Looking to start a career in comedy? Try being rudderless. H. Jon Benjamin, best known for his role as the voices of the animated characters Sterling Archer, from FX’s Archer, and Bob Belcher from Fox’s Bob’s Burgers, gave Penn students insight into the life of a professional comedian, voice actor, and–most recently–Jazz musician on Tuesday night.
The theme of the discussion, moderated by Penn Cinema Studies professor Scott Burkhardt, was H. Jon Benjamin’s incredible success, which he achieved by following his passion for stand up comedy. Benjamin discussed his diverse employment history–a result of his unconventional rise in the world of voice acting.
The audience filed into Harrison Auditorium to Benjamin’s newest musical endeavor, “Well, I Should Have (Learned to Play Piano)” playing in the background. Benjamin is featured as the lead piano player on the album. Later in the show, Benjamin jokingly explained to Burkhardt that his album represents “the epitome of what Jazz is...an improvisational music form.”
As it turns out, Benjamin was never trained in piano playing. He created the entire album with the same experience as a five year old pretending to play an older siblings sheet music on the family piano. Surprisingly, it actually sounds good (that is, to an untrained ear).
The story behind “Well I Should Have” is a microcosm of Benjamin’s life. After dropping out of graduate school at Northwestern, where he studied the Holocaust, Benjamin moved to Boston. He joined a friend in a two-person comedy act, which gained little traction, mainly because “it just wasn’t funny.” Regardless of the act’s failure, it served as the foundation for Benjamin's future success.
Benjamin followed an unconventional path on his rise to leading the comedic voice acting industry. Most people would agree that the best way to launch a career is through education or formal training. However, as a self-taught artist, Benjamin maintained the freedom of creativity that is often lost in the process of becoming a professional--”I was self taught, and that comes with an attitude.”
Benjamin explained that his breakthrough came with the role of Ben Katz in the show Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, which was recorded in an apartment kitchen--“it felt like it was a joke,” he said about the development process. The show went on to win an Emmy. Benjamin then landed the roles in Archer and Bob’s Burgers, which have both since become wildly successful among niche audiences.
So, what words of wisdom did Benjamin leave his audience of Penn students? Namely, stop trying so hard--give yourself a chance to explore a career you’re passionate about, regardless of the unconventionality of your interests.
Despite the lighthearted humor that dominated the evening, Benjamin shared an important message with his audience: students tend to invest their interests in a limited number of career paths that they believe guarantee future success. But, Benjamin’s story is living proof that it’s okay to be a senior without a job on Wall Street. H. Jon Benjamin’s conversation showed that by doing work you love, your job becomes a lifestyle, reminding everyone that acting on a passion is well worth the leap of faith.