NEW YORK (AP) — Jon Benjamin has played an alcoholic gym teacher; a lazy, housebound son; a crime-fighting conjoined twin; a hyper-hedonistic secret agent; Charles Darwin; a sugar-addicted 7-year-old; the devil; Yoda and a talking can of vegetables.
Benjamin’s ubiquity is partly due to his frequent medium of choice: animation. He’s been in comedy for over 15 years, starting with the largely improvised Squigglevision-animated "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist" in the late 1990s.
Known for his mock grandiose style, Benjamin rarely alters his delivery. Instead, he’s a kind of comic Everyman, with an infinitely adaptable and reliably natural voice. Still, it isn’t that sonic gift that defines him. It’s his comic timing and talent for improvising, and his strict avoidance of anything disingenuous.
Such a stance hasn’t meant a fast path to show biz success, but the 44-year-old Benjamin is nevertheless experiencing a high point. He’s currently starring in two shows, Fox’s "Bob’s Burgers" and FX’s "Archer," the bawdy James Bond parody that begins its second season Thursday (10 p.m. EST). Last year, he was nominated for an Emmy for his voice work on "Archer," and he’s currently shooting "Jon Benjamin Has a Van," a live-action, 10-episode Comedy Central sketch show that will, for many, reveal the man behind the voice.
"It will be a huge disappointment," Benjamin, who is professionally credited as H. Jon Benjamin, says of the impending introduction.
It’s typical self-deprecation for Benjamin, who grew up in Worcester, Mass., and briefly explored graduate school in Holocaust studies.
But he wanted a lighter pursuit and moved to Boston, where he lived with an old school friend, Sam Seder, now a comedian and political radio host. In school, the two watched David Letterman and had a radio show, only Benjamin wouldn’t talk. In Boston, Benjamin made his entry into comedy by appearing with Seder as a standup duo. Benjamin, still silent, would sit behind him reading magazines.
Seder recalls the time as "a lot of drinking and not doing the dishes." The two were in David Cross’ Boston comedy troupe, Cross Comedy, and have since remained close friends.
"He has probably walked away from and sabotaged as many opportunities as anyone without a drug problem," Seder says of Benjamin. "He’s very specific about what he wants to do."
"Dr. Katz" was one of the few Boston-based shows at the time, and Benjamin auditioned for the role of Jonathan Katz’s father — going up against Katz’s actual father. Instead, a son character was created for him, and his improvised interplay with the more polished Katz (animation was added after the audio was recorded) became the show’s most beloved aspect.
The two interacted more like a married couple, with Ben (Benjamin), in one episode cajoling Katz for a nonexistent drinking problem by calling him "Drinky the Drunk Guy." The six seasons of the show — which often left the laughing between the performers in the final cut — have risen to cult status.
Katz says Benjamin makes him laugh harder than just about anyone, and recalls one night when "a dangerous combination of miso soup and laughter" actually drove Katz to unconsciousness.
"Whatever direction you’re headed in a scene, he will take it in a completely different direction," says Katz, who mixes his compliments of Benjamin with a joking insistence that Benjamin gave him his multiple sclerosis.
Benjamin says he never had any kind of agenda, but treated comedy like a "full-time hobby" — which Katz confirms.
"I still don’t think he’s particularly ambitious," says Katz. "Sometimes a guy with a lot of talent ... finds himself surrounded by people who want to exploit that talent."
After "Dr. Katz," Benjamin starred in "Home Movies," which was produced by the same production company of "Dr. Katz," Soup2Nuts. The show was co-created by Loren Bouchard, who worked with Benjamin on "Dr. Katz," and on the short-lived "Lucy, The Daughter of the Devil" and "Bob’s Burgers," which is about a family running a burger joint.
"He’s incredibly present and an incredible listener," says Bouchard. "He’s very interested in playing off of other actors and performers. He’s especially activated by the idea that there’s someone else in the room that he can make fun of."
Benjamin eventually moved to New York and began performing on his own more frequently.
"I still sort of avoided any, you know, goal," he says. "Most comedians at the time were watching ‘Seinfeld’ or something, and (thinking), ‘I want to do that.’ I guess people just wanted to get rich and famous. But not this little guy! Well, now I do."
There were a litany of projects: short-lived TV series such as "Freak Show," ‘’O’Grady" and "Assy McGee." He also made appearances on "Family Guy," ‘’Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and "Parks and Recreation," and was a writer, producer and sketch player on Comedy Central’s "Important Things With Demetri Martin," in 2009.
Benjamin, who lives in New York and has a 7-year-old son named Judah, turned down at least as many opportunities, generally shunning sitcoms and professional voice-over jobs, once even being rejected for a part that was listed as a "Ben Katz type."
"I avoided doing commercial work and stuff that was more professional, because really what I did was extremely unprofessional," says Benjamin. "I didn’t really know how to do it professionally. When I tried, it felt awkward and I wasn’t very good at it. So I stayed away from that entirely, and I guess then became known for being unprofessional."
Though comedic voice work was never what he sought, it was available, and his highest-profile live-action work will come this summer,
Benjamin declines to guess why his voice has held such allure.
"I’m not a fan of it," he says. "I don’t know. That’s like asking a model, ‘What is it like to be so beautiful?’"