If there is such a thing as the perfect male voice, our generation’s triumphal baritone belongs to H. Jon Benjamin.
When you’re actually watching him talk—he looks a bit like a schlubby middle manager, perhaps at best a put-upon public defender—the slow, low register is unmistakable, although the creaks, which have the soft comfort of opening the gate to your grandmother’s backyard garden, become a bit more prominent, perhaps to help your brain reconcile sight and sound. For the most part, though, Benjamin’s voice is hidden by one of his cartoon alter-egos, and it’s here where it really settles into ultimate masculinity.
Benjamin got his voice-acting start on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, a cult-y mid-’90s Squigglevision production that helped carve out a niche for off-kilter late-night animated comedy. As Dr. Katz’s son Ben, the dry voice of encroaching absurdity, Benjamin spoke with a softer, almost airy quality, befitting a sort of shiftless slackerdom. More notable than his voice, though, was the way Benjamin fit into the two-breaths-between-punchlines style of comedy, his voice nailing the pregnant quality necessary to make you really lean into the silence.
Nevertheless, it was on his next cult Squigglevision series, Home Movies, that the full force of Benjamin came to be felt. Though he also had a role as the nose-talking sidekick, Jason, he used his natural voice for Coach McGuirk, the beefy, pompous soccer coach who fought off encroaching depression with manly bluster and misguided mentorship. McGuirk was one of the funniest characters of the early wave of late-night adult animation, particularly when left to his own devices: Benjamin’s low rumble gave him the weight of someone “who used to be in pretty good shape,” and the smooth crackle that punctuates his hard consonants helped suggest a man who was perpetually at his breaking point.
Benjamin is certainly capable of doing voices—he’s no Frank Welker, but the character of Jason, for instance, is a strange brew of stickily repulsive and cheerily upbeat, and hard to detect unless you know it’s Benjamin—but he’s very obviously at his best when he’s unadorned. As distinctive as it is, his speaking voice is surprisingly malleable: unlike, say, Lorenzo Music, whose natural register of two-scotches sarcasm was limited to the half-open eyes of Peter Venkman and Garfield, Benjamin is currently being himself as two completely different types on two entirely different shows.
Bob Belcher, the endlessly put-upon patriarch/proprietor of Bob’s Burgers, is a classic sitcom father in a classic sitcom premise. Where Homer Simpson is a kind of live-wire dim bulb, and Peter Griffin is the same with a more obviously joke-y accent, their counterpart on Fox’s Sunday night animation block works best as the eye in the storm. Here, the subtle desperation Benjamin brought to McGuirk is mixed in with a quiet sort of do-goodery, a quiet mix designed to fortify the triple-distilled weirdness of the rest of his family—in particular his children, Louise, Gene and Tina. (They are played, in ascending order, by Kristen Schaal in rambunctious puppy mode, Eugene Mirman in full snide shit, and Dan Mintz with a crucial restraint that somewhat recalls Benjamin’s work on Dr. Katz.)
On the opposite side of that is Sterling Archer, the super-spy of the titular series, which returns to FX January 13. Pure drunken, sex-crazed hurricane, Archer is the finest James Bond parody we’ve so far come up with, and again owes a lot of that to Benjamin. (Which is not, of course, to take anything away from the show’s dense and rapid-fire sense of humour, which is its own kind of hurricane.)
A purely self-involved asshole, a lot of the humour of the character comes from his ability to switch topics in the middle of a sentence: one second he is lecturing someone on proper espionage tactics, the next he is openly praising the career of Burt Reynolds. Benjamin’s voice jumps on these shifts with pinpoint precision, first taking a soak in a stiff martini, then jumping up to giddy excitedness before dropping into pissy screaming. Benjamin has made it such that one of Archer’s catchphrases is simply to yell someone’s name in an increasingly loud, demanding yell, but his real trick is dexterity: the way he can jump, with pure conviction, from tone to tone, while holding on to the base narcissism that grounds the character is sort of dizzying to listen to, especially when you consider how sedate he generally is, both in person and performance.
Archer’s moody nimbleness is probably the kind of voice-work you could only really pull off with your own voice—which means that Jon Benjamin, with his aural gold, is probably the only person who could have ever brought him to life.