Hank Azaria swings for the fences with his new IFC comedy that mixes pathos, baseball and plenty of booze.
If it seems like there’s no end to antiheroes on television, that’s probably because there isn’t.
They just keep coming — on the broadcast networks, cable and streaming.
But no matter how hard or how long you search, you won’t find one nearly as witty, tragic, charming and maddening as Hank Azaria’s Jim Brockmire, of IFC’s new comedy, Brockmire.
Based on a character Azaria created 30 years ago — and then turned into a 2010 Funny or Die short film — the series follows a legendary baseball play-by-play man who, years after an on-air meltdown, turns up calling games for a rundown minor league team in western Pennsylvania.
He falls in love with the team’s owner, Jules (played by Amanda Peet), bonds with the team’s teen-age intern, Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams) and possibly starts down the road to redemption, all while consuming vast quantities of drugs and alcohol.
“It took a long time to get it together, and I’m grateful there are places now like IFC, where you can do something like this,” says Azaria. “I’ve been so frustrated in the past when I’ve tried to bring a vision I had to the screen and it hasn’t worked out so well. So it’s gratifying that something that I liked so much turned out this great.”
Created by Azaria and Joel Church-Cooper (who also exec-produce, along with director Tim Kirkby, Mike Farah, Joe Farrell and Anna Wenger), the eight-episode first season treats nothing with kid gloves.
Brockmire’s alcoholism and drug use — and Jules’s, for that matter — are played for both drama and comedy. During one sequence, when Brockmire is trying to stay sober, he sees a glass of water and says, “That better be vodka.” After he tastes it, he winces and spits out, “God, how do the fish do it?”
Then there is the sequence later in the season with an abortion doctor that starts out with a social and political bent, evolves into farce and eventually becomes broad comedy. Azaria calls it “maybe my favorite sequence of film I’ve ever been part of in my entire life.”
Brockmire does things like call play-by-play during sex and offer home-run calls such as, “That ball can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, because it was tattooed!”
So, yeah, not exactly SFW, our Brockmire.
“We knew, for it to work, it really had to be like this,” Azaria says. “That trope, that this is a guy who would actually call sex, was an idea I had for 30 years. It was one of the original premises of the character: that these guys were always on, always talking like that.
“I found it a rich area for comedy,” he continues, laughing. “I’m sort of shocked it worked out as well as it did. It was one of those rare times in my career where the sum was greater than the parts, and everybody brought to it what they wanted. It was a joy to make, in that it felt like we were really on to something while we were doing it.”
It took a long time and a fair amount of maneuvering to reach this point. After creating the character as a gag, Azaria found that actor Craig Bierko had come up with a similar concept. Before he could move forward with series development, Azaria had to clear the rights. An extended court case ensued, and Azaria prevailed in 2014. “After that,” he says, “it was pretty much clear sailing.”
The show feels easy, too. Azaria credits Church-Cooper: “I don’t know what good I did in a previous life, to be this lucky.” Having given the writer just the bare bones of a show, he was astonished by what it became.
“We knew that Brockmire should start calling games at a very minor league, rinky-dink level after his fall from grace,” Azaria explains, “but literally the only thing we gave Joel with the love story was that he should maybe, probably fall in love with the hot woman who owns the team. He came back with this real, complicated, alcoholic love story that had so much depth. I never expected it to have such an original, well-observed, dark reality.”
Matching Brockmire punch for punch — and drink for drink — is Jules, another lost soul desperately trying to keep alive her father’s dream of this minor league baseball team, the Morristown Frackers. It’s the kind of role in which Peet has excelled her entire career: a ballsy, brassy chick who can play with the big boys and beat them at their own game.
“She was sort of the prototype of the character in my mind,” Azaria says. “The comedy only works if it feels like it could really happen — that there’s this realism to it — and she does that sort of realism very well.”
Williams is another find. Previously seen on the Disney XD series Lab Rats, he shows great chemistry with Azaria. Charles can’t help but look up to Brockmire, even though the man’s behavior disgusts him. In a rundown mill town where no one — including Brockmire and Jules — has any hope left, Charles stands out by being the only one who does.
At this point, scripts have been written for season two — scheduled for 2018 — and Church-Cooper and Azaria can see the show going for a while.
“The great thing is that we are in a world where something like this can fly,” Azaria says. “Cable is great that way: if you feel like you’ve run out of stuff to say, you stop. Joel conceived five years of it. If we’re lucky enough that we’re looking at season six and they show up with a truck full of money asking us to do it, that’s a good problem to have.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017
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