The 67th Primetime Emmy Awards are Sunday night in Los Angeles, and for the second straight year Adam Reed will be sweating it out with his fellow nominees. Like last year, the Asheville native and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus is nominated for “Archer,” the oddball FX Networks series he writes and executive produces.
But he’s hoping for a different outcome this time around in the outstanding animated program category.
“Last year, we lost literally in the first minute,” Reed said, laughing at the memory. “We were the very first category up, and they really hustle through the early ones. We lost to ‘Bob’s Burgers,’ which is a fantastic show, so I like to say we came in second. After that, we left and watched the rest of the show on a live feed from the bar across the street. It worked out as good as it could have, except for not winning. But maybe this year.”
Winning an Emmy would put an emphatic seal of approval on a television career that began as improbably as any in recent memory. After getting an English degree from UNC in 1992, Reed spent a stretch of time bouncing around trying to find the right professional path.
Following an extended period backpacking around Europe, Reed was almost broke. So he flew back to Atlanta because it was a cheap destination, and because his sister was working at Turner Broadcasting System – where Reed caused quite a stir when he showed up in a jet-lagged state.
“Adam had just gotten off the plane from France, went to talk to his sister at Turner, walked in looking like a homeless guy and somehow got hired on the spot as a production assistant,” said Matt Thompson, Reed’s longtime collaborator, who also was working at Turner. “I couldn’t believe it. I’d been tending bar, trying to get into TV any way I could, and getting that P.A. job took me a year and a half. And he just walked into it.”
James Bond fan
While making on-air promos for various shows (“Coming up next – ‘The Smurfs!’”), Reed and Thompson started batting around ideas for oddball cartoon series they wanted to make themselves. Turner was looking for that very thing to fill its late-night “Adult Swim” portion of Cartoon Network, where the duo’s first series debuted in 2001.
That was “Sealab 2021,” which used stock footage of the 1972 environmentally conscious cartoon “Sealab 2020.” But the four-season run of “2021” was a lot more like “The Office” than “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” overrun with strange characters who were somewhere between quirky and psychotic.
Reed and Thompson’s next show was “Frisky Dingo,” an anti-superhero series that lasted for two seasons. That set the stage for “Archer,” a manic parody of “James Bond”-style espionage thrillers starring the world’s most annoying super-spy. “Archer” will start its seventh season next spring.
“I was a huge ‘James Bond’ fan growing up, which was before subscription video on-demand or anything like that,” Reed said. “So you’d see big movies like that year’s later as ABC’s ‘Sunday Night Movie,’ which always seemed to coincide with some school project I’d put off. So I’d be torn between homework and ‘Thunderball.’ ‘Thunderball’ usually won.”
Along with conceptualizing and writing the episodes for “Archer,” Reed also voices the character of Ray Gillette, one of the titular Archer’s fellow spies. Part of the process involves Reed coming up with elaborately bizarre backstories for the case, like spy agency personnel director Pam Poovey – a tentacle-porn enthusiast who has a verse from romantic poet Lord Byron tattooed on her back.
“People ask me all the time if we do much improvising, but almost all of it comes from Adam,” said actress Amber Nash, who voices Pam Poovey. “Over the seasons, he’s gotten to know the cast better and started to realize what we’re capable of. So he seems to write more for the characters. I feel lucky that Pam’s had such a crazy trajectory and gets more crazy and awesome all the time. It’s a joy to see what happens next.”
As to what’s next for Reed beyond “Archer,” he and Thompson are working on the pilot for another series, one with a surreal yet down-home feel. Reed described it as “a post-apocalyptic buddy comedy set in Wilkesboro.”
“People ask me all the time how to break into this, and I used to shrug and say I don’t know,” Reed said. “Now I tell them to just make something and put it on YouTube. That’s become a real system for things to turn into TV shows because there are junior network executives watching, looking to get in touch with anyone who does something with that combination of hits and merit. It’s been interesting to work in TV at this point in time because the business model has changed so much. It would be a stressful time to run a TV network because it’s all evolving so fast, but it’s a fun time to provide the content.”
The 67th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Andy Samberg, will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on Fox.