Comedian Jon Benjamin has a van…and a voice

Jon Benjamin talks about his new live-action show -- and why he hates recording your voice mail messages

Topics: Interviews, Animation, Archer, Television,

Comedian Jon Benjamin has a van...and a voiceJon Benjamin's van.

You might not know who Jon Benjamin was if he bumped into you on the street, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he’s instantly recognizable. He’s on “Family Guy” as Carl the convenience store clerk, Ben Katz from Comedy Central’s “Dr. Katz,” Coach McGuirk from “Home Movies,” and Bob from Fox’s new series “Bob’s Burgers.” But the comedian is now showing his face on “Jon Benjamin has a Van,” a faux-news show that recently premiered on Comedy Central.

I spoke to Ben over the phone about the jet-setting lifestyle of one of TV’s most famous voices — and why he won’t record your outgoing voicemail.

So, the obvious question: Why a live show now?

Drew, there are tons of live shows on television … Oh why a live show about me?


Because you do know that most of the television you watch is live-action.

The major networks, generally. But for you, personally, you’ve done so much voice work.

Well I’ve been a massive failure for years and years, so it’s hard to get a live show on the air, apparently. I’ve tried, a bunch of times. But no, they … um, didn’t like me. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. I wasn’t suddenly like “Time to pitch a show!”

I remember an old SuicideGirl interview you did a long time ago, where they said you turned down more roles than any other actor.

(Laughs) Where did they get a statistic like that?

It sounds like an IMDB trivia fact.

Oh, those IMDB facts don’t mean anything, they aren’t real. Do they take the mean average?

I’m guessing so. Like one year you might turn down less roles than Daniel Day-Lewis, but it evens out.

It is absolutely between me and Daniel Day-Lewis for the record, and he’s up by three right now because he just turned down “Two and a Half Men.”

As did you.

Well, I turned down the Jon Cryer part. They were going to replace both of them and have me and Daniel.

Who was going to play the kid?

Seth Green. We should just do a live show of that. So no: I’ve heard that quote before, about turning down the roles, and I think it’s just silly.

You have taken small roles in movies. You were a doctor in “Not Another Teen Movie” for three seconds, and Miranda’s co-worker who thought she was a lesbian on “Sex And the City.” But it’s your voice that’s well, really made you famous. I had a boyfriend in college who actually wanted to grow up to be Ben Katz from Dr. Katz.

It’s such an easy goal to succeed.

Was that your first role?

It was my first job, I think.

And then “Home Movies,” spots of “Venture Brothers” and “Aqua Teen,” and now “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers.” After decades of doing voice work, it does seem like you prefer to work in that medium.

It’s true. There are times I’ve turned down sitcoms and other opportunities. I don’t know whether that was a bad or good idea, ultimately. But there were far more times where I’ve been rejected. So it’s not like I say “no” to work so much … actually I’ve never said “no” because I just have a guy that says “no” for me.

Well there is this sense that now with “Archer” and “Jon Benjamin has a Van,” you’ve become more recognizable, maybe more mainstream even? Do you think those cult Jon Benjamin fans are going to see this as you getting too recognizable? Selling out?

Ha. Yeah. “I remember when he was cool.”

Or, “He was better as that talking can from ‘Wet Hot American Summer.’”

Funny thing. I never saw that scene in the movie when it came out. But I mean, I know I’m in it. Back to the point: I’m not concerned about “selling out” because I have to make a living, but I am slightly concerned with people watching ["Jon Benjamin has a Van"] and not enjoying the cartoons as much.

Really? Like people will have a harder time associating you with “Archer” after this?

Yeah, but that might just be a weird. That might not be true. Everyone knows who Homer Simpson is.

Do they?

Oh yeah, you should see the two of us walking around together.

That sounds like the best day in Hollywood ever. I remember back when you were making web videos for (Huffington Post’s now defunct comedy website) 23/6, you were doing segments that weren’t just live-action, but were in the same satiric news format as your new show.  Were these ideas you’ve had kicking around?

It’s probably more the comedy I gravitate towards. Boring. Dry. Occasionally funny. So yeah, it’s a good medium for me. After 23/6 I did a pilot for Vice where I had like a cable access show where we did a bunch of fake interviews that were supposed to take place in the 80s. So I had been doing stuff in that vein. “Midnight Pajama Jam” was a live show I did where the main thrust of it was a talk show, a segment with a guest. It was our way of getting comedy out there.

A lot of articles talk about the dual-format of “Jon Benjamin”: Half of it is on the street interviews with real people, and the other half are these scripted fake segments that are also interviews. I’m trying to imagine your pitch meeting for the show.

I showed them “Midnight Pajama Jam,” actually. Some street pieces I did where I’d go out and talk to people in the city, or one where my friend was a sock puppet and we talked to people. And some of it ended up on the show, like the “Do You Have a Minute” segment.

My favorite thing from “Midnight Pajama Jam” was the Hello Squad. Can you tell this is becoming less an interview and more me telling you what stuff you’ve done?

I actually feel like I’m on a job interview for your company. “So ‘Midnight Pajama Jam’…help us remember…what was that?”

So Jon: What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses you think you can bring to this company? And then we’ll go over employee stock options.

Strength OR weakness? My greatest strength is my greatest weakness. I have a, um, very resonant, deep voice. So that is a strength. Bu what is my biggest strength that is also my greatest weakness … I like have incredible sexual prowess.

Good to know, because…

No, I mean, it won’t stop. I want it to stop, but it won’t. It’s too crazy. I mean I don’t stop. Ever.

Well now the voice acting is making a little more sense. Do they have to shoot you from the waist up on the show?

Yeah, you know like priapism? I’m like that, but without the medication.

I’m like a mythological creature.

Like when you took the form of a stallion as Master in “Venture Brothers?”

Good job bringing it back to my credits.

I’m about to do it again: So you’re doing “Bob’s Burger’s” on Fox, “Archer” is getting a third season, and you’re now starring in your own Comedy Central show. That schedule must be interesting.

Well I have plenty of time on my hands, ironically. I’m done shooting “Van,” and voice work … it’s not like you have to go to an office every day and do “Bob’s Burger’s.”

You get off easier than the writers.

Well, “Archer” is written by one guy, which is pretty crazy. Sometimes when we record, he’s not there because he’s holed up writing the next episode.

That show is a revelation.

Without a doubt, I love “Archer.” I like me in it, obviously, I am very good. But the whole thing, it’s very awkward, but I’ll literally watch the show and forget I’m in it. And not like “I’m so good, I’m losing myself watching my own character.” The show is just that good.

With your distinct voice, how many people ask you to record their outgoing voice messages?

Oh yeah, I summarily refuse to do those. I used to do that all the time. But then I had a breakthrough where I was like “Fuck off.”


I will say that to anyone. “Fuck off.” I will leave you a message that says “I don’t want to be doing this right now.” I mean, I won’t actually say that … it’s just always so awkward, and the guy always has to set it up on his phone while I just stand there. “Oh, Jenny is going to love this, hold on man, let me just find her number.” Come on already, can I go?

No, you can’t.

No … I was saying that in character.

I know, and I was responding in the character of the guy who wants you on his outgoing voicemail. It must be odd to have a fan base of people just obsessed with your voice.

It is. Some people just want me to talk to them. And the people I know don’t want me to talk to them at all.

You should start a service, “Jon Benjamin will talk to you.” And you can charge money.

I would make at least $500 a year.

(Click below to hear Jon’s special message to Salon’s readers — ie. the outgoing message he recorded on my voicemail)

Jon Benjamin by saradrewgrant

“Jon Benjamin Has a Van” is on every Wednesday at 10:30/9:30c on Comedy Central

Drew Grant is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @videodrew.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>