Jon Benjamin Has A Van debuts tonight on Comedy Central at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
Comedy on TV has likely never been stronger than it is right now. Some of the most critically acclaimed shows are comedies like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation. Previously pigeon-holed stations like Cartoon Network and FX are branching into comedy with bold new shows like Childrens Hospital and Louie. And the one channel entirely devoted to the craft, Comedy Central, has original programming every night.
The world is ever-expanding, but it's still small. I sit and type this from the Just For Laughs festival in Chicago, where agents and managers will scour the line-ups in search of the next [name of a person], but a lot of whom you see on TV is repetition. Adam Scott starred on Party Down, then made his way to P&R. Will Forte exited Saturday Night Live but appears on 30 Rock. Rob Huebel is in everything. The illusion is that the comedy world is infinitely large, but any world born out of necessity (for a long time, comedy was not a very cool thing to do) is only going to be a certain size. Though repetition isn't a bad thing. These guys and gals appear on each other's TV shows because, quite simply, they're friends with each other, and that kind of jocular relationship is immediately apparent and a joy to watch.
Jon Benjamin is one of those comics who, for a long time, was associated with everything funny but wasn't solely responsible for much of it. He was prolific, appearing in friends' TV shows and bringing his excellent work to voiceover projects. But it's high time he had his own vehicle for the jokey, conceptual comedy he'd done at live shows and written for people like Demetri Martin. And that vehicle is a van—a charming, imaginative, sometimes a little messy van.
Jon Benjamin Has A Van mocks news magazine shows, where the subjects are loony but the interviewer has to take them as seriously as humanly possible. I chatted with Benjamin last week, and he credited really slow, droll shows he used to find fascinating for their sheer self-seriousness. In the first episode, airing tonight (with another one slated for tomorrow…for whatever reason), Benjamin talks to a soldier who suffers for his time in the war, but the only thing he lost is his voice. The characterization of the soldier—fittingly played by Jon Glaser, a good friend of Benjamin's—isn't over-the-top or outrageous, and Benjamin responds to the mundane interviewee with appropriate deadpan. The joke of the sketch is apparent right from the beginning; this guy isn't giving a great interview, but here we are, so we might as well finish the chat. When Benjamin works with shorter, burst-y concepts, he's a whiz at editing; these slightly longer ones are modeled after deliberate-as-molasses magazine shows, so the editing is a lot slower, and could probably take a little punch-up without sacrificing the concept.
Those shorter segments, used throughout "Border" to liven the pace, directly mock the idea that a guy with a camera and a microphone has any power. In "You Can't Shoot Here!", Jon Benjamin approaches unsuspecting store employees with a camera in tow; he's there to shoot footage for the show "You Can't Shoot Here!", and he just needs to start shooting. He's then informed he can't shoot there, and moves on to the next person. It's a pretty layered idea for a sketch, but Benjamin's unflappable in uncomfortable situations, and the video is so tightly edited around the concept that there's little room to wander.
Benjamin can build an engaging concept for a sketch in just one sentence, but he also lets his complex ideas breathe in Jon Benjamin Has A Van. At a certain point in each episode, Benjamin is pulled into the story he's reporting on, and the show-within-a-show begins around himself and his news team (which includes cowriter Leo Allen). In "Border," Benjamin decides to play a joke on his producer (Matt Walsh) by pushing him over the Mexican border without his passport. Walsh disappears into the Mexican countryside. Later, Benjamin tries to track him down, and discovers he's a completely changed man. The resulting comedy, which winds up being pretty darn conceptual, is the bulk of the episode. It doesn't make complete sense until the very end, and even trying to explain it to someone doesn't do it justice. It's a bold undertaking though, attempting to do odd sketch comedy in a longer-form way. Much like anything that relies entirely on the unexpected, the sketches can be sloppy at times, but Benjamin's commitment to the concept carries them to the home stretch. (His actual acting chops aren't the greatest, which even he would openly admit, but they're certainly serviceable for this kind of show.)
The entirety of "Border," like the other three episodes I've been able to watch on a screener, feels like the last 10 minutes of Saturday Night Live, where they've buried the sketches that can read as meta-commentary on sketch comedy conventions. They're pretty weird, and take the show out of the realm of gonzo reality (like "You Can't Shoot Here!") and into a place where Benjamin's free to make up his own comedic rules. Additionally, some of the casting choices leave the audience wondering if they're watching a real person, or a comedian pretending to be just that weird. The show feels a lot like Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! in both those ways (though Benjamin says he resisted a lot of the comparison).
It's not surprising to learn that Tim and Eric's production company Absolutely is partially behind Jon Benjamin Has A Van, along with Funny Or Die and Comedy Central. It's also not surprising to see other popular comics appear in future episodes. Jon Benjamin Has A Van is a vehicle for Benjamin, but also for the larger comedy world to flex their fanciful comedic muscles. Benjamin's given a lot to the community already, and now his individuality can really shine.