When H. Jon Benjamin picks up the phone it’s easy to imagine one is chatting with Ben Katz (“Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist”), Sterling Archer (“Archer”), Bob Belcher (“Bob’s Burgers”) or any one of a half-dozen other animated characters the actor/comedian has voiced over the years.
No role he’s taken on, however, falls closer to the actual Benjamin than Bob, the easily perturbed, meat-loving patriarch of the Belcher clan.
“He wasn’t like Bob when I met him a long time ago,” said “Bob’s Burgers” creator Loren Bouchard, who joins Benjamin and his “Bob’s” castmates John Roberts, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal for “Bob’s Burgers Live” at the Barrymore Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 1. “But now he’s a 40-something guy with kids and a wife, and he’s kind of a lovable grouch the way Bob sometimes is. There’s a lot of similarity.”
The Emmy-nominated “Bob’s Burgers,” which airs Sundays on FOX and was recently renewed for a fourth season by the network, has steadily built up a cult following since its January 2011 on-air debut, and this live appearance is something of a reward for the show’s most ardent supporters.
The event — the first of its kind and currently the only one scheduled nationwide — will consist of a script reading, stand-up sets by the cast and an audience Q&A with the show’s actors and creators. In addition, there are plans to broadcast previously unaired clips from the animated sitcom.
“We thought maybe we’d try this in a few cities, but Madison is the only place we’re doing it right now,” said Mirman, who voices the Belcher’s only son, Gene. “We’ve done some live shows where we’ve all done stand-up, and we’ve had a few table readings and a few Q&As, but we’ve never really combined them all into one thing. You’re kind of the test case.”
“It’s just another aspect of what we all do, so it seemed like a natural fit to tour together,” continued Roberts, who voices family matriarch Linda. “We did a script reading (in Montreal) and the audience enjoyed watching us voice these characters — especially me and Dan, who does Tina. We’re these big, rugged men with lady voices. Well, no, neither of us is rugged, unfortunately.”
When “Bob’s Burgers” debuted, it was difficult to imagine the show lasting four seasons — let alone spawning a night dedicated to celebrating its existence. Early reviews were mixed (The New York Times labeled it “at best mildly funny”), and despite solid early ratings (the broadcast premiere drew over 9 million viewers) there were some internal concerns the show wouldn’t be given a chance to find its legs.
“It was not great, the pilot,” Benjamin said. “It was a long development process, and I think sometimes you start overdoing things. Some shows, like anything, are just slow starters, and a lot of them aren’t given that chance (to develop). It was a good thing the network gave us that time.”
Bouchard, for his part, believes his biggest mistake was only including the pilot in the review packet that went out to major media outlets rather than sending a disc with multiple episodes.
“Looking back on it, we tried to put as much of the heart and charm as we wanted the show to have in that pilot, but in some ways it was overshadowed because it had cannibalism and a 13-year-old girl scratching her crotch in the first scene,” he said. “I think those negative reviews came from us not representing ourselves well …(and) after the show aired two or three episodes I never saw another review like that.”
It also helps that “Bob’s” is a grower by nature, and much of its humor stems from a familiarity with the characters and how they interact with one another — something that only intensifies with increased exposure.
“That’s the way most comedies are. If you’re lucky and you don’t get cancelled and the audience starts to see a few episodes, you can start to win people over,” said Bouchard. “And it does take longer with a character-driven show. You really have to know what the character is about in order to find what they’re saying funny.”
When Bouchard first conceived “Bob’s Burgers” back in the late 2000s, he started by selecting the actors, placing a heavy premium on comedy chops (though animated, the show maintains a strong improvisational element).
“Every single person was cast before the show was developed,” he said. “I wrote to them, and they are the characters in a lot of ways.”
Each actor was given significant leeway to help develop their respective family member. Benjamin, for one, was instructed to simply be himself, while John Roberts said he built Linda at least in part around his own mother.
“My mom has always been a good source of comedy, in the best way,” said Roberts, who first caught Bouchard’s attention with an impression of his mother that went viral online (“All I had to do was see John Roberts on YouTube and I knew that voice was (Linda),” said Bouchard). “But I’m also drawing from aunts and other moms I know and making sure Linda is someone unique to this cast and this ensemble. We all have a note to hit, and it’s making sure I hit the right note when the ball is passed to me.”
Everyone involved in “Bob’s” talks up the camaraderie among the cast members, describing it as essential to the overall tone of the show. Mirman said he’s known his fellow castmates for years. He first met Benjamin and Mintz in Boston in the late ’90s, was introduced to Schaal shortly after relocating to New York and encountered Roberts on the comedy circuit about six years ago.
“I think generally we all knew one another — some better, some worse,” he said, “So there has always been a camaraderie.”
“We all knew each other from the comedy world, and we’ve all gotten drunk together,” agreed Roberts. “We’re all comfortable with each other, and I think that obviously adds to the overall warmth of the show.”
Bouchard capitalizes on these well-developed relationships by gathering the cast members together in the same room for recording sessions, allowing the actors to play off of one another and improvise freely. According to Benjamin, who previously worked with Bouchard on “Home Movies” and “Dr. Katz,” this method of recording is one hallmark of his style.
“The shows I’ve done with Loren have always been done that way,” he said. “With ‘Dr. Katz’ (which Bouchard produced) I think it was out of economy, like, ‘There’s only one mic so you have to share it.’ When things grew bigger they kept that spirit … though they did end up buying more mics.”
Both Benjamin and Bouchard compare “Bob’s” focus on audio to an old-time radio play (“Animation is always second to the audio stuff,” noted Benjamin), and Bouchard said he starts with a completed audio track before moving on to any phase of the visual production.
“We record the voice tracks before we even let the directors and storyboard artists touch it,” he said. “It has to be a finished radio play that works.”
So while it’s not easy to juggle everyone’s schedules to find time to record as a group, Bouchard views it as the most essential part of the process.
“It’s hard to get everyone in a room together and do this many episodes, but you do it if you’re committed to getting really outstanding performances,” he said. “They have to be in a room together. They have to interact. Get an actor in a booth alone and you’re never going to get as good of a take as you would if they’re in there making each other laugh. Or, yes, antagonizing each other. Almost hazing each other is what goes on at ‘Bob’s Burgers.’”
The hazing aspect occasionally spills over into interviews with the various cast members. Told I was also interviewing Benjamin, John Roberts offered a heartfelt “Ooh, I’m sorry.” Benjamin, in turn, said, “Good thing for him … that’s a real benefit to a guy with middling talent” after hearing Roberts mentioned there was no audition process for the show.
This playful dynamic between cast members frequently surfaces in the interactions between the Belchers, whether Bob is attempting to disguise his growing agitation with wife Linda (“I am legitimately annoyed by the other actors a huge part of the time,” said Benjamin) or youngest daughter Louise, voiced by Schaal, is lashing out at her two siblings.
“Recording sessions for Loren’s shows can run six, seven hours, which doesn’t sound like a huge deal — everybody works that long — but when you’re in a recording booth it’s suffocating,” said Benjamin. “So in a weird way he has created this family dynamic, which is like, ‘God, I wish Kristen Schaal would stop eating that (bleeping) rice cake thing she’s always eating. It’s so annoying. And Eugene Mirman, I wish he would get off his iPad and stop tweeting for five minutes so he can do his (bleeping) lines. And John Roberts is just unbearably annoying.’
“Still,” he said, and laughed. “I love all of them.”