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Aisha Tyler on transcending failure and the 'pure comedy math' of 'Archer'

Actress Aisha Tyler speaks onstage at the
Actress Aisha Tyler speaks onstage at the "Archer" Screening & Q&A during Comic-Con International 2012 held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel on July 12, 2012 in San Diego, California.
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Aisha Tyler has what she refers to as "all the jobs."

Most people know her as the voice of crime-fighting, take-no-prisoners Lana Kane on FX's animated show "Archer." She's also a daytime talk show host on CBS's “The Talk,” the host of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and has a recurring role in the police crime drama “Criminal Minds.”

Archer Trailer

What else? She has a podcast, she's written books, she does standup and now she's directing her first feature-length film. "Axis" is a micro-budget thriller, funded through Kickstarter, about an actor trying to turn his afflicted life around. 

Tyler visited The Frame to talk with John Horn about her many pursuits and the philosophy of embracing failure that has driven her forward.


Is it important to you not to do the same thing every day over and over? Are you someone who needs variety?

Yeah. It's not like I woke up one day and was like, my prescription for happiness is diverse pursuits. I think I looked back and was like, oh, I'm clearly happier when I'm on the verge of cardiac arrest. I used to worry that if I wasn't having a dynamic life, then I wouldn't have anything to talk about. 

You wouldn't have material.

Yeah, experiences that are meaningful. I think art comes out of meaningful experiences, and it's hard to make art when your meaningful experience is getting into your electric car and driving from your fancy house in the Hills to your fancy job in the Valley. I think the thing I fear most in life is waking up one day and not feeling challenge — feeling ambivalent or glib about what I have to do that day.

That gets us to the whole idea of failure. You wrote a book called "Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation." The premise is, if you don't fail, you're not pushing yourself. Is that something you learned the hard way, or looking back? 

As a comedian, it really gelled when I started doing standup. Because standup is so much about bravery, especially in the early days. There is no doubt that it is going to go terribly for you over and over and over again. But you cannot get funny without bombing. It is integral to the process of becoming a comedian, getting up on stage and performing to silence. You don't get better until you get creatively and mentally tough, and it's only those moments that make you funny.

I want to hear about "Axis," a micro-budget movie you're funding through Kickstarter. It's your feature-length directorial debut. As you're thinking about how you would direct other actors, do you think about the people who were horrible to work for, and how you'll avoid it — or the people who brought out good performances and how you want to imitate that?

When I decided I wanted to direct, I spent as much free time as I could shadowing directors. That was a big part of my life, approaching directors I respected and asking to spend time with them on set. I shadowed on "The Wire," on "24," on "Vikings," on shows I was on. I watched them work and asked so many questions. There are so many aspects to filmmaking that are not about talking to actors. Everything from where you put the camera to whether you want the statue to wear this belt or this slightly thinner brown belt. 

My favorite directors to work with are actors who've become directors. You have a shorthand with each other. 

And your movie is about an actor. 

Yeah, the script was presented to me, but I was drawn to the story. It resonates for me. The actor in the story is someone who was very successful and then wrecked his life through his own personal failings — addiction and self-abuse — and he's trying to put his life back together. 

And we talked about failure. I think people who are trying to transcend difficulty, extraordinary circumstances — that story has always been meaningful. It's why we still have action movies. I mean, "Die Hard" is a movie about a regular guy trying to save his marriage. And he goes to pretty extreme lengths to do so. 

As an artist, I'm most interested in people's frailty. I prefer people to be human. That idea really interests me — someone who's fully human, but is also trying to transcend the frailties of their humanity in specific ways.

You've been doing your podcast "Girl on Guy" for about 5 years now. You've talked to a lot of very interesting, creative, accomplished people. In some ways, is that a way for you to learn about what makes people click? Is it like a way to see how creative successful people got where they are?

Absolutely. ... I just recorded an episode with Viola Davis. She came from incredible poverty, abject conditions as a child. How did she get to be the Viola Davis that she is now? When I listen to stories like that, it helps me process and organize how I see my own life. And — here's Tony Robbins! — just to know that I can transcend. You hear how someone like that has battled back against extraordinary conditions to become this person, and in fact those conditions made her who she is today. 

I want to ask about "Archer" and playing the character Lana Kane, and what that's meant to you and your career. What has that helped you accomplish in your career outside of that show?

"Archer" is one of the purest expressions of creation that I've been involved in, and that means it's just about the voice. There are no props or an environment in which to bolster your performance. It's pure comedy math. How do I say this line in the funniest way possible? That has hopefully sharpened me as a comedian. I'm in constant awe of the team behind the show. For people who don't know, we're never in the same room together and they cobble these conversations together so they feel real. And [creator] Adam [Reed]'s mind is like a wild labyrinth. He's the king of the obscure reference. 

I want to come back to your book. Can you think of something that happened to you that was an epic fail that made you a better person?

Oh God, so many. ... I opened for Maceo [Parker], who was James Browns's musical sidekick for many years, in Santa Cruz in the mid-'90s, and I just — I mean, the thundering wall of boo was impenetrable. I couldn't do any material to win them over because they couldn't hear me. But I had to get it out because you didn't get paid if you didn't stay onstage for your allotted time. They wanted Maceo or Mo'Nique and neither of those people were going to come out. So I powered through and it just made me mentally tough. 

Prince was booed off the stage when he opened for The Rolling Stones. People were throwing stuff at him.

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team! I mean, what those experiences tell you is it's mental and creative tenacity that wins the day. You just have to get back up. My favorite quote is from "Rocky V." It's not how hard you hit, it's how hard you can get hit. That's definitely been a mantra for me in my career. The people that are still here are the people that just didn't stop. 

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