For several years, Hank Azaria has been most familiar to television audiences as the voice of literally hundreds of characters on The Simpsons, including fan favorites like bar owner Moe, Chief Wiggum, and Professor Frink. But this spring Azaria steps back in front of the camera to star in Brockmire as the namesake major-league baseball announcer whose career derails after he has a meltdown on air. He then gets shunted off to announce for a small-town minor-league team, where he’s soon intrigued by the team owner, played by Amanda Peet. At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Azaria sat down with us to discuss his new starring role on live-action TV, his love of baseball, and which characters are the most difficult for him after all these years on The Simpsons. Brockmire debuts Wednesday, April 5, at 10 p.m. Eastern on IFC.
The A.V. Club: What drew you to this part?
Hank Azaria: Well, you know, this is a character I created as a teenager in one way, shape, or form. Then, I did it as a Funny Or Die short about seven or eight years ago with the idea of like, “Well, maybe if it’s funny and it’s good, you develop it into something else,” but that’s always your plan in show business, and it never actually works out that way. But this one did. Deep love of baseball and a deep love of baseball announcers. I’m a vocal guy, so [in announcer voice] this kind of voice always fascinated me. What are these guys like in real life?
AVC: Who are your favorite announcers?
HA: I grew up as a Mets fan. The jacket is based on one of the guys, Lindsey Nelson, who always wore a plaid jacket. [In Bob Murphy voice.] Bob Murphy is a guy who sounded a lot like he was a little more gravelly. A little more down in here.
AVC: Yeah, I’m Chicago, so it’s very big there, too.
HA: So, you had Harry Carey, which is highly, highly iconic. Those are distinctive voices, but this was more the generic—kind of the everyday, you know—the default setting for these guys was this kind of a thing. Not just baseball or sports, but the guy who sold you the Ginsu knife. [In classic announcer voice] It was always this kind of a voice. I always found it hilarious and strange.
AVC: Harry Shearer does those as well on The Simpsons.
HA: Harry does a very dead-on Vin Scully impression to the point where you can’t tell the difference if your eyes were closed between Vin Scully and Harry. In fact, Brockmire as a child is listening to Vin Scully to comfort himself, and we had Harry do that dialogue.
AVC: You’re obviously such an audio person—were you big into radio also? Those kind of voices?
HA: I mean, I was born in 1964, so I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s as a Knicks fan in New York listening to Marv Albert on the radio. Yeah, I was more TV-oriented because I was sat in front of a television for my entire childhood and imitated whatever I could. But I always thought this would make a funny [bit]. It’s observational, and the comedic premise is… there are two main ones. One is [in announcer voice]: These guys sound like this all the time. When they’re having sex, when they’re arguing with their wives, always. This comes out this filter. And they can say whatever they want as long as they give the count afterwards. Had a difficulty last night as a Thai ladyboy snorted crank off my johnson while a sunburnt German watched us on the toilet as Evans misses at a breaking ball, 0-2.
AVC: This show goes pretty dark like that, for a baseball show. The character has kind of taken a dive.
HA: He’s in a dark place. He’s a dark guy, and he’s getting into a darker and darker and darker place in his life, and the show doesn’t back off that. Joel Church-Cooper, who wrote it, wrote a very realistic, gritty version of it. Tim Kirkby, who shot it, shot it from a visually point of view, very realistically, and also was constantly encouraging us to remember how much pain—real pain—is behind almost all these characters. That, to my surprise, really came through.
AVC: Amanda Peet said she’s not a big fan of baseball. What do you like about baseball? It seems like you were probably one of those kids who collected cards and stuff.
HA: Yeah, I loved all sports as a child. I mean, I didn’t have a favorite. Baseball, basketball, football.
AVC: Do you play?
HA: No. I played as a kid and as a teenager—I mean, I played at my high school a bit. I went to a really small high school where if you tried out, you made it. It was like Hoosiers, kind of. I loved sports. I love the drama of sports, but that’s kind of separate from how fascinated I was with this kind of announcer thing. Mostly, I’m a vocal guy, like I said, and that seemed to me like an untapped resource of these guys: What is the story with them?
AVC: You’re going on 30 years with The Simpsons, with hundreds of characters. How do you keep having fun with that after so much time?
HA: I love doing those characters. I do a lot of the weird, supporting, ancillary characters, then those characters will eventually come to the fore in their own episode. And that’s really fun, to sort of ride the waves of that. The show is such social commentary and satire that it always remains fairly relevant, because there’s always something to talk about. And we’re not predicting Donald Trump being president 16 years in advance.
AVC: Are there characters that you enjoy voicing more than others?
HA: I really love doing Professor Frink just because it’s fun to sound that silly.
AVC: He’s so great.
HA: I love Moe because he sounds like he’s from New York, and I used to bartend. He probably has been the most fleshed out. Some of them hurt to do. Some I don’t enjoy doing.
AVC: Which one hurts?
HA: Duffman hurts.
HA: Yeah. I would do it right now, but I’d blow my voice out.
AVC: No, don’t do that.
HA: I have to always record him last. Because I can’t do any other voice after I’ve done 60 seconds of Duffman.
AVC: You also show up this season in HBO’s big prestige picture, The Wizard Of Lies, with Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff.
HA: The Wizard Of Lies, yes. I have not seen that yet, but I really enjoyed working on that, and I had a fun role in that.
AVC: Are you the hardest-working person in show business? Right now, it seems like you’ve got a ton going on.
HA: I’m checking the math on this… I think I am! Although, I have really fun, actually pretty easy jobs. Brockmire was a lot of hard work, but it was such a labor of love that I really love doing it. Liev [Schreiber] works real hard over at Ray Donovan. I kind of breeze in and out and have fun. The Simpsons is a big joy. Wizard Of Lies is also, you know, really fun to do. So, no. I don’t think I am the hardest-working man. You know who the hardest-working people in show business are? The guys who write all these things. The Simpsons writers, Joel Church-Cooper, who wrote almost every episode of Brockmire. Those guys really have to grind it out.
AVC: Was The Simpsons one of the first voice-only things that you did?
HA: Yeah. I was, like, 23 years old when I auditioned for it, and I had done one other voice-over for Fox for a failed pilot. Because of that, the casting director knew me and had me come in. I read for Moe the bartender and, the day I read it, recorded the first episode I was in.
AVC: You remind me of somebody like Mel Blanc. You know, like on The Jack Benny Program, they would be like, “Do an English race horse.”
HA: Who was my hero growing up. Growing up, I think my hero was Bugs Bunny. Then, by the age of 10, I realized that that’s a guy. That’s Mel Blanc, and he’s doing all those voices. Then he became my hero.
AVC: The stuff that Mel Blanc would do on that show… he was a car, you know? He could do anything.
HA: Seriously, he was a genius. I’m not being self-deprecating. I have a high opinion of my vocal abilities, but seriously, Mel Blanc was in a class by himself.
AVC: Are there things that the writers bring to you like, “Could you do this?” Characters that sound challenging, like being a computer or something.
HA: Oh, yeah. On The Simpsons, we’ve done everything. I’ll say, “You know, I think Dan might do this better,” or vice versa. Or, we’ll try it, and it won’t work out, and then they’ll recast it: “Let’s have Harry try that.” By now, they know what each of us is good at and what we aren’t.