An audio version of this interview originally appeared on Bullseye, a weekly radio show and podcast hosted by Jesse Thorn. You can listen to it on select public radio stations, at the Maximum Fun website, and via iTunes.
Aisha Tyler has a wide variety of roles—comedian, actress, geek, pin-up, cartoon character, talk-show host. She started off her performance career as a touring stand-up, then segued into television with recurring roles on Friends, CSI, and 24. Along with hosting her podcast on dude-ly issues, Girl On Guy, and co-hosting CBS’ The Talk, she currently voices super-spy Lana Kane on the animated comedy series Archer. The show revolves around the James Bond-like character Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), who works in a spy agency with his mother and ex-girlfriend Lana. Archer often succeeds in his missions in spite of his drinking, womanizing, and self-obsessed ways, and his colleague Lana deserves much of the credit. Archer’s third season premières January 19 on FX.
The A.V. Club: You were born in San Francisco, but raised, in large part, in the East Bay, right?
AT: Yes, back and forth between San Francisco and the East Bay. I was born in the city and lived in the East Bay until freshman year in high school. I went back to San Francisco and finished high school.
AVC: Your folks divorced when you were relatively young, and your dad raised you, which is kind of unusual.
AT: It is, yeah. Women always seem to get—I don’t know, is that the long end or the short end of the lottery?
AVC: I think it depends on the kid.
AT: [Laughs.] Depends on the time of day, too. Sometimes, you’re like, “This is a joy!” Other times, you’re like, “Maybe you’ll just disappear for a while.” No, my parents… It’s a nouveau riche thing to be sending the kids back and forth on weekends. Poor people just go, “How much can you afford? Can you afford one? Can you afford two? Just take that one. Take the sofa. I’ll take the TV. Goodbye.” You know? There’s no Kramer Vs. Kramer when you can’t afford groceries. So my parents just each took one, ’cause that was what they could manage, and it worked out great. My dad took me ’cause I was older and I could cook for him. [Laughs.]
AVC: What did you cook for your dad?
AT: I had a very limited repertoire: I could make fried eggs; I could make frozen spinach out of a bag. My father’s specialty was—men are one-pot-casserole cookers, and this was kind of before the real, modern TV dinner era—Rice-A-Roni with chopped-up chicken and raisins and spinach, all stirred into the pot. And, like, a whole stick of butter. I must’ve eaten Rice-A-Roni… It’s amazing I didn’t have gout or rickets or something like that. Or scurvy. I’m sure I had low-level scurvy all of my childhood.
My dad was a really good dad. He was a very attentive dad. I just did a Christmas show with him; my Christmas episode was with my father. But he was not a chef. We never had to eat out of the center of the room like prison inmates. But yeah, Rice-A-Roni. I’m trying to think if he could make anything else. That’s all I remember of my childhood, was just buttery, chicken-y Rice-A-Roni with raisins in it. Which, by the way, is a delicacy. I recommend that everybody try it. It is the San Francisco treat. [Laughs.]
My dad was a butcher for a while when I was a kid. So occasionally, we’d have these windfalls where I don’t know who’d bring by the rejected steaks. Like, one whole half of a cow. “Back up, kids. Dad’s got this. Give me the X-Acto knife.” We would just have a freezer full of steaks. I never knew if they had fallen off the truck, or if they were the ends and caps, or if they were just past the due date. So if I was feeling really extravagant, my girlfriends and I would make, like, six steaks, and just eat steaks with our hands, like beasts. When you’re in high school, whatever. You don’t know about salad. What’s salad? Just meat. I had meat and then I had some ice cream. And that was a square meal.
AVC: One of the central mysteries in preparing for this interview was connecting the dots between you being good-looking enough to star in and host television programs, and identifying as a geek. When I heard you were raised mostly by your dad, I thought that that might be part of it. Not because dads are bad parents, but there are complicated social structures and rules that are really intense and hard to learn. Boys can just be good at sports, whereas for girls, it’s really focused on the social.
AT: Yes. I mean, teenage girls are definitely kind of like a walking, human Escher painting. And I think that’s a very educated guess, but a little off. We have to go back further. When my parents were still married, we lived in the East Bay, and I went to—they scraped and saved—they were really lower-working-class, didn’t have a lot of money, but there were both very focused on education—and they sent me to private school. And I was the only black kid in my school for almost all of my childhood, until I was a teenager. So imagine, if you will, being 6 feet tall by third grade, so essentially being a living maypole. By the way, kids did dance around me in a circle. Multiple occasions. Not even on May 1st. “It’s a good day to dance around a maypole.”
AVC: Kids will observe May Day with whatever tall object happens to be around.
AT: Kids will collect ribbons and they will build a maypole. You don’t have to bid them to do it. They feel it in the air.
AVC: If they’re medievalists or they’re International Socialists.
AT: “Time to make a daisy crown!” But just on a random Thursday. “Let’s dance around the big girl!” I was the only black kid in school; my parents were poor. So all the social cues that were important, the right kind of clothes, the right shoes… When Nikes came out and everybody had Nikes, I had shoes that my mother found in a “free” box. One was a knit bootie and one was a flip-flop. And that kind of outsidership… My parents were also really progressive, so they didn’t believe in television. I didn’t have a TV, so I wasn’t able to talk with kids about what was happening on the television, because I was this voracious, crazed reader. I used to bring my flashlight under the covers. Other kids would stay up to play games, I would read. [Panicked voice.] “What’s gonna happen to Frodo next?” So I was just, in every way socially, a pariah. And those were the formative years.
AVC: Adventures, by the way, is what’s gonna happen to Frodo next.
AT: Yes, and it’s so exciting. “He’s gonna leave the Shire any minute! Up from Underhill!” I was obsessed with reading. I would read walking down the street; I would read on the bus. I would read so intensely that I would miss my stop and end up at the bus depot at night, and have to be picked up from there. And I had these glasses that could be used to read, and also to burn ants with the sun.
AVC: Were you getting it from both sides, feeling uncomfortable being the black kid at school and being the private-school kid at home?
AT: Oh yeah. You’re a perceptive fellow. I lived, for a good amount of time, in a black neighborhood and went to a white school. And at the school, I was this weird black kid who wasn’t even an archetypical black kid, you know what I mean? My family’s vegetarian.
AVC: So you can’t even be like, “I’m gonna teach you all about rap music”?
AT: No. “Hey, let’s breakdance! Time for the Electric Boogaloo 2 slide!” No, there was none of that. I was like, “I can teach you guys about tofu.” Which no one wants to learn about, by the way. And for all you vegetarian parents out there who think you’re doing your kid a favor: You’re not. You’re not doing your kids any favors. You’re just creating a terrible social circle, just a vacuum around them where no one wants to talk to them. ’Cause one of the big ways kids socialize is they trade, right? They trade lunches. And when you have nothing to offer, you’re just a beggar. You’re like, “I don’t have anything to give you, but please, whatever your cast-offs. The crusts of bread.”
AVC: “I have this seitan.”
AT: “Yes, I would like to offer you this date roll for your rejecta. I will eat your rejecta.” So there was that, and then when I went home, I lived in a black neighborhood and I talked, in their minds, like a white kid, and they thought I was fancy and putting on airs. And yes, I did get jumped every few months in that neighborhood, as well. As a result, it did two things: It made me an isolated kid, but it also made me relatively confident, which is weird, because I guess I just felt like, “Nothing worse can happen that this!” [Laughs.] So I just figured, “I’ll put myself out there, ’cause it can’t get any worse than it’s already gotten.” But I also was a huge reader and an academic, very much, and also loved fantasy. And that’s where all the nerdery came from. I loved fantasy and science fiction, and I was just this kind of crazy [Robert] Heinlein and [Ray] Bradbury reader, and would read books about time travel over and over again, and dream that I could fold myself. I was really an odd combination of factors. You know, science-fair queen, man. “Let’s go. Let’s grow some plants with UV lights and see what happens. Let’s use as our control plants grown in the sun. What’s gonna happen?”
AVC: I tried to make fuel out of garbage.
AT: Nice. That’s a good one.
AVC: I failed.
AT: Well, it’s the type of garbage you chose, I’m surmising. [Laughs.] I wasn’t there, but I’m surmising that was the problem.
AVC: It was soiled condoms and used syringes.
AT: That will never work. You’ve got to empty the condoms and the syringes and then use that.
AVC: You mentioned your surprising confidence. I want to play a clip for you and then talk a little bit about it. This is actually from your high school years.
AT: Oh, God. That was just physically painful, I have to say.
AVC: That’s a TV documentary—they said Channel 7, so I’m guessing it must’ve been from KGO—about the high school you attended, which at the time was a sort of sub-high-school at McAteer High School in San Francisco, and later became an independent high school, San Francisco School Of The Arts. You were part of one of the first classes there. [Note: Jesse Thorn also attended this high school. And yes, that’s Margaret Cho and Sam Rockwell in the clip. —ed.]
AT: It was relatively early. I can’t say I was one of the first, but I think it was relatively early on in the life of the school. God, that’s surreal. As much of a straight-edge academic as I was, I was also a little bit of a scofflaw. At some point, my parents just could not afford to send me to private school anymore, and I had been really used to a certain kind of scholastic environment.
I was going to a private school freshman year and having some, in their mind, behavioral issues. In my mind, they were a bunch of douchebags. My parents really couldn’t afford to send me there anyway, so I ended up going… I wanted to go to McAteer, I wanted to go to the School Of The Arts, but in the beginning of the school year, they didn’t have any space for any new students, so they sent me, for about three weeks, to Lincoln. For people that live in San Francisco, if you’ve seen the film Escape From New York, it paints a similar picture to what it was like going to Lincoln High School at that time. And I’m very clear that if they wouldn’t have found space for me at McAteer, my life would’ve turned out very differently. It sounds like snobbery, but I was a relatively accelerated kid, and I remember going into the first day of some class there, and the teacher asking all of these 14- and 15-year-olds to stand-up and point north. And I thought, “Oh my God, I’m gonna die here. I’m gonna wither and die.” I was like, “And next, are we gonna learn to tie our shoes? Big kids now!” Then luckily, about three weeks in, they found some space for me at McAteer. But I was just in the regular academic program there, and started meeting people in the School Of The Arts program, and just literally weaseled my way in.
AVC: People would sometimes ask me then, and even now, “Was it like Fame? Were there people singing and dancing in the hallways?”
AT: Kind of. I feel like there were.
AVC: Yeah, people totally did. I would just say, “Yeah, it wasn’t choreographed. It was more spontaneous than that.”
AT: Oh yeah. No, I feel like there would be dance-offs in the courtyard and stuff like that. You would go and people would just start dancing. It wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. [Laughs.] But yes, it was very Fame-like. And then, we had some really great graphic artists, and they would do murals and stuff like that, and they would paint people’s jackets and… That does sound ridiculous. But it was very arty, which was kind of cool. You felt like it was a crucible there. And also, it was a lot of talent. People were actually doing really competent work there. It wasn’t this mish-mash of a mess of, like [squeaky voice] “I’m gonna be a dancer.” Even when you look at that ridiculous documentary, the people in there were really talented, and obviously, some of them have gone on to great success.
AVC: Did you feel like, when you were in that environment, you saw a path for someone who was, especially, lower-middle-class and black to be different? Or was that still a mystery to you?
AT: The only concept or experience or core belief that I can attribute my other-ness to is that I just started out a weirdo and I stayed a weirdo. And it took me a long time to embrace my outsidership and see it as a strength rather than a weakness. I don’t necessarily know that SOTA did that for me, other than it was okay to be strange there, and so it kind of removed one layer of me feeling odd about being odd.
AVC: There wasn’t just some guy there that shook your hand and said, “Here’s your Fishbone T-shirt,” or whatever?
AT: I did have a Fishbone T-shirt. Do you have a time machine? I loved Fishbone. Oh my God. How could I not? Them, and Living Colour. I think that the fact that there was a place where—I remember, also academically, I struggled. Not because I couldn’t do the work, but because I was frustrated by the work, and I felt like we should be working harder and pushing harder. Talk about an apple-polisher. No one wants to be friends with that guy. So being in an environment on the creative side, where you could really express yourself and your ideas were validated and there were no wrong approaches, that may have been helpful. But I didn’t go straight from that high school into a creative life. I left and I went back into academia. I thought I was gonna be an attorney, so I went to Dartmouth and I was a government major and I minored in environmental policy, and I didn’t do anything academically around the arts. In my off time, I was doing sketch and I was singing in an a cappella group, but I was very clear that I was gonna be a lawyer.
AVC: So what changed?
AT: I got a job, and it really sucked. And it wasn’t that the job sucked, it was that working sucked. I don’t think I have to tell America that working sucks. It was a perfect job; I was working at a nonprofit in San Francisco, saving babies and birds and plants. It should’ve been perfect, and I really was unhappy. And I realized it was because, for the first time in 10 years, I wasn’t performing. So I just tried comedy, not on a lark, so much as I thought, “Here’s something I don’t have to know anybody, or audition for, or have an agent, or form a band, or buy anything.” And I tried it once—it literally was one time—and I was like, “This is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life.” And you know, it’s always fun to go to college and get a mortgage-sized undergraduate loan, and have your parents sleeping at night dreaming of sugar plums and daughters who are Supreme Court judges, and then call ’em at night and say, “Ehh, lawyer? Stand-up comedian? Uh…” And have your mother hang up the phone and then drive across the bridge, and then take the phone and beat you with it.
AVC: When you don’t have a direct performance outlet, do you miss it?
AT: Oh God, all the time. Yes, absolutely. And when I go for several weeks—or months, which hasn’t happened in a long time—and I don’t perform, sometimes I’ll get some performance anxiety. I’ll book a week, and then I’ll be like, “Ugh, why’d I do this? It sounds hard, I’m so tired…” And then the minute I get onstage, “I love comedy, and I love you people, and I love words that start with ‘c,’ and I wanna hug you!” It’s just so in me now, I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t perform in front of a live audience.
AVC: You work enough as an actress and as a television host and performer that if it was burdensome to you, you could have left stage performance behind.
AT: Long time ago, yeah.
AVC: But there’s thing a lot of stand-up comedians get out of stage performance: They’re almost scared of what would happen if they didn’t do that.
AT: I had a great conversation with Eddie Murphy years ago. We did a movie together that I was cut out of—thanks, Eddie—where I asked him, “Would you ever get back into it?” And he said, “If you stop for as long as I’ve stopped, that muscle dies. It atrophies to the point where the amount of work that I’d have to do to get back to where I was before would just be astronomical.” So there’s that. You can’t leave it behind. But for me… I know everybody thinks that comedians have this giant, gaping maw of a black hole that needs to be filled up with love from audiences, which is true.
AVC: Self-expression is a very important part of it.
AT: That’s the thing I find most satisfying. The audience is great, and the immediacy of that relationship, and how organic it is, and how fluid it is, and how it’s different every single time you get on stage, I love that. To me, it feels like a really great math problem. For the nerds out there who actually like math and reading and work, getting up in front of an audience and having every experience be totally unique and specific to that moment, that night, and that group of people, I love that. I love that feeling of “I’m never gonna stick my finger in the same moment of rushing water again as this moment,” but I also love the electricity of getting and saying to myself, “What’s gonna happen tonight for me, as an artist? What am I gonna say? How am I gonna express these ideas? What’s gonna come out?” ‘Cause I don’t do the same hour… I mean, my material’s my material, and it changes all the time. I do a comedy special, I write a new hour, a new hour and a half. And it’s always fluid, and there are bits I was doing six months ago I don’t do now, and there’ll be different bits in six months.
But I get up every night saying, “I’ve got an architecture here, I’ve got a structure, but I don’t know how I’m gonna fill these rooms. And let’s see what happens.” And it’s always a surprise, and it’s always fun for me. So that part of it I really, really love. And it’s the only thing—well, now that I have my podcast, I’ve got two things, but for a long time, it was the only thing that was truly mine. Everything else you do in this business, you’ve got other people guiding it, driving it, telling you “no,” telling you “yes,” when you can stand up, what you have to wear. And this is the only time when it’s just completely, 100 percent mine, for better or for worse. If it goes terribly, I have nobody to blame but myself. Which I do, and then I drink. Which, remarkably, always washes the pain away.
AVC: How do you deal with the aspect of show business where you do have to ask people for permission to do almost all of it, when they usually say no?
AT: Oh, they love to say no. Are you kidding me? With delight—with glee…
AVC: You have to go on 25 auditions to get one part even, when you’re a success—
AT: Oh yeah. Well, you know, I think comedy helped a lot, because of the innate crushing agony that the early years of stand-up comedy are. I mean, I don’t know anyone—I’m sure there’s a guy out there—but I don’t know anyone whom the first three or five years of their comedy career was charmed. I mean, it’s just suffering. It’s just prolonged, ongoing, relentless suffering. And so far as I got laughs the first time I got onstage and I was kind of like moderately funny from the beginning, I mean, I was never hilarious…
It’s just hard, so that, I think kind of toughened me up a little bit for the rest of what this is, because a lot of comedy is believing that you’re funny in the face of active vocal rejection. [Laughs.] At least in an audition, you don’t hear that you sucked until afterward. If you’re on the stage, people are telling you, “You—personally—and I’m looking you in the eye, and my pupils are dilating as I tell you—you suck. And you can actually smell my breath and you’re inhaling the molecules that I just exhaled when I said that word.”
So I feel like for a lot of people in this business that don’t have what comedians have, which is a separate outlet to be creative, that’s why they’re all drug addicts and fall out of cars with no underpants on and fill their lips full of injectables, because so much of this business is people telling you you’re not good enough. For me, stand-up comedy was always a saving grace, like, if I couldn’t work as an actor at any particular time in my career I just went up onstage. And you can do that anywhere, under any conditions—crappy coffee house with the coffee machine blaring and the fluorescents turning you green—you can still get up and tell your jokes. That’s the beauty of comedy: You can do it anywhere. The rest of it has been alternately delightful and frustrating. I’ve been very lucky to work quite a bit, but I always have an outlet for whatever is running around in my head at the time, and I’ll just never stop doing comedy for as long as I can do it.
AVC: Early in your career, did you play what they called “black-rooms”? Did you play Chocolate Thursdays?
AT: [Laughs.] Yes, and Negro Newsdays and Blackity-Black Sundays.
AVC: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s actually the Rupert Murdoch newspaper, right?
AT: Yeah. [Laughs.] You know, my comedy is not particularly niche in that way.
AVC: That’s why I ask. My friend Al Madrigal is of mixed race. His dad is Mexican-American, but he reads visually as Latino. He actually just got a full-time job as the senior Latino correspondent on The Daily Show.
AT: That’s so great! Oh—good for him.
AVC: He sometimes does Latino-themed shows with Latino audiences, where the expectation is that he is going to do material… Most of Al’s Latino material is about how confused he is about his Latino identity. [Laughs.] Which is not what they want. Maybe they want stuff about how Salvadorians hate Mexicans or something—
AT: [Laughs.] Ooo, that was inside—I didn’t even know that was true. I learned something.
AVC: [Laughs.] Yeah, something along those lines. Basically any culturally homogeneous group has certain, really clear expectations about what they want from performers.
AT: Clear expectations—incredibly dogmatic and almost unyielding rules.
AVC: Right—and you ran into those cultural expectations when you were a private-school kid. And you know about what comedy audiences can expect from a performer, and how ruthless they can be.
AT: Oh yeah. You know, very early in my career, when I was dying to get onstage anywhere I could, I would play some traditionally black rooms, and I would have to do a lot of diffusing right at the top of the show. I would have to explain myself—why I talk like this, you know, and I’m not trying to look down on anybody and I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I’d have to really explain a lot of that to people. It’s so funny, on my show, Bill Burr came on and we were talking about how he worked a lot of black rooms when he was coming up. And I told him, you know, white comics get a pass in those rooms.
AVC: He actually talked about this a little bit on our show. Bill’s a very ferocious comedian, and sort of attributed part of his ferocity to the fact that he had to be a little bit ferocious to be the white guy in those rooms.
AT: Oh, he just had to drill down people’s throats. But, what I told him was, he would have an easier time with it than me because he’s white; they don’t have any expectations of you, other than they don’t think he’s going to be funny. With me they’ll like—“If she doesn’t come out and hit A, B, and C touch-points, she’s no good.” If you look at shows like Def Comedy Jam in its heyday, there were so many really funny talented black comics that never would have gotten on that show because they just weren’t doing comedy that fit that mold. Great comics are—and I think a lot of guys who are working right now would say this, and I think Louis CK is a perfect example of this, and so is Bill—the only way to be truly funny is to be fully and 100 percent uncompromisingly yourself at all times onstage. People see and smell an authenticity more now than ever. They smell an act. Comedy is very different than it was even 10 years ago, where a guy could go up and be a character and be in some mode. And even guys that used to do that then don’t do it now.
So I always knew that the only way out was going to connect with people. The only way I was going to be funny was if I was myself, and either you liked it, or you didn’t. Either you got on my train or you didn’t. Freeing myself of this idea that I had to fit a certain mold was when I was able to be my funniest. So I gave up on that early on. I was just like, “I’m never going to do what this particular group of people wants me to do, and I’m not going to pursue it, because I don’t want to compromise who I am when I’m onstage.” And that’s worked for me now, because the people who respond come—they find me now. It just took time. The audience will find you. Your only obligation is to try to be the best comedian that you can be. So cliché! I’m sorry, America, but, if you build it, they will come. So make sure you understand who you are, and be that—without compromise, every night you get onstage. And bleep all the other people that think, “Oh, she’s not black enough,” or “She’s too black.” I mean, whatever. I don’t care about you people.
AVC: Your character on Archer, Lana, is a competent super-spy, or at least what passes for very competent in an incompetent super-spy organization. Archer is surprisingly competent, given how incompetent he should be, given his sexual addiction, his cavalier attitude—
AT: His rampant alcoholism—
AVC: Yeah, his just general—he’s sort of like what James Bond should be like, but also—
AT: He’s really who James Bond is. Like, when Adam [Reed] created the character, he felt like, you know, “Look at this guy, he’s always drinking, he sleeps around, he throws women away like toilet paper, but somehow he still kind of remains this hero figure.” Well, what if we really presented James Bond in his purest form? That’s who Sterling Archer is.
AVC: You get to be straight man for this horrible, horrible person, but your straight-man character is also insane.
AT: Yes, she’s incredibly flawed, but I love her so much. She does have to lay pipe occasionally. Lana’s always the one that’s like, “We’ve got to save the train from the runaway evil group of people!” but she—
AVC: Is that what “lay pipe” means? [Laughs.]
AT: [Laughs.] Yes, in the business, yes. Well, it has other meanings I’m sure. I’m sure you can disambiguate on Wiki. But in my particular case, in the Hollywood sense, “lay pipe” means to just drive narrative. You know, Lana was like, “Remember when we met each other in ’76 in San Francisco at the bar with the—” that’s laying pipe.
AVC: Wait—but in 1976 in San Francisco at the bar, “lay pipe” meant something different. [Laughs.]
AT: [Laughs.] Yes—it still means that different thing in San Francisco now. But what I have always loved about Lana is that she is kind of—not high-strung, but her Type A tendencies get the best of her at all times. I mean, she’s striving for excellence, she’s surrounded by idiots, but you know, she drinks just as much as everybody else, she brawls, she sleeps with the wrong people, she’s alternately casting men away and then desperate for affection. There’s a scene in season two where she gets drunk at a party at Sterling’s house, and then starts crying about why they never had a baby together. I mean, you know she’s got her own set of problems. She’s a porn-addict. She’s a closet Republican. She has a lot of things going on. She’s insanely fun to play. I can’t think of a character I’ve loved more than her.
AVC: Everyone in the show is constantly remarking how huge her hands are.
AT: She has large hands, and then people write me! My hands are delicate and elegant, thank you very much. They’re well-kept; my nails are clean.
AVC: Someone said, “those cricket paddles.”
AT: [Laughs.] I prefer “jai alai hook.” She’s kind of crazily overly sexualized, too. There was a scene in season one where she was supposed to go infiltrate this boat with this arms dealer, and she just ends up… She needs a break, so just ends up staying on the boat with this guy and drinking with him, and then having this terrible three-way with Sterling. So she’s got some pretty fluid boundaries.
AVC: I once talked with Patton Oswalt about recording his scenes for Ratatouille with Brad Bird, and Brad Bird is like a grab-your-shoulders-and-shake-you type vocal coach when he’s recording those things. He will get up and really go over the crazy. What’s it like recording your part, which I presume you do solo with Adam Reed for Archer?
AT: If Adam Reed touched me, I would shoot him. So I want you to know that, Adam. I’m coming for you. No, Adam is—
AVC: They make the show in Atlanta.
AT: Yes, and the cast is very disparate. About a third of us are in New York, a third of us are here [in Los Angeles], and then the remainder are in Atlanta. So we all do our parts separately, and Adam is on a T-1 line, some kind of magical wire from Atlanta, and you can hear him in your headset with his feet up on a human body, crunching pork rinds. So I don’t know what everybody else’s process is, because it’s all very isolated. You come out of the booth, people are sweating. You don’t know what they did in there. Thank God it’s clean. And my process is just to worry a line until I think it’s funny. So I’ll have read the script most times—not every time—most times, and I don’t get a read in, and I just whale on the line until I feel like I got it right. I whale on the line until I hear the other guys on the other end of the line laugh, and then we move on.
AVC: One of the things about voiceover is when you’re acting, you think there’s one true feeling you’re supposed to express, and your goal is to express that. But when you’re doing voice work, part of what you’re doing is just expressing every feeling it could be, so they can pick from among them and chop them up into little, tiny pieces and put them back together. It’s a weird thing to have a feeling about a line and then have to turn around on a dime and be like, “But what if it was completely different?”
AT: Right, but on the other hand… Yes, acting with other actors is much more nuanced, because not only are you having whatever thought and feelings your character’s having in the scene, but you’re reacting to other people’s thoughts and feelings, and their physical stance, and what’s happening in the room, and what you’re touching, what you’re picking up, whatever you’re doing, how your pants feel, you know, how wardrobe got them wrong. With voiceover, it is a lot more like—for me—it’s much more like a math problem. It’s like, “I’m going to just bang on this until the perfect thing pops out the other side.” So sometimes it’s a little less motivated by thoughts and feelings. It’s not so exsanguinated that I’m just like, “Just say it five ways.” It’s just like, “Maybe Lana feels this way about it, maybe she feels that way about it.” I just keep kind of going at it. But I think the more you do that, the more that trigger becomes easier to pull.
AVC: Excellent use of “exsanguinated,” by the way.
AT: Thank you. You know, I’d like to provide an SAT word in every thing I do. I really love the idea of getting in there and saying, “Okay, what is the absolute most hilarious way to say this?” and then we’ll play a lot. Adam will go, “Try it this way,” or I’ll say, “Hey, let me just get one more crack at this,” and sometimes I’ll surprise them. You know, those guys have spent a bunch of time with the script before I get it, so when I can crack them up, then I know, “Okay, I nailed this.” I find it a delight to just jump up and down on a line over and over again until something great happens.
AVC: You go into the studio, you do just your lines, you go through this whole weird, sausage-barfing process, and then at the end of it, you get to watch this thing that came out of that.
AT: Well, it’s interesting; one of the No. 1 questions I get from fans about the show—like when I do stand-up, I get a lot of Archer fans—and they’ll come up afterward and go, like, “So, do you guys all record together?” That’s the No. 1 question, “Do you guys all record together?” because that’s how beautifully they assemble all those moving parts into one thing. It’s an ensemble show, and we’re all together as characters much of the time in that show. I mean it’s essentially an office comedy with spies. The fact that they’re able to take all these moving parts and kind of mush them together into this really beautiful, fluid orchestration is a testament to how good they are at their jobs.
AVC: We’re out of time, and I didn’t even get to use all of these questions I had written about your daytime CBS talk show, The Talk.
AT: That’s all right—what should I tell people about it? It comes on during the day. It’s on CBS. It’s a blast.
AVC: It’s a lot of fun; it’s ladies talking about issues.
AT: The ladies talking about the stuff.
AVC: Sara Gilbert created it. I’ve been watching Roseanne, and every time I watch Roseanne, there’s three things I think. One is, “Ah, man, Roseanne is cool.” One is, “Holy mackerel, John Goodman is great.” And one is, “God, how was Sara Gilbert so good on that show when she was like a teenager?”
AT: Because she’s like a razor—like a human razor blade with a brain. Here’s what I’ll say: Of those three people, I’ve worked with two. I did a movie with John Goodman. He’s just a monster of a rock. Sara is as smart and as lovely as you would have imagined watching her when she was on that show. Insomuch that The Talk feels from the outside like people could make a bunch of decisions about it categorically—it’s on during the day, it’s five women talking about issues—I don’t know what it was like last year. I just got there, but this year, it is essentially an hour of unfettered comedy. We just sit there and talk smack, and it’s great. Everybody has their opinions. They’re kind of, you know, vigorously expressed, but the show is doing very, very well now, and the ratings are up, because it’s breaking that daytime mold. It’s not like “Let’s talk about cookies.” You know, everybody says what they want to say; they bleep us if they have to.
AVC: Nothing wrong with cookies, though.
AT: Well, I like to eat them. I don’t need to discuss them.