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The Long, Strange, Impossible Journey That Brought Archer to Television

Creator Adam Reed's story is as odd and surprising as any given episode

Sterling Archer was largely based on the literary James Bond, who Reed says was "just a bad person." Photo: FX

Really, the best way to get a gig that eventually lands you in the driver's seat of the funniest show on TV is to walk into Turner headquarters in Atlanta looking like a drunken vagrant. (Take note, aspiring showrunners.)

At least, that's how it worked for Adam Reed, creator of FX's hilarious animated workplace sitcom Archer, a show that follows the exploits of a womanizing, politically incorrect jerk not too dissimilar from James Bond. It's also one of the best-written series on the air.

Adam Reed. Photo: Getty Images

A North Carolina native with an affinity for British humorist P. G. Wodehouse and a knack for a good yarn, Reed both writes and acts on the show. In fact, he has, at minimum, cowriter credit on every episode and sole writing credit on most of them. It's a labor of love, and its origin stories are as funny and strange as anything Archer has managed to do for over the course of its soon-to-be-six seasons.

As the show prepares to return Thursday at 10 p.m., we met up with Reed to learn his backstory and, subsequently, the origin of Sterling Archer.

Adweek: We're big Archer fans over here. How did you get into the industry?

Adam Reed: I sort of fell backwards into TV. My sister got me a job at Turner Broadcasting after college, and one of the first things I had to do working for the marketing department was watch every episode of The Flintstones and take notes. So I watched all 164 episodes of The Flintstones.

And that damaged you permanently, and now you're seeking revenge on the world?

Exactly. So then at that department I was known as the guy who knew The Flintstones and that led to my working on a Flintstones home video. And then somehow because of that I took a writing test for Cartoon Network and got a job there in their on-air department. And worked there for a while and then left, and then when we left my partner Matt Thompson and I stole all the master tapes for the original Sealab 2020. And we were living in New York and were out of work and so we sat down and cut a pilot for what became Sealab 2021 and sent it to Cartoon Network over the transom and then Mike Lazzo called and said, hey, we're starting this thing called Adult Swim and your show is just weird enough to be on there.

When did you decide you wanted to pitch FX?

Pretty early on in the process. Our second show on Adult Swim, Frisky Dingo, had gotten cancelled. And I took a year off to travel, and sort of came up with the germ for Archer and my agents finally tracked me down in, like, Morocco and were like, "You have to come home and start making money for us, or we're going to fire you."

At FX—they were one of the earlier networks we pitched—right away, they were really engaged and asking questions like, "Do you see it more grounded in reality of will there be shrink rays or whatever?" And they just seemed like they'd be fun to work with. And also one of the big pluses for FX was I was huge fan of their shows. I'm big fan of Always Sunny [in Philadelphia] and so I was really, really excited that they bought it.

That's great. Just to backtrack slightly, what were you doing in Morocco?

Nothing.

You just ... caught a plane?

Yeah.

No, actually in 2008 when I took my year off I was going to walk the Appalachian Trail. I rented my house out for six months and walked for about one month on the Appalachian Trail and realized I had made a huge mistake. But I couldn't go home because my house was rented out. So I had read a book about this pilgrimage in Spain, and I just flew to Spain and—with the same backpack—walked across Spain, like a thousand kilometers or something, and then I still had some time left before my house was available so I just knocked around Spain and North Africa.

That's amazing. You said your sister works for Turner?

She did, yeah. And after college I went and lived in France and did a bunch of odd jobs—got paid under the table and then eventually ran out of money. And I could either fly home for, I think back then it was £99 from London, to either Atlanta or Miami. And I was like, "Well, my sister lives in Atlanta. She can drive me home to Asheville. I'll fly there."

And I showed up at her work unannounced with this ridiculous beard and backpack, and she was like, "Wow. We got to get you out of the lobby," and right then her boss walked by and said, "Who is this bearded person?"

And she said, "Sorry. It's my brother."

And then he's like, "OK, you want a job?"

And I thought he wanted me to paint his house or something. So I got a job as a PA there, which sort of pissed her off because she'd spent like two years trying to get an internship there and finally had a job and I just walked in, drunk, off the flight and was offered a job. Although not a very high-paying one.

This puts the episode of Archer where Ray goes home to the redneck South into a whole new and wonderful light. I'm going to have to go re-watch that this evening.

I grew up on a pot farm. [Ray's brother turns out to grow pot in the Archer episode.]

What?

I grew up on a pot farm.

Really?

No, not really. But I did work for a guy who had a Christmas tree farm up in Marshall and his seedling beds were in Asheville and I used to go weed his seedling beds for like $2.00 an hour when I was a kid. And Christmas morning one year, he was on the front page in an orange jumpsuit because the Christmas tree farm in Madison County was just a cover for pot. 

I was going to ask why you chose to voice Ray, but that question may have answered itself.

Yeah, Ray was just supposed to be a one-off character and then Kate Lambert at FX really liked him and so he stuck around. But yeah, that was just going to be a one-off thing. We weren't going to bother casting him; it was like, yeah, I'll jump in there and do it. And now we're stuck with him.

You had kind of a crazy fifth season with Archer Vice [in which the characters turn, perhaps predictably, to dealing drugs. Cocaine, not pot.] Are you refreshed and ready to get back on the horse and do a lot of the stuff that you guys were doing in a new way, or are you going in a completely different direction this time around?

It's definitely a return to basics. It's sort of resetting the clock, I guess, and going back on spy missions. And they've sort of partnered unwillingly with the CIA so they're sort of a subsidiary now. Malory has a boss named Slater, who's played by Christian Slater, and, at least for now, is calling the shots, which really rankles her. So yeah, we're back out doing outlandish missions.

I was reading somewhere that the group Archer works for isn't called ISIS anymore, which is sad but understandable. I mean, people are changing the names of their cats at this point.

Yeah, I just wanted to ignore it and hope that it would go away and it kept not going away. And FX called and said, "Hey, we know your head is in the sand, but we need to figure out something to do." So we sort of had just, it was—we don't address it in the show like, "Hey guys, we're going to change the name of the agency." We just sort of quit saying it and we quit having the logo featured prominently. I guess because they're now a subsidiary of the CIA, it sort of took care of itself in the least conspicuous way possible.

Are you a P.G. Wodehouse fan, given that you've named Archer's butler Woodhouse?

Huge fan. He was, I think, he best phrase-turner of all time. Every page there's one that's just like, "Man!" I mean, I could have never done that. And something I didn't know about him was he moved away from England when he was really young, like 21, and never even went back for a visit I don't think. Yeah, he's great.

What is the most obscure Archer joke that people either did not get at all or got in very small numbers?

Um... not a lot of people bring up Wodehouse.

Do you spend a lot of time with the encyclopedia, or are you just Wikipedia-ing everything under the sun?

I do. I Wikipedia a lot on each episode. I would be lost without it. I will go look for like, I don't know, like what type of pistol would this guy be carrying, and then an hour later I'm like, "Man, this Pope Pius IV was crazy!" And then the afternoon is gone.

How did you come up with Archer himself?

Well, originally he was going to be a dopier guy, and then that had been done so many times that my agents were like, "Is there some new twist on the goofball spy?" And somebody had given me, years ago when I lived in New York, a matched set of the James Bond novels—paperbacks from the '60s. I had never read them—they were just sort of all on a shelf looking cool.

So I picked those up and started reading them and James Bond, in the books, is just a bad person. Obviously he drinks too much. He's sort of a cold-blooded assassin and there's plenty of racism. But there's more than one occasion where Bond just rapes these women but in a "romantic" way where you can practically hear the violins swell. I mean, Fleming writes stuff like, "Bond twisted her arm behind her back and took his reward." And I'm like, "Holy shit. James Bond?" Like things you would never imagine Roger Moore doing!

That sort of got the wheels spinning. Like OK, what if this guy was just the biggest dick ever? How could you do that and still root for him? I guess the genesis really came out of the James Bond novels. We've never had Archer rape anybody, though.

H. Jon Benjamin seems like the sort of the key to all this. I mean, did you want him immediately?

Yeah, we did. FX actually had a list of a lot of really dramatic actors who look like Archer. And we kept saying "Jon Benjamin! Trust us. It's going to be great!" And they were like, "Oh, what about handsome Jim here?" So we had actually already drawn Archer and we went and got some audio from a show called Home Movies, in which Jon played the drunken soccer coach, and we just animated Archer in a suit standing there with a martini talking to these kids about showing them a dead body (here's the episode), and sent it to FX. And they were like, "Yep, lock him down. That's the guy!"

Is that on a DVD as an extra or anything?

I'm not actually sure that it's even backed up anywhere. It could be like the lost Kinescopes of the '50s.

We followed up with Reed on this. It is, indeed, vanished into the ether like the lost Kinescopes. You'll have to imagine it. Or watch Archer on Thursday.

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