I must admit up front that of I am unashamedly a huge fan of FX’s Archer, which I consider to be one of the funniest and well-written animated series I’ve ever seen. Adam Reed, alongside co-conspirator Matt Thompson, has created one of the smartest, most risqué shows on TV. Who knew that office politics and HR directives could provide as much intrigue, and laughs, as the cloak and dagger of international espionage and misuse of large caliber weapons?
Season 4 of Archer starts January 17th on FX, with promises of distasteful office romance and daring missions replete with inappropriate behavior and even more inappropriate dialogue, as well as great guest stars in roles they might one day regret.
I had a chance once again to talk with Adam Reed about the show’s growing success, nasty humor and what we can expect to see in the coming season.
Dan Sarto: Archer continues to garner critical acclaim and an enthusiastic audience. The network has already committed to Season 5. To what do you attribute the growing success of the show?
Adam Reed: Well I think our cast is amazing and I really think that FX surprised probably a lot of people, but nobody more than me, by sticking with the show especially after the ratings for Season 1 were not, what’s the word, “good” at all.
They really stuck with it. When the first ratings were coming in and they were steadily getting worse and worse and worse, they kept saying, “Don’t worry about it, it’s a marathon and we will find our audience.” I just assumed that that was their way of being nice and prepping me for the bad news. We’re going to let you down really easy. It’s not you, it’s us and I want to still be friends. But they meant it, which was just shocking. They really did let it find an audience.
DS: That may speak to the way they show patience with all their shows not just an animated series.
AR: You know, I can’t say enough good things about FX. I know it sounds pretty lame and suck-uppy. They do what they say they are going to do. From a business standpoint if they say something then they do it. They have promoted the heck out of the show. Creatively, it’s not like “Here are ten thousand notes. Do it like these 30 different people who you’ve never met are telling you to do it.” We've always worked closely with just a few executives there and I really think that when they believe in a show, they stick with it. They’re smart people and they have confidence in themselves. They are not just reactionary and panicky like, “Oh! What do we do now?” That’s a really nice thing. I think a lot of network executives aren't necessarily coming from a place of confidence. They are coming from a place of fear. So they [FX executives] have been really great to work with.
DS: Well it’s nice you are in a good spot with the executives. The flip side that is that you’ve produced something of tremendous quality for the network to get behind. It’s great to see they’ve rewarded you with loyalty and promotional support. But you’ve come through on your end with a fantastic show that continues to get better.
AR: We’re basically the Honda factory and they’re the Honda dealership.
DS: That’s an apt analogy.
AR: It sells itself, Dan. No, I’m kidding. There was a huge learning curve at first and we didn’t know what we are doing and still barely know. The main thing is that the show has improved in quality in every way from Season 1. A lot of that is me getting out of the way of the extremely talented people that work on the show, and trusting them. It’s not my place to tell somebody with 14 years of art school how something should look.
It’s really been nice to see this talented group of people make what I think is a really great looking show and then to write stuff for this really talented cast to then turn into real words.
DS: How many episodes are you doing for Season 4? Last season you had Chris Provenzano do some writing for you. Is he still involved? Are you still doing the bulk of the writing?
AR: Yeah, we are doing 13 shows again. The lovely folks at Justified stole Chris back from us. He is back fulltime on that show, so we haven’t been able to use him. But, we have some other good writers. We have an extremely talented guy named Rick Cleveland who is writing a couple of scripts this coming season. But I’m still doing most of the writing. A couple of writers have become available that we will hopefully have for next season. My goal ultimately is to not do anything but just walk around with a riding crop and a monocle.
DS: Is that a little bit of Krieger in you?
AR: Yeah. But hopefully I will get to work with a lot more of these writers. It’s fun also to get out of their way when they have a great idea that I never would have thought of. That’s pretty neat.
DS: You mentioned you lost Chris to Justified. After your show that’s number two on my list.
AR: It’s a great show. Graham Yost, I don’t understand how he does it. FX, when they decided to make more Archer episodes, I was breathing into a paper bag. They said to me, “We’re going to have you talk to Graham. He runs six shows, so we don’t know why you are freaking out over one.” He is the nicest guy. He said, “Yeah I don’t know, I just work pretty hard, but it’s a fun job so I don’t sweat it.” I just bombard him with questions. But he is a brilliant guy and that’s a great show.
DS: Any changes in your production pipeline or your process, how you put the new episodes together?
AR: We haven’t really changed anything. We’ve added a few more people, but whether it’s the perfect way to make cartoons or not, I don’t know about that. We know how to do it this way and that’s the way we do it.
DS: And it has worked well for you. You’re not being graded on elegance but on results.
AR: Yeah it works, and we are not going to break it by trying to fix it.
DS: You had some really great guest stars this past season and some interesting story arcs. The season started out with The Heart of Archness episodes with Patrick Warburton. You had the arc of course with Burt Reynolds. I know you are a fan of Mr. Reynolds. I watched all his films when I was growing up. He was one of the biggest actions stars when I was a kid.
AR: The biggest. I think it was either five or seven years in a row he was the number one box-office man.
DS: What was it like working with him? Was it as much fun as you imagined it would be?
AR: We normally do our recordings over the phone because we are in Atlanta, and our talent is in LA or New York or filming a movie somewhere. But for Burt, Matt Thompson and I actually flew down to Florida to meet him. [We were] Just giddy. I had his big hardcover autobiography and I was like, “Would you mind signing this please?” Just total gushing fanboy. He was super, super cool and funny and adlibbed a bunch. Matt and I just kept looking at each other with just our mouths hanging open and our eyes wide, “We’re actually here, recording Burt Reynolds!”
DS: I bet it was a hoot. You know, his little trademark laugh was really great. It was a really funny story arc. Are there any guests or special story arcs for next season that you can share?
AR: Yes. We have Tim Olyphant, speaking of Justified and cool dark haired guys. He’s in an episode. He plays an old spy colleague of Archer’s who shows back up. We’ve talked about Sheryl’s billionaire brother. We’ll see him for the first time this season. He’s going to be played by Eugene Mirman. Kristen Schaal will be playing his girlfriend. In the Bob’s Burgers family, actually, in the season premier, I don’t know if crossover is the right word, but yeah, I guess maybe Bob’s Burgers Crossover is the phrase that I am looking. That starts out our season.
DS: It will be interesting how those two would crossover.
AR: We are doing another epic two-part season finale and the guest star in those two episodes will be played by a guy named John Hamm. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him.
DS: Don’t think I have.
AR: Speaking of other handsome dark haired guys.
DS: But of course.
AR: We’re just inundated with handsome dudes this year.
DS: Do actors approach you, or an agent contacts you saying so and so would love to be on an episode? Or do you approach actors based on the specifics of a given story?
AR: I would say it happens more that we go bother somebody. Maybe in John Hamm’s case, we've been bothering him for a couple of years, needless to say. But sometime we do have somebody's agent get in touch with us and say oh, you know, so and so would love to do a voice if there is every an opportunity. It’s really neat, you know, to realize that these people actually watch the show, which is always startling.
DS: Well I would imagine that somebody would have to be hip to the show to want to be on it. You’d have to like the show.
AR: It’s for people that have cool kids.
DS: Right, right.
AR: They are like, “Dad, you should be on this show.”
DS: The relationship between Sterling and Lana has ebbed and flowed over the years and certainly went through some interesting changes this past season. How is that going to evolve in the new season?
AR: I think in the new season the goal is for the characters around Archer to mature a little bit as far as their personal relationships, sort of move on into healthier more adult relationships. With the exception of Archer. That didn’t work out 100% the way we were thinking at the beginning of the season. But in Season 5, that’s where some big things are going to happen. Oh, boy! So I don’t know that the relationship evolves hugely in Season 4 between Archer and Lana. They do still bicker quite a bit. I’m just trying to think if they sleep together again. They very well might.
DS: Last season also brought about the continued growth of Cheryl and Pam. You’ve created such a great ensemble of characters. What can we expect to see in the evolution of the main characters including Archer's mom Malory?
AR: Well, Archer's mom in the off season between Season 3 and 4 actually got married. She married a Cadillac dealer name Ron Cadillac, who’s played by Jessica Walter’s [Malory Archer] real life husband Ron Liebman, who is brilliant and hilarious. It’s one of these things where we have an embarrassment of riches with this cast and the difficulty of getting everybody their fair share of screen time.
AR: And now we’ve introduced Ron Liebman who is brilliant…we’re really...
DS: Having your production studio in Atlanta, away from LA and New York, does staying off the radar a bit relieve some of the pressure you might otherwise feel if you were setup in a big media center?
AR: Well, I'll tell you, to be perfectly frank, the reason I think there is less pressure is because our rent is one-eighth of what it would be in New York or Los Angeles. It would cost us so much more money to make the show there with the same staff and the same amount of space and the same number of bathrooms. Maybe the show wouldn’t make as much sense business-wise for FX if it cost them three times as much to make. Maybe that would be too much? Working here, it is much more economical to make the show in Georgia than it is in LA or New York I'm sure, across the board. So I think that’s why there is less pressure, although, we feel under a great deal of pressure anyway just to make a good show. I think if there was a business affairs guy calling us every week saying, “Hey! Where is all this money going? Your ratings don’t justify this,” then we wouldn’t be having as much fun as we are.
DS: That certainly makes sense. Speaking of pressure, as both a writer and the show’s creator, do you feel any pressure or need to top yourself with outrageous lines or plot points from episode to episode?
AR: I live in fear of repeating myself or stagnating. I have this recurring dream where the exact same episode is being produced that was already an episode three seasons ago. Then somebody at work, just as we’re shipping the tapes out of the door, which we don’t even do anymore, says to me, “So, that’s interesting that this was the same as that episode in Season 1.” Then I wake up and the sheets are sweaty and I’m like, “Oh! My God,” trying to call the office, but its nighttime and that didn’t actually happen. I worry about repeating myself.
DS: The show is known for outrageously funny, outrageously nasty dialogue that comes out of left field. There aren’t so many of these lines that it seems like you are trying to stuff the episodes with them, which makes them that much funnier. Are you deliberately looking to push the boundaries of what you can get away with? When we spoke previously, you said there is really no interference from Standards and Practices and the FX folks don’t really tell you something is too raunchy or risqué. What is dynamic of that component of the writing?
AR: For me, I think that comes out of reading Archer spec scripts where you move the story along and some things need to be stated rather blandly like, “Oh! We need to go over here and diffuse this bomb” or whatever plain line we have moving the narrative forward. I always try to think if there is any way to make that a little more interesting. While we are here, can we still move the story forward but make it not so ABC on the nose boring? That sometimes leads to, “Oh! Well, that reminds me of some totally filthy pun that I could just jam in there.” While we are on the subject of trying to jazz this up, I can not only jazz this up but make it dirty, or as Aisha Tyler calls it, “smilthy.” She says it’s smart and filthy.
DS: Smart and filthy! Smilthy!
DS: Speaking of smilthy, are there any times when you are recording voices that the actors give you the stink eye or a nasty look when they are asked to perform some particularly raunchy material?
AR: Some of them, sometimes. Jessica comes to mind only because we have Malory say such outrageous things. Jessica is such a trooper, she’s game and she will do anything. A lot of times, because we’re using current slang or something that she just hasn’t heard yet, or if it’s something, because, you know she is a classy lady, there is something that she just wouldn’t have ever been exposed to because she was never a longshoreman, when it comes to certain lines, she will say, “This line here, what’s the deal? Is she upset, is she happy, what does it mean?” I'll explain to her, “Oh! This is a horrific sex act” and she will say, “Ohhhh Adam!” Then she’ll say, “OK, here we go…three takes.” But there is just a hint of disappointment before she puts back on her actor hat and then nails the line dirtier than I could have ever imagined it.
DS: The show is notorious for really obscure references, whether visual or spoken. I admire somebody who is comfortable enough to make a joke that maybe five people in the world would understand, but they would think was the funniest thing they had ever heard. The show’s fan base really dissects the episodes and comes up with lists, tracking down all these references. Can you tell me a little bit about the process you go through and how you decide when and where to insert such references? Do you get a kick out of seeing how fans then respond?
AR: Well, I was an English major and so a lot of those obscure references are things that I have written long, long boring papers about. They make me laugh mostly because I know they are obscure and boring basically. So I laugh that someone would let me put that on television. But then to see a website where somebody has gone back and found the sources for all these weird lines is really equally heartening and disturbing. I think, “Oh! My God, somebody is just as weird as I am.”
DS: With time to spend.
AR: Time to spend.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.