Talking to Adam Reed about ‘Archer’, ‘Sealab 2021’ and Working with Kenny Loggins
Adam Reed is not one for complacency. As one of the creative minds behind the classic Sealab 2021 and the vastly underappreciated Frisky Dingo, Reed fueled both his Adult Swim series with an inexhaustible supply of batshit unpredictability. Sealab was the kind of show that could easily devote an entire episode to a man trapped under a vending machine, while Frisky Dingo seamlessly went from a superhero spoof in its first season to a political farce in its second.
Reed is once again shaking things up, this time on his popular FX espionage comedy Archer. The show – which premieres its fifth season tonight at 10pm – could have coasted by on more Bond-esque debauchery but is instead rebooting as Archer Vice and turning the lovable sociopaths of ISIS into coke dealers. Having previewed the new season, I can confirm Sterling and friends have no trouble – morally speaking – slipping into a life of crime. I can also confirm that Archer remains one of the funniest shows on TV, with one of the most impressive ensembles ever assembled.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Adam Reed about his decision to upset the status quo, his comedic influences, and his experience finally getting to work with the man responsible for the song “Danger Zone.”
At what point did you realize you were going to turn everyone into coke dealers?
I don’t know when that actually came to me. I usually take a couple months off after I finish writing the season and then I get to just unplug for two months. This past spring, I was going take this long motorcycle trip across the US on dirt roads on this thing called the Trans-American Trail. I was getting my motorcycle and sidecar all fixed up for my girlfriend and I to go on this long trip, it was going to take like a month. And four miles into the trip, I sank the motorcycle and sidecar in a river, so a month became 15 minutes of trip. Then I had a lot of time to kill once we got the motorcycle towed out of the river, I spent the next couple weeks taking the motorcycle apart and getting all the mud and crawdads out of the engine. Some point during that time, doing left-brain stuff, and the right brain was secretly thinking about Archer, the idea just sort of came to me.
In the first two episodes, there are jokes about all the terrible things ISIS has done and all the different kinds of enemies they’ve faced. Was that to suggest that you switched things up because it was becoming difficult to think of more spy scenarios to use in the show?
I don’t know. I think in a lot of ways it was just, on one level, to see if we could pull it off. It’s a big challenge to sort of blow up the formula and see if this cast of characters can be as equally engaging and fun to watch doing something slightly outside of their comfort zone, and I think outside my comfort zone because I hadn’t written stories like this before. But in a lot of ways, they’re all doing very similar things, and their relationships are all still very similar and their inherent — I don’t know if they’re inept, but they’re not the best spies in the world, and it’s been fun to see that they’re also not the best drug dealers in the world.
Should anyone really be surprised at how easily the characters slip into a life of crime?
No. [Laughs] They all embrace it pretty quickly. I think Lana has been the only one that’s had any reservations about it. But she’s got no income and has a baby on the way, so she needs to start putting some money away. So she quickly overcame her own reservations about it.
Has there been any trepidation about how fans might react to the change?
There definitely has on my part. You know, like, daily panic attacks thinking that I’ve just made a huge mistake. But people at work are still laughing at the scripts, and the cast seems to like them and FX seems to be happy with them, so hopefully I’m just being unnecessarily neurotic.
Were there any alternate ideas for how you could switch things up before you settled on coke dealers, or was the drug dealing aspect something you wanted to do from the beginning?
No, there were a couple of different ideas for how to switch it up, which I’m going to keep under my hat because we might still do those in later seasons. I think they’ll go back to being spies next season, but then after that they might veer into some other lines of work.
Does that include Cheryl? Did you have any alternate career paths for her besides turning her into an ultra-famous country singer?
Not so far. I think, just like everything else with her, she’s probably not at all going to appreciate her good luck and success in being a country singer. She’s going to totally take it for granted like she does being a billionaire.
Did you have any part in the production of Cheryl’s country songs? Because they sound like actual songs and not just gags for the show.
No, they’re actual songs, and we’re putting out an actual record! We’re all really excited about it. I basically just sat in on the recording sessions here in Atlanta. But we had an amazing group of musicians. A songwriter named Kevn Kinney, who is the front man for a band called Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’, and a really talented woman named Jessie Lynn Martins is doing all the vocals and playing the fiddle and mandolin and guitar. And I’m really, really excited about the record. And I think there’s actually a duet. One of the songs on the album is a country version of “Danger Zone,” and it’s a duet with Cheryl and Kenny Loggins. So the album comes out, I want to say, February 17th. It’s after the episode where Kenny Loggins is actually in the episode playing himself.
So you were able to finally work with Kenny Loggins?
Yes, yes, we have the real Kenny Loggins.
Was that a fun experience for you?
It was great, it was great. He’s a great sport. He plays himself in the episode. Although, not himself, because we made him into this huge jerk. But we had a really good time doing it with him and the song sounds pretty amazing.
What’s your process for creating a season of Archer? Do you start with overarching stories for the season and go from there?
I don’t do as well with the overarching thing. This season has been much more serialized than past seasons. I usually just, when I’m off on the break, fill a notebook with different episode ideas and then maybe try to sloppily hang an overarching theme on those disparate ideas. The executives at FX are much better at crafting and nudging me towards a theme for the season. But I personally think that’s one of my very weakest points, telling a story over a whole season.
Your series have gradually grown more continuity-heavy over the years. On Sealab 2021, you blew Sealab up at the end of every episode, but on Archer there’s an evolving story. Has there been a conscious effort on your part to incorporate more ongoing plots and character development?
Yeah. It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s also very rewarding when you do it right. It’s tough, and it also makes me a little nervous because I just want it to be good. So yeah, it’s harder, definitely.
As the mythology for Archer has grown, has it become difficult to keep track of all the character details? Do you ever have to go look things up when you’re writing?
Our staff reminds me of stuff, our producers and art directors will remind me of things. Like, I’ve written scripts where Ray is walking around and they’re like, “You mean he’s in a wheelchair,” and I’m like, “Yep, yep, definitely in a wheelchair.” Or I’ll have him in a wheelchair and they’ll say, “Was he paralyzed in between episodes? Because he was walking last week,” and I’m like, “Nope, still walking!” So they sort of keep me on the ball.
Well, I guess we can assume Ray can be paralyzed at any given point in time.
Yeah, it’s touchy with Ray.
Archer has a very distinct comedy style. It’s dense with references, and there are frequent callbacks and catchphrases. Is that style influenced by anything or is that just a result of your own comedic sensibilities?
I think whatever sensibilities I have are definitely… I guess informed would be the nice way to say it. Hopefully not out-and-out stealing from other things I’m a huge fan of. But I really like rapid pace stuff. I like radio plays, I love the overlapping dialogue and rapid-fire stuff. Moonlighting was a huge influence on me growing up. So I think it’s a combination of what I am personally inclined to and then finding that and watching tons and tons and tons of it over the years.
All your series have been modern updates on classic adventure genre stuff, like superheroes and spies. Were those things you just consumed growing up or do you have a particular passion for adventure shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s?
I think as a kid, but not so much once I got into my teenage years. I was a huge fan of stuff like Simon and Simon and Magnum PI. All the PI shows of the early ‘80s, I was a big fan of those. But it’s not something that I necessarily sought out or liked as an adult. I tend to prefer workplace comedies or dramas and not necessarily action comedies. So, weird that that’s what I do now for a living.
Though you have turned those kinds of action shows into workplace comedies.
They all are. All the cartoons we’ve done, we pretty much ignore the big backdrop thing, whether it’s superheroes or an underwater laboratory or espionage. For a large part, you can basically just take those things away and still have an enjoyable show because the characters all interact so well together, which has a lot to do with our amazing voice cast and our amazing editor.
Archer is probably your biggest show in terms of scope and popularity. Was there any particular point where you realized it was becoming a big deal?
I think maybe the second Comic-Con where there were pedicabs rolling down the street with Archer characters, big fiber glass Archer characters. And then I get things emailed to me where someone had gotten an actual tattoo on their body of, like, Pam. So stuff like that, it’s just like, “Oh my God, this is a thing that has really resonated with people!”
Why do you think people love characters that are such big, unrepentant assholes like Sterling Archer?
I think in a lot of ways, at least for me, a lot of times I have these thoughts in my head when I’m talking to some jerky person in public, I will be thinking the things that Sterling Archer would say out loud but I would never think of saying to another person. I think a lot of people have Sterling Archer in them, but society frowns on them actually saying what he would say out loud.
So there’s a little Sterling Archer inside of all of us?
Yes. Maybe not all of us. I don’t think there’s any in, like, my mom.
Being responsible for a lot of the writing, do you have a big emotional attachment to these characters?
Yes, absolutely. I really like hanging out with them, which I get to do a lot during the writing part of the season. And also with the actors, I’m good friends with all of them. Not to sound sappy, but it’s really great to be able to spend time with both the characters and the actors.
As someone who got their start as an assistant at Cartoon Network and by hosting a block of cartoons as a cowboy hand puppet, do you have any career advice for people trying to break into animation?
You know, I think YouTube is the way to go now. One of our animators, by himself, drew, wrote, and did all the voices for a 20-minute, full-length animated cartoon about the band One Direction and put it on YouTube, and it got something crazy, like 16 million views, which is probably more than Archer has gotten total. So I think YouTube is a great new platform because network execs have people that actually comb through YouTube and sites like that looking for new content creators.
Do you have any other projects you’re working on, or that you have in the back of your mind for whenever Archer is over?
Hopefully, stuff that will be coming down the pipeline in concurrence with Archer, but nothing has been formalized yet. More action comedies. [Laughs]