Brockmire has turned out to be one of the great comic pleasures of 2017, including tonight’s first season finale. A few thoughts on that, followed by a long conversation with creator Joel Church-Cooper about what’s made it so special, just as soon as I throw piss balloons at you…
What I loved about “It All Comes Down To This” was what I loved about the season as a whole: that confluence of broad and filthy comedy (Jules getting her revenge on Gary, Brockmire trying to get the stadium epically drunk to help meet the mortgage requirements) and genuine emotion. I got really excited when the Frackers pulled off the franchise-saving triple play, just as I felt terrible about how ugly Jules and Jim’s breakup was when he opted to go to New Orleans for the Triple-A job Joe Buck got him. This relationship was a spectacular mess involving two unspeakably damaged people, but it was also their mess, and it was kind of working, and Jim has chosen his love of baseball — and his desire to regain his old celebrity — over his feelings for her. That’s rough, and honest, and — along with Charles traveling with him to The Big Easy — creates a promising set-up for next season that won’t just be a rehash of what we got over these eight episodes.
Now here’s me and Church-Cooper:
What was your response to the short film when you were brought in to develop it into something more?
I thought, “What a great cold open!” What a great start for a character to see what would happen after that. The short is very much about the breakdown itself. And then they do some short snippets of the wandering. And there’s no narrative to the wandering, it’s just him as sort of an insane person. I was very interested in that aspect: what the after looks like. What it’s like when you have to try to pick up the pieces and you’re already a giant weirdo who loves the sound of your own voice and can’t stop talking.
Originally I was doing character appearances with him, so I was just doing top of the sports jokes on different programs with Jim Brockmire’s voice. And I also very early on realized that the sportscaster cadence is just a great joke delivery system — especially if you have Hank Azaria doing it. I definitely felt very lucky right away that within three months they were kind of giving me the key to the whole character. And I felt very lucky.
How did you figure out how to maintain the balance between the filthy, ridiculous comedy, and the moments of genuine pathos?
The big number one thing across the entire season and going forward, however many seasons we get out of this show, I want this show to be laugh out loud funny always. And I worked on network comedies before, and there’s this sort of a network sensibility of, “We know we have a few good jokes in there, but we’re gonna stack it full of 60 jokes.” And I wanted this to be, let’s reduce the number of jokes, but make the quality higher so that people pause their televisions because they needed to laugh for 20 seconds. So once we have that, I also wanted to do a real down and out dirty, and adult, romance. You always see romantic comedies, it’s like people getting their shit together in their 20s I wanted some really broken-down people who had tons of baggage and got into something through a mistake and then found love. And I wanted to commit to that and really have that be a real thing. Plus, I’m a big fan of The Thin Man series with Myrna Loy and William Powell in the ’30s. There’s something about two drunks together who have the same exact level of alcoholism, and are in it together. But instead of solving mysteries, these two are trying to save baseball. I thought it was just a great dynamic.
So I wanted it to feel real and I wanted there to be dramatic elements to this show. If we wanted to get dramatic and dark, I feel like we had to be super funny on the other end, otherwise people wouldn’t stay with it. As a television viewer, I’m getting sick of the soft comedy. But I also understand, as a TV writer, why you want to have dramatic elements in a comedy. It feels new, it feels different. But it’s a seesaw. So if you’re going to weigh down on one side, these dramatic elements of depressing people in this depressing town and some criticism of the current post-peak America we’re living in, you got to have big dick jokes on the other hand, to get them through.
Speaking of Jules and Jim, it just occurred to me half-way through the series, “Oh, it’s Jules and Jim.” Was that an intentional homage to the movie or did that sneak up on you as well?
Yeah. I wrote her name as Julia and then as soon as I did I was like, “Oh, Jules.” In different forms there was a joke about how she got the joke but the only movie he’s ever seen was The Godfather, so he didn’t know who Jules and Jim were. But over the years, that fell out of the script. It’s a great alliteration for a couple at the center of the show. It’s a bit of an homage, but more it’s just the names sound fun together than anything else.
You got renewed before the season even debuted, but you didn’t know that as you wrote it, and the season ends on a cliffhanger. How much confidence did you have that you would be able to do more beyond this when you were making these eight episodes?
It depends on when you ask me in the process. We got picked up for six scripts before we went to series, so when we were writing those first six scripts, which included the finale, the odds of us getting on the air at all I thought was better than 50/50, but around there. Then once we started shooting, it started going well, but at the same time, we shot eight episodes in 22 days. It was a struggle to make it. Those hours were intense. The heat of Atlanta. Just low-budget production in general. Now the odds of us getting a season two then, I wouldn’t even say anything. I was just trying to make it through the day shooting. But once we had it in the can, I was pretty confident. But I wanted the show to exist. I feel like even if there wasn’t a second season, this would be a complete story. The narrative arc of season one is really him in this town and his relationship with Jules and he’s faced with a choice. And I think he makes the wrong one. But it’s a very understandable wrong one. And I felt like, even if we don’t get a season two, this will just exist out there in time and space for as long as there’s streaming. We’ll be a thing that people appreciate as a concrete thing. I thought, it’s a cliffhanger but also it has some form of narrative revolution of this guy, this legendary asshole gets redeemed somewhat by his relationship, and in the final moments he betrays it. There is a narrative arc there. While at the same time setting up a season two if we were to get one. So I wanted to hedge my bets both ways.
What are you comfortable telling me about what season two is going to be?
I’ll tell you that Jules is in it. She’s not in it as much as season one, but she’s still the woman in his life even when she’s not there. They go to New Orleans, Charles and Jim. And really, the main relationship in season two is this weird co-dependent relationship between this 19-year-old kid who is his producer/assistant/roommate and this old drunk who he’s carrying around from job to job, while they’re also making a ton of money being successful podcasters. But it also has a much more stronger narrative push because we really explore him trying to get back into the majors. He’s in Triple-A, so we see the difference between Single-A and Triple-A and the importance and the stadium and the digs, but you’re still aware it’s not the pros. So it’s about him trying to get that last step back up while at the same time being in New Orleans as a man who has a serious alcohol and drug addiction. And now he’s moved to a town where there is no open container law. Where you can be drunk at 11:00 a.m. and you walk on the street and you’re going to be around people who are drunk at 11:00 a.m., and there’s no shame in it. And he’s lost his one thing that was his tether to anything. Even if Jules was also a drunk, she was at least somewhat of a stricter play on what his behavior could be. And so it’s about him pursuing this job, and at the same doing it in a place where all his vices are encouraged.
What limits, if any, did you have in terms of content? In terms of the kinds of jokes you could have Hank and Amanda and everybody else say?
We found out in pre-production that we couldn’t curse. And so that was a thing. We’re like, “Oh, but don’t the movies have curses on your network?” But they just bleeped them. They didn’t ask us to cut them. And then really nothing. That’s the great thing about IFC is as creative partners. I’ve worked for different networks. In my brief time I’ve seen different places and I’ve never seen a network that is this much of a creative partner with you. They’re fans of the show, they give minimal notes. Their bargain is, “Listen. Here’s the money. Can you make a show on this budget? It’s on the lower level of what you can possibly do on television. If you can figure out a way to do that, we’re gonna support you and believe in you.” And I thought very smartly advertised the show in a way that managed to penetrate some of this insane Peak TV cloud that everything is lost in.
So no limits. Really none. Especially with the abortion episode, I kept thinking at some point someone is going to say, “Wait a second, Joel. You’re doing a show with only eight episodes about a baseball team. We can’t do a half an hour show about abortion that ends with a giant gag where your lead male character snorts an abortion pill. And then, your lead female character actually gets an abortion.” I thought someone at some point would say something, and they didn’t. They got it. They understood why I wanted to do it. They thought it was a great explanation of the characters, and we did it. I was very, very happily surprised. I was prepared to put on my gloves and fight for the material, but instead, IFC has been a great partner.
Well, I saw you tweet something about how being on the set when Amanda was literally gagging on the pills over and over was one of the best things you’ve ever gotten to do in comedy. Tell me a little more about what that day was like and also the genesis of that particular joke.
It’s one of those things where you sort of back yourself into a corner writing-wise. They’ve been on this journey, they’ve been on this drunken debaucherous bender together of a relationship. And I wanted something to sober them up and really have them think about, “What do we want from each other? What do we want from our lives?” And a pregnancy scare leading to an abortion, I also want Brockmire to sort of be about a conversation about America in a way that’s not too overt. So I thought an abortion episode made sense. But I couldn’t figure out a way to crack it. I don’t know how to make abortion funny. Also, as a man, I don’t know if it’s my job to make it funny. So luckily, a very good friend of mine Amanda Sitko came in to write that episode. And she came in with the third act fix, which was that, “What if Brockmire snorted the abortion pill because he thought it was cocaine?” I was so happy that she had cracked it.
But then once you have that, you have to reverse engineer, “Well why is he snorting it? Oh, because she can’t swallow pills. Okay.” So then you have this situation where you say to one of your stars, “Well now, Amanda Peet, you have to comically gag on these pills to set up this joke later.” Because if you can make the setup funny, the punchline is a thousand times funnier. On the day, I was like, “Can you?” It was one of those things as a first time show runner, you get on set and you’re like, “Oh, this might not work.” I had blind faith that she can just do this bit. And apparently – because she’s very smart – she knew that this gag was essential to the whole piece. So she looked at YouTube videos of people choking, she called actresses she knows who’ve done a choking or gagging joke before, and she practiced it. She came in and there were takes where she did seven in a row, and the sixth and seventh was just as funny. It was one of the more remarkable things I’ve ever seen. We were very blessed as a production that things just fell together right. A lot of it through great casting and good directing. But that was one of those moments where you’re like, “Oh my God, if that’s funny…” If the set-up of she can’t swallow pills is funny, then we’re golden. Because I know once we get to act three, then we got a real humdinger.
The things you put in Hank’s mouth to say in the Brockmire voice were really extraordinary through the season. What was that process like of thinking of the most extreme sex acts, acts of violence and debauchery and drug use you could have this man say in this corn-pone accent?
I like the idea of him as a real libertine. He’s been around, he’s seen everything, he’s done everything at this point. And we find out he blames it all on Lucy, but you’re realizing he was kind of always this way. And then she just pushed him over the edge. I just like this idea of a character who’s seen everything and done everything. And has a very grey moral area of, “Hey, you know, if it floats your boat, go ahead.” So once you take that as a point of view, I think you just reach for human extremes that actually happen and then try and make jokes of it. I was in Thailand, and this was 12 or 13 years ago, before we are currently having our transgender conversation in America. And because of a different culture of gender of there, the Thai lady boy thing is a real thing. They’re just out in the world in a way that I didn’t see in America. And there’s also, it’s a huge German place and I just saw sunburned Germans. That joke is about his depravity. But the joke is not that there’s a Thai ladyboy, the joke is that he has lived a life of extremes. He doesn’t have a lot of judgment about anyone or anything. So once you have that, I think you just try to find as many human extremes that you can possibly do, and put it into his mouth. And the great thing is Hank Azaria is a great voice. It’s the classic voice of Americana: a baseball broadcaster. Vin Scully is probably the only person with a 98% popularity rating in America. There’s something just so inherently decent and mythic about a baseball broadcaster with a great voice, that putting terrible things in his mouth is never not funny.
Brockmire, when he was in the marriage with Lucy, had these puritanical ideas about sex. After his journeys overseas, he very much does not. And it almost felt like, if he could recognize it, he and Lucy would be much better matched now than before. Do you have more plans for that character and for a re-assessment of that relationship?
Yes. She comes back season two and that is an element of it for sure. The biggest issues for this season was, getting down to 21:30 [running time]. So we lost about two minutes every episode. Nothing wrong with it, it worked. But we just had to cut it. And in [Lucy’s] episodes, we lost a lot of the shading of her character. We really worked to make her not a villain. I always told Katie Finneran, “It’s just basically like you were one of those closeted men in the ’60s. This is Far From Heaven and you’re Dennis Quaid. You believe in this idea of a homemaker and then inside you always knew you were a little different. And then the second that you allowed yourself to be that thing, you realized that, ‘Oh, this is who I am. I’ve been putting on a costume to be with him.’” We lost a little bit of that in season one, so we put it back in season two because we loved her as an actress, but also there is something about them that does work in a weird way. Part of the reason is that they’re inherently selfish characters. It’s fun to watch that dynamic of two narcissists who also love each other, do that push-pull of support and hurting each other at the same time.
I also like that not only is he oblivious to what’s going on with Lucy, but also of the fact that his partner Robbie is a closet crossdresser. Do you have any more plans for that character?
We didn’t write him into season two, but we always say that there’s a Brockmire universe that anybody can come back at any time. When I pitched future seasons to IFC, I said, “We’re doing a limited series where we have the same main characters. So every season, we’ll go to a new location. We’ll have some characters from the season that will come back, other characters from two seasons ago can come back. Once you’ve been established, we can throw you back into this world.” But it’s really about Brockmire’s journey back to America and climbing back up the ladder. That’s the show. And to do that, we want to sort of always go to new places and explore new characters.
I also did this as a person who came out of broadcast TV as my first few jobs. The idea of burning down the world that you lived in every season is very thrilling to me. It’s very much the antithesis of how television comedy works, where the whole reason you would do a series is because, well, you already paid for the set. So now you got to do five more seasons in the office set because you already paid for the office set. We’re shooting on location and we’re in this new age of television where we can do a new setting every time. It’s exciting. And then fold in new characters at the same time. Characters from season one, there’s lots of time. Joe Buck is in season two, if we can get his schedule together. But we like the idea of constantly pushing him forward to new places and meeting new people.
Do you have a sense yet of what an ideal length for the show would be, in success?
Yeah. I can’t see past a season five. Probably, if enough money was thrown in my face, I could probably see it to season nine. But right now, I see it as maybe five. One of the great things, because we’re a short order show right now, hopefully eventually ten [episodes a season], you can burn through narrative. There’s no reason to hold anything back, right? But if you’re burning through narrative and you’re a sole point of view show, there’s only so many stories you can tell. So five seasons makes a lot of sense to me. I have ideas for four of them. And I figure that as I go along, a natural conclusion to a fifth season will present itself. This is not a show, I think, that by its very nature can extend forever. It’s such a singular show about a singular person. And we don’t want to repeat the same stories.
So season two ends on a — I’ll leave it vague — but ends on a giant shake-up of the character, the world, what the dynamic of the show and the comedy are. It’s one of those things where some of the senior writers on the staff of season two said, “You’re really writing yourself into a corner on this one.” I said, “I know. That’s why it’s great.” Because now season three will be completely different than season two. But you can only make those moves so many times before it starts to feel like you’re just pulling out a bag of tricks.
Before we go, I want to hit a couple of my favorite gags from over the course of the season that we haven’t talked about yet. One is, Brockmire as star of the Filipino Hart to Hart remake, and the wife’s only dialogue is, “I am your wife.”
This show, it started off as a movie script. And we adapted really, the first two acts of the movie script as the narrative spine of season one. And a big part of the movie script was how famous he was in the Philippines and how pissed he was that he was back in America and this rinky-dink thing when he was a big star in the Philippines. Because he was a charismatic American who spoke perfect Tagalog. There was jokes about how he was the spokesperson for a skin-whitening cream for “that American shade of pale.” He did reverse mortgages, he was just the worst sort of salesman in the Philippines, just supporting whatever awful shit that he could get behind. The joke originally was, “I was the star of the unauthorized Filipino remake of Hart to Hart and I can’t act for shit. That’s how big a deal I was over there.” And that always got a big laugh in the movie script, people liked it. So we put it in the TV script, but we cut the set-up. At one point, in a previous episode, we did that same joke, and then we cut it for time. So now it’s just a delightful non sequitur. In a weird way, it honestly works better because I wanted a grabby cold open that you wouldn’t expect. And now since we cut the set-up, it is very unexpected. And the joke of, “I am your wife,” comes straight from Jason Belleville’s draft, which I thought was delightful. And then it got me to do a Bechdel Test joke, which I had to really fight for. It’s still not that funny, but it’s one of those things where sometimes as showrunner you just put your foot down and you go, “No, no, no. We’re gonna do the Bechdel Test joke.”
There’s a Bechdel Test joke and there’s an ASMR joke in this show. You’re getting very specific with a lot of internet things here.
It’s been an honor to work with Hank because the number one influence on my comedy growing up was The Simpsons, specifically seasons three through nine, as all Simpsons fans reference the holy seasons. And one of the great things about that style is that they don’t care if you get all the jokes. It’s not important. They know the jokes are good enough, and you’re going to get enough of them that it’s fine. And there’s enough great big jokes that’s going to get all the audience together, then in between you can get a lot of smaller scale five percenters. Because as an audience member, the five percenters that you get and you feel personally identifiable, to your show, those are the ones that are the most meaningful. We’re a very weird show. And you have to have a certain sensibility to enjoy it. But once you have that sensibility, we’re a big tent show. We got feminism jokes, we got sports jokes, we got jokes about the spandex ’70s uniforms of the Pirates, we got Alison Bechdel jokes. If you have a skewed sensibility and like dark comedy and don’t mind a little nihilism, I think you’re going to find something in the show that you’re going to laugh at.
Finally, as someone who did grow up on The Simpsons and was familiar with Hank’s work, were there times where you were surprised by all of the things he could do? Or you just came to expect like, “This is Hank Azaria, a man of a thousand voices. A man who can do anything.”
I was confident. We went all around to sell this show and IFC was by far the most passionate. And we got nibbles from other places, but we thought, “They’re going to let us do our show and we just have to figure out a way to do it on their budget.” But one of the things that some of the other companies pushed back on is they said, “Isn’t the voice gonna get old after a while? Aren’t you gonna get tired of hearing him do that voice?” And I never bought into that because in my mind it was like, “No, because you have Hank Azaria.” Yes, being a Simpsons fan, I know the genius of his comic timing. But I’m also a big fan of Heat. I knew he was in all of this dramatic work. I watched him on Huff. And I knew that he is as good as a dramatic actor as he is a comedic actor. And I knew this was the only part that he’s really done that has the synthesis of both of those things that he does so well. So I knew walking into the show that he was going to figure out a way to nail all the jokes and to get to the emotional heart of it.
That being said, being on set and then watching in the edit bay, the degree to which he succeeded at both things, I was even taken aback by it. He’s a very, very talented performer. It was remarkable. But I always had confidence he could do it because I’ve seen him do it in so many other roles, comedy and drama. I just hadn’t seen him do it together like this. A couple days on set, specifically the breakdown in the booth, how many takes he was able to do of that and how many shades he was able to do of that. Little moments like where he breaks saying, “My wife Lucy.” That’s not in the script. That’s just him emotionally committing. He tried to say, “My wife…” and couldn’t get through it. That’s just a great dramatic actor finding the moment and committing to it. And real fears, real emotions, it was remarkable. And then he would do that take, and then he would do like, “Okay, now I’m gonna do the drunk version.” And it would be amazing in a completely different way with a completely different sound. You don’t see many actors who are able to do that level of work with that varied performance.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com