7:30am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Hank Azaria on Realizing 'Brockmire' Had Depth, Joe Buck's Chops and Season 2 Plans on IFC
An Emmy winner for his wacky vocal world-building on The Simpsons and for nuanced character turns like Ed Cochran on Ray Donovan, Hank Azaria is getting an unexpected opportunity to meld sides of his career as unstable, alcoholic sportscaster Jim Brockmire on IFC's Brockmire.
It's a role that lets Azaria tap into the wackiness of how a consummate announcer might give play-by-play during sexual intercourse, but the character's relationship with the similar broken Jules (the terrific Amanda Peet) goes beneath the schtick to find a raw, often sweet meeting of damaged equals.
With Brockmire standing in fine contrast to his scene-stealing turn opposite Robert De Niro in HBO's The Wizard of Lies, it has been a fine spring for showcasing Azaria's versatility.
Azaria got on the phone recently to discuss why he would have been satisfied if Brockmire had been far less emotionally complex, but how he and the writers came to realize this Funny or Die character had the legs to support a full series. We also talked about the acting brilliance of Joe Buck and the liberties IFC is going to let the show take in its second season.
The full Q&A…
I'm watching the ESPN Game of the Week a couple of weeks ago and there you are popping up in the booth for an inning. When you do something like that, does it feel like promotion for a show or does it feel like an opportunity that still makes you giddy?
Both, is the simple answer. One of this weird, joyous side effects, I don't know if that's the right word for it, of this whole thing has been the cross promotion with sports. I'm a huge sports fan, huge Mets fan. One of the great things about the nice response this show has gotten is the sports world has sort of invited me to participate every once in a while like that. I was in heaven sitting there looking at the Mets game saying nonsensical things in the booth.
One thing that really amused me about that appearance was that the other guys in the booth really didn't seem to know if they were talking to Hank or to Jim Brockmire and which one they were supposed to be talking to. Is that a new thing? Obviously no one is going to confuse you with Moe, people know that you're two different people. But you're in the booth and I really didn't feel like they knew who they were talking to at certain times.
Well, in fairness to them, I kept slipping in and out of character because there were some things that seemed appropriate to respond to as Jim Brockmire and some jokes that I had ready to go as Brockmire that if they set me up for that perfectly, I just slid right into it. Once I start doing that voice, I tend to get addicted to it and keep going. Then I would switch back out to Hank and say whatever. It was a fairly schizophrenic appearance.
What have you learned about the difference between the way that Jim Brockmire sits and watches a baseball game versus the way that Hank Azaria sits and watches a baseball game?
Well, Jim Brockmire first of all was getting almost unbelievably drunk, by definition, if he's watching a ball game and he's describing, as every professional is trained to do, he's describing it in detail and analyzing it, and giving it his thoughts, while never missing the count, never missing the action of the ball game. And Hank, especially at the Mets game, I'm sitting it watching it as a fan. In fact, that even happened at one point in the game, I got so caught up in the at-bat, it was bases loaded, two out. I was like "Guys, can we just shush for a second" I got into what's going on here.
Who has more fun watching a baseball game?
Well, I have more fun sober than Jim does, that's for sure.
My impression listening to you interact with those guys is that you're going to have to be fighting sports people off with a bat to cameo in the second season. What is going to be the secret to who actually works well playing themselves versus who is going to be too hammy and who you really aren't going to want there?
You never know what you're going to get until folks show up. We wrote these cameos for Joe Buck, Brian Kenny, Tim Kurkjian, Jonah Keri, and had really no idea how they were going to do with it. They all did really great. Joe in particular was like a virtuoso. We were shocked. We wrote a lot for him, and were like "I hope he can do it, we'll see." We designed it all to be fairly cut-able if it didn't work, but we ended up keeping everything because he, no pun intended, knocked it out of the park over and over again. Joe's gotten so busy, as we all know, that we weren't so sure we'd be able to get him schedule-wise on there. So the plan B was to hire an actor to play a Joe Buck-type. We were thinking the upside to that is, "It's a bummer if we don't get Joe, cause that's so cool, but it won't be so bad to have a professional actor come in and doing that." I swear, within two scenes we were like, "No professional actor we would have hired would have been anywhere near as good as Joe is being in this." The guy's got genuine chops, it's amazing.
Do you want to avoid having season two become a cavalcade of sportscaster guest stars, but how do you want to make sure you get in some of these people who obviously now are going to want to participate?
Season two's already written, believe it or not, and it was designed for Joe to return in a pretty hilarious way that I won't reveal now. But we have had a couple of requests from some rather large name people to participate, and we will find a place for them I'm sure. Although I must say it will be easier in season thee to design it going in knowing who we are writing to and build that stuff in. Joel Church-Cooper, who is the head writer, really is meticulous about how he builds these stories, so there's not a ton of room for messing around. But if the likes of Bob Costas or Tony Kornheiser want to come play, who are we to say no?
With someone like a Costas, who has to some degree parodied himself in the past, does that make him a bad subject to be on Brockmire, because we know he can do that? Do we have to be surprised that a person has a sense of humor about themselves for it to work?
I don't think so. It depends on how you use them. I think that it was really fun to have the surprise of Joe Buck totally parodying himself was really delicious on separate levels. As an actor, as a sports fan, I enjoyed that. I just love Joe, I had a good time with the guy. It's been fun getting to know him. But it depends how you use them. I think that Costas, we'll find a way, we'll try anyway, to use people in their best light. And Costas is so enthusiastic about it that I'm sure we'll find a good way to have Bob come in, even if it's just for a few lines.
Going back to the original development process, how long did it take you and the writers to become convinced that this was a character who could support actually being on screen for 30 minutes at a time, on screen for eight episodes at a time, rather than just being a sketch character?
We honestly really didn't know that for sure until we were in the editing room saying "I think this ...", and a couple of cuts too, cause your first cut's always long and horrible. After a couple cuts we were like "You know, I think this might be working". And the Funny Or Die short that we did about 10 years ago made us realize that this could definitely be funny, but like you say, you don't know that it's more than a sketch. Again, I want to credit Joel Church-Cooper. He wrote great scripts. Whether it's Brockmire in the center of it, it doesn't matter. After 30 years I feel like I know a good script when I see it, and these were good, funny scripts. So I'm like "Well I think this is going to hold?"
Then the other question became whether a character like this, talking like this, is it going to get weird? Will it sustain? That we didn't know until we saw it. I've got to credit Tim Kirkby, who directed all eight, very much for that as well, because he was always making sure that the story was working on an emotional, believable, human level. So however much Joel and I were concerned about the jokes, and I was concerned about being the guy who talked like this convincingly, Tim was always keeping his eye on the believable darkness of the thing, and the relatable-ness of the thing. I think that he deserves a lot of credit for that.
Was there an emotional beat in those early episodes where you suddenly actually realized that you could do this? That you could play this character for emotional moments, for darkness, for humanity, as opposed to just get the laughs?
As we were developing the scripts, and I was very pleased with what Joe had created, I was much more looking at it through a comedic lens. Is it funny? Is it smart? Does it make sense? Is it surprising? Are there hard laughs? It seemed to have that so I was happy.
And is wasn't until I took my producer hat off and put my actor hat on and I started working on the script as an actor and memorizing the lines that I turned to my assistant who was working on the lines with me and I said "Is it me or is this quite emotional? There's some dark stuff here. I have to act this, I'm not sure a goofy guy talking like this, there'd better be some dark humanity lurking underneath this or it's not going to play."
I'll tell you when I realized I was in weird territory with this, that was either going to work really well or not, we hired Amanda Peet, we were lucky enough to have have Amanda say "Yes," and we realized in the short, much to our surprise, Brockmire was funniest when he seemed to be happening in the real world. I thought it would lend itself to broad comedy, and it does occasionally, but he's so weird and out there that he has to be surrounded by people who are absolutely reacting to him as if he's real. And the better the actor, the more that's going to happen.
So we're fortunate enough to have Amanda and Tyrel Williams be the main people who are reacting to Brockmire, who are both great and hilarious in their own way. And it was when I was doing emotional scenes with Amanda and she didn't care that I was a guy talking like this, she was coming at me hard like I was her boyfriend and she was upset with me and she's so good that I was trying to really take care of her emotionally, as one does with your scene partner in a scene, except it has to come out through this filter. It became more like, "God I want to tell her I love her but I have to say [Brockmire voice] 'I love you,'" which is going to sound insincere, coming out of the Brockmire filter, which I always thought would be hilarious. I always thought would be funny to have this character in that circumstance, but when I found myself actually in it I found it very challenging. I was like "Boy, how do you really act sincerely like this?"
So much of why we take Brockmire seriously, as you say, is because Jules takes him seriously. Was that something that you guys immediately realized as you were writing, is that there had to be an equal foil who was going to tap into that real side of him as opposed to just the humorous side?
Absolutely. And that's what Joel wrote, and that's another surprise. Mike Farah from Funny Or Die and I, we had worked on the story a little by the time Joel came on, and all we gave him was "He should probably have a romance or fall in love with the woman who owns the team, or is promoting the team." That's about it, that's the premise we gave him. And he came back with this specific, well-observed unsentimental yet highly romantic, sybaritic love affair between these two people that is arguably the best thing about the thing. Nothing to do with baseball, they both love baseball and that's how they come together, that's their common ground. But I was like "My God man, what have you written here, this is lovely!" I was really not expecting it. What I did in the short is what I was shooting at. Pretty sophomoric, pretty funny, pretty smart, well-observed. And Joel hit those notes, but then Tim and Joel brought this realistic, dark humanity to the thing, which I was tremendously overjoyed about.
You would have been perfectly happy doing this show as something much less than what we got here?
Absolutely. I wanted it to be funny. That's really all I was trying to do, "Let's make this funny, there's a lot of comedy to explore." You know how else I can say it? I had Brockmire drink so much in the short really just to allow him to say such outrageous things, just because it's funny to have a guy like that cursing on the air and losing his mind. The only way he's going to believably do that, I thought, is if he's in a black-out drunk. Which is probably true. But Joel took that quite literally and seriously and went, "Well now wait a minute, this guys obviously got a drinking problem, a serious one. So let's give him that and really explore that". And I was like "Okay, sounds good to me".
A lot of the humor obviously comes from finding things that aren't funny on the surface that magically become funny when Jim Brockmire says them. Did you ever reach a threshold where you said something and you're like "Okay, that I just can't make funny with my Brockmire voice"?
I'm a big believer in trying things, so I would never ahead of time X something out, because you can always slice it in editing, why not give it a try. I'll tell you this though, in scenes like that with Amanda, where it was real emotional, and I had to say some ridiculous Brockmire things, for example, when I tell her I love her, I basically say it, "We both have the same exact level of functional alcoholism," that's his declaration of love to this woman and I would do some takes making sure that I was much more focused on being emotionally honest, and playing the scenes as I would as Hank Azaria in that circumstance, just making sure it was a little of the Brockmire voice and I would do other takes where I was just highly aware of making sure I sounded like an announcer the whole time, like "Never mind the emotion of the scene, I just want to make sure that I am delivering it like an announcer might." It was funny, we never knew in editing what was going to make it in any moment. Sometimes it was really funny to sound announcer-y in a moment that should be rather touching. And sometimes it was completely inappropriate, we never knew until we cut it together.
In terms of that conversation of tones, you mentioned how Jim Brockmire would act in a moment and how Hank Azaria as an actor would act. Does this sort of feel like a blending of the two halves of your career in a way that maybe you haven't necessarily had the chance to do before?
Definitely most recently and in the last five years, I think it has to do with having a child, and I can't tell you exactly how this alchemy happened, but I've come to just enjoy my work a lot more, and really feel like I know how to enjoy it, for lack of a better way to put it. I felt like that's come through in some of the work I've done lately. So that definitely is present in this. This schtick though, of taking a character with a crazy voice and giving it humanity, I've done versions of it that I've been happy with in the past, like in The Birdcage, most notably. I do it on The Simpsons, but that's just vocal work. But yes, I do feel that, like it's about a guy who's essentially a voice guy, and his voice is his thing, and it's what he's known for, but there he is on camera, trying to negotiate life as a vocal performer, and with a bit of an outrageous bent, and yet there's a deep, dark humanity to it. I certainly feel like it's the best example that I've ever done. It's not the only.
Along those lines, the culmination of Brockmire's career, at least before he breaks down, is when he gets to be the one-man announcing booth, which is obviously such a rarity in baseball. But that also seems like it's the nightmare for him ultimately, cause he's alone. How does the loneliness of the one-man broadcasting booth compare to the loneliness of the voice-recording booth, in your mind?
Well I don't really know what's it's like to be Vin Scully really, but I would imagine that that does not feel very lonely. You're watching a ball game, you're there with 10-50 thousand people, you're talking directly to hundreds of thousands to millions of people through the airwaves. One of the genius, magic things about the Vin Scullys and Red Barbers of the world, guys who achieved a one-man booth, is they have this way of making you feel like you're their favorite uncle talking to you, cozied up next to you watching the game with you. It's hard for me to believe that those guys would feel lonely doing that. I never caught a lonely vibe from Vin Scully. And you know when I record alone, which I do a lot for The Simpsons, there's a technician there, there's the director I'm talking to, there's another actor that I'm working with sometimes. It's also kind of joyous thing, it never feels particularly lonely to me.
I just wasn't sure if the loneliness was part of what pushed Brockmire over the edge ultimately, is that he cast out all the people who were with him and he reached this pinnacle but he reached it alone and that was what caused him to break. I wasn't sure if you viewed that as sort of a lonely collapse that he had.
For Brockmire I would say that's probably true. Right? The rock got uncovered on a lot of problems there. He snapped, but he's a guy who put ambition ahead of humanity for sure, and that is definitely part of his story. You reap what you sow with that and certainly Brockmire gets his comeuppance, that's for sure.
As you guys approached the second season, what did you feel emboldened to do, from having learned what worked in the first season that you couldn't do when you were charting out the first season cause you didn't know what would work?
It's shocking how much worked in the first season, really, to me. I'm overwhelmed but he positive response and thrilled by it. The only thing we really had to adjust was we realized that any B or C stories we had, anything that was off the point, because the narrative ended up being so strong and such a big part of the show, is you have to stick with A story, meaning you just have to stick with the main story you're telling, and anything extraneous to that tended to get sliced out in editing. So we wasted a lot of time shooting stuff we didn't need to. And we don't have a big budget and we had to get this done fast, so scripts in season two are two to three pages shorter, and stick to the story as it's rolling along. And that's kind of about it.
We certainly realized that the deep, deep, dark aspects of the thing are absolutely free to keep going there. We sensed we were anyway, in this modern era of cable you're really allowed to do that. I'll give you an example of something I never thought would work off the page, but I did it anyway and I was sure it was going to get cut. When Brockmire in one of the middle episodes is very upset cause his ex-wife is back in town, and he goes and tells her off but she doesn't care and just gives him a hug and he's furious and then he goes and has this boxing match with this wind-sock puppet and he's just punching it, his punching bag? I thought it was broad, like, "Well, broad comedy doesn't work with this character, it's not worth it, let's shoot it but we're going to cut this." I was shocked by how funny that ended up coming out. I think cause we had emotionally earned it. You just really buy how angry the guy really is, and it's such an absurd expression of that anger that it just worked. So I think I will trust more the more crazy, broad comedic places we get to sometimes, physically, that we kind of have earned it.
So broader and deeper somehow?
Exactly. Like snorting an abortion pill is just wildly absurd. It's just such a crazy moment. But I really loved that off the page. I was like, "I can't even think of a weirder, wilder thing for a character like this to be doing." Yeah, there's a lot more of that kind of thing in season two as Brockmire sinks down even further.
And IFC has just given you free rein for that?
Not only do we have free rein, but we got the delightful news that season two will air with no bleeps! I mean we can't have like, seven F-bombs a show, but we can have two or three. It's kind of gratifying, because I know when they air on Hulu they'll air un-bleeped and you can find them un-bleeped eventually, but you know sometimes it really does take the comedy away if you bleep the curses. Joel Church-Cooper, I think he's a brilliant writer, and he chooses his words carefully. We weren't just tossing out F-bombs for fun. In fact, when we were told we were going to get bleeped, we had to go through the scripts, in eight episodes, there were 73 F-bombs, 73! And we ended up chopping them down to 29 or something in eight episodes. And there were two or three that we really lobbied hard, we were just like "Can you please not bleep these, cause they kill the joke if you don't hear it," but we couldn't get that through, they said "No, you've got to bleep them all." But we're still not allowed in season two to use the C-word, which we're really fine with.
A version of this story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.