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Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir

Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir

by H. Jon Benjamin


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“Writing this funny requires immense talent.”
AV Club

H. Jon Benjamin—the lead voice behind Archer and Bob's Burgers—helps us all feel a little better about our own failures by sharing his own in a hilarious memoir-ish chronicle of failure.

Most people would consider H. Jon Benjamin a comedy show business success. But he'd like to remind everyone that as great as success can be, failure is also an option. And maybe the best option. In this book, he tells stories from his own life, from his early days ("wherein I'm unable to deliver a sizzling fajita") to his romantic life ("how I failed to quantify a threesome") to family ("wherein a trip to P.F. Chang's fractures a family") to career ("how I failed at launching a kid's show").

As Jon himself says, breaking down one's natural ability to succeed is not an easy task, but also not an insurmountable one. Society as we know it is, sadly, failure averse. But more acceptance of failure, as Jon sees it, will go a long way to making this world a different place . . . a kinder, gentler place, where gardens are overgrown and most people stay home with their pets. A vision of failure, but also a vision of freedom.

With stories, examples of artistic and literary failure, and a powerful can't-do attitude, Failure Is an Option is the book the world doesn't need right now but will get regardless.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524742188
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 263,999
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

H. Jon Benjamin is an actor, voice actor, and stand-up comedian. He lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Early Failure Years (or How I Failed to Have a Name)

I was born in a hospital. I was told that my mother was given nitrous oxide for the birth. As in, she was totally sedated. The whole labor, totally out of it. My father used to say it was used for the conception as well. Just kidding, he never said that. I just wanted to make a salty joke and blame it on my father. Anyway, they used strange methods back in the sixties. Maybe her sedation affected me. I do feel dizzy all the time, and I'm incredibly lazy, which might have all been connected to not having heard the agonized screams of my mother as I came into the world. Just entering the universe to a really quiet room, but for the nasal mutterings of a Jewish obstetrician complaining to a nurse about the cost of his landscaper, can have a lasting effect on one's personality.

The place of my birth was Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester isn't known for its good hospitals, so I imagine I was mishandled. I don't have any visible signs of that, except for two huge indentions in my skull. I assume forceps were used. I read once that the name Elliot became popular in the late nineteenth century because that was the name of the forceps used in childbirth: the Elliot forceps. Can you imagine naming your child after the steel instrument that pulled them out of your vagina? That shows a real lack of due diligence. When you name your child after a medical device, it is a pretty telltale sign of an unhappy marriage. Not many women naming their kids Eppy today, after the epidural. Just saying. Also, that will be the last time I will write "just saying," based on how I cringed after writing it.

I was named Harry Jon Benjamin. Harry after my paternal grandfather and Jon after the misspelling of John. It appears that there was some discord over my name, so an untidy agreement was made between my parents where they would maintain my first name on the birth certificate but call me by my middle name.

The Harry has always been a buried secret, like an identity Easter egg, and that mystery has had its own odd effects as well, probably due to the fact that my dad's father died at a really young age, so passing on his name would be like passing on a curse. But they still gave it anyway, with the caveat of deciding to never utter it. So, as a result, I am just subtly cursed by the ghosts of my ancestry. It's a very Jewish tendency to honor and excise the past simultaneously. (Jewish voice) "He's named after his grandfather, God rest his soul, a name that will never ever be uttered in this house, God forbid!" That's what's in my name. A real Jewish cocktail of guilt, pride, and necrophobia.

Still, Jon is a pretty solid mainstream name, so I could blend in, until teachers read out the spelling. It's never fun to get made fun of for the fact your name is spelled wrong. Like, "Your mom's so dumb, she spelled John wrong." Or "How dare you sully the memory of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus and whose head was cut clean off by King Herod just 'cause his vindictive daughter asked him to!" Anyway, no one is ever completely scarred by a name, except for, maybe, that guy named Tiny Ichicock.

My earliest memories are of my parents cleaning. My father owned an electrical supply store that sold lighting and bulbs and circuit breakers, etc., so as a family, we had access to a lot of cutting-edge electrical equipment. You know how in the fifties, there was a rush to be the first home on the block to purchase a TV set? It was momentous, a real sea change for families. That "moment" came for us in the form of the NuTone Central Vacuum System. Because of my father's position, we were definitely the first home in our neighborhood to install the vac system, which held the promise of changing everything for home cleaning. It was basically a network of ports in the wall of any room that could connect a vacuum hose to a central unit in the basement. A comprehensive cleaning system, like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of vacuum systems. A real Valhalla for compulsive cleaners.

And shit, did they use it. In my memory, most of my childhood was spent vacuuming or hearing the sound of vacuuming. Giving my parents this technology was like giving the Union forces the Gatling gun-you can do so much more damage so much more quickly. And with more frequency. The key element to the NuTone vac was that you could increase the sheer amount of "cleaning" opportunities in any given moment. As in, it encouraged rapid-response cleaning. Like, if one piece of lint was on the floor, one could, or dare I say, should, plug in the vac and deal with it like it was a medical emergency.

With the vacuum in place, our house was on its way to becoming "clear." As in, a perfectly self-contained cleaning environment. A real biosphere of neuroses. The plaintive wails of the NuTone vac system would wake me in the morning and put me to sleep at night. A giant sucking sound, if you will. And I never knew when and where it was going to come. The threat was always nigh. I would lie awake in bed and long for the simpler times, when vacuums were manual.

From the eyes of this child, this was just the way things were. Futuristic cleaning all the time and without any foreseeable slackening. The sheer force of constant cleaning was, of course, the veneer of order for a bubbling chaos beneath, and new technologies would only serve to stiffen that veneer. To this day, I can't clean. And that seems counterintuitive to the bulk of my upbringing, which was consumed with it. Maybe it was rebellion, or maybe I'm still in a state of shock, but to this day, I wipe off a table as if you handed a baby monkey a wet cloth.

I still get bizarre pleasure in watching people clean, though. One of the first things I did after making some money was hire a cleaning woman to come to my studio apartment in New York City. She was young and cute, but it was less sexual attraction than an attraction to the cleaning. I would sit and marvel at it, which made for an uncomfortable situation. There was always this very present energy coming from her, saying, "Why are you always hanging around here in your small apartment and watching me clean?" My intentions were very easy to misread, and it was a hard distinction to communicate, like, "I'm not gawking at you the way you're thinking. I just like to watch people clean. Because of my childhood. Seriously I just need to watch!"

Chapter 2

How I Failed at Pretty Much Everything as a Kid (the Foundations of Failure)

I meet kids all the time lately who are really good at things, and I keep thinking, I don't remember being good at anything as a kid. My son, who is fourteen now, has many talented friends, some who play music, others who are savvy at coding; others speak several languages, some are precocious artists, etc. Mainly, as a kid, I just went to Friendly's. And I had so much time to get good at something, but no . . . nothing. A local pederast did try to get me into archery, but I even faltered at that, which I guess was a good thing: the avoiding pederasty part.

But why was I so averse to getting good at something? I remember this one kid in my elementary school who was an avid Cub Scout. He recruited me to join his Cub troop that was run by his father. His skill was that he knew how to tie something like five hundred different knots. So many knots. The double loop, the half hitch, the midline loop, the sailor's hitch, the strangle knot, even the super controversial hangman's knot. I went to one scout meeting at his house and we sat in a tent for at least two hours tying knots using a diagrammatic guide. He looked so happy. After the meeting, I immediately quit the Cub Scouts.

I often wonder if that kid finally ever hung himself or others. More likely, he's just an incredibly successful scout leader. But he was doing something, despite its being only tying knots. He was practicing sophisticated skills, even at nine years old. I recall reading about Ben Franklin, who left school at ten, apprenticed with his brother as a printer, then started writing for a newspaper at age fifteen. Jesus. I mean, c'mon. What a prodigious asshole.

My unique talents centered more around watching TV while eating SpaghettiOs raw from the can, which made my father rabidly mad, because he had installed in the TV room a white shag rug, that, as a consequence, had recurring and ever-growing concentric SpaghettiO stains. Also, I was proficient at taking a racquetball racket and hitting a tennis ball in my living room against the wide brick chimney for hours. That's a skill I could have possibly developed into something greater, but on the whole, it was more like what one would do for recreation in a supermax. And don't get me wrong: everyone's childhood is "like a prison," even though that's a bit "reductio ad custodia." But, look, starting early being "into something" has its consequences, too. One can carry that burden, heavy, of having tied all those knots.

For me, I just needed to find my own thing. Anything that would envelop my time beyond procrastination. Something that would set me on a higher path. The thing is, I was very shy and introverted. I didn't realize that then, but I enjoyed being home alone, despite the accompanying gripping loneliness. One thing I started to do was record myself on a Panasonic cassette player doing interviews. But because I seldom left my house, I would interview me as me or me as other people.

This turned out to be a relatively successful pet project, most evident in the time I interviewed myself as an astronaut on Voyager 1 and played it for all the kids at school and they went crazy. It, in a nutshell, exemplified the power of lying.

My hoax was so convincing that one student coaxed me to play it for our teachers. I played it for Mr. Simko, our gym teacher, and he was shocked. He asked me how I got to interview a real astronaut, and I told him that he came to my house because he was friendly with our neighbor who was a scientist.

Then I played it for my homeroom teacher Mr. Powers, and he immediately pointed out that Voyager 1 was unmanned.

"Oh . . . yeah, but he was in the space program."

"But he described seeing Earth from the spacecraft on Voyager One."

"Well, he must have been joking."

"But the whole interview was about him being in space."

"He must have been talking about a different spaceship."

"And as far I know, Jon, there is no astronaut in NASA named Biff Alderman."

I really should have stopped with the gym teacher, but that's the price one pays when one flies too close to the sun, or, in other words, plays a fake interview with an astronaut for a guy who has a completist knowledge of the space program.

Later, I tried school politics. In sixth grade, I ran for class treasurer. My only real experience with money thus far had been borrowing it from my parents and stealing it from my cousin's drawer. Both seemed ample qualifiers to run for treasurer. My decision to run was somewhat quixotic, as in I decided to run the day of the elections.

I was up against a girl named Doreen. She was smart, driven, and self-assured. She was running unopposed and had made signs to "Vote Doreen" and hung them all over the school. I was what is now called a "spoiler candidate." In the auditorium, in front of the class, Doreen gave her speech. It was well delivered and she spoke eloquently about raising funds to support a class trip to Boston. That was huge.

Though we were only an hour from Boston, it was like a galaxy away for most people in Worcester. Personally, I had been only a few times, but most kids talked about Boston like it was Paris. Like, "Have you been to Boston?" "Are you fucking kidding me? No fucking way. I've been to Shrewsbury, though."

She talked about working with the teachers and the school board to raise money for this trip to go to Paul Revere's house. She also talked about getting new outdoor equipment for the playground. New balls, new baseball equipment, and new nets for the basketball hoops.

I thought I had this in the bag. I was counting on the "no-nothing" vote. Nobody wants some loudmouth, proactive girl with a solid agenda, making promises about school trips and better overall conditions. Give them something they really want to hear: a hopeless message, a message that conveys "you get what you get." Why invest in new balls when we've been kicking around that deflated one for years? Do we really want to sully the memory of all those who came before us who kicked that deflated ball? Do we want some shiny new netting on the hoop when our forefathers played without them? What we needed was some hard-line illiberalism.

Instead, she completed her speech, and I was called up and I stood before the class, immediately drowning in flop sweat, and said, "What she said."

Everybody stared and the room started to melt and no one even uttered a chuckle. Even the heater hissed in disapproval. I received zero votes. Later that year, I looked over at Doreen while we stood in Paul Revere's dumb bedroom and she gave me a smug look. Whatever.

I tried music. My father played the clarinet. But he had stopped playing by the time I was born, so it was more my dad had a clarinet. My dad also had a gun. He never shot it. I guess it was for protection. He kept it hidden in a box somewhere on a shelf in the back of a hallway closet-a perfect spot for a gun when you need one quickly. In the event of a home invasion, my father would have to exchange pleasantries with the intruders, all the while subtly making his way to a closet at the other side of the house to get the gun. Or maybe his plan all along was to deceive them by telling them that he keeps all his money in a wooden box in a hall closet, then lure them to this closet and then, after using a stepladder to reach up to the shelf for the box, slowly open it, pull out the pistol, and say, ÒOh, my mistake, this was the box with this in it,Ó then BLAM BLAM BLAM, shower them with bullets.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Prologue (the Preliminary Failure Before the Main Failure) 1

Chapter 1 The Early Failure Years (or How I Failed to Have a Name) 9

Chapter 2 How I Failed at Pretty Much Everything as a Kid (the Foundations of Failure) 15

Failed Children's Book

Failed Album Covers

Chapter 3 The Sleepover (and How I Failed to Have One) 25

Chapter 4 The Robbery (and How I Failed to Stop One) 33

Chapter 5 How I Failed to Do Anything Significant with My Disease 43

Chapter 6 The Teen Years (or How I Failed Hosting a Bar Mitzvah Party) 49

Chapter 7 Shelves (or How I Failed to Star in a Pornographic Movie) 59

Chapter 8 The Threesome (or How I Failed to Quantify It) 71

Failed Sexual Positions 77

Chapter 9 How I Failed to Provide a Historical Example of Failure 89

Chapter 10 Dee Har (or How I Failed to Move to France) 97

Failed Pickup Lines 111

Chapter 11 How I Failed to Study the Holocaust 113

My Failed Book List 121

Chapter 12 Getting High (and How I Failed at Being Gay-Bashed) 123

Failed Weed-Strain Reviews 133

Chapter 13 How I Failed to Sell a Pilot 139

Chapter 14 Prince Edward Island (and How I Failed to Take a Walk in the Woods) 149

Chapter 15 How I Failed as a New Father 157

Chapter 16 How I Failed at Providing Some Historical Perspective on Failure Redux 165

Chapter 17 How I Failed at "the Celebrity Favor" 175

Failed Presidential Pets 183

Chapter 18 Buying a Motorcycle (and How I Failed to Ride It) 191

Chapter 19 Midnight Pajama Jam (or How I Failed at Launching a Kids' Show) 201

Failed Business Ideas 209

Chapter 20 How I Failed to Have a Chinese Dinner While Visiting My Parents in Arizona 215

Chapter 21 The Flood: a Waste of Waters Ruthlessly (or How I Failed My Rental Car) 223

Chapter 22 How I Failed at Differentiating My Two Characters of Bob and Archer 237

Epilogue My Failure Is an Option 239

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