Hank Azaria has won Emmys for creating wonderful animated and live-action characters, and his latest — disgraced sportscaster Jim Brockmire — may be his best one yet. The titular figure at the center of IFC’s new comedy, Brockmire is a 1970s-style baseball announcer, complete with plaid jacket and a never-ending supply of pop-culture references he likes to drop into his play-by-play. His signature sign-off for every game is a shoutout to his wife, Lucy, so when he returns home unexpectedly one day to find Lucy in the middle of an orgy, he returns to work and has a NSFW on-air meltdown that goes viral.
Disgraced, Brockmire flees the country for a decade, but returns home for a job offer with no knowledge that he is a viral video legend whose meltdown has become a verb. Lifelong baseball fan Azaria talked to Yahoo TV about how he’s been thinking about this character since he was a teenager, and how it was a perfect fit for the current climate of Peak TV. He also credits his talented behind-the-camera collaborators and co-stars Amanda Peet (as his boss/love interest) and Tyrel Jackson Williams (as the workplace social media expert and Brockmire’s unlikely new friend) for helping him make a series that exceeds even his expectations for his passion project.
Kimberly Potts: I was expecting all the funny, but there’s also some sadness, some sweetness to Brockmire. And Jim Brockmire is just a great, great character.
Hank Azaria: It exceeded my expectations, honestly, and I had pretty high hopes for it, but I’m really, really happy with how this turned out. I would have been very happy with something that was just pretty sophomoric, smart, and funny. And it is that, but it also had a lot more depth, like you just said, and emotion, and reality than I expected it to have. And a good narrative, too, a very nice narrative. That’s thanks to Joel Church-Cooper especially, the writer, and our director, Tim Kirkby, as well, not to mention we were smart to cast it the way we did in a bunch of places, where we got actors who really kind of brought a little something more to it than was necessarily on the page.
How do you describe Brockmire?
(Adopting the Jim Brockmire voice) The show or the man? Or the legend? Which one? C’mon, be more specific.
How would you describe the legend, the man, Jim Brockmire?
Jim Brockmire’s an old school baseball announcer. He’s got the generic baseball announcer voice, not the iconic voice. Not like guys like Vin Scully or Rick Barber or Harry Caray — they’re iconic and very individual. This is sort of a down the middle, vanilla, everyday, what you heard, especially in the ’70s, kind of voice. And that voice fascinated me ever since the ’70s. And I always wondered, “Do these guys really always sound like this?” It was sort of the jumping-off point, comedically, for the character. It kind of became funny, the idea, “What if a guy like this lost his mind, would he still sound like this, first of all, and what would make a guy like this lose his mind?” The writer kind of got on to [the idea that] like baseball itself, a guy like this sort of represents time gone by. He’s sort of a man out of time, really, including catching up to things like the Internet. He says, “If I want porn, I’ll just buy a nudie mag like my father and his father before him.” So this is a guy who is trying to catch up to the modern world even in that way, and has to kind of do it in a crash course that is very unpleasant. He’s become a meme.
That was the start of it: he’s a man out of time trying to catch up with it. But I got really lucky. I’ve gotten unlucky in the past when I’ve tried to develop television; it just wasn’t the right chemistry, which would mean the writer or right circumstance, whatever it is. I got, I think, phenomenally lucky this time with a guy who just got it even more than I did, kind of saw in the character a way that’s “let’s take a look at things like alcoholism, and the modern world, and the traditions of our American society as we try to move forward.” Given where we are now politically and everything, this show seems even a little bit more relevant than when we shot it.
There’s a line in one of the episodes: “The news, now, is pretty much anything that was on the Internet yesterday.” It’s shockingly relevant and timely, and there are a lot of moments like that in the show.
Again, Joel Cooper very much has his finger on the pulse. Not only does he have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of baseball and sports, but he’s a guy who is completely well-versed in the ways of the Internet, and kind of saw these trends coming probably a beat or two before the rest of us did, I would say.
The Brockmire character was introduced in a Funny or Die video, and the first thought was that it would be a movie, maybe, instead of a series. Why did you decide, ultimately, that it worked better as a series?
We failed to get the movie made. We actually were down the road in pre-production, and we lost our financing, and then spent about another year trying to reconfigure it and couldn’t. And then we sort of got the idea of, “Let’s try it as a cable series.” And then as we all thought about it, we’re like, “You know, it actually might be better suited as a cable series, anyway.”
I love this golden age of television we’re in, the way you can take time with a story and characters, and go in-depth and not rush things along or force an Act 3 kind of movie ending onto a story. Not to mention that Joel had been writing half-hour television the last five or 10 years. It’s a medium he knows better. He did a wonderful job with the movie script, but as he adapted it into eight episodes of a TV series, he added detail and depth, a deeper understanding of how to be funny and the rhythms and pace of a half-hour comedy. I think it ended up benefiting us.
I was going to say, it feels like it was a blessing in disguise, because we would not have gotten to know not just Brockmire, but Jules (Peet) and Charles (Williams), too.
Not as well. The story has to take over about halfway through a movie in a big way. I thought the movie was hilarious, and a lot of it , especially the first 30 pages, are very similar to the pilot and the first couple of episodes. But, yes, you’re right; there’s not a lot of wasted motion. One of the things I like that pleasantly surprised me about this is the strong narrative and how the story just keeps moving. We don’t slow burn it, you know what I mean? It’s pretty tight. Again, I would have been happy with just kind of smart and funny, and observationally clever and silly, and left it at that. It wasn’t until I was working on it as an actor, I took my producer hat off and started just memorizing the lines and doing the scene work, that I was like, “You know what? This is actually quite emotional.” It has a kind of emotional intelligence to it that I did not expect or even realize as I was reading the scripts the first few times. And that’s also a credit to Tim Kirkby, our director. He directed all eight, and he’s got a real knack for capturing humanity, if you will, and people’s genuine, raw emotion while still not losing the comedy or the pace.
Not only is Brockmire a ’70s guy, but movies from that era, sports movies from that era, were funny and emotional and real, like Bad News Bears with Walter Matthau and Slapshot with Paul Newman. That was kind of the tonal and visual model for the show as well. I wanted to catch that kind of gritty emotionalism, and also the reality of a town and a society that these things were set in, as almost being a cast member itself. In Slapshot, the fact that the mill’s closing is a real reality and drives the story, and we wanted that for Brockmire, as well.
The character walks a line. There are some things about him that, if he weren’t as deep and funny and emotional and sad, it could be a character that you don’t like necessarily. But Jules is not the only one who will be charmed by Brockmire. He is a very likable character. You want good things to happen for him. What did you keep in mind or tell yourself you had to do to walk that line with him?
I guess my niche, my specialty, or what I often get to do, is take characters that are vocally kind of out there and fill them in emotionally, you know what I mean? When I’m on my game and things come together, that works well, like in The Birdcage, for example, or some characters on The Simpsons, or like Along Came Polly, that French guy. So I try to take characters that are sort of vocally broad and they’re funny just by listening to them, but then try to find what’s honest about them. And I don’t always succeed, but that’s always what I’m trying to do, anyway. There’s some of that [with Jim Brockmire], and then, again, it’s Joel Cooper really being hyper-aware of how this guy is abhorrent and reprehensible, and then also how he’s lovable, and a lot of that is just because he’s honest. When you talk this way, you’re sort of allowed to be honest about things. Your job is to describe stuff, almost obsessively, which he does… and does honestly. And he’s kind of reached a point in his life where he’s like, “f*** it,” or he’s so wasted half the time that he doesn’t [have a filter]. He’s not too into being polite anymore. That time for him has passed, both with himself and with others.
There’s a certain joy in a character that’s that honest. And then, you know, he’s been deeply wounded, and you can’t help but feel for him at the same time as you’re kind of repulsed by him. And he’s trying. You sort of see him through Jules’s eyes and, again, Joel Cooper, I don’t know how he came up with this incredibly real, alcohol-fueled, well-observed, original romance. I’ve never seen this kind of romance between two people before, where it’s totally unsentimental, almost aggressively, and yet highly romantic in its way. I don’t know how he did that.
So I just did my job. I just acted as honestly as I could. Joel wrote it so beautifully, and Tim Kirkby, he is so gifted. He directed a bunch of Veep episodes, but what I really responded to, he did this BBC series from a bunch of years ago called My Mad, Fat Diary, and it’s so good. It was so beautifully well-observed and really funny, and really emotional. And I was hopeful that he would bring that sensibility to this, and he did. At times we would be on set, and I would do a take that I thought was pretty good, and he’d come in — he’s a British guy — and he’d go, (adopting a British accent) “Mate, it was great, but remember, it’s serious pain. Everywhere you look in this bar, somebody’s story is just tragic. The pain is real; just do one more that’s the pain, just really real.” He was kind of the keeper of that flame through the entire shoot, of the genuine, just playing it like a drama, really, and that made its way into [the show] a lot.
The three of you, you and Tyrel and Amanda, have incredible chemistry, and that’s a lot of pressure on just three characters carrying a whole show. Was it instant chemistry?
Sometimes you do things and it just doesn’t come out as well as you’d hoped. Sometimes the sum is greater than the parts, and to me — and I hope everybody feels this way — that’s how I feel about [Brockmire]. The sum just was greater than the parts. And a lot of it was casting.
The late, great Mike Nichols used to say that directing, and probably producing as well, was 90 percent casting, and then you just kind of trust everybody to do their job if you’re smart enough to cast the right people. We shot a lot of stuff for the short a bunch of years ago, and a lot of broad stuff that I thought was really funny. And to our surprise, in the editing room, the broad stuff was not as funny as the real and emotional stuff. We found out this character’s kind of so out there that he was funniest when you believed it was happening in the real world, which dictated casting. It meant you’re better off with an Amanda Peet or a Tyrel Williams, who can be utterly believable and convincing, and go back and forth between the drama and the comedy of the thing. And that grounds Brockmire and makes you buy that he exists. It also just sets the comedy up much better.
So having been smart enough to do that, then it was just kind of about everybody doing their thing. And Tyrel and Amanda, I think what came through is they really loved the material, that they were as excited as I was about getting this thing out. You can kind of feel that on the set, that people are like, “This thing is kind of good. I want to do my best and do right by it.” I found myself on the set admiring Amanda and Tyrel, what they were doing in the moment and just in general, and I think we all felt that way about each other, and that came through.
Is this your favorite character you’ve ever created? It feels like you have that affection for him.
First of all, it’s been an idea that I’ve had in one way, shape or form since I was a teenager, literally. And it’s something that we’ve been actively trying to make for about 10 years. And there’s been a lot of trials and tribulations with it. And to just make it at all, it felt like a gift, and then to finish it, it felt like, “You know, I think we actually did a good thing.” Very, very exciting.
And I love baseball. When people ask me, “What do you aspire to do?” This is kind of it. A show like this. Not to mention, I’ve been doing television for about 30 years. This show was not even possible, you couldn’t have made it seven years ago; forget about 30 years ago. And some of the ways I’ve been frustrated in television in the past and not developed this, you’re just not allowed to curse, you’re not allowed to go to the dark side with characters, you’re not allowed to go dramatic with it for a few minutes in order to tell the story. It’s so thrilling to me, not just for this show, but to watch all these wonderful shows, like Transparent and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Game of Thrones, Stranger Things… To be able to watch all these shows get to do what they want to do and to be part of that is very thrilling for me.
No spoilers, but it is left open at the end of the season that there could be a Season 2. Have you thought about what it would be?
They’re all written, in fact, and we’re just awaiting. I’m pretty hopeful that we’ll get our pickup word pretty soon. I think we’re just figuring out the budget. [UPDATE: A renewal has been announced.] I have to say, once again, Joel Cooper… no pun intended, but he knocked it out of the park with Season 2. It gets even darker and more real and more intense and funnier in many ways. It’s pretty exciting.
Are you a Royals fan, specifically? Is that why that’s who Brockmire worked for before the meltdown?
I grew up in Queens, so I’m a Mets fan. We felt that his demise and his meltdown is a little more shocking in a Midwestern sensibility backdrop, as opposed to, like, if you did that in New York or L.A., which would also have been shocking. But doing that in Kansas City is just so horrific for the character.
And I have to ask about Ray Donovan. You won the Emmy last year for playing Ed Cochran. Will we see him in Season 5?
You will not. No. They tried to work my character in, and the storyline just did not go that way for Season 5, but I’m fairly certain that in Season 6, Ed Cochran will return.
Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10 p.m. ET on IFC.