Jon Benjamin, the vocal star of FX’s “Archer” and Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers,” steps in front of the camera to anchor an absurdist newsmagazine satire that appears at first glance like Comedy Central’s latest attempt to build on its “Daily Show”/”Colbert Report” strengths. But politics play a negligible role in “Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” which ultimately falls closer to the bite-sized eccentricities over on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, where Benjamin also has a long history of voice work.
Too bad then that ADD-enabling Adult Swim has made 30 minutes feel like too much time to spend on hit-and-miss comedy, and the four “Van” episodes available for preview suffer from stretching clever ideas too far. Each installment features a central storyline — an investigative piece by Benjamin that morphs into a full-blown irreverent narrative — and two or three unrelated short segments.
Quick, easy laughs in self-explanatory man on the street bits like “Old People Use the Internet” and “You Can’t Shoot Here!” don’t always flatter the surreal digressions of the longer form stories. A piece on New York’s “Little Little Italy” finds Benjamin interacting “Gulliver’s Travels”-style with mini mafiosos to diminishing returns, while the initially biting set-up of a “Poor Farm” — where billionaires playact at being homeless — devolves into an excuse for a gutsy but only mildly amusing extended sound-free sequence.
Benjamin’s deadpan delivery and smooth voice offset his nondescript looks, but his biggest attribute as a headliner is a sterling reputation among comedy’s nerd elite. Early episodes boast cameos from Chris Parnell (“Saturday Night Live”), Matt Walsh (“Upright Citizens Brigade”) and Jon Glaser (“Delocated”); guest spots from Patton Oswalt, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk are on tap for the future. A recurring supporting cast plays Benjamin’s crew without much distinction.
Fans of Adult Swim’s cult favorite “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” will find a particularly like-minded sensibility in episode three, “Star Door.” Standout installment not only benefits from guests Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim but also channels their uniquely off-kilter humor in a trippy sci-fi storyline that sustains its length.
Too often, though, “Van” lends credence to the theory that TV sketch comedy’s primary usefulness isn’t in appointment viewing, but in feeding the voracious appetite for viral videos online. Coincidentally or not, the show is exec produced by website Funny or Die.