Aisha Tyler on ‘Archer,’ ‘Whose Line,’ and diversity in Hollywood

Daytime fans know actress Aisha Tyler as a former co-host on “The Talk,” where she earned an Emmy. Fans of crime thrillers know her as a forensic psychologist on “Criminal Minds.” She also hosts the CW improv show “Whose Line is It, Anyway?” 

She returns to her role as Special Agent Lana Kane in the animated comedy “Archer.” Season 11 kicks off Wednesday on FXX. 

KCRW speaks with Aisha Tyler about how the pandemic affects her work in animation and how she has intimate conversations with actors when directing. Also, how is “Whose Line” addressing race, and what’s her reaction to the Oscars announcing new diversity rules for Best Picture contenders?

KCRW: Do you enjoy doing the role and voicing an animated character?

Aisha Tyler: “I do, I really do. I've done a few other animated roles. Most notably before ‘Archer’ … ‘The Boondocks’ that was based on the strip. But obviously this … we're in season 11, which has been the most substantial voice work that I've ever done. ... It's like this really free way of creating because you just get to focus on what your voice is doing. And you don't have to worry about whether you're hitting your mark earlier in your light or whether the guy across from you has it together or not. You can just be really kind of purely focused on the comedy of the role. There's kind of a linearity to it. You really only focus on a couple of skills. But within that set of skills, you really get to kind of go crazy, and so you can be physical, and you can really play with the way you say words, and the tone of your voice, and the pattern of it, and the rhythm of it. … There's no other way that you work that's like voice work.

… You don't have to worry about whether your lipstick is on straight, which by the way, I haven’t put on lipstick in all of 2020, and I'm really enjoying that part of it. … Good side effect is I've been wearing the same pair of workout tights since like February.”

Aisha Tyler plays Lana Kane in “Archer.” She says season 11 is the most substantial voice work she’s ever done. Photo courtesy of FXX

I imagine doing this kind of work is COVID-proof because you could do it in your house, right? You don't need to go into a studio.

“Yeah, so we always recorded the show at the same studio for the last 11 seasons. And we were finishing up this season when the lockdown happened. I think we had gotten every episode — but maybe the last two — done before the lockdown. And they were pretty quickly able to put some really reassuring kind of COVID protocols in place. So I actually did finish the season in-studio. 

But I do imagine if we're still in this position when we start season 12, we'll be working on whether we're venturing back out or whether we're doing the recording at home. 

I think the larger part of it that's been COVID-proof is that the rest of the work has been taken home by the artist. … This is digitally animated. They all took their computers home and even animated the show from home, which is very different from a … live action television show where the very nature of making a TV show is so intimate. There's so much close contact. It's like 120 people jammed into a space for 16 hours. Someone's constantly touching you or touching the things around you. So it's a much longer road towards recovery for live action television and film than for animation, where we essentially continue for the most part uninterrupted, except for the wild and crazy day where it looked like they were robbing the animation studio because everybody was running out with computers and ... boxes and taking them home.”

What does that mean for your other work?

“With ‘Whose Line’ this season, we shoot so much material for that show that then gets winnowed down to the episode that you see. ... They came up with a whole new season … from stuff that had been left on the cutting room floor. They weren't like the leftovers, it was just that we shoot so much that they had a lot of materials they were able to scrape together to make another season. So that season was something we shot two years ago.

I was able to shoot two kind of relatively substantial things over the summer. One was this big Warner Bros. ‘Hall of Heroes’ thing … that came out a few weeks ago and is actually going to come back out in September, which is kind of like a virtual Comic Con experience. 

And then I shot a show called ‘Inside the Boys,’ which is an after show for the Amazon series ‘The Boys.’ And that was my first experience, honestly, with the new kind of code protocols. But thankfully, I was hosting something, it was just me in a room with no other people. And we were really able to kind of maintain [a] big perimeter around me, the cameras were operated kind of remotely, and there was one guy way on the other side of the room operating a jib arm. 

So far I've been able to continue to do some work. But as we're moving into the fall, now more traditional productions are coming up, and I'm being approached for shows, and now it's just figuring out how to make this stuff work. 

And I'm also a director and … thinking about how to work with the actors in a way where I'm not coming into contact with them. I mean, a big part of being a director is talking to actors in an intimate way and kind of about their interior life, and taking them aside and having conversations with them.  it's just going to be a very different way of working going forward.”

“A big part of being a director is talking to actors in an intimate way and kind of about their interior life. … It's just going to be a very different way of working going forward,” says Aisha Tyler. Photo courtesy of Aisha Tyler. 

How would you have an intimate conversation with an actor? Would you do it in person? Would you do it over the phone? Would you do it over Zoom? 

“There's something about just taking someone into a private space. And just say, ‘Hey, let's just go to the corner, we'll stand six apart, but we can at least have something that will feel like an intimate conversation.’ Because sometimes, a lot of that work is inside, it’s interior stuff. They don't want people hearing the conversation. They want to be able to process it on their own. 

But I also think I'll probably text actors quite a bit. Whether it's professional or not, a lot of people have their phones with them on set because there's a lot of waiting, you're kind of standing around. And so you can have that completely private conversation with an actor via text and still be able to communicate what you want. And we're so accustomed to interacting with the world through our phones now that I think it's going to be a pretty useful tool. 

… If you're getting either an adjustment or an idea ... you want to keep it to yourself and you don't want people kind of observing the way in which you're building a character, because so much of that is just so personal, and I really want to respect that for actors. It's important that they feel brave and they feel protected. So I think there'll be a lot more texting.”

In an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” actor Wayne Brady plays a victim, and you play a police officer. He's trying to identify a white man in a police lineup. Scene :

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When you’re joking but not really. When comedy and the truth meet up...

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Tyler/officer: “Sir, can you pick out the man who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the American economy and then made you pay for it?”

Brady/victim: “You mean after systematically devaluing my education and relegating me to certain neighborhoods where I couldn’t actually pursue the education that would allow me to rise to meet a certain fiscal stature in this country?”

What went into that scene, and has the show handled these difficult topics surrounding race in the U.S.?

“That was filmed … three or four years ago. And actually there was a setup before that bit. So the first setup was: They put two white guys with Wayne. Ryan goes to Collin, ‘Can you pick out the guy in the lineup who robbed you?’ … Everybody laughed. And a lot of people took the original joke to mean that Black people are more inclined to commit a crime. 

And the way that I took it and the way that I believe that it was intended … was that cops are lazy and they will take any Black guy and throw him into a lineup and go, ‘It has to be the guy that did the crime.’ And I wanted to point out that actually, that’s not true on a million levels.

… It was just an opportunity to talk about race and perceptions of race in this country. ‘Whose Line’ has been around a long time. … It's always quite frankly, with the exception of Wayne Brady … it really was dominated by white male improvisers. And it's been a slow kind of move to get more people of color on it, more women on it. 

But it's a great show with really smart, strong, funny people who are trying to a) make people laugh, but b) hopefully say something about the world around us. 

… And we don't ever really make a decision about what we're going to say because it is truly an improvised show. I’m the only person who knows what the suggestions are, but I don't know what the guys are going to say. And neither do they because they figure it out after I throw that suggestion to them. 

But we try to say something meaningful. And I think now that there are two improvisers of color on the show, we've had more opportunities to do that. 

… Frustratingly, this season and last season, we had almost no other improvisers of color and definitely no women. And I think it's important that we work harder to be more inclusive. Because I still think there's a general attitude in the world … that women don't do comedy. There are not enough women in comedy. And I think a part of that is that younger women who want to do comedy don't see themselves. And so it's something that I think we could be doing better on that show.”

… I have had this conversation about diversity and storytelling and inclusion in the entertainment business for years, which is that inclusion is incredibly important. And diversity is important. But there's a primary incentive, which is that different perspectives and different experiences are going to tell different stories. 

And yes, we want things to be fair, we want them to be represented, and those are paramount. But equally paramount is the idea that people who are coming from a different set of experiences are going to bring fresh new eyes and fresh new tools to storytelling. And that in and of itself is valuable because diversity in this business, honestly, is the key to success. 

… Hopefully a dam is broken, and we're going to see continuing, kind of expanding circle of inclusion in this business. … It's just empirically true that diversity in storytelling leads to commercial success, that people … want new things. And you see the exclusive success of something like ‘Parasite’ or ‘Black Panther,’ where everyone was saying a Black-led film is never going to be successful on the international stage. And $1.3 billion [in the U.S.] later, everybody can suck an egg. But that's been a narrative that's been told in Hollywood forever, which is that Black-led projects don't sell to non-Black audiences, and it's just empirically untrue.”

What's your reaction to the Oscars announcing new diversity rules to qualify for Best Picture? 

“I'm more than a little shocked by it. It’s a really, really big bold step. But it might be the only way that we get this done. Because people just naturally kind of gravitate toward what they know. And you really need to push people outside of their comfort zone to make change. 

The fact of the matter is there’s still going to be plenty of work for white guys. There always has been, and always will be. And I personally believe that high tide raises all boats. So I really don't believe that making more of an effort to include historically excluded groups is somehow going to reduce the pie, as George Bush II has said.

… We want to make the pie higher. And I think that we can make the pie higher in this business. … With the streamers and all these new platforms, all these new ways and places to [be] creative, there's just more opportunities. And I think that everybody can work, and I think we’ll be better for it. So I do applaud it.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin