Best of 2011 (Behind the Scenes): 'Archer' creator Adam Reed talks about the cancer rampage episode
As 2011 comes to a close, EW.com wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. The absurdist FX espionage comedy Archer has always bravely plumbed the depths of hilarious depravity, but the season 2 episode “Placebo Effect” was a bad-taste masterpiece. Titular superspy Sterling Archer is suffering from breast cancer, and discovers that his anti-cancer drugs are actually placebos cooked up by the Irish mob as a money-making scheme. This initiates an episode-long bloodsoaked vengeance rampage. Archer plays a grisly game of Family Feud (the penalty for not telling him what he wants to know: A shot to the kneecap.) He stuffs a grenade up a man’s rear end. The whole time, he’s vomiting from chemotherapy nausea and smoking relentless amounts of medical marijuana. And then the whole thing ends with an extended reference to Magnum, P.I. Creator Adam Reed talks about what inspired this grisly, offensive, utterly wonderful half-hour of television. For more behind the scenes access to the year’s best TV and movie scenes, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2011: Behind the Scenes coverage.
As told by: Adam Reed
Every year, it seems like they catch some pharmacist or some doctor who’s been giving people placebos for their cancer. The first time I heard about it, I was furious. Then I heard about it again a few years later, and was even more furious. The people are already sick. The one hope they have is that these drugs will help them. To totally screw them out of it for money is one of the s—iest things I’ve ever heard a human being do to anybody else. So “Placebo Effect” came from having this tiny ball of fury in me.
When we first started Archer, I didn’t want him to be the bumbling spy who gets the job done accidentally, because that’s been done well a bunch of times. And FX didn’t want him to be dumb. But I was sort of frustrated. He’s super good-looking. He’s great at martial arts. He has a cool car. He gets all the girls. If he’s also the smartest guy in the room, there’s nothing to root for. So the compromise we made is that Archer is probably smarter than he acts, but he’s also willfully obtuse. It’s fun to make him an a—hole, but you can easily make him unsympathetic.
With this episode, no matter what he did, you were still rooting for the guy. It was liberating. Also, one of my favorite movies is Man on Fire. Denzel Washington is usually the hero, and he’s sort of an anti-hero in Man on Fire. He does incredibly horrible things to people. You’re not used to seeing him do that. Not that Archer’s a nice guy normally, but he’s certainly not a murderer. And in this episode, he basically murders a bunch of people.
With the Family Feud thing, I had written that the guys were tied up, and Archer was ready to do bad things to them. Then, in the writing, one Family Feud joke slipped in there, and then it was like, “Oh!” We escalated that with spray painting the names on the boxes. It really got good when [Archer voiceover actor] H. Jon Benjamin did the reads. He was huge, Richard Dawson-y. You could tell that Archer was just having a blast.
One funny thing that started in this episode was the Tinnitus thing. The characters on Archer always shooting guns in closed rooms right next to each other. In TV or movies, nobody ever talks about the danger of shooting guns near your unprotected ears. It’s super bad for you. In “Placebo Effect,” Archer and Lana go to the hospital, because their ears are damaged. That has become a running gag, and Archer talks about having Tinnitus. Actually, the head of the Tinnitus Foundation contacted us. They said, “Thanks for raising the awareness of Tinnitus.” We did some fundraiser stuff for them.
That ending of the episode is straight-up shot-for-shot from an episode of Magnum, P.I.. Did you ever see the Magnum episode where he kills Ivan? He just executes the guy. I saw that closing scene when I was a kid. I was nine years old, and my jaw just hit the floor. “Oh my god! Magnum just murdered somebody!” It ends on this freeze-frame of the muzzle blast partially obscuring Magnum’s face, and then Donald Bellisario’s name comes on there. The last thing Magnum says to Ivan is, “Did you see the sunrise this morning?” And then he kills them. I always wanted it to end just like that Magnum episode, but tweak it a little bit, put a bit of an Archer stamp on it. So it wasn’t an exact rip-off, just mostly a rip-off.
Because it’s been 160 years since the Potato Famine, I think now you can pretty safely use Irish ethnic slurs. Same with the Norwegians. Squareheads.
For more on the Best and Worst of 2011, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, on stands now.