"Archer" and "Bob's Burgers" star H. Jon Benjamin is more than just a pretty voice

The beloved voice actor and comedian sits down with Salon to talk about why "Failure Is An Option"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 31, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

H. Jon Benjamin (AP/Fox/Salon)
H. Jon Benjamin (AP/Fox/Salon)

He's known for playing super spy Sterling Archer, family man Bob Belcher and a talking can of mixed vegetables in "Wet Hot American Summer." But if you don't recognize H. Jon Benjamin by sight, it's understandable —  it's his deadpan voice that's his claim to fame.

Now the actor and comic is adding the job of author to his resume, with a new memoir and "demotivational" guide called "Failure Is An Option: An Attempted Memoir."

Benjamin sat down with us Salon's studio to talk about why the road to personal satisfaction is paved with food poisoning and awkward threesomes.

This is an unusual self-help book in the annals of armchair psychiatry or motivational books.

Anti-motivational. It's a kind of a new category.

You start out right from the beginning talking about why failure is an option, and the uses of failure. You even quote Whitman on the case for failure. For those who have not yet read the book, can you give the elevator pitch of why failure can actually make the world a better place?

That's a broken elevator pitch, like a stuck elevator pitch. The book has mainly a bunch of stories of personal failure in my life. But I think I tried and failed to provide the argument that failure works all the time. I went down that road in the beginning opening argument. The book as a whole is a complete failure. Even in my argument for failure —

You're failing.

I failed to offer clarity of an argument.

Let me step in with my interpretation. Around the structure of these accounts, from birth to the present day, of things that you have failed at or been embarrassed by, I think you're being truthful and honest and genuine and empathetic. We become our best selves through our worst mistakes and we become our best selves through the embarrassments of our lives. There's a thing you say at the end that I really love, about how failure forces you forward in a way that success doesn't. We're a such a success-oriented culture, but it's the failures that burn that bridge behind you, and you've got nowhere else to go.

That's good, that was really good. I think you’re on target.

I think that is it. It's certainly the case in my personal history. I think it reflects that. I did get authentic in the end. Even though this started as essentially a demotivational book, then it kind of morphed into something more personal as I was writing it.

Watch our full conversation with H. Jon Benjamin

"Archer" and "Bob's Burgers" star: The face behind the voice

I was like, oh, damn. I think he’s on to something.

I give you one nugget. You had to earn it.

You go through a lot of really embarrassing stories. One example that you have in your personal life of failure is you gave up on music. and then 40 years later you said, “I'm going to come back and I'm going to release a jazz album.”

I did, yes. I wrote about more of the childhood failure of my parents desperately trying to get me to [play]. My mother’s a ballet dancer and she ended up becoming a director of a performing arts school in the hometown where I grew up. The lessons were free. It was readily available for me to take anything I wanted, and I took almost every instrument and failed each time. That was the main course of my childhood failure in music. My dad was a big jazz music fan. I think he wanted that as well for me too. He played clarinet. I couldn't learn the clarinet or the violin or the recorder.

I lived in Massachusetts for two years as a kid and when you brought up the recorder, I was right back there, failing at "Hot Cross Buns." That was my jam.

Is it specific in Massachusetts, the recorder? Is it played nowhere else?

Maybe, I don't know. That was the only recorder period in own life.

It is the sound of the Massachusetts accent, musically.

I had the opportunity to do a jazz album that I did without knowing how to play piano. I hired three musicians who can play jazz and I tried to play with them as best I could.

You got legit musicians to come in. You give the answer in the book, that when someone said "Why?" you were like, "Well, why not?" But there must have been some deeper closure that you wanted to in your music career?

I do comedy. I was doing a bit on stage that was a little like that, and I then realized I could push it further. I think that was the agenda, to push it as far as I could, as in, just make the album. It was because I could.

That's a hallmark of your career, seeing how far you can [push it]. You have a lot of incidents in the book where you talk about that, including the live sex acts that you try to procure for a show. You got hustled a little.

I did, yes. When I had very little money.

You took a loss on because you wanted to have live sex acts —

In a comedy show to surprise the audience. There were a lot of walkouts.

There were a lot of walkouts but the people who stayed were — the word you use and I love it — delighted.

I remember I sat and watched from the back of the room and it was a full room. I did see people leave, and most people left. It went on for a long time. It was also, as far as live sex acts go, maybe too long. I think there might be a limit.

I don't know what the right timeframe for something like that is, but it's probably less than I would think.

Apparently like once you go, six minutes.

That’s just too long for anything. Speaking of that, you talk a lot about your sexual embarrassments. Being recruited in an amateur porn film. Being in what you call a "Benjamin threesome." I would call it a two and a half-some. 

I think I said twosome with a twist. Twosome with me present.

It happened in "Sex and the City" with Charlotte too. You’re Charlotte, Jon. We know the exact same thing happened to her. Now you know, because you're probably a big "Sex and the City" watcher.

I was in it. I think I did a bit.

You write about your sexual exploits, or non-exploits. Was there ever a moment where you said, "You know what? I cannot put this in this book. I cannot talk about this horrifying experience." Do we have to wait for the next book for even more mortifying [tales]?

I think I could probably fill another 300 pages of just sex failures for sure.

Why these then?

I mean, that one was really the one that stood out the most. There’s a few others that I definitely don't want to get into now.

There's a middle-aged man in France somewhere right now who probably still thinks…

That he made out with me. Yes, you want me to clarify?

The quick version is I went to France and I went to a bar and met a man who didn't speak very good English. He immediately thought I was Bruce Willis because I guess I look like slightly like Bruce Willis. He was convinced of it, and the bartender sort of translated for us. I went along with it because I think I just gave him the satisfaction of being with Bruce Willis. We drank a lot, then I told the bartender that I get an early call in the morning for my movie that I was shooting. We went outside and he followed me and he kind of held me and embraced me and kissed me for 20 seconds. I sort of started kissing back, I think.

It was long enough for you to move into a different phase.

Yes, it was my first kiss man on man, and he was a good kisser. He thought I was Bruce Willis.

You gave him that experience.

Then he invited me back to his apartment. I sort of gleaned that like [he thought], "Let's keep this going." And I couldn't. I had to draw the line.

I could’ve had Bruce Willis have sex with that young man.

You gave him enough.

A tease. Bruce, if you're out there, look up.

If this were today, there would be pictures of it all over and it would be a TMZ moment.


You just finished the eighth season of "Bob's Burgers" and you were wrapping up the ninth season of "Archer." You have said you never were particularly directed towards comedy. You never really felt a very strong pull towards voice work. Yet you have succeeded at it. Did you fail into this success?

Yes, that was a big part of it. I think that's a big part of probably why I succeeded. I think because I developed a sense of detachment from wanting to succeed in that specific occupation early on, I sort of learned as I went. There were a lot of people I knew who were doing comedy when I was getting into the animated shows that were very driven to succeed in comedy. I was kind of foreign to that. I do think that attitude helped me adjust slowly and progressively to do what I do. I think that ended up affording me a better attitude.

Maybe a little Buddhist-like detachment?

Little bit of exactly that, yes.

You say, when you die, you will be probably remembered as a success because the success is what people talk about. And yet your life is also so much to the accumulation of all of these little failures along the way. We are having this moment now where I think we're having a reckoning of failures. We were having a reckoning of people looking back at mistakes and bad behavior and part of that process seems to be, then how do we not fail again? How do we, when someone has failed in the industry in any kind of public way, make it better? How do you think we can fail better at this public conversation?

I think, probably the easy and quick answer to that would probably be , yes, there is probably tha idea that you're going to fail again and even after a big failure. I think it's like the boomerang effect. You lessen that load after a failure. I think that's probably at least a little bit of what I talk about in the book at the end. Manage expectations; you will fail again. But don't try too hard to succeed after you fail at something because I think that ends up creating a lot of problems.

Right, and the microscope is on everybody now. We're all living our lives in such a public way so that if someone fails the onus of scrutiny is even more profound.

Yes, that's true. Coming from the other side then, yes. There's a really horrible confluence of the reaction and then the reaction to that. As in, the person who failed being judged quickly and powerfully. I think, yes, that's dangerous. It's hard to learn. I have a kid who's going through, probably every day now, what you're talking about.

When you are watching him now, what is it like for you as a father knowing all the things you do? I know as a parent I can own my failures, but I don't want my kids to experience disappointment or pain. Or like your son eating dog poop. This was not recently though, so it's okay.

I don’t know, he might.

You get a taste for it, you never really lose it.

In the book, I’ve established that I'm not sure it was dog shit. It was shit, but I don’t know.

Dog shit is best case scenario.

I was hoping.

What do you think when you see your kid get disappointed or screw up and make mistakes? How do you roll with that?

He also has an example. I keep writing about failure. I keep making albums where I can't play, so he has this horrible example at all times throughout his life. I'm hoping he reacts the way we were talking earlier about, like he'll change directions and not be like me.

I put minimal pressure applied at all times. Hopefully, we started with musical instruments. He's doing pretty decent in the drums. I think like that's the benchmark.

Yes, just decent.

Thaw and glacial progress through the generations.

You try and encourage them in this way and then they wind up having disasters and in other areas that you didn't even anticipate. It's really exciting in that regard.

You have all kinds of great, great advice for things that we can do moving forward in our lives to lead better lives. I want you to tell anyone out there why you should not have the filet mignon on the plane.

Oh, I would say don't eat anything on a plane. I think that's what I've learned over the years. I don't even eat snacks on a plane anymore.

It was the filet mignon.

It was the filet mignon, I’m in first class. Now granted, that was probably twelve years ago. I don't know if they've improved the food quality, but yes, that the filet mignon gave me food poisoning and then horrific diarrhea in the rental car.

I believe you said you used that car as a diaper?

Yes. I was in shorts. I flew first class. I think that one of the first times I had ever flown first class. I really indulged and then drank all the wine and had the ice cream sundae. That bordelaise sauce or whatever, yes.

You don't want the plane bordelaise because the next thing you know, you're going to have to turn over a car where something horrific has happened to the valet.

Even when I fly first class now I don't. I don't have the meal.

Yes, bring your own snacks and just stick with the water.

Canned pineapple.

Or the mixed vegetables. H. Jon Benjamin. The book is called "Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir." I think it was an excellent attempt. Jon, thank you so much for coming today.

Thanks for having me.



By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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