Adam Reed is a writer, director, producer and voice actor. He co-created the Adult Swim programs Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo with Matt Thompson. He's also the creator and executive producer of Archer, a series about global espionage on FX.
Archer is an animated send-up of a spy thriller, with lead spy Sterling Archer working alongside his ex-girlfriend and fellow agent Lana Turner. An impressive pool of actors voice the characters, including H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell, and Adam Reed himself.
Season Two of Archer premieres tomorrow night, January 27th, at 10pm on FX.
JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the show is Adam Reed. With his colleague Matt Thompson, he co-created the seminal [Adult Swim] series Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo. His latest project is a spy spoof that is very silly and very vulgar called Archer; the second season of the show premiers on January 27 on the FX Network.
Adam, it’s a pleasure to have you on The Sound of Young America.
ADAM REED: It is an honor to be here, thank you very much!
Click here for a full transcript of this episode.
JESSE THORN: I like that. That’s probably an overstatement; I’m not going to lie to you. But I appreciate it.
ADAM REED: I was going to say pleasure, but then I thought, eh…
JESSE THORN: Just kick it up a notch.
ADAM REED: It’s an honor. It’s a little bit better.
JESSE THORN: You have an unusual career path in that you started in this world of animation, then left and went to work in the “real entertainment world,” and came back. What was your first job in Cartoon Network world?
ADAM REED: My very first job that I did in television was working for a marketing guy at Turner, and Turner had just acquired the Hanna-Barbera library and he would put together deals like if you buy this Jetsons home video, you’ll get a free box of doughnuts. So my very first job, I walked in, first day of work, and he put two big crates down on my cubicle desk and said, “Watch all these tapes, and take notes.” It was every episode of the Flintstones. Of which there are 161.
JESSE THORN: Wow, that’s a lot of Flintstones.
ADAM REED: So for two weeks, from 9 to 5, I watched the Flinstones on old VHS - - well, at the time they were new VHS tapes, just logging these Flintstones episodes. What I was looking for was an episode with no dinosaurs. I said, Steve, I can tell you right now they’ve all got dinosaurs in them. That’s what Fred uses at work; it’s in the show open. “Well, find me the one with the fewest dinosaurs.” So about 40 episodes in I was finally like, why am I doing this?
“Well, I’m putting together a deal with a well-known national snack cake brand,” which was owned at the time by the Seventh Day Adventists, who apparently don’t believe in dinosaurs. I think the Jetsons would have been a better fit for them. Anyways, the deal ended up not happening, but I watched 80 hours of Flintstones.
JESSE THORN: You went on to be a production assistant in that world of Cartoon Network, which was a network that was built around - -
ADAM REED: Me.
JESSE THORN: - - the fact that Ted Turner had just bought this huge trove of content.
ADAM REED: Yes.
JESSE THORN: Why did you leave?
ADAM REED: Matt Thompson, my executive producer, and I were working on a live action show with a comedian named Carrot Top.
JESSE THORN: Speaking of the crème de la crème.
ADAM REED: It was a live action for kids. It aired in the mornings, and we worked on it for about a year to do one production cycle, and it was a pretty unpleasant work experience. We wanted to make Sealab, and we said we’d do the Carrot Top thing if we can make this, and they said yes, absolutely. So we did the Carrot Top thing and then we said, okay, how about now we do Sealab, and they said, Yes! Just one more year of Carrot Top! And I couldn’t take it, so I left and Matt followed suit.
JESSE THORN: So you mentioned this Sealab show. Tell me about what you had created before you left Cartoon Network and handed to your higher ups.
ADAM REED: We actually took an episode of Sealab, which was a 30 minute very serious drama cartoon set underwater, obviously. The message was all about ecology and don’t be mean to the ocean and don’t poach seals. All very laudable messages, but it was really, really boring. So we just turned the audio off and basically did “What’s Up, Tiger Lilly,” where we re-voiced what was already there. And it was, not unlike the original Sealab, far too long, and about as funny. So they wisely passed on that.
JESSE THORN: You held on to this dream though. What was it about Sealab 2020, the original Sealab, that you liked so much?
ADAM REED: I thought it led itself to be a great work place comedy because all of these people were trapped in a job, but it was very far away, isolated from the world. So it made sense that they would all be a little nuts by this point. And also we stole the master tapes from Cartoon Network when we left. So we had the material to work with.
JESSE THORN: Let’s listen to a clip from Sealab 2021, the series that was eventually born of those early experimentations. In this scene the captain of the ship and his crew are arguing on the bridge of the ship over the definition of martial law.
When you returned to Cartoon Network, tell me what you actually got them to make.
ADAM REED: Matt and I were out of work for a good long stretch, so we had these Sealab tapes and made a new seven minute pilot and sent it to Mike Lazzo at Adult Swim, uninvited. And it just happened to coincide with them starting Adult Swim and looking for content, which we didn’t know. He called and said this seems like a good fit, let’s make some cartoons.
JESSE THORN: Adult Swim, for those who don’t know, is a late night programming block on the Cartoon Network that features content targeted at adults, specifically stoned 19 year olds. It features both action cartoons and a variety of very odd and mostly animated, although these days not exclusively animated, comedy programs. This was along with a couple of other programs, one of the formative shows that established the tone of that sub-network.
That clip that we played is about as action oriented as the show gets. It’s basically just bickering. I wonder if that was always the plan, to just sort of take this footage that you had from this television program and just devolve it to the point where it’s people bickering with each other.
ADAM REED: I think so. Dave Willis, who was one of the creators of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, said years and years ago that 95% of everything on television is just roommates bickering. I think in a lot of ways it’s true, and all of the shows that we’ve done, whether on purpose or not, have had this grand backdrop; an undersea laboratory or super heroes and super villains or global espionage that is largely ignored. And then the characters just bicker in front of this backdrop.
JESSE THORN: How did you find the right tone for this very odd thing? What kind of things did you try, and what succeeded and failed, and how could you tell what was succeeding and failing?
ADAM REED: On Sealab?
JESSE THORN: Yeah.
ADAM REED: We had a great mentor in Mike Lazzo who is like a pop culture savant. He’s seen everything, read everything, you can find the most obscure Japanese anime import that’s not even available in American video specs, and he’s seen it and owns it. He would always say, for every episode, show me something I haven’t seen before. That was really, really hard to do because he’s seen everything. He constantly said, “Surprise me.” We would write scripts and he would say, eh, I’ve seen this in show X, how can you make it different, how can you make it your own? A lot of those scripts in there absurdity were born out of desperation.
JESSE THORN: How many people were working on the show when you were making it?
ADAM REED: On Sealab…probably six.
JESSE THORN: I don’t know if anybody else has ever worked on a television show is listening to this, but that’s not very many.
ADAM REED: That’s not very many. It’s not even enough for a little league baseball team. Which I think we would have been pretty great at, we had some good athletes. That’s not including the voice talent, of course, but with the animators, writers, and producers it was six. For Frisky Dingo it was nine.
JESSE THORN: Did the odd stakes of doing a show for so little money affect what you were making, do you think?
ADAM REED: Absolutely, there were so many times that some huge action thing would happen off screen and the characters would just comment on it, like, oh my god, look at that giant robot over there smashing things. Hope he doesn’t come over here! Oh, good, he’s leaving. We’re safe! So absolutely, it does effect it, and I find that when I’m writing the scripts I’m also thinking, How can this be blocked and framed in such a way as to be as cost efficient as possible?
JESSE THORN: You did an entire episode of Sealab that I watched just the other day that was just an establishing shot.
ADAM REED: Yes.
JESSE THORN: Where everyone was just discussing the fact that the lights were out inside the Sealab.
ADAM REED: From a production company ownership standpoint, it was brilliant. It only cost about $800 to make that episode.
The network hated it! They hated it so much. I kept saying to Mike Lazzo, you’ve never seen this before! And he said that’s because who would make such a thing? That’s probably my favorite episode of Sealab, actually, because it’s so stupid.
JESSE THORN: There is animation in the episode. About every five minutes some fish go by.
ADAM REED: Some fish go by, and I think there were some bubbles that one of our animators added without being asked to.
JESSE THORN: More with Adam Reed, the creator of FX’s spy comedy Archer after a break. It’s The Sound of Young America from Faximumfun.org and PRI.
It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program is Adam Reed. His latest project is called Archer; the second season of the show premieres on January 27 on the FX Network. In this clip from the second season of the show Malory Archer, played by Jessica Walter from Arrested Development, the head of ISIS, the International Secret Intelligence Service, calls a meeting to explain some cost-cutting measures to her staff.
JESSE THORN: When you decided to do a spy show, did you have a lot of background in spy world or did you just have a vague idea of what it was from the seven James Bond movies that every person in America has seen?
ADAM REED: That was basically it, just a very vague notion of the spy world. I started doing a lot of research and one of the things that I had, somebody had given me years ago, every single one of the James Bond paperbacks, which had these lurid Pulp Fiction covers of James Bond assaulting a woman somehow while playing cards. I started reading those, and they’re really dark. James Bond in those novels is not the happy-go-lucky Roger Moore “James Bond”, he’s a bit of a bad guy. He’s a racist, definitely misogynist, and in every novel James Bond commits some sort of sexual assault. So that was inspiring to send me down the path of having Archer be a jerk. Not of the sexual assault kind of jerk, but as jerky as possible while still being sympathetic. I was spinning my wheels on that, and then it clicked when I was watching the James Bond reboot with Judi Dench as M, and then I thought what if M was James Bond’s mother, and what a weird dynamic that would be, and what if they were both horrible people.
JESSE THORN: I want to read you this quote that frankly I entirely disagree with, from a review of the show that ran in the Washington Post when it first came out. Forgive me for doing this to you.
ADAM REED: Is it mean?
JESSE THORN: Oh, it’s spectacularly mean. It says, “Be warned, Archer is as obnoxious and cruel as it can possibly be and still call itself humor. I’d quote dialogue, but all the snappier stuff included naughty words for genitals.” Do you think of the show as being a mean show?
ADAM REED: I do now, after hearing that quote. I’m despondent. I do think it’s mean-spirited a lot of times, but I think there are unexpected moments of sweetness. Yeah, it’s a pretty mean show.
JESSE THORN: I just want to say that when I read that I was annoyed, because I felt like it’s not a mean show, it’s a show full of very petty shallow characters. There’s something very sweet about all of them, and I don’t think the shows perspective is a mean perspective.
ADAM REED: I think it’s more selfish than mean.
JESSE THORN: The show has a wonderful cast. Jon Benjamin who plays the lead is a really gifted voice actor. Did you always have him in mind when you wrote the show?
ADAM REED: Yes. If you knew Archer in real life, you would quickly distance yourself from him. You wouldn’t want anyone that you knew or loved to date him because he’s so horrible. One of the reasons I think that you root for him, besides knowing that some of it isn’t his fault, he’s got this terrible mother and a terrible childhood, is Jon’s delivery. It’s so disarming that even the most conceited, hurtful, horrible things that Archer says, when Jon puts voice to them, they come across as not so bad.
JESSE THORN: What about Jessica Walter, who plays Archer’s mom and runs the spy agency, did you imagine her in that part?
ADAM REED: Yes. In fact, when we sent out the casting notice to all the voiceover agents, we did character descriptions on each character, and in parentheses after Malory Archer’s character we said, Think Jessica Walter. The next day Jessica’s agent called and said “How about Jessica Walter?” Then we all just ran around pumping our fists in the air and yoo-hooing and jumping up and down. Then we dropped her name like crazy to get all these other great people.
JESSE THORN: Was it difficult for you to adjust to writing a show that has a narrative that has to have an actual television style arch and structure?
ADAM REED: Not really. I think it’s more natural than in Sealab where there wasn’t enough time to tell a proper story, I felt. They were basically shorts. To me it feels a little more natural to be able to write a beginning a middle and an end than just a beginning and a middle and then it blows up.
JESSE THORN: Which was a good technique for ending a lot of those early Sealab episodes.
ADAM REED: You know we actually reused that same explosion numerous times. Industry secret!
JESSE THORN: Adam Reed, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America, it was really fun to have you on the show.
ADAM REED: Jesse, I will repeat, it was an honor.
JESSE THORN: Uh-huh. Adam Reed is the creator of Archer, it returns to the FX Network on January 27.