormous mancrush.
“I’m crazy for Reynolds,” swoons Reed. “I think we’ve talked about him in every episode we’ve ever done. I’m nuts for him. Growing up, if the ABC Sunday Night movie was Hooper or Gator, I was not doing my homework.”
INT: Blimp Cargo Hold
After cutting the green wire as instructed, the bomb timer accelerates. Ray panics.
Ray: What were the last two letters?!
Archer: B. As in “butthole.” And M as in “Mancy.”
Lana (scowling): Ahem. M as in what?
Archer: Mancy. What’d you think I said?
Ray: You idiot!
Archer: Yeah, I can see how . . . especially when I said, “You, of all people.”
Lana shoots Archer in the foot.
Archer is Reed’s creation, and he not only scripts every episode (“I think I’ve written all but two of the scripts, probably?”) but directs every voice session. On the day we spoke, he had just finished recording Emmy-winner Cranston’s dialog for an upcoming episode.
“Yeah, I was kinda starstruck. I forget that I’m supposed to direct people when it’s somebody like that. So they’ll read their lines, and it’ll just be quiet, and they’ll be, like, ‘Is that okay?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely. Who am I to tell you? It’s great! Let’s move on!’”
In this way, he’s still very much the young kid running around the halls of Cartoon Network, simply thrilled with the proximity to the animation catalog Ted Turner acquired for a song in the ’90s. And though he still lives and works in Atlanta, he’s no longer in some midnight animated ghetto where the only “special” guest star willing to work with him is Erik Estrada. Now Reed has the prestige of a hit and the purse strings of FX, two attributes that attract a very different thespian clientele.
When he was first looking for the role of Malory, the call went out for a “Jessica Walter” type. In no time, Walter’s agent rang him up and asked, “How about Jessica?” With Walter on board, others eagerly climbed on. Benjamin, Tyler, and Parnell all signed up for ISIS duty. Judy Greer auditioned for the role of Cheryl when the role was still a walk-on.
“The running gag was going to be that Archer kept getting Malory’s secretaries pregnant, and they would just wipe their memories and dump them on the street. But then Judy came in and read for the part, and we re-wrote the pilot because we thought, Oh my God, we got Judy Greer. Yes, please.”
Archer gives Reed the caché to work with movie stars and personal geek heroes alike, flying down to Jupiter, Florida, to record Reynolds in the star’s hometown, or casting nerd icon and gay statesman George Takei.
“Oh yeah, he was fantastic!” says Reed, his voice approaching warp speed. “He plays this Yakuza boss and uses this super-scary voice. He sounds like the meanest dude in the world. When you see it, you won’t even believe it’s George Takei. He sounds like what you think the devil would sound like.”
Archer is, of course, not for everyone. But Howard Stern’s go-to gay sees nothing inappropriate with the show’s late-night humor.
“Offended?” a surprised Takei asks. “Why on earth would I be offended? I find the show very funny. The scripts are just brilliant. And Adam is wonderful.”
There is something about Archer that Takei did take issue with, however.
“My only regret is not being able to work with that extraordinary cast,” he says in his river-deep, almost Shakespearean tone.
“I mean, Judy Greer. Have you seen The Descendants? Oh, you must.”
INT: Ray’s Hotel Suite – Day
When no rooms are available in Monte Carlo, Ray offers to share his suite with
Lana and Malory.
Malory: No. I am not sharing a room with you.
Ray: No, I am sharing it with you, and it’s the last one in the hotel. No view, but it’s got two queens.
Malory: Where is the other one? Greasing up in the bathroom?
Gayest show on television?
Archer airs new episodes on Thursdays at 9 p.m. central time on FX.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.