Star Trek: Short Treks' H. Jon Benjamin Talks Comedy in Space and Fitting Into a Starfleet Uniform

A new episode of Star Trek: Short Treks releases today and "The Trouble with Edward" is unlike anything the franchise has done before. The short film is the closest Star Trek has come yet to creating a straight comedy, so the producers naturally brought in someone with straight comedy credits to play a key role. That would be H. Jon Benjamin, whose voice is heard in animated series like Archer and Bob's Burgers. In Short Treks, he plays Edward Larkin, a disgruntled science officer aboard the USS Cabot. Larkin is researching tribbles and his experiments take a turn that alters the course of Star Trek history.

Benjamin stars opposite Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel, Bird Box) as the newly-minted Starfleet captain who takes command of the Cabot. The episode is written by Graham Wagner and directed by Daniel Gray Longino, both of whom worked on comedy shows like Portlandia. Together, they all make "The Trouble with Edward" a unique Star Trek experience.

"The Trouble with Edward" releases today on CBS All Access. spoke to Benjamin over the phone about his first trip to the Star Trek universe, what makes comedy and sci-fi such a fun blend, and what it takes to fit into those Starfleet uniforms.

Star Trek Short Treks Edward Larkin H Jon Benjamin
(Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS)

What’s your history with Star Trek? Did you grow up a fan? Is it new to you?

H. Jon Benjamin: It's certainly not new to me. I started watching it when I was, I would say 10 years old, and that was the original series. I sort of have spotty, like I went to visit Star Trek in the decades that followed. So I wouldn't put me in the super fandom category, but that was a big show when I was a kid. I was really engaged in the original series. I think that, Fantasy Island, and Bionic Man might have been the big three for me. But it was certainly my first experience with science fiction, as far as that goes

So then, when you saw the script for “The Trouble with Edward,” you understood the significance of tribbles?

HJB: Yeah, yeah. That's funny, because I think we had that discussion, and I was probably literally the only — I'm not even sure the writer, I'm sure he had seen the original shows, but it was literally of my time. So I mean, I'm of the age where I'm very aware of that episode and what tribbles were, and I think we did even have a funny discussion whether anybody would even know that this was a reference to something else. But I assume hardcore Star Trek fans would, of course. But like I'm saying, hardcore Star Trek fans, they started in the 70s. I think most of the people who worked on the short were in their 30s. I was like, "Do you guys even know about tribbles?" And some of them didn't. It's still a joke without knowing what the reference is, I guess. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. They're still weird fuzzy animals that procreate at whim.

HJB: Yeah. That's kind of the joke from their first entry into Star Trek. Just like weird creatures. So I had the inside track I guess. I had to explain to quite a few of my fellow cast members that this was a reference to the old Star Trek.

Were you expecting to find yourself in the position of explaining Star Trek to other people working on Star Trek?

HJB: Right, like the sage old Star Trek fan, yeah. That was me on set. I was the ambassador to the old days, taking the torch and showing them the light.

How did you end up getting involved in this project? When you signed up for Star Trek, did you go in knowing it would be a comedy episode?

HJB: Well, I'll thank Star Trek and CBS for letting it happen, but the literal story is that my friend, Lucky Yates, who's a fellow cast member on this animated show Archer that I do, he's friendly with the writer Graham Wagner, who wrote the short. I guess Graham had shared the script with Lucky, and Lucky was like “This reads like Benjamin.” So Lucky called me was like, “Can I send you a script from a friend of mine that’s a Star Trek script?” I read it and it was really funny and that's how it happened. So it was from Lucky.

Did you try to imagine any kind of backstory for Edward? Because even though it’s a comedy and a funny episode, I couldn’t help but wonder how he ended up in that position in the first place.

HJB: I believe Graham, the writer, and Dan, the director, and I, and Rosa, who played the captain, sort of had a brief discussion about it. We didn't have a lot of time to do character development stuff before we shot it, but I think basically my main question was, “Am I completely ill-suited for this job or am I a legitimate scientist who’s sort of going rogue?” And I think they were probably like, “It doesn't matter.”

I get the feeling, in my interpretation, that he was like the nephew of somebody. That seems like what it played out like. But I get the feeling he has to have been a scientist. I assume, right? He was a science officer, so he had the credentials, just was a bit off. So I think we went with sort of that version of this guy, the scientist that nobody wants to hang around with them. Which is potentially all scientists.

I like that in your version nepotism is still a concern in Starfleet.

HJB: Well it did feel like that. Like, what are you doing? But I think he was probably if you follow the narrative of the short, he was kind of doing his own work, and I think it just crossed that ethical threshold that many scientists must face their work where it has consequences outside. It's not research. So I think maybe he was just that kind of guy. Like, “I don't care about the consequences. I just trying to do my work well,” which is a dangerous potential.

What was the experience of shooting this short like for you? You’ve done live-action, and you’ve done animated sci-fi work. What was it like getting to put them together?

HJB: It wasn't actually that dissimilar to an Archer episode in space. So that was very familiar. Having to wear the outfit, that was a big departure for me. Just being that big and forced into that very tight outfit, that changes your mindset altogether when your body is like mine. Star Trek bodies, it's a toned thing. That was the main difference between me and everybody else in the cast. I was like, “Oh my body doesn't fit into this suit very well.”

You’re not the first person to mention how snug those costumes are.

HJB: They're super snug. They're like form-fitted. So you actually go into this very lengthy fitting, which I feel like, in the future, they would just need to figure out a better way to do that.

I remember on Star Trek: The Next Generation they had the cast wearing muscle suits under their uniforms for a while.

HJB: Yes. I had, I feel, the equivalent of Spanx. Or like a corset. It was tough to eat. But I guess I was the science officer so it's not like I'm military grade.

Sci-fi and comedy coming together isn’t a new thing, but I feel like there’s been more of it in recent years with stuff like Archer, The Orville, and others. Do you think there's something special about the mixture of those two genres, or is funny just funny regardless of the setting?

HJB: I always think comedy is probably better when it has a good foundation, like characters that are more nuanced and more drawn out. There's a benefit in having Star Trek, being this sort of long, long-running franchise where they really do put a lot of character development into all their prior work. Comedy always plays a little better when you have that. It works to the benefit of doing stuff like this. But essentially, yeah, it was a good comedy concept and a good idea that was well executed. But yeah, I think having the benefit of it being a Star Trek product makes a difference.

The writer and the director both worked on Portlandia, and the short kind of felt like an episode of Portlandia in space, which was a fun change of pace for Star Trek.

HJB: Right, right, yeah. And I think they did want to keep the tone the same and play the comedy that way so it's not goofy or silly in a way, but true to a real, actual Star Trek episode.

I know things didn’t end well for Edward in this episode, but would you be interested in returning to flesh him out if given the chance? Or do you think it works better if this is the only chance we get to see Edward in action?

HJB: I mean, I died for sure. I got smothered in a sea of tribbles. But maybe if you're a real Star Trek fan, you're like, “Oh, he figured out a way out. He got to a capsule or something, he could survive that.” If that's the case, I'm happy to suit up again.



"The Trouble with Edward" premieres today on CBS All Access. All previous Star Trek: Short Treks episodes are also streaming now on CBS All Access.