I had so hoped that “Jon Benjamin Has a Van” would be the perfect culmination of the moment H. Jon Benjamin is having.
You may not know Jon Benjamin’s face, but you probably know his voice: a deep, deadpan rumble that’s gotten him steady voiceover work on cartoons like “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” “Home Movies” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”
At the moment, you can hear that same voice applied to two very different roles: as hyper-competent but immature and narcissistic spy Sterling Archer on FX’s “Archer,” and as harried family man and restaurateur Bob on FOX’s “Bob’s Burgers.” They’re two of the strangest, funniest, most distinctive comedies on television, both anchored by Benjamin’s unmistakable voice.
So it felt right that Benjamin’s moment would expand to include not only a series with his name in the title, but one where you get to see him as well as hear him.
“Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” which debuts on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30 (after “Tosh.0”) before settling into a Wednesday at 10:30 timeslot tomorrow, is far from Benjamin’s first live-action TV gig. Heck, it’s not even his first live-action gig on Comedy Central, as he was both a writer and featured player on the recently-canceled “Important Things with Demetri Martin.”
But it’s the first show built around him as a flesh-and-blood performer, one where he’s also a producer and key creative voice. If ever there was a time for “Jon Benjamin Has a Van” – if ever there were a time for Benjamin to remind people not only what he looks like but also what his own comic sensibilities are – it’s now.
And, unfortunately, very little of it works.
The show is ostensibly a parody of investigative TV journalism, with Benjamin playing a pompous talking head who roams the country in his pimped-out panel van (and one whose rear doors feature a painting of a naked rear end) looking for stories that are either entirely without substance (a wounded “veteran” who never actually went to war) or else reflecting on the media’s self-love (interviewing another reporter about the experience of interviewing a disfigured accident victim who’s too gross for Benjamin to look directly at).
But each episode quickly loses interest in the TV news spoof and evolves into a bunch of extended, strange sketches, like Benjamin getting caught up in a mob war between Little Italy and its doll-sized counterpart Little Little Italy. Blowing off the premise isn’t a sin, especially not when Comedy Central already has a couple of shows that do a thorough, brilliant job of mocking this particular subject. The problem is that what Benjamin and company keep doing in place of the premise is repetitive in the extreme: one sketch after another built around a single joke, stretched past the point where even “SNL” might feel pangs of comedy writer’s remorse.
The Little Little Italy story, for instance, is basically a live-action Far Side cartoon, only it takes up the bulk of a half-hour of TV comedy. The long story in tonight’s premiere spins out of a prank Benjamin plays on his producer (Matt Walsh) that just keeps on going and going and going, without having even been terribly clever to begin with.
There are isolated sketches that are funny, but they tend to be brief, like a “Cash Cab” parody where Benjamin tries to get men in the bathroom stall next to his to answer trivia questions. And even some of the longer sketches have occasional funny gags on the margins.
Overall, though, “Jon Benjamin Has a Van” isn’t the next obvious step for Benjamin conquering TV comedy. It’s a misfire that mainly made me sad we won’t have full new seasons of either “Archer” or “Bob’s Burgers” until 2012.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org