If you're wondering why FX's raunchy, oversexed spy cartoon "Archer" has been called "James Bond meets 'Arrested Development,'" look no further than the pilot episode's boner-related standoff.
The show revolves around Sterling Archer, code-named "Duchess," the world's most intimidating secret agent. As the leading covert operative for the International Secret Intelligence Service, or ISIS, the ruggedly handsome superspy dispatches enemies like he makes love to exotic ladies — fast and unsafe.
Archer revealed his true caliber when he discovered a Russian mole within the espionage organization. The infiltrator grabbed ISIS chief Malory Archer and used her as a human shield, threatening the hero with the life of his own mother. Despite his killer rep, Archer responded with his trademark incompetence. First, he grabbed his colleague and ex-girlfriend Lana Kane and used her as a human shield. The Russian taunted Archer by holding a gun at his mother's head: "Picture her, dead in the gutter, and what your pathetic life would be like without old mommy dearest!"
And as Archer considered this, Lana exclaimed, "JESUS CHRIST! He's got an ERECTION!" The hero so disgusted the villain that the mole released his hostage, giving Archer the chance to pump him full of bullets.
Sex, violence and idiocy — not to mention bigotry and Oedipal issues — have made "Archer" a taboo-trashing cult hit for FX. "Archer's" hard-on-related showdown sums up the warped sensibility of show creator Adam Reed, an unpretentious wisecracker who's pushing the boundaries of taste in adults-only animation.
"I like to think of Adam as the Aaron Sorkin of dirty cartoons," says "Archer's" producer, the confident, bespectacled Matt Thompson, comparing his longtime creative partner to the creator of "The West Wing" and scripter of The Social Network. Sorkin and Reed both specialize in running jokes and rapid-fire banter, with long memories for defining details about their characters. But Reed tends to write more Kenny Loggins references and penis jokes.
In its second season, "Archer" has built an increasingly loyal following among FX's male viewership, and made unexpected inroads with the ladies. Produced at Atlanta's Floyd County Productions, the show's success illustrates how Atlanta continues to be a hub for animated shows whose simple visual styles belie boundary-stretching scripts. And "Archer" adds to a coarsely funny conversation currently running through pop culture about what constitutes appropriate male behavior.
Reed and Thompson, who met as young production assistants at Turner Broadcasting in the early '90s, rose through the ranks at Cartoon Network to achieve late-night notoriety with the trippy Adult Swim shows "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo." Where their competition used to be 1 a.m. infomercials, now they're up against the likes of "30 Rock" and "Jersey Shore" in Thursday's prime-time 10 p.m. slot. With "Archer," Reed and Thompson have taken a step closer to the mainstream — albeit a mainstream titillated by jiggling cleavage and gunshot wounds to the head.
Adam Reed is anything but an international man of mystery. Originally from Asheville, S.C., Reed's a single, broad-faced, meat-and-potatoes 40-year-old who's quick with a sardonic joke. It's easier to imagine him having a beer in a sports bar than, say, leaning over a Monte Carlo baccarat table with a martini glass in hand and a bejeweled beauty on his arm.
Still, he is a gun enthusiast — Thompson swears Reed's a crack shot with his .45 at the Sage Hill shooting range. He hates being photographed, although not because he's maintaining an air of intrigue. And he's a world traveler who enjoys hiking around Europe. In fact, "Archer" was conceived on just such a jaunt.
Reed took some time off in 2008, feeling burned out after nearly a decade of concocting the adventures of "Sealab's" squabbling aquanauts and "Frisky Dingo's" absurd superhumans. Initially, his plan was to spend about half a year hiking the Appalachian Trail. "I was digging the walking, but I didn't like digging a hole to poop in," he says. "But I'd rented out my house, so I couldn't come home."
So he left for Spain, where he trekked along the pilgrimage to Santiago, and began filling his notebook with ideas for new television shows.
At a café in Salamanca he saw a beautiful woman seated at a nearby table, but didn't have the nerve to chat her up. As he continued his pilgrimage along the Via de la Plata afterward, the moment hung in his mind, and he gradually envisioned the kind of macho, elegant secret agent who'd be armed with the perfect pick-up line.
After returning to the States, he pursued the idea of a spy-based show centered on the kind of guy who would have had an easier time wooing a Spanish beauty than shaking a dry martini. While reading the original James Bond novels, Reed was struck by the implicit racism and misogyny of Ian Fleming's glamorous globe-trotter. So, "I tried to think of the worst possible person you could still root for," says Reed. Then he saw Dame Judi Dench playing Daniel Craig's boss in the latest Bond flicks and thought, "What if that was his mom?" Envisioning a jerky spy working for his castrating mommy's secret service, Reed found "Archer's" license to quip.
He reteamed with Thompson and sought a broader audience than Adult Swim for "Archer." They pitched Fox, Comedy Central and FX, and Reed appreciated FX's smart reactions. "They asked neat questions in the room, like 'Could Archer have a butler?'" inspiring the antihero's long-suffering manservant, Woodhouse. Despite being FX's first animated series, "Archer" presents a central character who fits right in with the slovenly masculine leading men of the channel's other original shows: brash Denis Leary on "Rescue Me" and self-loathing comedian Louis C.K. on "Louie."
"Archer" landed a superb voice cast. H. Jon Benjamin — whom cult animation fans might recall from "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist" as the title character's slacker son — gives Archer the petulance of an overgrown adolescent, as opposed to 007's blasé sophistication. Jessica Walter presents a more extreme variation of her "Arrested Development" matriarch as Archer's boozing, spiteful mother. "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Parnell plays Cyril, Archer's milquetoast colleague and sometime boyfriend to Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), while rising comedy star Judy Greer speaks for envious office floozy Cheryl.
All record their roles over the phone except for two regulars, voiced veteran improvisers from Atlanta's Dad's Garage Theatre: Amber Nash as Pam Poovey and Lucky Yates as Dr. Krieger.
As much as "Archer" riffs on the James Bond fantasy of glamorous spies, the show also draws from a more recent, retro target: AMC's "Mad Men." Despite the presence of cell phones, personal computers and contemporary pop references, the show's Cold War geopolitics and visual aesthetic remain rooted in the 1960s. Sterling Archer looks a little like Don Draper and shares a first name with "Mad Men's" central advertising agency, Sterling Cooper (a coincidence Reed embraced after the fact). The show's designers pour over the same kind of 1960s catalogs of clothes, hairstyles and office furniture. Like Reed and Thompson's earlier shows on Adult Swim, "Archer's" animation emphasizes flat images with limited movements. But the current show's lovingly detailed, retro design is one of its strong suits, and evokes "Mad Men" as rendered by Roy Lichtenstein.
Every week on the show, Archer, Lana and their colleagues embark on risky missions like rescuing airships from saboteurs or entrapping sinister arms dealers. But they spend just as much time complaining about trivial office matters or gossiping about their co-workers. On one episode, Archer and Lane wonder about the new Jewish, African-American employee hired to fill the company's diversity quota.
"He's uncircumcised," says Archer.
"OK, glossing over how you know that," says Lana.
"Our penises touched."
"I said GLOSSING! Isn't it kind of weird that he's Jewish and not circumcised?"
"Well, I'm not Jewish but I am circum-"
"That's not how it works."
"Oh, Lana, I think we both know it works just fine."
Virtually all of "Archer's" off-color banter comes from Reed, since he writes all of 13 of the show's scripts every season. Reed usually writes "Archer" at home at night, and has to keep the words flowing, because if he falls behind, the lack of scripts will leave at least 20 of his Floyd County employees with nothing to do.
Reed would share the load but he and Thompson have struggled to find writers who share "Archer's" filthy wit. "There's something intangible about it. We've gotten scripts from talented people, but everything is wrong: It's all about fucking and breasts and really, really dirty stuff," Thompson says.
Thompson points to an image from the episode "Skytanic" as an example. In an airship stateroom, Cyril has sex with Cheryl missionary style while choking her. "That's really, really dirty, but it's not just, 'Here's some cartoons having sex.' This picture shows why the show is funny in its treatment of graphic sex," says Thompson. "Cheryl's blackmailing him, and choking is the only way she can get off. Cyril's freaking out because he's cheating on his girlfriend. And Pam's in the background watching and taking a dump." Pam's also calling out, "You're ruining your life, you idiot! And making it hard to drop a deuce."
Reed says there's a method to "Archer's" sadomasochism and exaggerated behavior. "These people have a lot of baggage, but their internal logic is logical. What they do makes sense of them. FX primarily sends us notes about character and motivation. We never got that at Adult Swim. It's been a learning experience — I've never written character motivation more."
FX urges them to talk about taboo subjects, be more aggressive and push their content further. Within reason. "They'll tell us things like, 'No, we're not throwing a baby at a gunman,'" says Reed. FX bleeps the f-bombs but lets most of the other profanities through. Nipples and genitals must be strategically covered, but "Archer" can show a rear view of a nude stewardess with a Ping-Pong paddle-shaped bruise on her buttock. Reed tries to avoid abusing the show's freedoms. "I think that with sex and violence, any sort of yucky thing — not that sex is yucky — if you do it off-screen, it's more powerful when you leave it to the imagination."
It's easy to imagine that raunchy cartoons like "Archer" or Adult Swim's bizarre shows originate in raucous studios that resemble college dorm rooms. Thompson acknowledges that he and Reed could get a bit sophomoric when they were young Cartoon Network production assistants in the '90s. They first began creating material for broadcast with High Noon Toons, a noon-to-3 p.m. bloc of kid-oriented cartoons culled from Turner library and hosted by cowboy puppets operated by the duo. Things took a particularly rowdy turn during the final shoot, when the heroes rode a rocket from the moon back to Earth.
"Adam and I had split something north of a 12-pack, and we thought it would be a good idea to light the rocket on fire as it left the moon," Thompson says. "It turns out the moon was covered in some sort of varnish and it lit up pretty nicely with flames. A quick-thinking — and sober — cameraman put it out for us. We thought that was the end of things. Somehow some actual adults found out what had happened and we got yelled at. To be honest, we really didn't care one way or the other."
No smoldering rockets or empty 12-packs can be found at the Floyd County Productions office on Zonolite Road. In the high-ceilinged, almost Spartan workspace, the four dozen or so employees focus so closely on finishing the season's final episodes that you can hear little but the sound of fingertips tapping on keyboards.
Thompson credits Georgia's film industry tax incentives for keeping "Archer" a local production. "That's the main reason we have 50 people in this building, as opposed to 10 here and the rest in India. And guess what happens if something happened to [the tax credit]?" Thompson waves bye-bye.
A married father of three, Thompson focuses on the adult responsibilities, like Floyd County's bottom line. At their previous company, 70/30 Productions, which employed only about a dozen people, once a week at 5 p.m. they'd take regular breaks to play the video game Call of Duty. "Now we have 50 people, earning X amount per hour. So if we play Call of Duty for an hour, it costs us $4,000. So, I've become a little more Bad Cop. I'm not a douchebag, but you can't run 50 people by going around patting everyone on the back."
Thompson expects to find out in mid-March whether "Archer" will be renewed for a third season. He's cautiously optimistic. "The ratings are good, if not fantastic. Unless there's some kind of cataclysmic ratings drop, I would be 100 percent shocked if the decision went against us. In February, FX took out an ad in Variety with positive critics' quotes. They're paying to tell people this, so I think we're OK."
That Variety ad represented one of the few times Reed realized that he's made it to the next level creatively. Ask him if he's aware of his success and he replies "No-o," with mock petulance. "It's almost like I'm in a vacuum. I write the show, we record the show and go onto the next. Most of the time I'm clueless about the larger picture. But when FX took out the ad, I felt like, 'Hey, this is a real thing.'"
Lines like "Holy shit snacks!" don't faze Amber Nash, who's spent years surrounded by the uninhibited young improvisers of Dad's Garage. She joined "Archer's" title credits in the second season as Pam Poovey, ISIS's unfiltered, bisexual human resources worker. Despite the show's awkward, unabashed treatment of sexuality, Nash has never thought, "Oh the show's really sexist."
She does admit, however, "I have thought that the show is really aimed at a male audience. Still, when Archer says or does something horrible, the female characters get their jabs in their own way. His mother practically controls him. Pam just doesn't give a fuck about anything. The only one who doesn't [get redeemed] is Cheryl/Carol. But it's a show for dudes, that's for sure."
"It's super sexist," Reed says, "but hopefully people see through it and realize that we're mocking our sexism. It's like Archie Bunker on 'All in the Family.' People knew that [producer] Norman Lear wasn't a racist." Ironically, "Archer's" ratings among women have been inching up — and that's progress in its own right. Reed quips, "I don't think women ever watched 'Sealab 2021.'"
If "Mad Men" celebrates Kennedy-era hedonism, rife with booze, cigarettes and no-strings sex, "Archer" pushes the same ethos to its absurd conclusions. The show implies that wanting the James Bond/Don Draper lifestyle isn't too far from wanting the disastrous, pathetic Sterling Archer lifestyle. The constant rivalry between boorish Archer and wormy Cyril exaggerates the flaws of two types of masculinity: A real man would split the difference between macho and sensitive.
And while gags about the characters' kinky obsessions rely on shock value for laughs, they also support a deeper interpretation of their psyches. Compared to the crudely representational animated kids of "South Park," "Archer's" characters look more like real grown-ups, and demonstrate more grown-up pathologies.
Maybe that's a lot to put on a show that relies so heavily on dick jokes and bloody slapstick. But compared to the random-run-amok ethos of Adult Swim's humor, "Archer's" cuts a little deeper. In 2010 Reed told the Wall Street Journal, "We just found ourselves going from the cutting edge guys at Adult Swim to being the old dudes in chinos and a golf shirt," Reed said. "I was getting older. I wanted to hear about prostate cancer and mortgages."
In fact, in his second season, Archer has faced health scares and the possibility that he fathered a child, suggesting that he could evolve into something other than a total jackass. Maybe a partial jackass. Today, Reed says, "It feels to me like I'm writing more mature stuff, and slowly growing into a real TV writer."
A real writer who comes up with things like a sex-robot called "Fister Roboto," that is.