The secrets behind ‘Archer’ as FX animated series ends after 14 seasons

We spoke to the Atlanta-based creators and four of the actors.

When Atlanta’s Adam Reed and Matt Thompson conceived “Archer” in 2009, they pitched it as “Arrested Development” meets James Bond, an adult animated spy spoof.

While most networks gave them a hard pass, they were surprised and thrilled FX gave them a thumbs up. FX at the time had plenty of smart dramas and comedies like “Rescue Me,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Sons of Anarchy” but no animated series of note.

And while “Archer” didn’t immediately take the Nielsen ratings by storm, FX stuck with it and allowed the series to grow into a durable winner that lasted 14 seasons, concluding earlier this month with a three-part series finale that is now available on Hulu. The show won multiple critical awards, including three Emmys.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with Reed and Thompson along with four key actors: H. Jon Benjamin (Sterling Archer), Aisha Tyler (Lana Kane), Amber Nash (Pam Poovey) and Chris Parnell (Cyril Figgis).

Here are key bits we picked up:

From left, Chris Parnell, H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler and Adam Reed pose backstage with the Critics' Choice award for best animated series for "Archer."

Credit: Jason Moon

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Credit: Jason Moon

Reed largely wrote the first 10 seasons by himself: While most shows involve a team of writers, Reed wrote the first 100 episodes almost entirely by himself until he ran out of fresh ideas and bowed out in 2019. A team of writers led by Mark Ganek have ably emulated Reed’s style for the final four seasons. “There’s a core to anything I’ve written: people are unkind to each other,” Reed said, noting past Adult Swim shows like “Frisky Dingo” and “Sealab 2021.” And compared to Bond, “we’ve gone to more places than he has. James Bond didn’t get shrunk down and go into a human body yet.”

Quality writing matters: His former business partner Thompson credits the success of “Archer” to Reed’s writing, which he dubbed “crisp, clean and quick.” He said Reed was always hunting for quips and lines that only a particular character could say.

"Archer' co-creator and executive producer Matt Thompson, in animated form. FX

Credit: FX

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Credit: FX

Frozen in time: “I’ve been making adult cartoons since my late 20s,” said Thompson, who handles day-to-day operations for Atlanta-based Floyd County Productions. “We have been sitting around with friends making fart jokes, not growing up just like Sterling. That’s why Sterling was perfect for Adam and me. We were the guys.” That has bled into his three kids, who are now teenagers: “They all have an extremely inappropriate sense of humor.”

Endearingly mean: Thompson said viewers like how the characters go after each other. “It’s just funnier to make your friends feel uncomfortable,” he said. Reed credits the actors for making his words sing. “The likability probably comes from the voice actors. There’s something in each of their individual qualities. Even though they say the most horrible things, on some level, you’re still rooting for the character. There is magic in their voices.”

Malory Archer of "Archer" was played with good humor by veteran actress Jessica Walter. FX

Credit: FX Network

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Credit: FX Network

Jessica Walter helped “Archer” get other actors: The “Arrested Development” connection came upfront when Reed convinced the veteran actress who played the matriarch in the Fox sitcom to do the same in “Archer” as the whip-smart, forever exasperated heavy drinker Malory Archer, who ran the spy agency ISIS. “We shamelessly used her name to get everybody else,” said Reed, including Judy Greer, Tyler and Parnell. “She was the guiding pole star of the show, the backbone.”

Voice actors game for anything: Reed said the “cast was pretty off color. They never complained about anything I wrote. Even Jessica was a good sport. She’d sometimes ask what something meant and when I explained it, she’d say, ‘Oh Adam!’ We’ve had some guest stars who have said, ‘I am not going to say that!”

Reed never felt like the show was safe: “I was always waiting for the phone call: ‘Hey! That’s it! Get your stuff and get out! I was surprised when FX bought the pilot. I was surprised they greenlit the pilot. I was surprised when they gave us a second season. I always slept with one eye open.”

Tattoo you: When Reed and the voice actors began going to Comic Con in New York and San Diego, they were bowled over by the fans. “The tattoos were when it hit home,” Reed said. “There are some out there where people have all inclusive scenes with all the characters on their leg. It’s pretty incredible.” He also recalled at Comic Con someone holding up a baby picture and saying the child was named Sterling Archer Jones. “I don’t know if that kid will change his name when he’s 16,” Reed cracked.

Amber Nash (Pam Poovey) and Lucky Yates (Dr. Krieger) were Atlanta voiceover and improv actors who became stars on "Archer." FX

Credit: FX NET

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Credit: FX NET

Giving two Atlanta actors a big break: Reed had worked for years with Atlanta improv actors Lucky Yates and Amber Nash and gave them what he originally thought would be minor roles.

Yates’ sadistic oddball research guy Dr. Krieger wasn’t even supposed to speak at first. “He was going to be this silent lurking character in the background,” Reed said. “Then we needed him to speak one thing. Lucky came in and I decided ‘Hey! Let’s have him talk all the time!’

Pam Poovey, the spy agency human resources manager, started out as a background office drone voiced by Nash. But quickly, the feedback about her character forced Reed to expand her role. “Deep down everyone would love to be that confident and self-assured,” Reed said. She ended up becoming a breakout character and at Comic Con, Nash said many fans have shown her their Poovey tattoos. “I’ve seen a lot of people’s body parts,” she noted.

Why Pam Poovey worked: “She is a combination of hedonism and love,” Thompson said. “She’s everybody’s best friend and everybody’s best time. That’s why she really resonated with people.” Not surprisingly, Nash noted, “there is a lot of explicit fan fiction out there.”

Bullets don’t matter: Reed said there was a brief attempt at realism when it came to the spies getting hurt. But that soon flew out the window. “In the first season, whenever a character had a bullet hole,” Thompson said, “we would keep a database to track them on their bodies. But after while, we couldn’t keep track of that many bullet holes. And they should be dead. So we just gave up.”

No John Wick or Jason Bourne jokes: The show was always a mish-mash of time frames, blending aesthetics and technology from multiple decades. “We tried our best to stay away from cultural references unless they were from the 1970s or 1980s,” Thompson said. “We didn’t want to date the show. We had a joke in the pilot that included the line, ‘That’s the Dane Cook of karate.’ We were so mad at ourselves. We promised to never do that again. And we didn’t.” At the same time, he noted, cutting out parody made joke writing far more challenging.

A major change season 11: “We didn’t use cell phones for years,” Thompson said. “It was so difficult when characters were in far away locations. They couldn’t speak to each other. We broke down season 11. They began using cell phones. I don’t know if anybody noticed. It bothered me for a long time because it was breaking a rule.”

FX ended the show, not the producers: Thompson said FX made the call. “We were in production of season 14. We had written a new character to juice us. We wanted Lana to sit in Malory’s chair. We felt like we had our groove back. We had our season planned. We were almost finished when FX said we were done. Then they did something cool. They gave us three extra episodes to end the series... I am so thankful we were able to send these guys into the animated sunset in a nice way. I hope we did a nice job.”

An emotional finale: Nash said she normally did her lines for Poovey in Atlanta but was in Edmonton for a comedy festival while doing voice-over work for the finale episode of “Archer.” “Pam has the last line of the whole series,” said Nash. “It’s a really sweet moment. I was trying to choke back tears. I had to leave the studio and walk the streets of Edmonton crying.”

Legacy: “We’ve been able to build this community [at Floyd County Productions] that stuck by us year after year, season after season,” said Thompson, noting that 85 people worked on the animation any given season and about 400 in total did so over 14 seasons. “We’ve had almost 50 babies, 15 marriages and at least 10 people who met and married through the company. These are all fellow Atlantans, all Atlanta folks.”

For Nash, who was a broke improv actor at Dad’s Garage in 2009, “Archer” enabled her to buy a house. “And I have all these friends,” she said. “I’m hanging out with Judy [Greer] on New Year’s! It’s exciting!”

Why the show worked: “It was always evolving and dynamic,” said Tyler. “Adam and Matt made a sensational show and were unrelenting in their pursuit of excellence. Even as a member of the cast, I’d read the scripts and say, ‘Oh my God! Are we going to do that?’ That kind of fresh, edgy, startling writing is what kept the show feeling urgent for almost 15 years.”

Reed is chilling: There is a culture in Hollywood to always be working on your next project. Reed has chosen not to. “Once I handed over the reins,” he said, “I realized there was all sorts of stuff I can be doing like puttering around in the yard or folding laundry.”


“Archer,” available on Hulu