Were it up to Jon Benjamin, he probably wouldn’t have written a book at all. He admits as much throughout Failure Is An Option, a sharp and extremely funny memoir that is occasionally as much about not wanting to write a book as it is about his life. During one of several email exchanges with college professors that he reprints in full (supposedly, though who knows?), Benjamin urges the guy to help him pad the book with examples of historical failures. “Can you at least write a few paragraphs on any subject you pick, and I’ll just add some stuff to extend it to five pages?” The professor ends the correspondence by asking Benjamin to never contact him again.
That sense of “maybe we just shouldn’t” is key to H. Jon Benjamin’s entire comedic sensibility, the reason so many fans have gravitated to his particular warped humor through the years. Of course, as he himself admits, most of the people that pick up the book, or even recognize his name—the “H.” is for Harry, a “long buried secret, like an identity easter egg”—will have done so thanks to Bob’s Burgers and Archer, the two long-running animated hits for which he voices the title characters. (Chapter 21, “How I Failed At Differentiating My Two Characters Of Bob And Archer,” is two sentences: “I did the same voice. The end.”) It’s a distinctive and immediately recognizable voice (his entirely accurate word for how it sounds is “leather”), apparent whether on recurring spots in Family Guy or the can of vegetables in Wet Hot American Summer. But for fans of the comic performer, even the title is a reminder of the strange and often lackadaisical-seeming mentality behind Benjamin’s comedy. He tries without seeming like he particularly wants to try. He achieves without it ever appearing like that’s the plan. He recorded an entire jazz album with an accomplished trio of musicians, without knowing how to play, and called it Well, I Should Have...Learned How To Play Piano. It’s comedy for people who like comedians wavering on whether they should even go through with it.
Packed with chapter after chapter of Benjamin’s easygoing tales of failure and inability to follow through on stated goals, the book’s biggest and most meta joke is its thoroughgoing rejection of the widespread American tradition of a can-do self-help mentality that permeates most memoirs. If the average published life story is an account of someone’s best-foot-forward tale of striving against impossible odds, and rallying when things are darkest to overcome adversity and gain success, Failure Is An Option considers that possibility and then decides, “Fuck that.” As he explains in the prologue, not only is most of life not defined by success, but most lives don’t properly register it as a key ingredient:
To be clear, this is a polemic in favor of failure. It’s an assertion that failure is an option and even, at times, a viable prescription for a better life, despite its long-standing stigmatization. Failure can be incredibly freeing and an end in itself, not just that tired platitude that it is a necessary step on the road to success. Despite my own success, I maintain that failure is my prevailing life force and my success has been a parallel and unrelated condition, not a consequence of my failure(s).
If you don’t really buy this line of thinking, it’s okay, because Benjamin doesn’t really care if you subscribe to it or not. He’s just filling some pages with what he finds funny, and if he stumbles onto a philosophy that’s actually useful, so much the better. The book dives into tale after tale of ignoble defeat, nearly all of which are incredibly funny, scatological, weird, or more often than not, some combination of all three. His craft, and what makes him such an inspired and singular voice, is to make it look easy—more than that, to make it look like he’d rather not do it at all, that all of this just comes out of him when he’s got a spare 20 minutes before laying down for a nap.
That it’s decidedly not that easy is part of the gag; writing this funny requires immense talent, and anyone who’s followed Benjamin’s career over the years knows his inspired and cracked wit is conveyed through a low-key and world-weary persona. From his earliest days of comic voice acting in Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies, two series in which his improvised lines often constituted some of the best bits, Benjamin’s deadpan delivery helped turn even the most outlandish conceit into a bizarrely funny riff. But the best representation of his comedic voice may have been the sadly short-lived Comedy Central series Jon Benjamin Has A Van, which splashed his sensibility across a wide-ranging series of sketches both real and fake, perhaps best embodied by the man-on-the-street feature, “Do You Have A Minute?” in which Benjamin asks someone the title question, and if they say yes, the minute begins.
There’s more than a passing resemblance to Norm Macdonald’s “make the setup and the punchline identical to each other” philosophy in Benjamin’s humor, the idea that something is funny just because it is, and you shouldn’t need to have a follow-through that makes the first part come to life. The difference between them comes from Benjamin believing honesty can be funny. One of his later stories of doing comedy in New York involves a time when he was part of a duo called Mike And Jon, and decided it would be funny to hire two male escorts to take the stage in their place and perform sex acts to music. As with that bit itself, the act of just telling the story is the joke, here in service of a larger narrative about how he failed to ride a motorcycle. The humor is the delivery, not the conclusion.
Benjamin folds every tale of shame, error, or woe into the overarching premise of failure, but within each are nested layers of other failures, such as how his inability to pretend like he was playing catch with his father, thereby not looking like a sad loner, is simply a prelude to his sitting quietly alone in a friend’s living room while he watches burglars steal the family’s possessions. A story recounting his failure to star in a low-budget porn is packed with preludes of other failures, like being hired to build a series of shelves one summer as a teen, only to realize he had no idea how, and rather than telling anyone, just spending the time by himself listening to the radio, doing nothing.
Admittedly, it’s tough to read Failure Is An Option without hearing Benjamin’s signature voice in your head, good-naturedly recounting everything that unfolds. But even the near-non sequiturs sprinkled among the chapters are incredibly funny, such as his transcription of a family that tries to communicate with a recently lost child through a medium who turns out to be misogynist, or page after page of “failed sexual positions.” (“The thinker: One lays flat on the edge of the bed while the other mounts from the top, facing out in sitting position, with one arm resting on the chin, appearing bored.”) What makes it all work, as with so much of his comedy, is the cleverly genial persona behind it all, undercutting potentially cruel moments and perpetually reminding the reader that even if a particular joke doesn’t work for them, that’s okay. Failing to laugh is just another example of his motto at work.