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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."