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Adam Reed, Adult Animation and the Brilliantly Naughty ‘Archer’

Christmas comes early this year as the hit FX animated series begins its Season 5 run.

Don't forget - Season 5 of Archer premiers Monday, January 13th at 10:00 p.m e/p.

Let me confess up front that I am a tremendous Archer fan. From the very first FX promo I rewound and watched five times, I was utterly and completely hooked. And I have not wavered in my devotion since. Witty, stylish, nasty and smart with a hilarious mix of subtle jibes and low brow banter sure to please both the 11 year old and 50 year old within anyone (well, anyone 50 years old or older), Archer seems to have found a loyal and growing audience in the pantheon of adult-oriented TV programming.

But don’t tell that to Mr. Reed. The ever-so-humble series creator is the last person on Earth to ever feel comfortable or secure with any degree of success his show has garnered.  Lessons learned from years spent toiling in TV have ingrained in Reed a commendable sense of humility. He is quick to deflect praise onto other people who work on the show. He talks of the show’s growth as if he’s somehow tricked everyone in some manner because there’s no other reason they could possibly like the work he’s done.  It’s impossible for me to talk to Adam without gushing praise like a blithering babbly school kid. Each time I interview him, I try but fail miserably. When I mention the show’s growing audience, he is much more apt to discuss how he never figured he’d see a Season 2 than to discuss the show’s obvious success as it heads into Season 5.

For the third year in a row, I had a chance to talk to Adam about the upcoming season of Archer. This year, he politely thanked me after I prattled on making no sense for ten minutes, complimenting the show, the writing, the acting, even the fact they let staff bring dogs to work. His patience with me was admirable. Thankfully at that point we got down to more serious issues. Of course he gave me the lowdown on what’s in store in Season 5. But more importantly, he provided an intimate glimpse into his creative process, sharing his insights on the fickle world of adult-oriented TV animation and how hard it is to create a funny and successful animated TV show.

Dan Sarto: So what's in store for the new season? What ISIS hijinks can we expect to see?

Adam Reed:  Well, I think the cat is a little bit out of the bag. We showed the first episode at New York Comic Con.  This season presents a radical departure from seasons past for the ISIS team.  It turns out they have been spying without a license, basically committing treason with every mission.  The FBI puts a stop to that, which coincides with the sudden appearance of 2,000 pounds of cocaine.  So they spend the season trying to sell 2, 000 pounds of cocaine.  They get involved in an international drugs for arms mix-up, the violent overthrow of an island nation…it's very similar to the dangerous things they’ve been doing in exotic locales, only it's with a suitcase of cocaine.

DS: So they have to sell the cocaine to finance their operations?

AR: Yes, because nobody has any money. ISIS owned everybody’s apartments, so those are all gone.  They all have to go live in Cheryl’s mansion. While all this is going on, Cheryl spends this season becoming the number one country singer in America.

DS: A radical departure indeed!

AR: We actually recorded a real album with some amazing musicians. We’re putting out a country album! Kenny Loggins sings a duet of a country version of Danger Zone.

DS: When will that be released?

AR: Some time once the season starts. FX is handling the release and distribution [Release date undetermined at time of publication].

Archer: Episode 1, Season 5 "White Elephant." Someone dies.  Someone who has been with the ISIS crew from the beginning.  And then things get crazy.  Pictured: Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin). All images courtesy of FX Networks.

Archer: Episode 1, Season 5 "White Elephant." Someone dies. Someone who has been with the ISIS crew from the beginning. And then things get crazy. Pictured: Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin). All images courtesy of FX Networks.

DS: Can you share anything regarding any romantic relationships, or lack of relationships, or failed relationships between any of the ISIS personnel?

AR: They continue to be dysfunctional and mean spirited.  There are some big hesitant oratory overtures made between certain characters, maybe thinking about getting together, but I don't know if anybody will get together this season.

DS: Do we get 13 or 16 episodes this season?

AR: 13.

DS: Did you have any writing help this season? I know in the past you had some help from Chris Provenzano, who writes for Justified.

AR: This season it's turned out I’ve written 100% so far but normally, I write maybe 90% of the material.

DS: Using the new season as an example, how do you start coming up with ideas?  Do you start by trying to develop an overall season backstory arc? Do you start by coming up with ideas for situational or episode arcs and then see how those can get integrated into a larger narrative? How do you approach both the overall story season by season as well as the individual episodes?

AR:  The overall season story arc is definitely my weak point.  FX is very good at making excellent shows that have great overall season arcs.  So they’ll come to me and ask, “So, have you given that any thought?” And I go, “I don't know, uh, maybe I’d like for them to go to outer space…” And I just stumble my way there. They are definitely much better at that than I am. Ideas will come to me for an episode and I’ll write them down. Then when it's time to sit down and start writing the 13, I will think, “OK, this episode idea would work better towards the back half of the season.”

This upcoming season is much more serialized than past seasons because it's sort of a departure from the past. All I knew going into this coming season was that in the last episode Lana was going to have a baby.  So that’s what we are working towards.  In the past, FX has sometimes rearranged the order of the episodes, so that they aren’t necessarily aired in the order they were written or were produced. So sometimes an idea that was meant to be looking back becomes accidentally an amazing idea looking forward that I thought about four episodes down the road when I absolutely didn’t do that. It was FX.

DS: They make you look better than you really are.

AR: Absolutely. Talking to people at Comic Con, they would say, “How did you know that was going to happen when you made this joke?” I tell them, “You know, you just plot it out…” when in reality, it’s totally by accident.

Adam Reed.

DS: When it’s time to write, do you sit down at a computer? Do you put note cards up on a corkboard? Do you grab a legal pad?

AR: I sit at a computer.

DS: Do you write scripts first?  Do you do any storyboarding?  Does storyboarding come after you have fleshed out a script?

AR: We storyboard after a script is totally done.  In our production schedule I have three weeks per script.  What normally happens is I spend a week writing the script before turning it in. Then there is a week of making notes and working with the storyboarders and all the artists and animators on what the guest characters are going to look like. That second week is spent doing a multitude of things.  Then in the third week, I am re-writing the script. During that week we also start recording the episode. So, basically, I get one good solid uninterrupted week of writing per script.

DS: You only have a week to write each episode…by yourself?

AR: Yeah, so I try to be in the chair Monday at 9:00 am and hope to be done by Friday at 5:00 pm.  But that never happens. Yeah, I try to get a solid week of no phone calls. I disappear for a week and go write a script.  I normally don't do outlines.

DS: So you literally just sit down and start writing Page 1?

AR: Yeah, fade in and start typing. Sometimes I don't know what the ending is going to be.  I tell you, maybe two-thirds of the time I know pretty much what's the ending is going to be, like, they are going to steal the diamonds or whatever. But sometimes I don't know where it ends up.

DS: Do you spend any of your off time working on ideas for the next season?

AR: I get two months off after I turn in the last script. I have basically two months before I have to do anything.  So I normally go on a big long trip. I walked across Spain a couple of times, I motorcycled across Vietnam. I am totally removed from anything work related. Usually I’ll fill up a spiral notebook with ideas for episodes. Then I come back and say, “Here are 20 ideas, what do you guys think? Which ones should we do?” I use those as the germs of where that season is going to go.

DS: We’ve talked in the past about comedic timing. What is your comedy Litmus test? Who do you bounce off gag ideas when you’re writing? How do you decide, “OK, we are staying with this because this is funny?”

AR: Usually I think I know if something is working or not. My partner Matt Thompson and our producer Casey Willis are excellent at helping me decide if an idea is good or not. What happens a lot of times is they tell me, “Hey, the thing you wrote, we aren’t going to be able to animate that” or, “It's not going to play visually, so think of something else. Here are some suggestions.”  It’s a great help.

Then when the actors are in the recording studio, if they like it they are extremely funny. We record over the phone usually. We will record a scene where I read the other parts. If we read through it a couple of times and there is just dead silence on Jessica Walters’ end or Jon Benjamin’s end, then I’ll ask them, “How’s that working for you?” If they reply, “Well, yeah, umm…” you know it’s not funny. While we are in the session we will hopefully pick something funnier.

Archer: Episode 1, Season 5 "White Elephant." Pictured: (L-R) Lana Kane (voice of Aisha Tyler), Cyril Figgis (voice of Chris Parnell).

Archer: Episode 1, Season 5 "White Elephant." Pictured: (L-R) Lana Kane (voice of Aisha Tyler), Cyril Figgis (voice of Chris Parnell).

DS: So you make a lot in your decisions just based on the dynamic of working with the actors?

AR: Yeah. I think Harold Ramis said, “The script is the worst case scenario,” which I think is a great way to live.

DS: Very true. I imagine that some gags, they seem funny at first and then as they are further developed, something goes awry. It’s just not funny for whatever reason. Have there been times where you had something you felt “You know what? I know this is going to be funny, we’ve got to push through, we’ve got to find a way to animate it?”

AR:  Usually, luckily it ends up better than I thought it was going to be because the animators or the background artists will put in some sight gags to fit the timing that aren’t mentioned in the script. For example, take “Krieger holds up a jar of breast milk for 3.4 seconds.” They are making that happen. They will make somebody’s facial expression really sell what in the script was really a throwaway line like “Krieger hold up breast milk.” That has nothing to do with me. I am extremely lucky that they are making me look smarter than I am.

DS: I’ll go out on a limb and say in recent years, there haven’t been many adult-themed animated series that were very good, let alone had any staying power. Shows like South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, as well as now with Archer, they seem to sustain their popularity because the characters, stories and sense of humor resonate with people. What are your feelings with regards to the longevity and the future for your show?

AR: It's funny, it's not something I ever thought I would have to worry about or think about. I thought I would make a pilot and they would say, “Thank you, this is terrible, go away.” Then they bought the first season, and I thought, “Well, it will be just this and then it's over.” But FX really stayed with it even though the first season ratings weren’t great.

DS: I remember.

AR: They really believed in the show. Now that it has become more popular, I don't know what FX's plans are for the long term. But to even be thinking about it is, well…I would have never predicted getting this far, so I don't know. Probably we should slowly start graying Archer’s hair just a tiny bit every year. But when I bring up things like that, my partner Matt Thompson says, “We aren’t doing that, we are not doing that.” Just to have them wear different clothes every episode, Matt would say, “Why would you do that?  That costs so much more money! No cartoon has ever done that.” I would say, “Matt, they can't wear the same clothes every day, that's crazy.”

DS: From the first time we talked three years ago, you have always been very humble about the show’s success. It’s always been a bit of, “Knock on wood, I never expected to be here. I expected one episode and done. Then I expected one season and done.”  I know that there are no guarantees in this business but you’ve kept the quality high, the costs reasonable…Is it safe to say you’re on pretty solid footing?

AR: I wouldn’t say that because it's not in my genetic make up. Even right now, I’m waiting for somebody to march in, slap the phone out of my hand and take away my office keys.

DS: “Thanks Mr. Reed.  It’s been great!”

AR: Exactly.  It seems we are in a good place and I think FX believes in the show.  And we really like working for them.  We are having a really good time. My panic attacks that wake me up with a lump in my chest are that this season I sort of messed with a perfectly good formula that was working pretty great and I have temporarily scrapped it all and said, “OK, this season we are going to go do some crazy stuff and I hope that doesn’t lose us viewers.”  I hope we continue to grow.  Otherwise they are going to be furious at me. Now I’m hyperventilating again.

DS: I think your instincts are pretty good but again, people like things I can't imagine that they would like and people don't like things I can't imagine that they wouldn't like, so I guess you never know…

AR: That's a good point.  Have you seen the poster, the artwork for the new season?

DS: Yes I have.

AR: I saw it and it calmed me down a little bit. When I saw it I thought, “That looks like a show people would want to watch.”

Archer: Episode 1, Season 5 "White Elephant." Pictured: (L-R) Lana and Sterling.  With roses.

Archer: Episode 1, Season 5 "White Elephant." Pictured: (L-R) Lana and Sterling. With roses.

DS: I’m not looking to jinx anything. You know I’m a big fan of the show. I hope you continue to produce it and that lots of people continue to watch it. It’s just that so much of what I see coming and going in the area of adult animation is just not that good. Maybe it’s me. So when I find a show I like, I’m always curious as to whether or not it’s some anomaly.  Is this just that hard to do? Why do so many fail so miserably?

AR: A lot of that is not the people creating the content but the people curating the content. Oftentimes there are way too many spoons in the pot that are not necessarily the most creative people in the world. Not to sound like a suck-up but FX has great executives. The thing that drives me crazy is when I get notes from them. That’s because normally their notes are dead on… and I say to myself, “Why didn’t I see that? Of course, this needs to happen in Act 2.” It’s infuriating as a writer but it's also like, I am glad I work for them.

DS: It's good to have that type of collaboration.

AR: Absolutely.

DS: Is it just that hard to make a funny animated series? Do people have the wrong formulas? Are they only trying to make 16-year-olds laugh and it's easier to do 10 cheap jokes than it is to work three times as hard to get five jokes that are much funnier? Are they targeting the wrong audience? There are so many talented people out there. Why is it so hard? Why is it that so many shows in this genre are just so bad?

AR: I think it is hard. It’s also harder if you have people in your way. I don't watch many animated shows that are on right now because I’m not crazy about them. But then there are ones that I really love and that I love to watch.  Like Bob's Burgers. I can't wait for new episodes to come out every week. I am crazy about it. But there are lots that I can’t just… I can't spend that 22 minutes because I can't get it back.

DS: Indeed. That’s precious time in your life you’ll never get back.

AR: We call it negative comedy, where if you watch really bad comedy you end up mad, so your baseline is worse than if you had not watched any comedy at all.

DS: So where do you see things headed in adult-oriented TV animation?

AR: My hope is that FX will continue to expand their animation programming, get solid ratings, good reviews and acclaim. I think there might just be some type of …I don't know, “stigma” is probably too strong a word, but I know a lot of adults don’t want to watch cartoons at all, no matter what. I think it's a little hard to overcome that. I definitely think for me, Archer doesn’t necessarily have to be animated. It would just be prohibitively expensive to make in live action, and we’d have to make Jon Benjamin much handsomer.

I don't know that adult animation is stuck but it's not moving ahead as rapidly as I’d like to see. I think it would be great if it did. Part of that might be that shows and promos are marketed to focus on younger skewing comedy, which turns off a bunch of 35-45 year olds. It's all geared towards 20-year-olds.  In fact they sort of cherry pick poops and farts for the promos.

DS: Let’s use Fox and Seth MacFarlane for example. One of the knocks on his animation block is that it plays to the lowest common denominator. But on the flip side, the shows are popular enough to merit continued network support.  People love watching that type of show. Does that type of show get pigeon-holed such that producers think that’s all people want to watch?

AR: I think it has but remember, those shows are wildly successful. They are huge money markers. The audiences obviously like them. So it's always hard for me to blame networks or creators when their comedy isn't necessarily funny for me but it is for 20 million viewers every week. Who am I to say that it isn’t funny?  If 20 million people watch it and think it's funny, then by any yardstick, that's funny. Maybe not my yardstick. The audience decides. If the audience didn’t like Seth MacFarlane shows they wouldn't be on TV. But they are hugely successful, so I think that's what folks want.

DS: I agree with you. Just because something isn’t that funny to me, doesn’t mean it’s not funny to anyone and not a good show.

AR: It might be that comedy like Archer is inherently self-limiting as far as audience size.

Pictured: (L-R) Chris Parnell, Lucky Yates, H. Jon Benjamin, Matt Thompson,  Amber Nash, Adam Reed and Aisha Tyler at the FX press room on Day 3 of 2013 Comic-Con International. (Photo by Tonya Wise/Invision for FX/AP Images).

Pictured: (L-R) Chris Parnell, Lucky Yates, H. Jon Benjamin, Matt Thompson, Amber Nash, Adam Reed and Aisha Tyler at the FX press room on Day 3 of 2013 Comic-Con International. (Photo by Tonya Wise/Invision for FX/AP Images).

DS: People have to work a little bit harder to understand Archer. Sometimes things are a little bit more subtle. Sometimes that’s harder for some people to comprehend. They don't necessarily want to work that hard.  They want the ham-fisted humor because it's just so easy to laugh at.  I like it, I don't like it, we move on.

AR: Don’t forget, we also have tons of fart jokes on Archer.

DS: Yeah, but yours are intelligent fart jokes. Let’s face it…there are fart jokes, and there are “fart” jokes. Speaking of fart jokes the last thing I wanted to ask you is about some of your more risqué material. You are not known to shy away from some pretty nasty adult humor. Has the network’s perspective on that changed at all? Do you pretty much have the same free reign for this coming season?

AR: Yeah, very much so.  I may have mentioned this before, but there have been times in my annoyingly good notes call with the network execs when they’ll say, “Look, this bit you got here on page 15, go further with that, really push the boundaries. Let S&P tell you when it's too much.”  So I have raunched it up a little on occasion.  So they really trust us, which is really nice.

DS: When you come up with some of this stuff, do you stop for a moment and say “Jeez, this is going to be really funny.”  There has got to be that “Aha!” moment early in that process.

AR: Sometimes I laugh out loud because I hear the actors in my head when I am writing. I hear Jon Benjamin or one of the other actors say a line in my head and probably once per script, I will laugh out loud at something. I know that makes me sound insane.

DS: On the contrary. I often laugh out loud when I watch the show, I can only imagine what it was like when you first wrote it.”

AR: I also laugh really hard at the VO [voice over] sessions. The VO sessions are really my favorite part of the whole production process, because we get to catch up and gossip. We are never all together except at Comic Con. They get in the booth and we laugh so hard because as a writer, everything you write, it's just sitting there. It's just words on a page. Then Chris Parnell comes in and reads it three ways that are totally different from what you thought he’d do, and each one he does is better than the last. It's really my favorite part of the process.


Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.