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.