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The Twisted Genius Behind Sterling Archer

Creator Adam Reed’s spy-spoof deftly brings together espionage, workplace drama, dirty sex and automatic weapons. And turtlenecks.

With Archer set to launch Season 3 January 19th on FX, it seemed a good time to take a closer look at one of today’s most popular adult animated TV series. Part spy, part nattily-dressed drunken cousin who shows up uninvited at holidays with a $2,000 sports coat and a $50 gap-toothed escort, Sterling Archer never misses an opportunity to do the wrong thing at the best time.  Loudly.  Like an airplane trailing plumes of smoke, Archer sputters through each episode – the question isn’t whether or not he’s going to crash, but rather when, where and how much you’ll laugh at the debris field.

The brilliant mind responsible for the show is Adam Reed, who along with co-creator Matt Thompson brought us Adult Swim favorites Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo. I caught up with Adam last week to discuss just how far Archer has come since it first aired on FX in 2010. 

Dan Sarto: I just wanted to start by saying up front that your work on Archer is some of the funniest and most smartly written animation I’ve ever seen. I’m trying not to geek out here but I can’t help it. I’m completely biased.

Adam Reed: Thank you very much.  There are a lot of talented folks that work on this show. 

DS: The stuff you guys are doing is so well written, the humor is funny on so many different levels.  I can appreciate how much talent it takes to put this show together.  You make it seem so easy but I know it’s not.

AR:  Aisha [Taylor] calls it “the blend of the thinky and the stinky.”

DS: That’s very apt.  I must say there is stuff you guys do that still leaves me open mouthed when I think of it.  There are so many great lines.  It’s really fantastic.

AR: I appreciate that.

DS: Has the success of the show taken you by surprise?

AR: Absolutely.  Yes.  An unqualified yes.  We worked equally hard on Sealab and Frisky Dingo with a much smaller crew and there were fans of those shows too, but [the fan base] was much, much smaller.  The notoriety and people knowing about those shows was much less.  This [the success of Archer] was all a huge surprise.

DS:  Where do you think that success resonates from?  Is there anything you can point your finger as a reason for the notoriety?

AR: A lot of it has to do with the cast.  Not to single anyone out, but Jon Benjamin, I can’t imagine anyone else doing the voice [of Sterling Archer].  Archer as a character, he walks a fine line.  He’s such a jerk, but he’s still sympathetic.  I think a lot of that has to do with Jon’s delivery of these lines.  It makes you root for Archer when you probably shouldn’t. 

DS: When you first created Archer, did you think of anyone besides Jon?  He seems like such a perfect fit. Was he the first person you thought of for the role?

AR: Very early on, when we were talking about casting the show, FX was leaning more towards dramatic actors they felt could do comedy.  They kept sending us all these ideas and internally we kept talking about Jon Benjamin, he’s so great.  We had already drawn the initial Archer, the earliest drawings.  So we took some audio from Home Movies of Coach McGuirk talking to the kids about getting drunk and going to see a body and animated Archer to Coach McGuirk.  We sent that to FX and they were like, “Oh, yes, never mind what we said.  He’s the guy.”

DS: It’s perfect casting.  But all the casting is fantastic.  When you come up with story ideas, how do you determine when to bring along the supporting characters?  The ensemble is so central to the show.

AR:  It became more of an ensemble piece very quickly. I didn’t set out for it to be like that.  Judy Greer’s character Cheryl was originally going to be killed off in the pilot.  Not killed off, but made to disappear.  There was going to be a running gag that Archer kept getting Mallory’s secretaries pregnant. They would wipe their memories and just dump them on the street.  Then Judy agreed to do the show, so we rewrote the pilot so that her character would stick around.  The character of Pam, who has become one of my favorites, was just going to be this small, whatever comes after “tertiary” character.  But Amber Nash is so great that Pam became much bigger.  I think it’s the strength of the cast that as a writer makes me want to spend more time with everybody.  The trick is finding room for everybody in an episode. 

DS: How did you come up with Krieger?  Where did he come from?

AR: He’s obviously based on Q but we wanted to make him a little darker and scarier.  The model that we use for his face is a good friend of mine who is actually a doctor.  Lucky Yates, who does the voice, brings this inherent mystery.  He’s got this great, deep bass voice.  He can easily be scary, but he always sounds like he’s smiling.  Even when he says these ghoulish things there is a boyish enthusiasm about it. Once there is a crack in the wall of these characters and they say something weird, it opens the door and you can, every once in a while, keep dropping in these little asides.  Or, somebody will mention one of the creepy things one of the other characters did.

DS: Where did the idea for the show come from?  Where did this percolate up from?

AR: Well, I took a year off after Frisky Dingo.  I was traveling, trying to think of a genre that was familiar, just like we did with Sealab and Frisky Dingo, where we could subvert the genre a little bit.  In those shows, one was a workplace comedy [Sealab] and the other was just a buddy picture [Frisky Dingo].  They have these larger than life backdrops that are pretty much ignored so that the characters can just bicker among themselves.  I just kept coming back to espionage and spy fiction as the one I was most familiar with.  That’s where I started.  I did tons of research, reading the James Bond novels, watching Matt Helm movies, OSS 117.  I holed up in my house for weeks, watching movies and reading books.  The “Eureka moment” was having his mom be the boss of the spy agency.

DS: It’s stroke of genius, especially cast with Jessica Walter.

AR: She’s fantastic.  She’s just so wonderful.

DS: Animation is pretty new to FX.  After seeing the first Archer promo before Season 1 aired, I was intrigued.  Early on, before the show debuted, did you ever sense any sort of buzz that this show was going to do well?

AR: No.  But another great thing about working with FX has been that they’re not afraid to put their massive PR machine muscle behind the show.  Which was another nice change.  People would send me an email saying, “Hey, I’m in Los Angeles and a bus just drove by with Archer’s face on it.”  People send me pictures of billboards in New York and it’s like, “What? This is the real thing.”

DS:  The upcoming 3rd season has 16 episodes?

AR: We actually scaled it back to 13 because I kept having panic attacks.  We did the 3 episode mini-season and then there will be 10 coming up.  We’re hoping to get some more writers on board.  A really funny guy name Chris Provenzano has started doing some scripts for us so hopefully we can crank out more episodes in the future. 

DS: Can you tell me a little bit about how the animation is produced, the crew, how the work is created?

AR: Well we’ve got about 40 folks.  For the backgrounds, we have a company called Trinity Animation in Missouri that spends most of their time doing architectural 3D stuff.  They do our backgrounds in 3D and render out a camera angle and send it to us. Then we paint it.  So that way once they build an environment, it’s done. We can just spin the camera around and repaint it, which has worked out. Eric Sims, our background painter, came up with a way, I don’t know how he does it, but the way he paints the backgrounds is a secret that only he and his crew know.  That’s all done in Photoshop.  Then the actual animation is done in After Effects.  So, I write a script.  Then we record it.  Then our editor does an audio cut and once that’s tweaked and we’re happy with it, and FX is happy with it, we do storyboards for it and then they just go draw. 

The characters, we use real models and dress them in vintage clothes.  We take a bunch of photographs of them and use them for references.  We have a huge wardrobe closet and a whole other closet filled with prop guns, motorcycle helmets, radio backpacks and all that stuff.

Yah, then they make it, and we put it on TV.

DS: So you’re not using Flash?  You’re using Photoshop composited in After Effects?

AR: Yep.  The characters are done in Illustrator, the backgrounds in Photoshop.  The actual animation is all After Effects. 

DS: It’s amazing what technology will allow you to do.

AR: It’s the same way we made Frisky Dingo and in some ways, the same as Sealab.  There’s probably a better way to do it but we didn’t know that when we started, so now, this is the way we do it.  Our studio is doing the animation for another FX cartoon that is premiering with Archer called Unsupervised.  That’s all done in Flash.

DS:  You’re producing that as well, correct?

AR:  My role is limited to just snooping around and wanting to know how Flash works, because I don’t.  But they’re super talented creators and writers on that show.  FX trusts us now to do their animation so they let us do the show.  But, we’re pretty just much the wrench turners, not the creative guys.

DS: How much of what we see on the air gets toned down after you’ve gone over it with the network?

AR: Very little.

DS: Can you talk about the dynamic of working with Standards and Practices at the network?

AR: It’s really minimal.  We get a lot of leeway.  FX is known as a very edgy network.  Once we gauged what they were comfortable with, now we don’t ever have these big S&P fights where we’re saying, “Oh no, we gotta show those boobs, come on!”  We know what they’re comfortable with so in the script phase, we make sure it’s OK.  It doesn’t make sense to write something and certainly not to animate something you know is not going to get on the air.  We nip that in the bud early in the process.  But there have been times where we’ve turned in animation where we’ve thought, “There’s no way they’re going to let us do that” and they don’t blink an eye. 

DS: There have been a few things you’ve done that I couldn’t believe you got past S&P. For example, references to “cooch chili” and “the Pele of anal” that are so funny but so nasty.  I can’t imagine how those ever got through.

AR: For better or worse, I think I’ll be forever known as the person who came up with “the Pele of anal.”

DS: It’s one of the greatest lines in entertainment history.  Has there been a point yet where you’ve said to yourself, “I’ve created something that has made its way into pop culture. This is pretty good.” Has that ever hit you?

AR: I guess, at the start of Season 2, when we got renewed after not having stellar ratings the first season, and the ratings came back and they were decent, then reading on the Internet that we actually made Metacritic. But I’m always, “Knock on wood.”  Working in TV is weird.  Every show I’ve ever worked on has been canceled.  I hate to jinx it so I always knock on wood when I feel myself saying, “Yah, this is good!” 

DS:  Well as a fan of the show, I can say that by most objective standards, the show is very good.  Of all the things involving the show’s production, is there any one things that gives you the most sense of satisfaction?

AR: One of my favorite things is the writing process though it’s very solitary and can often be frustrating. But my favorite thing to do is direct the voice over sessions because it’s so collaborative.  I think it was Harold Ramis who said, “Think of the script as the worst case scenario.”  When these actors are in the booth, and we laugh, the sessions are really fun, they’re very organic.  We don’t do takes to time, nothing is slated.  They just turn on the machine and let it roll.  We just talk back and forth. It’s very laid back and we have a great time.  Hearing the actors make something really good out of something I’ve written is the most rewarding thing.

DS: How much adlibbing goes on?  Do you sit back and watch them turn your work into something even better than you had imagined when you wrote it?

AR: They always do that.  A lot of times, now that we’ve done something like 30 episodes, I have an idea in my head when I write a line for somebody, what it sounds like.  Often, it’s the first take that they do that sounds exactly like what I thought it was going to sound like.  I don’t know how many takes other people do, but we only do 3 or 4 takes of each line normally.  The sessions go pretty fast.  But everyone is so comfortable working together that is goes really smoothly.

DS:  I understand this season we’re going to see some Burt Reynolds.

AR: We are!

DS:  It’s funny Archer is such a fan of Burt Reynolds.  I’m older than most fans of the show, so I remember Burt’s heyday and how huge a star he was.  Is there anything else you can share with us we can look forward to this season?

AR: The final 2 episodes, a 2-parter, the ISIS gang goes to outer space to try and help solve a problem on the international space station, although things don’t go as planned.  The guy who plays the commander of the space station is Bryan Cranston, another huge coup for us. 

Dan Sarto is Publisher of AWN and an unabashed fan of all things Archer.

Dan Sarto's picture

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