Hank Azaria on Hosting 'Simpsons Take the Hollywood Bowl,' Voicing Apu (and More) and Working With Robin Williams

The Simpsons Take the Bowl - H 2014
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The Simpsons Take the Bowl - H 2014

"Who could ever imagine that you’d be doing a job that lasted 26 years?" the voice actor marvels

There’s only one way to close out The Simpsons binge-fest of all 552 episodes on FXX last month, and that would be with a visit to the Hollywood Bowl from Sept. 12-14 for The Simpsons Take the Hollywood Bowl. The three-night extravaganza, hosted by Hank Azaria as well as guest-stars Conan O'Brien, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, Weird Al Yankovic, Beverly D'Angelo, Jon Lovitz, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles and Matt Groening, will feature clips accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra topped off with a fireworks finale.

“There’ll be some live performance and a combination of new animation that they made for this and old clips,” Azaria tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They created some bits that are special to that evening. I know it’s pretty Homer-driven, as if Homer were there at the Bowl that night, Bowl-specific jokes, but most of it is going to be live performed.”

Azaria was only 25 when he came to the show in 1989. He was new to the business with only a few TV credits to his name, and had no idea he was stepping into what would become the longest-running sitcom in the history of television.

The first couple of years were laborious, requiring take after take to establish the right tone for the show. With encouragement from veterans like Harry Shearer and Dan Castellaneta, Azaria eventually originated the voices of Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu, bartender Moe Szyslak and police chief Wiggum, among many others.

He begins by mimicking someone he grew up with, or sometimes a famous celebrity like Sylvester Stallone, who inspired Lou the Cop. Peter Sellers, as an Indian actor in The Party, was the basis for Apu, and for Moe he turned to Al Pacino. “It’s sort of early Al from A Dog Day Afternoon when he was higher pitched before he got older,” Azaria explains. “He was young back then when the show started. So if you take young Al Pacino and make it gravelly, it sounds like Moe.”

Azaria credits the show for giving him a career in movies like Night at the Museum and Birdcage, both of which co-starred Robin Williams. Though they were never more than co-workers, Azaria fondly remembers him formulating hilarious comedy routines based on casual conversations about bowling, dentists, sports or just about anything else.

“I remember one time we were standing outside the soundstage at Paramount when a tour came by,” Azaria smiles. “He stopped the thing and performed for the folks for five minutes, just did his shtick for everybody, asked them where they’re from, totally engaged.”

Williams never worked on The Simpsons, but dozens of celebrities did, including numerous rockers like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty and David Byrne, as well as Aerosmith, whom Azaria fondly recalls recording with in a private studio in Boston. But the most enduring pleasure has been the weekly table reads, which have become so popular over the years they draw industry insiders of all stripes.

“It’s now 26 years of my life; it’s over half of my life that I’ve been doing that,” observes Azaria. “There’s been a divorce, dogs died, other relationships ending, my dad died, no matter what tough thing I might be going through that week, I can’t be bummed in the hour that table read is going on.”

Twenty-six years is a long time to be doing anything, but it seems no one, including Azaria, can get enough of The Simpsons. “There’s people who grew up with it. The show’s older than they are,” he marvels. “It’s kind of a wild thing. Who could ever imagine that you’d be doing a job that lasted 26 years?”