Adam Reed’s Archer: From Sealab to Sarcastic Secret Agent Man

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Everything you love about Sealab 2021 or Frisky Dingo is back in expanded form in Archer, the new animated series that premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.  All the random asides. The blunt, offensive punch lines. The awkward silences. The stiff, jagged, minimalistic character animations from Radical Axis studios. The thing looks and sounds like the skewed fantasy worlds we’ve come to expect from places like Adult Swim. And that’s why seeing the thing in primetime is pretty damn hilarious.

I already went live on Twitter yesterday with one of the more punchy and perverted verbal exchanges:

Scene: A hostage standoff. Gunman is threatening to kill mom. Archer has grabbed a female colleague and put a gun against her, in a bid to fool the hostage-taker into releasing mother.

Gunman: How is this a Mexican standoff? I don’t care if you shoot her. But what if I shoot her, momma’s boy? Yes, picture her dead in the gutter and what your pathetic life will be like without old mommy dearest.

Female colleague: Jesus Christ, he’s got an erection.

Mom: What! An erection! The thought of me dead gives you an erection?!

Archer: No, just half of one. The other half would have really missed you. I mean, not….oh….

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I’m not sure if it all comes through, taken out of context, but this is a pretty wild skewering of the standard spy thriller. Archer is less our suave James Bond that a flighty pretty-boy, more concerned about his expense account than world peace. He’s slept with just about everyone in the office, or skipped out on dates with the others, meaning they all hate him equally. He wants to regale his colleagues with tales of his exploits, when they are busy actually trying to save the world. His boss, essentially M from the Bond universe, doubles as his mother. And there’s some odd Oedipal things going on between mommy and son.

Imagine The Office breeded with Austin Powers, James Bond and Sealab. Yep, Archer is that screwed up.

We put six good questions to Adam Reed, the man who helped to make Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup the hit it is, who set out to make the leap from 15-minute shorts to 30-minute sitcoms on another network.

When the ads for Archer started running, and I found out you were involved, I was a little surprised. I thought of you as a Cartoon Network guy. How did this puppy come about?

Well I was a big fan of FX even before they bought a TV show from me, and so it’s kind of exciting to be on the same channel with shows I really like. But it really all started when I took a year off in 2008. I traveled and filled notebooks, and my favorite idea I came up with was set in 1775 England, but my agents told me that if I pitched that out loud to anybody they would drop me. It turns out an 18th century comedy of manners is not in huge demand for the 18-34 male demographic – the ones who buy the most body spray. So instead I went with this spy idea.

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Your second choice, then?

No, it’s not to say that Archer was my second choice. It’s just of the two concepts, this was definitely more marketable. The moment this all really clicked for me was when I was researching and watched the most recent reboot of James Bond with Daniel Craig, and you had Judi Dench playing M, and I was like, ‘Man, it’s his mom. A-ha!’ And that’s where the rest all really came from. I started writing so fast and the ideas wouldn’t stop coming. I loved this idea of a guy working for his mother, kind of running all over the agency because he knew he could.

Could we talk at least a little bit about your past shows. I can still remember sitting with my college roommates in the living room of our Minneapolis apartment,  getting drunk Sunday nights and watching Sealab 2021. Though I have to be honest with you, if you watch more than two episodes in a row, you stop laughing and start tweaking out. That’s an odd, odd show…

It’s kind of like the weird party guest who won’t leave. Yeah, with Sealab 2021, Matt Thompson and I wanted to create a show and so we took the real Sealab show out of the Cartoon Network vault and used the old footage and gave it all new audio. Just re-voiced a 24-minute show with all kinds of crazy, random dialogue and everyone hated it. They said ‘no’ on the spot.

But then we had such bizarre luck. It was a little while later and Matt and I were absolutely broke and we just got drunk as hell and watched one episode of the old show over and over. Probably watched it 10 times with the sound turned down to match the lip flap with whatever spewed out. And we re-cut it into this random 7-minute show, and it turned out they were trying to find shorter things for this new Adult Swim concept, and they bought it.

My favorite thing that we ever did was at the end of that first show we sold, there was a minute of black and we were stuck on a shot of Marco and Debbie. And my idea was just to have them sing this Brazilian Antonio Jobim song, it’s a duet and it’s long, and we played the whole entire song, going back and forth between these characters, all in Portuguese. It was perfect. Well years later we had an episode where we short on time, and so we stuck that it. It was completely random and arbitrary – and perfect:

How does Frisky Dingo fit into your career?

I really, really liked that show. And those do a little better back-to-back, I think. And I think what I loved most about it all is that I worked with all these great guys that have worked on all these shows with me, and we would have these great script meetings and brainstorming sessions.

I might have an idea, but these guys would really help me flesh it out. So the ad-libs in Frisky Dingo and the rambling, we’d go with whatever made us laugh the most – not even what made other people laugh but what we loved. And we were always pretty lucky that Adult Swim gave us plenty of rope to do what we wanted. We didn’t get many notes from the network. And we’re so lucky that the streak has continued at FX. They’re very trusting and they sort of let us do what we think is going to be the best. But Frisky Dingo aired at what, 1:15 in the morning? Lots of people aren’t up then, so I’m hoping a move to 10 o’clock might get us a little bit of a different fan base, along with all those who liked to watch our old shows. But Frisky Dingo? It helped us hone the art of ad-libbing.

One big similarity in all your work is the look of the animation – very simple, non-flamboyant…

In some ways it’s a budgetary decision. We don’t have super-sophisticated animation programs, and in part that was because Adult Swim – even though that was a great place to make cartoons – the episodic budgets weren’t very high and you had to pick your battles. So that’s why we’d have a lot of scenes where a character says, ‘Oh my god look at that thing over there, look at that shark eating that guy,’ but then we wouldn’t show it. All that said, I think the budgetary restraints can be kind of liberating, if you look at them from a different angle. You dig a little deeper while you’re writing, since you can’t really do a Matrix-type 360-camera move.

That’s always what I thought – this animation really puts an emphasis on the dialogue, and the punch lines, and even the silences between the words. The same thing with Archer – you’re listening to the rhythm of the dialogue and being surprised by all this auditory information. There are times when I think it could almost work as a radio show.

Yeah, I mean it’s all about the dialogue for us. I’ve done voices for other shows, and there you come in, and they say, ‘Here’s your line and you have 2.6 seconds.’ And then you record it three times in a row. But with us, we record everything first, so we take our time. We just let the tape roll and read it again and again. I’ll be on my end of the phone and they’ll do their parts on the other side of the phone and you’ll just start goofing around and see what happens.

Just get drunk and let it happen –

Well, I guess I’m a little more grown-up these days. I’ll just lock myself in an apartment and disappear for a week when we need a script and then I’ll go away for a couple more days and we’ll record it. Not nearly as drunk as the Sealab days.

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