Hank Azaria is a vocal acting master. We know this. He has over 300 Simpsons characters in his repertoire (even if he insists the real number is closer to 30, with many small variations), whether iconic characters like Moe and Chief Wiggum, memorable one-shots like the khav kalash vendor at the World Trade Center, or valuable utility players like the sarcastic mustachioed man known alternately as Raphael or just “wiseguy.” He’s also done plenty of interesting live-action acting over the years, and while some of those roles use his facility for weird voices (Agador in The Birdcage, or Gargamel in The Smurfs), many just ask him to be flexible to whatever the role demands, even if he usually just looks and sounds like himself.
With Brockmire, his wonderful new IFC comedy (it debuts Wednesday night at 10, though the first episode is already available On Demand and on YouTube, embedded below; I’ve seen all eight episodes of the first season), Azaria gets to blend the two halves of his career like never before. Azaria builds the character of disgraced former baseball play-by-play man Jim Brockmire — whose career fell apart when he hijacked a baseball telecast to describe, in very frank terms, the sex act he caught his wife performing with another man — from the voice up: Half of what’s remarkable about the show is simply hearing Azaria discuss extreme practices of sex and booze and drug abuse with the same cornpone accent Brockmire would use to remind his listeners about the infield fly rule. (When a sexual partner’s thumb goes to an unexpected place, he exclaims, “And Jim Brockmire is into it! The old fastball makes for a real snug buttplug!”)
But the other half of what makes Brockmire special — raunchy and depraved, but also surprisingly tender and even romantic (imagine Catastrophe if most of it took place at a minor league ballpark) — is how Azaria and the show’s creator, Joel Church-Cooper, are able to find the vulnerable human being underneath the accent and his familiar plaid blazer, even as Brockmire never breaks character or stops talking like he’s doing play-by-play on his own life.
Brockmire, who spends the first season trying to rehabilitate his career as the announcer for an independent league team (called the Frackers, because that’s its dying hometown’s only remaining industry) run by Amanda Peet’s Jules(*), has never gotten over the end of his marriage, nor the infamy that followed his on-air meltdown — Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams), his tech-savvy intern, has grown up watching “Brutal Brockmire” viral videos while the man himself was submerging himself in a life of degradation in the South Pacific — and there’s a genuine level of pathos to his attempt to rehabilitate himself and perhaps build a relationship with Jules (who in time is revealed to be almost as damaged), even as he’s working a few feet below the lowest rung of the legitimate baseball broadcasting ladder.
It’s a terrific show, and I got to speak with Azaria — who first played Brockmire in a 2010 Funny or Die short, but has been doing some variation on the voice since he was a teenager — at the TV critics press tour in January.
You were 15 when you first came up with the voice?
Ish. By that point, I was imitating everything I heard without even thinking, “That means I want to be in show business.” This kind of a voice, this sort of a sports announcer, I was more interested in the generic one like this, and even somebody like Marv Albert, say, somebody who I listened to every day. That was really distinctive. I was more fascinated by these workaday, golden throated, yet they all seemed to have the same voice, these guys.
It’s amazing. I wound up watching all eight episodes, and just the things that Joel gives you to say in that voice is — “obscene” isn’t quite the right word, even though a lot of it is.
That was one of the comic ideas that I had from a long time ago, was these guys, they can pretty much say anything as long as they give the count afterwards. The same way that English folks can get away with saying anything because they sound like that, if you say something like this you can pretty much say whatever. (Brockmire voice) Had a rough night last night, man oh man was I pounding away on your mom as Johnson swings and misses on a breaking ball on two.
You’ll just roll with that for a while before you go, “Wait a minute, what did he say?” Because it’s such a cadence that we’re so used to. The other thing is do these guys sound like that in their private lives? Their personal lives? I was obsessed with that as a young man. When they’re having sex, when they’re talking dirty during sex, when they’re really drunk, do they still sound like this? This kind of together, deliberate, polished way of expressing yourself?
Having been out here in L.A. as long as you have, did you have chance to cross paths with Vin Scully?
I never have met Vin Scully. I wouldn’t put Vin Scully in this category.
No, no. He’s not. It’s a different kind of a guy.
There’s nothing but, I guess his voice is kind of announcer-y in his own way, but it’s so distinctive and original, plus the guy’s a genius. By the way, even though I created this character a long time ago and wrote the short with some friends of mine, Joel took over writing this character a bunch of years ago and writes it way better in almost every way than I ever could. I very rarely tweak what he’s written, Joel’s a baseball expert. I’m a Mets expert, Joel’s a baseball expert. The stuff he thinks of this character to say is, it amazes me sometimes.
What were some of the other voices you were doing around the time you came up with the Brockmire voice?
I was imitating everything I saw, like Howard Cosell, Marv Albert, Woody Allen. When you’re young you can’t imitate so well. By the time I was a teenager, Johnny Carson was big in my life. Then any accent, any family member, not just famous people, but anybody that had a distinctive voice around me.
Was voice something you were looking to do as a young actor? How did you fall into it?
It’s almost like my voice acting career was separate from my acting career. Really, my voice acting career kind of begins, middles, and endses with The Simpsons. I’ve done other things along the way, some animated movies and this and that, but basically I got The Simpsons, I had done no voice over work before that, and The Simpsons, I’ve just been doing that for thirty years.
Because Dan and Julie, they were in The Tracy Ullman Show cast. You were not affiliated with that.
No, I came in after the shorts, when the show became a half an hour, and I replaced somebody who, Christopher Collins, who is no longer with us, who did the voice of Moe originally and they weren’t happy with him, not so much his vocal work, but they just didn’t enjoy working with him. They replacement cast it with me.
That’s worked out okay for you.
It was a lucky moment for me and for Moe, let’s face it.
It’s kind of remarkable, this idea that as a kid you were wandering around doing all these voices and now, even though it’s essentially only one job, you’ve done so many. Do you even keep track of how many voices you’ve done over the years?
It’s been so many, but a lot of those voices have said a line or two. For all intents and purposes, there’s like thirty voices that will consistently make their way in the show over the thirty years.
I’ve always loved that sarcastic character with the thick mustache; I’m not even sure I know his name.
[Azaria slips into the wiseguy voice.] Oh you mean this guy.
That’s the one.
He appears in the script as “wiseguy,” and he’s based on Charles Bronson. That’s Bill Hader’s favorite character.
Bill’s got really good ears, he said to me, “Is that guy based on Charles Bronson?” I said, (wiseguy/Bronson voice) “Very good, very good, pal.”
What’s amazing about Bill is, he once told me he was not really an impressionist before he went to SNL. And he now does them better basically than anybody.
Yeah, he’s quite vocally gifted.
What does it take, then, for you, or Bill, or somebody else to be a good mimic, or a good voice person?
You know how people like cilantro or they don’t? It’s sort of genetic. It either tastes like soap to you, or you like it. Literally, I think it’s physical. You either have plastic vocal chords that will do stuff, or you don’t. Then, if you do, you can develop that. I don’t want to think I’d be as good at it if I hadn’t been spending thirty years on The Simpsons practicing at that. Getting the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours of it and you get to be an expert. That’s what happened. Probably Bill wouldn’t have developed if he didn’t go on SNL and didn’t have to do it all the time.
Back to Brockmire…
I love that. [Brockmire voice.] ”And now, back to Brockmire!”
One of the things that that’s impressive about it is that it’s ridiculous but also kind of sweet, and dark, and sincere. The romance actually functions as a romance. It could have just easily been absurd guy saying absurd things, drinking heavily, but there’s a pathos to it.
When we shot the short, we shot a lot of different things for it and we realized, to my surprise, that the broader stuff didn’t really play. It was funniest if it seemed to be happening in the real world. When we came to Joel with the idea of this, we had some stuff figured out, but literally I think we said, “There probably should be a romance. It’ll be good if the woman who either works at the baseball team or owns it, or whatever it is, they take up at the end.” That’s about as much as we gave him to go on. What he came back with was to my real surprise was this really intricate, well thought out, lovely, well observed, dark love story. Very unsentimental, yet very romantic story about two people with the same exact level of functional alcoholism falling in love with each other. Tim Kirkby, who shot it, directed it basically as if it was a drama and wanted truth, truth, truth all the time. I was kind of surprised that the show has that much grit and reality and darkness.
The original short had a bunch of talking heads from real sportscasters. In this version, Joe Buck turns up a bunch of times, and there’s that episode where Brockmire goes to a dinner with Brian Kenny and Jonah Keri and a lot of other real baseball broadcasters and analysts. As you’re playing this character in the midst of actual guys who do it, is that in any way intimidating? How were they responding to it?
I said to those guys on the day I’d be so thrilled just to be hanging out with them, such a big baseball fan, let alone having them into this dream project of mind and working with them. They were pretty amazing. It’s funny, I’ve been doing this character for so long, I almost feel in a way like I belong with them. Jim Brockmire, at that point, it felt like it was right to be amongst them, and they were really embracing it. People will see, right? Joe Buck was really good in it. I’m a little surprised at how actually good an actor he was and is.
And back to Simpsons again, a lot of the voices on the show evolved over time: Dan’s Homer in the shorts is not at all what he does now. Who is the character who it took you the longest to figure out what they sounded like?
Moe the bartender has changed vocally over the years, but not on purpose, and I don’t think it affected his character at all. I think just as I got older, [Moe voice.] Moe used to be more up here, a little higher, and then that was just kind of hard to sustain.
I think as I got older and my voice got deeper, it just became easier to play him a little down lower. Other than that it’s things like, I’ve had to do every accent on the show and my French accent used to be pretty bad. Then I did Along Came Polly and I had to make it fairly meticulous because I was doing it on camera, and it got good. Which I probably really should do for my Irish accent, which is pretty hackneyed, and my Scottish accent, which isn’t so great either. Other than that, characters develop, but not so much how they sound.
As the character becomes deeper, does that get easier for you to do the voice?
No, it just becomes easier to play, and you know more about them and you have more of a comedic point of view about them. Like, Apu started out as a joke, then got more and more and more fleshed out as time went on. How often do you get to play a character over thirty years? Even if it’s just an animated one?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com