For ages, The Simpsons'" Springfield U.S.A. But for the new IFC series "Brockmire," he's zeroed in on one style of speaking in particular, and what a voice it is.
Since he was a teenager, Azaria admits he's been fascinated by the verbal cadences of the classic baseball play-by-play announcer -- think Phil Rizzuto, Vin Scully and Bob Murphy -- and whether they carried that same distinctive delivery from the playing field into their everyday lives. After launching a prototype of the character on Funny or Die five years ago, Azaria's taking Jim Brockmire to television.
In the series, a decade after a vicious, profanity-laden rant -- still in those controlled broadcast intonations -- upon learning of his wife's infidelity launched him into Internet meme infamy, Brockmire's trying to rebuild what's left of his life and career at a rust belt minor league team owned by the strong-willed Jules (Amanda Peet), who's surprisingly confident in Brockmire's potential to turn things around, both for the ball club and himself.
Azaria, a passionate Mets fan offscreen, and Peet, whose general lack of knowledge of the sport is in stark contrast to her characters, joined Moviefone for some "inside baseball" chat about the new series -- including Moviefone's unexpected influence.
Moviefone: The character obviously started with you, Hank. Did you build him from the voice up?
Hank Azaria: Oh, absolutely. Almost every character I've done was built from the voice up. One of the influences of this voice was the Moviefone guy that you used to call up. "If you would like to press three, press four ..." All that nonsense was one of those generic, iconic announcer voices that I got fascinated with, but especially in sports, and especially baseball.
That cool, calm, and collected qualitywhile he's actually losing his mind -- the humor in that is so funny, but it's so hard to pull off. How did you get there?
Azaria: A lot of practice. That was one of the basic comedic premises I had from when I was 15 years old was, "Are these guys always like this? Do they always sound this way? When they're having sex, when they're having a nervous breakdown, when they're drunk off their a**es, do they still sound like this?" I thought it would be hilarious if they did.
Did you ever do a variation of him anywhere else before the Funny or Die bit?
Azaria: Occasionally on "The Simpsons" over the years, for a line or three, but that's pretty much about it.
Amanda, for you, when they brought this to you, what was the immediate "yes factor" that you saw in the story and your character?
Amanda Peet: I was a huge fan of Hank's, for one thing.
Azaria: That was it.
Peet: I didn't mean it. Yeah, and then I think the idea of playing a middle-aged woman who's a baseball fanatic and the owner of a minor league team was very appealing. Most of the roles that I get are to be someone's wife or girlfriend. I don't usually have a job or anything. So I thought it was original.
How's your level of baseball fanaticism?
Azaria: Mine is very high, hers is quite low. Joel is a true expert -- the writer of the show, Joel Church-Cooper. He's at a level above. Joel is at a level of he could go on any sports talk show and actually talk with authority as an analyst. I'm maybe a level or two just below that. I'm an expert on the Mets, because they're my beloved team. I know everything about the Mets. I love, love, love, love baseball, and the older I get, the more I love it.
Are you developing a love for it at all, Amanda?
Peet: We shot really quickly, so I didn't really have time. I watched some of Ken Burns's documentary, and I watched "The Battered Bastards of Baseball." And yet, it was really difficult for me to get some of the jargon down, and I definitely had to be coached by Hank during a lot of close-ups where I was supposed to be responding to a nail-biter, or anything actually, not even a nail-biter, just a regular play. I'd be like, "Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should I be happy or sad?" Face acting.
Azaria: She took great pains to make sure, rather meticulously, to know exactly what it was she was talking about, what was being referred to, what was the situation baseball, what was the term and why. Almost to an annoying degree. It's like, "It doesn't matter. Just say the line."
Do you think you could actually call a game?
Azaria: It's an interesting question, and it might come up in promotion of this. There's talk of me going down to spring training and actually taking an inning. I absolutely could for the Mets, because all I would need to know is get familiarized with the opposing team's stats and salient information. I know enough about a baseball game, I just don't have enough general knowledge of enough teams to just walk in, and to kind of know who you're talking about.
Peet: And contextualize everything.
Azaria: Yes, that I could do. I love baseball. I know what's happening in a game. I sit there and describe it to my seven-year-old son. It's not much different, what's going on.
How much of the patter that he has is just full-on written out, and how much do you get to go off in your own direction with it?
Azaria: That patter is about 97% full-on written out. Joel is a savant. I know he's a great writer, but he's, like I said, knows his baseball stuff. He'd been writing stuff for this character. We've been working together for about five years. There's been a lot of practice and back and forth. I will occasionally adjust a line, or come up with a little thing, but not much. Especially on those long baseball-oriented monologues. He writes those so meticulously that I pretty much do them as written.
I don't need you to name names -- unless you really feel like it -- but have you ever had a friend or a colleague that's gotten caught in a meme or a viral video, and you've seen it just cause their life to really melt down in some way?
Peet: I just learned what a meme was when we were shooting.
Azaria: Even I knew that!
Peet: I learned what Snapchat is, too.
Azaria: You didn't know that either? You're actually worse than I am. It's amazing. No, I don't know anyone personally. I had one, it was a very benign one. Lately, I had one ...
Peet: You did?
Azaria: I did, like, this "Sesame Street" thing. The word of the day was "imposter," and I pretended with Elmo to be Cookie Monster, and Grover, and whatnot. I was wearing hats. I wore a Cookie Monster hat to imitate Cookie Monster. I did look like you had chopped Cookie Monster's head off and stuck it on my head.
And there was, like, a meme, right? Wasn't there like some Snapchat-y meme with me and Cookie Monster or something for a while? Oh, it was Reddit. Yeah, it got really big on Reddit. "Elmo looks on in horror as Hank Azaria wears the disembodied head of Cookie Monster." But that's about the worst. Have you seen "Winnebago Man"?
Oh God, yes.
Azaria: That was incredible, chronically, of how somebody's life was destroyed by being a viral video.
What was the fun discovery working together?
Peet: I can't catch -- that's something I discovered about myself. No, Hank is actually really funny. Sometimes you watch someone for years, and then you meet them and they're an a**hole, and they're not funny. We had a really good time.
Azaria: We did. We actually had a genuinely great time, which I think comes through in the performance, in the performances. I was genuinely on takes really enjoying watching Amanda do her thing.
I'll tell you something else. Again, one of the comic premises was, "Did this guy sound this way when he's in trouble with his girlfriend? When he's arguing with his wife?" And Amanda was so real and raw and committed to this role. There were times, some takes it's like, "Wow, she's really upset right now." And it really gets you, your acting is on a personal level, like "Oh sh*t."
So your instinct is to sort of take care of someone or respond honestly, but I had to do that as Brockmire, which was weird. So the character's dilemma became mine, which was exactly what we wanted. It was pretty great.
"Brockmire" premieres Wednesday, April 5th, on IFC.