The Many Voices of Hank Azaria

Apr 7, 2017

Hank Azaria has had a huge career with character roles in films like “The Birdcage” and TV shows like “Ray Donovan” and many more. But he’s probably best known as the voice behind a slew of character on “The Simpsons,” including Moe, Chief Wiggum, and Apu.

His latest TV project finds him back in front of the camera: he stars in “Brockmire,” a comedy about a disgraced, old-school baseball announcer attempting a comeback after a public meltdown goes viral.


When Brendan spoke with Hank, he started by asking where the idea for the show came from. [Ed note: The audio above is censored, but the transcript below is not.]


Hank Azaria: [Imitates the sports announcer voice he uses on the show.]  Brockmire, Jim Brockmire, who talks like this, this is the generic baseball announcer voice that I grew up with in the ‘70s, especially. Still exists, but was very prominent in the ‘70s.

[Returns to his real voice.] I mimicked it as a teenager and got kind of fascinated with it in my 20s, especially the comedic concept of [in character as Brockmire]: Do these guys always sound like this? Not only when they’re broadcasting, but when they go home and have dinner, and argue with the wife, or have sex with the girlfriend.

As they say in “Goodfellas,” “Saturday nights are for the wives, Friday nights are for the goomah,” as Johnson swings and misses at a breaking ball down low and away.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well that’s the thing, they always, as long as you call the game, everything is forgivable, right?


Hank Azaria: Harry Shear pointed that out to me at “The Simpsons” many years ago. He does a brilliant Vin Scully. Brilliant! In fact, the Vin Scully you hear, I think it’s episode six of “Brockmire,” young Brockmire as a child is listening to Vin Scully. That’s Harry.

Brendan Francis Newnam: No way! Imitating Vin Scully, the great Dodgers announcer.


Hank Azaria: Yes. You can’t tell the difference between Harry and Vin Scully if you close your eyes.

Harry pointed out that these guys can say anything they like if they give the count afterward. And I thought, “Let’s stretch that concept to the max.” Like what if he freaked out, like an alcoholic blackout drunk, disgraced himself, [in character as Brockmire] but still sounded like this, so still had the illusion of control. This voice, if nothing else, seems utterly controlled. To me, it’s like the vocal equivalent of typeface or something. Completely generic, it’s the vanilla ice cream of voices.

Brendan Francis Newnam: As polished as the voice is, these guys would have three or four beers over the course of a game. They would tell rivaled stories. Part of me was nostalgic for when media was a little less polished. But what do you think?


Hank Azaria: But part of you is happy we don’t have to put up with that crap anymore.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And also, coming home after drinking six beers at work, probably not the best thing for these families. So, what are your thoughts on this bygone era? Should we keep it bygone, or?


Hank Azaria: Well, I think a lot of those guys, certainly famously, guys like Harry Caray, or some other guys, beer was a big part of the game. Pretty openly.

Famously, in the ‘70s, Cosell actually got in a little bit of trouble sometimes for getting a little too loose on the air from alcohol. You know, and look, Brockmire is absolutely an alcoholic, drug addict, sex addict. And it’s what got him in trouble on the air, [he’s] still dealing with it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Watching the show, we haven’t seen drinking like this on television since the “Mad Men” [era].


Hank Azaria: You know, one of the interesting things to me about this project. We did it as a “Funny or Die” short, like eight years ago. And essentially, I was just looking for the comedy to make sense. And what made sense for a guy to lose it this bad on the air was that he was just completely wasted. And a lot of these old school guys drank a lot.



[…]

So, drinking and being drunk became endemic to the character. And, here’s where I have to credit Joel Church-Cooper, the guy who wrote most of the episodes and head wrote the entire thing. When I turned it over to Joel, he kind of saw in it this alcoholic realism, this deep sadness and tragedy to the guy. This man is a symbol of what was wrong and right with America gone by that baseball tends to symbolize.

And, in the same way that baseball is having a difficult time to translate itself into the modern era and keep kids interested, Brockmire is unaware of the Internet. As he says, “Listen, if I want porn, I’ll buy a nudie mag, like my father, and his father before him.” All of that is Joel.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He found the pathos around this character.


Hank Azaria: I was shocked!

Brendan Francis Newnam: So someone video tapes him melting down, it goes onto the Internet, and he becomes a verb. To “Brockmire” is to lose your mind. And then, he has to wrestle between the public self and his real self. People want him to Brockmire. You’re a public actor. That’s redundant. But you’re a public figure.


Hank Azaria: Not always, sometimes you’re quite a private actor. It’s the old joke: “You’re an actor? Oh really, what restaurant?” Us actors hear that a lot.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How do you navigate the public self and the private self? People have expectations when they see you in the street.


Hank Azaria: Can I curse?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Sure.


Hank Azaria: OK. My shrink, who I used to go to a lot, whose a brilliant man, Phil Stutz, [beings imitating Phil] who I’ve talked about before. He talks like this, Phil Stutz. I talked about him on Marc Maron.

And he calls that exchange in the street that you’re describing with actors, he calls that the double-fuck-you. The first fuck you is somebody wants something from you. The second fuck you is it’s not even you they really want it from, it’s whatever idea they have of you.

[Returns to his real voice.] And his description of it is: you know, our jobs as actors is to have people project stuff on us. And we sort of enact that. And it might be quite close to who we actually are, it might be wildly different.

Brendan Francis Newnam: As a voice actor, there was probably a point where you were famous, but people didn’t recognize you.


Hank Azaria: You know, there’s a larger point to that. Besides being, “Yes I’m famous for a voice actor,” and that makes you edgy, like [in a defensive tone], “I do other things!” Or “I’m an actor too!” But there certainly was a time when Moe and Apu and Chief Wiggum were much more famous than I was. They probably still are. And I sort of felt the need to point that out.

My voices were famous, I wasn’t, which is weird. I’m a character actor, so people know me, but they don’t know from where, which makes protracted, strange exchanges. Not just like, “What movie are you in?” But like, “I know I know you. Do you go to Ohio State?” Or, I’ve literally been asked all these questions frankly, “Are you in the upholstery business?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: No!


Hank Azaria: Oh, totally! So, that kinda bruises your ego too, and you’re like, now you’re like, “What kind of freak am I?” I’m like, “How are they supposed to know who I am? I’m getting touchy about this?” Or, “I eveb love your comedy!” You know [in a defensive tone], “I do dramatic work as well, young man!” Whatever kind of freak you’re starting to become.

Hollywood and fame is like your crazy drunken uncle. It will love you in one moment and then swat you in the next. Nobody is immune from that. It’s gonna mess with you. And you’re gonna have to stare this demon down.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I look forward to it.


Hank Azaria: I wish that for you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Thank you, thank you.


Hank Azaria: I look forward to you squaring off against that demon like Luke Skywalker versus his own Darth Vader in weird cave that Yoda sent him into.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, look. We have two standard questions we ask on our show. The first question is: what question do you not like being asked, are you tired of being asked in interviews?


Hank Azaria: You know what I get tired of being asked?

Brendan Francis Newnam: What’s that?


Hank Azaria: What are the origins of these voices? Not just Brockmire, but “Simpsons.” Where do these voices come from? It’s something that I’ve been talking about for 25 years. And I almost feel bad, like, “My God, am I repeating myself?” But you know, it’s another narcissistic actor thing. Probably not everybody is up to the minute on every single interview I’ve ever given, so it’s probably news to them. But I guess that one I get a little tired of.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well our second standard question is: tell us something we don’t know, and this is something you haven’t shared in interviews before. It can be an interesting personal fact or an interesting piece of trivia about the world.


Hank Azaria: Wow. I’ve heard — you think I would’ve prepared better, cause I’ve heard the show, I’ve heard you ask these questions before.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I could feed you, there’s something I found interesting in your bio, so you’ve clearly mentioned it, but I’ve never heard of it.


Hank Azaria: What?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Which is the fact that growing up, you spoke the Ladino language?


Hank Azaria: Yeah, see, but that’s disinformation. That’s fake news.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, right?


Hank Azaria: My parents did. They’re both fluent. But not me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I just had never heard of Ladino. Which seems like a hybrid of Spanish and Hebrew.


Hank Azaria: That is interesting. Most Jews in America are Ashkenazi Jews. Eastern European Jews. Their dialect is Yiddish. Sephardic Jews are Spanish Jews, the Jews that left Spain in 1492 in the Diaspora. When the Catholics said, you know what, either convert or get the hell outta here. Or die. Dying is a definite option.

And my family went to Greece, Salonika Greece, for like 500 years before they all came over to America. And yes, so Spanish was the home dialect. If you listen to it, it sounds like Spanish. It’s written in Hebrew characters. It’s written from right to left in Hebrew characters. It’s a very strange language. I guess that’s pretty interesting.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Can you give me — and we’ll close with this — a Brockmire line, said in…


Hank Azaria: In Ladino? Well, before I Brockmire it, my mom and her contemporaries got a big kick out of expressions that were strange. For example, “jaba juba.” Jaba juba.

It’s not an expression, but it literally translates, forget the house coat. Forget about the housecoat. But they just found it hilarious that jaba juba would be something that you could actually say.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, it sounds like a character.


Hank Azaria: So Brockmire could say [imitates Brockmire], “Hey, the 4th inning is brought to you by jaba juba. Folks, if you’re gonna forget your house coat, why don’t you forget it with jaba juba brand house coats?” Actually, it sounds kinda Yoda-esque [imitates Yoda’s voice], “Jaba juba young man.” My yoda is pretty rough.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Jabba the Hutt.


Hank Azaria: That’s why. ‘Cause Jabba the Hutt [imitates Jabba’s voice], “Oh hoh hoh. Mohaido hoh hoh. Jedi. hoh hoh hoh.”

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]