SALON TALKS

Hank Azaria: "For Mets fans, the bad news is there's no games. The good news is there's no games"

"The Simpsons" star appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss his celebrity poker tourney, ending "Brockmire," and more

By Dean Obeidallah
Published June 18, 2020 5:20PM (EDT)
Hank Azaria in "Brockmire" (IFC)
Hank Azaria in "Brockmire" (IFC)

Hank Azaria, the six-time Emmy Award winner, will gladly talk about his love of poker, the celebrity charity poker event he co-organized that raised one million dollars for COVID-19 relief, and even how bad his favorite baseball team the New York Mets are (as a Mets fan, I feel his pain.) But the one thing Azaria doesn't feel comfortable doing is selling the IFC series in which he stars, "Brockmire," which just aired its series finale. 

It's not that Azaria isn't proud of the "cult hit" series, as he calls it, or the central character of the show he created, Jim Brockmire, a deeply flawed baseball announcer. Rather, as Azaria repeated more than once on our "Salon Talks" episode, he doesn't like being an over-the-top salesman for his projects. He simply wants you to watch the show and decide for yourself.

The show does have something in common with another wildly popular show he has been a part of for decades, as the voice of various characters: "The Simpsons." The common thread is that both shows have accurately predicted events in the future. In the case of "The Simpsons," it has accurately predicted numerous things from smart watches, to Donald Trump winning the presidency, to a 2010 episode in which the United States men's curling team defeated Sweden for the gold medal in the Olympics — which actually happened in 2018. 

In the case of this final season of "Brockmire," which was written and shot well before any talk of the COVID-19 outbreak, it takes place 10 years in the future when our nation is dealing with many challenges, including a deadly pandemic. Maybe we should be looking for clues about the future in all shows featuring Azaria?

In any event, this final season puts the lead character through more trials and tribulations than anyone should have to confront. Even the very last moment of the series finale, which ends with a shot that has all the makings of a TV classic, Brockmire's life is bittersweet. It's also really funny and frustrating. On some level Brockmire sums up all of our lives right now during a pandemic—a pandemic the show actually predicted.

To hear more from Azaria on why he's not saying goodbye to Jim Brockmire anytime soon despite the show ending, watch my "Salon Talks" with Azaria episode here, or read a Q&A transcript of our conversation below. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

We're experiencing television history right now with TV shows having no live audiences. You were on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" during one of the last shows with a live audience back in early March.

I think it was the last. I might have been the last one. Maybe he did one more after that, I don't know.

He tried to shake your hand, but you were like, "No, no, no, no, no." You were a stickler. You been a sticker on social distancing even since then?

Yeah, that was early March, so social distancing was already coming into play. Certainly not shaking hands was already a thing. So yeah, no, I wasn't joking at all about not shaking hands in that moment. We made it a joke, but I didn't feel very jokey about it. There are certain famous people who don't like shaking hands, like Howie Mandel, is famously one. He will fist bump, for years, he'll offer a fist bump. I'm not a germaphobe, but it occurred to me a few years ago, because I shake a lot of hands, I'm like, "Man, it isn't the most hygienic thing in the world to do." Especially in Manhattan, you're running around touching everybody. I live there half the time. And so yeah, I think one of the things that might be permanent out of all this is a lot less of that, little salutes and waves.

Have you been watching comedy, like "SNL" from home, or the late-night shows? Are you used to this new normal of comedy that we're seeing now?

I did a "Conan" interview and I've done other shows. I saw some of the "SNL "stuff, and I think it's lovely as a temporary solution, let's put it that way. Nice novelty, it's intimate. And it was funny, talking to Conan [O'Brien], and lot of people told me they really loved it, because I've known Conan since he was a "Simpsons" writer, 25 years ago. It felt like two old friends chatting from home, which it was. And that's kind of fun and interesting, but I'm kind of looking forward to entertainment resuming its old form.

I agree. I worked on the production staff of "SNL" for like eight or nine years in the '90s to the mid 2000s, and watching the show without an audience, is to me, so sacrilegious because so much of that show is "Live from New York, it's Saturday night" with the audience feeding the performers. One thing you've done recently while social distancing is this great thing, Stars CALL for Action, an online celebrity poker fundraiser. You're an avid poker and you got famous stars together to raise money for those who are struggling right now. Tell people a little bit about it.

I don't want to give too long an answer because I can go on about this. But we raised over a million dollars for COVID relief with PokerStars. My home poker game, obviously, was one of the first things to go because a card game, talk about a way to spread a disease with everybody touching the same cards and breathing on each other at a table. So we started playing through Zoom with a poker app online through a poker website. PokerStars, there's a bunch of them.

And you play for play money, because you can't legally do it except for two states in the United States. So you play for play money and you keep track so then you can settle up through Venmo afterwards. That was working well. And we started thinking, "If you can run a tournament like this, and you could actually raise a lot of money." And what we did was, we had a million dollar prize. What PokerStars said was, every celebrity you get we'll put $10,000 towards COVID relief. We ended up getting like 90-some-odd celebrities. Then they went and filled in the extra for the million.

Here's what I got excited about. So immediately half the money went straight to COVID relief, so $500,000. And what every celebrity played for, was, if you win, you played for your pet charity. I played for Dream School in Manhattan, which I'm affiliated with. And the winner, David Costabile, who's on "Billions" and was on "Breaking Bad," he won a $100,000 for his charity. Having done these poker tournaments, the live version, for years, I think my record before this was maybe getting 11 celebs to show up, because it's hard to schlep and play and do the thing. But online, I think we might use this model going forward a lot. Through Zoom, you can actually interact with folks. PokerStars put up money for about 60 players, so they paid for 60 folks who just play on their site, to enter the tournament as well. In a way it was a lot better than the standard version.

You're an avid poker player. You play the World Series of Poker. What do you love about poker? I like blackjack. All it involves is adding and playing by the book. There's not that much strategy. It's sort of an exalted roulette, it's nothing. But poker is strategy. Is that what you like? Is it the comradery? Is it the challenge of competitiveness?

All of the above, for sure. I started playing poker in my mid-20s. I had a breakup and I was like, "What's a male bonding thing I can do? Poker, men do that." Of course women do it as well. This was a long time ago. So I started playing with my buddies, and the game kind of grew over the years, and we all became good friends because as we all got older and more busy, seeing each other once a week for any reason, became, those were the guys I saw most often. Then we all became students of the game, for real. Like golf, right, 15 minutes to learn, lifetime to master.

Poker is very much like that. You never stop learning, and the nuance is the game. And I like that. That's how I relax. I can't just chill, very rarely, I need to sort of be actively, kind of doing something. It's usually a lot of funny people gathered around the table, and we have a good time. And then the game's competitive enough. And we don't play for so much money that anybody can get hurt, but it's enough to hold your attention.

Let's talk about "Brockmire," you just wrapped the final season of the show. You were a voice on "The Simpsons," and as they say, "The Simpsons" predicts the future. They had things about smartwatches and the U.S. beating Sweden in curling, the Ebola outbreak. But this season of "Brockmire" predicted the future on some level. So the question is, is it the "Simpsons," or is it everything that Hank is involved in, predicts the future? If it is, do you have any predictions coming up, because there's elections coming and I have a lot of questions.

We predicted the Trump presidency on "The Simpsons." Well, it could be me, you can make an argument that it's me. But if it's me, then my medium is through television shows, so I can't just do it myself. "The Simpsons," we've been on for 32 years, and we've predicted a lot of stuff. I think in more goes in the realm of a broken clock is right twice a day, eventually we're going to hit on things that come true. I'm sure you could line up many more things that we did not get right about the future.

For "Brockmire," Season 4 takes place 12 years in the future, and we pride ourselves on "Brockmire" being pretty realistic, about baseball, about life, about drug and alcohol use, about relationships, about a lot of things. Our pretty brilliant head writer and showrunner Joel Church-Cooper, he loves sci-fi and making societal commentary, comedically. And he kind of predicted some things that weren't too far-fetched, including how an operating system like Alexa might take over, and things like that. And, one of the things he predicted was a pandemic, just living with pandemics as part of that future. And man, oh man, unfortunately he was, pardon the pun—dead on with that one. It was a little weird because it came out right at the time that we were at the height of dealing with all of it.

Yeah, people might watch in the future and think it was a response. If anyone watching doesn't know Jim Brockmire yet, share his origin. I know you love this character and that you're proud of this character.

Well before I do that, let me just, I'm very uncomfortable selling my own stuff. You know what I mean?

Sure.

I'm going to offer the Brockmire Challenge, what I call the Brockmire Challenge, to your audience. Because we're a cult hit, which means we're a really great show that not a ton of people watch, and I'm hoping as we're all, most of us, many of us, if we're fortunate enough to be in a position where the height of our problems is that we're stuck at home, pretty bored and going out of our minds, and we can binge a lot, I would ask you to look at Episode 1, Season 1 of "Brockmire," which you can find on Hulu right now. If you just watch the first five minutes, if you don't laugh out loud, you can stop. But I almost guarantee, I will guarantee, that you will. And Seasons 1-3 are on Hulu right now, so you can binge them. And they're only half hours. You can probably binge the whole thing in one quarantine afternoon.

The show is about a baseball announcer who talks like this, Jim Brockmire, I call this the generic baseball announcer voice of the 1970s, where if you tuned into any broadcast, you probably heard this guy talking like this, telling you not only about the baseball game, but also all about his personal life. Like, "I went and had a wild Italian meal the other night, man. I had some veal Parmesan, some pasta on the side," as Pedro delivers a slider into the dirt. Never missing the count. And then I imagine what if a guy was saying much more inappropriate things like that, and maybe he was an alcoholic, and maybe he was a blackout drunk, and maybe he walked in on his wife having an affair, and maybe he described it on the air. And we kind of went from there. We made a short for "Funny or Die," it got a great response about 10 years ago, and we sort of built from that premise.

By the way, who is your favorite of those announcers? Bob Uecker type of guy? Harry Caray? Is there one that stands out that you really like?

Well, that kind of rambling overshare of the Italian meal, and that person, that was Phil Rizzuto. Rizzuto would tell you more about his uncle Salvatore than the game sometimes. And I'm a Mets fan, so we had Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson. The Brockmire plaid jacket is an homage to Lindsey Nelson who always wore a colorful jacket. Bob Murphy kind of had a Brockmire kind of voice, but he was a little more gravelly, a little deeper, a little Clark Gable involved.

But for all these guys it was also was the announcer voice back then. Remember the Ginsu knife and [Ron] Popeil's Pocket Fisherman? It was always this guy selling it to you. Popeil's Pocket fishermen, the Ginsu. As a voice guy, I got fascinated. Like, "Do these guys always sound like this? Why is this the announcer voice?" It seemed like the generic voice that we heard through the television. And I was kind of raised by the TV, so I wondered what these guys' personal lives were like.

I host a show on Sirius XM Radio, five nights a week, three hours a day and I feel like I have the least normal radio voice out there. It's working so far, but I listen to those guys who have that deep quintessential radio voice, like Cousin Brucie, you know Cousin Brucie?

Sure, of course, Cousin Brucie.

He has a show. I like to ride in the elevator with Cousin Brucie, just to get him to talk. I'm like, "Talk to me." So I can hear it, because it was great. Getting back to the Mets, in Season 4, in the finale, you say, "Please buy the New York Mets. Somebody should. These people have suffered for long enough." I'm a Mets fan. Was that Jim Brockmire or was that you, Hank Azaria, saying that? It came out of nowhere.

That was both. The line was written, "Hey, you should buy the Mets." Just because he wanted to hang out in New York with his buddy, who was a billionaire, who could afford the Mets, but I threw in, "Somebody should. Those people have suffered long enough." Part of the dystopian future I imagined was that [Fred] Wilpon still owned the Mets, but that's another story.

Brockmire also talks about people not watching baseball, not coming to games. Now people are desperate. If we had games now, no fans, I think there'd be a huge audience to watch it right now, just to have something new and original out there. Maybe they'd fall in love with baseball again. People have tuned baseball out over the years because it's kind of slow or boring to them.

We also take that on a lot in "Brockmire." Who would have thought that the dystopian future we pictured, was baseball limping along, and maybe within five years of going defunct altogether? But who would've thought there'd be more baseball in that dystopian future then there is currently? I think baseball will get it together and the players and the owners will come to an agreement, and there'll be some version of baseball before it's all said and done.

I actually had an idea I was all excited about. We spent a lot of time in Season 4 picturing ways to save baseball, whether it's robot umps, or pitch clocks, or, nothing that exotic. And they actually did one of them. They mic'd up some players in spring training before baseball shut down. Some players started popping out as really fun personalities to drop in with during games — Rizzo from the Cubs being one of them that I remember.

I know what would be fun, if we have no fans in the ballparks, but you have games being played. I think it would be fun to have the announcers call the ball games from local sports bars, just watching on live TV feeds, and just having the drunk fans all around them, and call them like that. But the flaw in my logic is that, if there's nobody allowed in the ballpark, there's probably not going to be anybody allowed all over each other in a bar either. So there goes that idea.

You'd have to social distance in a bar, but it would add the sense of a crowd cheering when someone gets a hit or a home run or makes a great play. I mean, look, as Met fans . . . You're a Met fan too, right?

Yeah.

Isn't it kind of bittersweet that they're not playing because they're going to lose? But on some level, I miss the baseball, I miss the Mets.

For Mets fans, the bad news is there's no games, the good news is there's no games.

There's that bittersweet loss of baseball this summer. And in a way, this last part of your series, in the final episode, there's this bittersweet ending. I don't want to give too many things away. Well, it's up to you, do you want to give away things? It's up to you, Hank, it's your show. What was it like for you, the wrapping up of the series, this character you created, and this life on some level?

Well, again, really, I'm not a natural salesman, I really am not. I used to have buddies, as actors coming up, who were good at that. "Go talk to this guy, go meet that guy, go to this party, there's that guy, you get yourself . . . " And they were good at it, and God bless them. I could never do that. I could never sell myself in an audition room. I always had to let the work speak for itself. That's certainly my instinct. But there's nothing about "Brockmire" that isn't bittersweet. It's very funny. My only stipulation, when working with Joel Church-Cooper, our writer, was just make it funny. That's all I ask of the comedy, really.

I had written the short with some friends, and that was a very sophomoric, silly, crazy idea about, "What if a baseball announcer flipped out on the air?" And it was funny. But I sort of would've kept the tone of it like that. Joel saw in it, an actual exploration of an alcoholic and a man who, like baseball, is aging, and not in touch with society and reality, really, anymore, and kind of a holdover from the past. How does a man like that, in a sport like that, find its way? He did such a beautiful job of weaving all that in. If you watch Season 1, you think you're watching this raunchy sex, drug comedy, and you are, but then the emotion sneaks up on you by the end of this series. You're like, "Oh, I actually care about these people. And they're actually –somehow they got in there, in here."

That's what the series continued to do. So, I'm really, really proud of that. It was such hard work. I'm never one to lament a show ending. We always planned four years. We planned a specific series, our story arc, and that's what we did. And I think Brockmire might live as a podcast now we're putting together. I've had so much fun. I do a lot of appearances as Brockmire on ESPN and a lot of other local and national sports shows. And I got this little side cottage industry going of Brockmire giving his take on the weekly sports events. And I think I'm going to do that as a podcast from now on.

Last thing, any more charity events coming up for people who like poker?

I really want to thank PokerStars, again. We brought this idea to a bunch of people, and many people, many sites, were willing to go along with it, but PokerStars were the most generous, the most enthusiastic. We might turn it into a bit of a series, on a little bit smaller scale. I don't know that I'll be able to assemble 90 celebrities every time. There were amazing people that played, Jack Black and John Hamm, Amy Schumer, and J.K. Simmons, Don Cheadle and Billy Crudup, Michael Cera, and so many more. Some of those are my poker buddies and some guys I've never met before. We're going to keep doing that.

You should play a whole poker match as Jim Brockmire.

I'd have to write insults for every actor I'm playing with, but I can do that.

 


Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to CNN.com Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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