The Philosophy of Archer – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Archer!
Written & Directed by: Amanda Scherker
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Archer – Wisecrack Edition
Hey guys, Jared again. Today, we’re talking about your favorite ocelet enthusiast “Sterling Malory Archer!” and his crew of snarky, foul-mouthed spies. Archer has sustained 8 seasons worth of comedy, with the occasional drastic reboot. “So what we form a cartel?” “How hard can it be?” So what makes Archer work? What’s its secret sauce? How does watching it feel like a familiar experience even as the show takes absurd leaps that would probably kill off any other show? Archer succeeds by inverting rules, characters, and narrative tropes of the spy genre while using sound and language gags to build a unique arsenal of humor that explores deeper character psychology. “Oh Clive. Clive. Is that you? It’s me, dear. Mrs J Edgar Hoover’s Mother.”
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Archer. It should come as no surprise that Archer heavily references James Bond movies. “Uh, duh and or hello?” But these gags are more than just a shallow nod to 007. Bond films regularly pit the freewheeling titular stud against the stuffy, boring rule-makers, best exemplified by M. To understand why this is important, we have to look at what was going on in America during the meteoric rise of the James Bond character.
According to sociologist Thomas Andrae, this time period was a “crisis of masculinity.” In which “The male desire for autonomy and independence… was displaced” by pressure to sell out for a desk job with a 401k leaving many a man feeling like an “alienated but conforming employee of a large corporate bureaucracy.” Spy thrillers emerged as the perfect form of escapism with the character of James Bond exemplifying ideals of independence, agency and individualism. That were otherwise lacking in the day-to-day life of most American men. Bond’s characterization as a chronic rule breaker who relied on his charisma and sheer guts to succeed made him the perfect hero for the time.
Unfortunately, the Bond-style secret agent is complete fiction. Reportedly, after viewing a James Bond film, CIA officers would ask questions like, “Why wasn’t Bond required to prepare an expense report?” Throughout the entire series, Archer takes this question, and milks the humor of the unglamorous espionage bureaucracy for all its worth.
“I forgot to spend the balance in my god damn flex account!” “Are you date of employment or…?” “CALENDAR YEAR!” Mindless paperwork occupies a central role on the show, frequently threatening Archer’s ability to live his best spy life. “You turned in an expense report from Berlin where the German desk says you never checked in.” “Oh, Berlin was—” “Ditto Buenos Aires. Too busy to check in?” “There was… Yeah.” The show contrasts the fantastical action sequences with the mundanities of office life to amazing comic effect. “You’re my beneficiary!” “Your what?” “On my company life insurance.”
Even when Archer does escape the bureaucratic ramifications of his actions, it’s only because of his boss-mom Mallory’s forgiveness. Later in the series, when the agency becomes a Private Investigation firm, Cyril is the only one eligible for a PI license. As a result, Archer has to suffer the indignity of working for… the Figgis Agency. While a character like Cyril prospers in the world of espionage bureaucracy; Archer’s swashbuckling antics are usually counterproductive. “I don’t see what could possibly go wrong.” And a quick note on Cyril: whereas some might associate paper-pushers like Cyril with emasculated stooges, Cyril is instead addicted to sex; “Hello. Hello. Hello.” and hyper sexualized. “Well I think I need a spanking.”
Archer is the ultimate James Bond parody; “It’s all about machismo.” exemplifying the qualities he’s best known for and then taking them to their logical, unromantic conclusion. Like Bond, Archer is wild and untamed; “Woohoo! Painkillers!!” He uses drinking, fighting, womanizing, cars, and guns to affirm his manliness. “Oh, you wanna see who’s a big boy?” “Ahh!!”
Throughout the decades, Bond films have fetishized the latest, sexiest car. Aston Martin sponsored 12 of the 24 Bond movies usually offering promotional deals to let fanboys live out their dream of buying a Bond car. On the other hand, Archer’s car is a birthday gift from his mother, presented to him as if it’s his Super Sweet Sixteen. “Oh my god!” “Surprise!”
Adding to the adolescent feel, the car gives Archer an embarassing erection. “Oh God, he’s got an erection!” The show mocks the way Bond’s hyper-masculinity was and still is used to sell products like cars and beer to men who want to embody the same qualities. “Dodge Challenger Special Agent Edition. Brought to you by Dodge!” “Thanks Dodge!!” “Glengoolie: For the best of times.” Archer’s car may be a marker of his manliness, but it’s one that’s on loan from Mommy, who confiscates it days later. Again, the supposed masculine power of Archer is yanked away by his more powerful mother. James Bond is one of cinema’s most famous seductors.
Similarly, Archer is hyper-sexual, constantly hiring sex workers sleeping with every office mate; “Would you please come in this dirty toliet stall and have sex with me?” and propositioning every woman with a beating pulse…and some without. “Could you close your eyes? I kind of feel like I’m banging tail-lights on a country road.”
Of course, while Bond’s sexual prowess is legendary, Archer’s is…less than that. “Oh you finished alright.” “Yeah. Maybe try woolite?” “Which by the way, makes one of us!” And while Bond’s sex life comes seemingly without physical consequences, Archer frequently comes down with STDS; and has to pay for abortions. “I have problem.” “I’ll pay for it.” Other health effects of the Bondian lifestyle are also taken to a logical extreme. While James Bond is known to enjoy his liquor Archer’s substance use is superhuman — At one point, he literally chugs germicide.
His drinking appears to play at least some role in him getting the stereotypically feminine disease of breast cancer. “Any history of alcoholism?” “You know, I mean I drink socially, but” “Hah! I didn’t have breakfast.” Hardly the stuff of a 00 playboy. Before Archer undergoes chemo, he has some of his sperm frozen. Later on, Lana secretly uses that sperm to become pregnant and have his baby, without his permission or even his knowledge. For the oblivious Archer, even becoming a father somehow plays out as a twisted form of emasculation.
Cancer isn’t the only health ramification of Archer’s secret agent lifestyle. There’s also tinnitus, a hearing loss caused by too many damn guns going off all the time. Either James Bond is always wearing ear plugs, or his creators ignored the pesky realities of inner ear damage. At one point, Archer and his crew even solidify tinnitus as the show’s pet cause; attending an annual fundraiser for the American Tinnitus Association. Once again, Archer subverts the bulletproof James Bondian fantasy by dragging Archer into the bleakest realities of his mortal body.
But is there something more to Archer’s hearing loss? Pop culture scholar Ian Dawe thinks so. In his essay, “Archer: A Spy Parody For The Ears,” Dawe argues that Archer’s tinnitus is more than an ongoing gag, it’s actually an important aspect of the show’s preoccupation with sound and language, which are used both to generate laughs and to provide deeper insights into character psychology. To prove this, Dawe conducted a study in which he watched every episode in Archer’s 3rd and 4th seasons and counted the number of linguistic or sound-specific references, including language jokes, like puns, foreign language references and or loud gunfire followed by the high-pitched ringing of Archer’s tinnitus. Dawe found that such references occurred, on average, 10 times per episode in the 3rd season, and 11 times in the 4th… which comes out to approximately once every TWO minutes.
Just as mundane office politics serve as a humorous contrast to life-threatening action sequences the show’s language jokes are often employed at the most inopportune moments. “You just gotta relax and let it go in your mouth.” “PHRASING!” Dawe takes special interest in one of the show’s simplest, ongoing gags. Archer’s frequent act of calling out loudly to Lana, even when she is nearby, is more than just a simple annoyance. It’s reminiscent of a baby calling out for its mother which, for Archer, probably never quite gave him the comfort he needed.
You know, not your typical manly badass stuff. Essentially, Archer’s increasingly louder appeals to Lana signal his inability to control his demand for attention. Eventually, other characters adopt the same gag: “Pam?” “What?” “Pam?” “What?””PAM!” “WHAT?” “I don’t know, why are we doing this?”
Based on the growing frequency of these appeals for attention, Dawe says “Clearly it is very important in this show for characters to be heard. However, it also seems to be important that they not be heard too quickly by the listener, bringing up themes of power, demand, control and psychological repression.” For instance, take Archer’s classic “phrasing joke.” “And don’t you want to freshen up – after your long ride?” “Phrasing, mother!”
This is a classic use of what Freud called “double entendre,” in which the joke ”depends quite specially on the sexual meaning” even though the words having a an alternative, non-sexual meaning. Freud thought these sorts of jokes were a way to release some of the nervous energy that comes from repressing sexual or aggressive desires. That’s particularly significant when Archer’s aiming the joke at his mother, for whom he has more than an inkling of an Oedipal complex. “The thought of me dead gives you an erection?” “No, it…just half of one.” But beyond that, when Archer says phrasing, he’s essentially choosing to miscommunicate, and willfully misinterpreting the speaker’s words, thus derailing the conversation. By choosing only to hear the sexual innuendo, Archer often ensures that the speaker won’t be heard at all. “Guess I’m a bad listener.”
The tactic quickly becomes one of Archer’s favorite ways of hijacking a conversation. As language tends to do, “phrasing” spreads as other characters start adopting it. “Oh Ron, thank you for coming so quickly!” “Phrasing, first, boom!” In fact, the joke eventually becomes so ubiquitous that it actually circles back around to “falls out of fashion” like “YOLO” or “On Fleek”. Archer’s anxiety over the plummeting popularity of his favorite joke only confirms how important these attention-grabbing antics are to his identity. The world’s image of a perfect man reduced to a man-child.
Phrasing isn’t Archer’s only way to avoid hearing what a character, usually his mother, is really saying. Take the running gag about Archer’s voice mail messages, which become increasingly elaborate ruses to trick his mother into thinking that she’s actually speaking with him. “Sterling, listen very –” “HA! Voicemail.” As a result, Mallory has entire conversations with his prerecorded voice before realizing she’s been duped. Here, Archer is taking great pleasure in the power he is able to wield in a conversation with his mother. This voice mail message gag is Archer’s hilarious, if juvenile, means of temporarily reclaiming some power and momentarily undermining Mallory’s dominance over him.
“Do you mind? I’m trying to parent.” Just as Archer has trouble bending to the will of ISIS’s Human Resource department, he often finds himself struggling with the rules of language. “I learned that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.” Both restraints prevent Archer from living the badass spy narrative he envisions for himself. One such example occurs in the three-part series “Heart of Archness,” when Archer has declared himself the king of the pirates. He attempts to address his “subjects,” through his translator slash slave, Noah. “Okay, pirates hey-hey-hey! Take a knee!” “That won’t translate. It’s like last week when you said ‘lend me your ears’ and they were like ‘Apa?'” “Damn it.” “I can’t do idioms. Sorry.” “Shut up!”
Archer attempts to convey his message without these idioms, but quickly finds it impossible. “Wow, I never realized how much we rely on idioms.” Here, Archer chafes against the rules of language just like he chafes against the rules of bureaucracy. But even when he’s not dealing with inconvenient language gaps, Archer still has trouble expressing himself. “No, I uh uh uh..” “‘I-I-I-I’m’ haha! Still got that stammer, huh?”
While James Bond is well-known for his pithy one-liners Archer is not so gifted; “Well he certainly left with his tail between his legs,” frequently regretting his failure to come up with the perfect witty line: resorting to comments like. “Wait! I got something for this.” “Hush puppies.” “Damn that’s better.” “Duh.” Again, Archer parodies Bond by turning his funny off-handed innuendos into a chore in which Archer still comes up short. “Commence operation…something about I rescue Lana and she begs me to take her back so then Cyril commits suicide. I swear to God I had something for this.” At other times, Archer’s language isolates him, particularly when he’s attempting to connect with others over his favorite obscure cultural references. “I would prefer not to. Bartleby, the Scrivener? Anybody? Not a big Melville crowd, huh?”
While he’s constantly grasping to be heard and to impress, through his brainy call-outs, he rarely receives any affirmation. “Who am I, William Saffire?” It’s always disappointing to have your thoughtful cultural references fall flat, and not even the greatest spy in this fictional cartoon land is immune to the shame. Archer’s chock-full of fantastical fight sequences, wildly ambitious spy missions, and unnecessarily complicated weapons technology, but much of the show’s humor rests in the linguistic communications between the characters. “I honestly have no response to that.”
Archer’s lingering adolescent sense of being an outsider, formed over an impressive fifteen years spent at boarding school are perfectly expressed in his over enthusiasm for coining group slang and his wildly obscure pop culture references that inevitably fall flat. Most of all, Archer embodies the perennial secret agent struggle born out of the 1950s masculine anxiety about becoming cogs in the corporate machine. But what do you guys think? Will Sterling Archer ever learn to listen? Will there ever be a joke good enough to replace phrasing?
Let us know in the comments! And as always, thanks for watching. Peace.