Adam Reed, creator of FX’s subversive spy-spoof Archer, espouses his take on what makes his arrogant, misogynistic protagonist likeable and what he does late at night to get himself unstuck.
Written by Denis Faye
Animation writer-producer Adam Reed doesn’t see the world like the rest of us. If you doubt this, watch an episode of his subversive spy-spoof Archer or his previous Adult Swim shows Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021. If you’re still on the fence, consider when his agents come to visit his Atlanta production studio, Floyd County Productions, he takes them to the shooting range, because “it’s sort of like bowling, but with guns.”
And if that doesn’t sway you, consider that one of the pivotal moments in his career involved maiming his employer. “Matt Thompson (Archer’s co-creator) and I got started doing “behind the scenes” featurettes for Showtime,” he explains, “but that work instantly dried up when Matt broke our client’s legs in a snowmobile accident.”
In much the same way Archer’s eponymous lead, Sterling Archer, emerges triumphant from the grotesque situations he gets himself in each week, Reed and Thompson used the downtime to put together a Sealab 2021 pilot and send it over the transom to Mike Lazzo at Cartoon Network. “He called and said, ‘We’re starting this thing called Adult Swim and Sealab would be a good fit,’” explains Reed. “We were just really lucky.”
That said, Reed shared with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site the fact that his success also involves a crushing amount of hard work, given that he cranks out the bulk of the episodes himself. But don’t worry about his stress level; it’s nothing that an evening shooting up things with a semiautomatic can’t fix.
Archer’s animation is super stylized. When you’re coming up with the narrative, do you need to work to do that stylization?
I do because I also own the production company. So I’m constantly editing myself and thinking, “Okay, we want this car chase; how can I write this so it’s as economical as possible?” Which, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t do. I’d write whatever I could imagine. Sometimes, I do that and then go back and say, “Okay, can this happen offscreen, or is there a way to imply or cheat this action and be able to do it cost efficiently?”
So Archer’s weird, stilted look – that was an economic or artistic decision?
Well, the actual animation we used through Sealab and Frisky Dingo. It’s the animation style we know how to do and the producers who work on our show have been with us since college. They’re constantly trying to figure out now cheaper ways to do things so I look good. We use real human being as models. We put period clothes on them and take hundreds and hundreds of reference photos.
Photo: © 2011 FX
A scene from Archer.
Even all the scantily clad, sexy women?
Oh yeah! You’ll come in, and there’ll be two twins dressed as ninjas in bikinis with samurai swords in the photo room. Our illustrators are great at drawing, but they all have their own style. Some draw realistic comic book stuff and others draw cartoonish. This way it helps it look like one, giant person drew it.
What’s the trick making an arrogant, misogynistic protagonist likeable?
That is a good question. I just started reading these novels, the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. He started writing these books in 1969 about a soldier in the 1800s based on this super minor character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (by Thomas Hughes). I don’t know why I’d never heard of this character, but he makes Archer look like Mahatma Gandhi. He’s the biggest bastard, but you still root for him.
It was hard with Archer working on the pilot. He kept coming across as a little dim and FX didn’t want him to come across as bumbling or stupid in any way because that’s sort of been done 100 times. It was hard, if a guy’s really good looking and apparently rich and has a great apartment and has really great clothes and dates all the girl and could kick your face off, if he’s also the smartest guy in the room, you’re not going to root for him. So I kept having him do stupid stuff, and we kept butting heads on it all through the first season until my argument that I finally hit upon for FX: He’s not stupid. He’s just supremely confident and thinks that nothing bad is ever going to happen to him, so in these dangerous situations where he’s being an idiot, he’s just being willfully obtuse to see what will happen. That sort of opened up some doors. Also, his mom is such a wreck and his sad childhood is appealing. That helps. Also Jon Benjamin’s delivery is just… you root for that guy no matter what he’s saying.
Speaking of FX, when you’re pushing boundaries, what is the notes process like?
I turn in a first draft and then a notes call is usually pretty short. The notes usually have to do with gaping logic holes I hoped they wouldn’t notice. You know, they say, “You said here that the bomb was supposed to go off in 10 minutes and now it’s two hours later and the bomb still hasn’t gone off. I’m like, “Yeah, shit, I have to go fix that.”
But as far as content, something being too off-color for FX, that’s pretty rare that I’ll write something, and they’re like, “We’re not putting that on our television channel.” The one thing was Archer throws a baby to disarm an assassin, and they were like, “No, you cannot have him throw a newborn baby at a guy with a gun,” so we worked around that.
Do you ever deliberately put something in you know they won’t accept in order to get something else through?
I haven’t done that! That’s a good idea though.
They not only read the scripts, but they’ll watch the storyboard cuts with the voices and we’ll get S&P notes on that. They’ll also watch the finished animation, so it’s really hard to slip one by S&P over there at Fox.
What’s your writer’s room like?
It’s just me. I’ve co-written a couple scripts with writers, like, two, but for the most part, it’s just me pounding my head on a keyboard.
But how do you make sure you’re getting it right?
The producers here all get a copy of all the drafts. They all have good notes. Once the episode is in production, the animators are putting in sight gags and putting in stuff to make the writing funnier than it is.
Why does one need a writer’s room if one writer can write a consistently funny series like this?
It’s a matter of volume. I can only write 13 scripts a year, and that’s pushing it. It’s a relationship-destroying amount of work. It’s like four movies a year. It’s a lot of work.
How many years do you think you have left in you?
I could do this forever!
But aren’t you going to have Archer hang up his gun belt at some point because you’ve told all the jokes you can tell about him?
You know, at the end of the season, I’m just wiped out. And I’m like, “There are no more stories to tell. There’s nothing left to give. I have nothing left inside me.” And then after two weeks off, I’m just scribbling, scribbling in notebooks, and I can’t wait to get started.
What a great job you have.
You know, I bitch about it all the time. That’s like my one defining trait. People who know me say, “That dude bellyaches about work all the time,” – but it is a pretty good job.
I hear alcohol plays a role in your writing technique.
Sometimes, when I’m stuck late at night, I will have a belt and suddenly, a really bitchy insult I didn’t know I had in me will come out.
So is Archer you channeling? Is it “I’m really going to be a jerk and enjoy it?”
I wouldn’t be surprised if some frustration does get vented onto the page. He’s really just an id, and he says whatever he wants to, which I think everybody would like to do.