Foul Ball

Joel Church-Cooper gets his call to the majors with Brockmire, IFC’s new acclaimed comedy starring Hank Azaria as a broken, degenerate baseball announcing legend stumbling toward redemption.

©2017 IFC
Hank Azaria in Brockmire.
April 21, 2017 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Joel Church-Cooper

A lot of comedies just forget to be funny. They just go for tone and color…I feel like, if you’re in comedy, you should try to make people laugh out loud.

Baseball is America’s pastime, the Grand Old Game of Ken Burns’ documentaries. But, as any passing fan of the sport knows, it’s also one of the most defiled and ignominious, populated by foul-mouthed tobacco chewers chronically awash in illicitness ranging from cheating, to rampant abuse of drugs like amphetamines and steroids.

It is almost entirely from the latter sphere that writer Joel Church-Cooper has drawn the new IFC show Brockmire, about the titular alcoholic play-by-play announcer who, a decade after a brutal public meltdown over his wife’s serial infidelity, has dusted off his ugly, plaid sport coat and begun his quest for a comeback. Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria) was once the most famous voice in the Major Leagues—a voice Azaria masterfully conjures as a pitch perfect amalgam of everyone from Vin Scully to Jon Miller—but after his morally debased decade in the wilderness, and with the lure of little more than cheap drinks, he’s now the PA announcer for the Morristown Frackers—a fictional minor league outfit somewhere in the worst armpit of America’s rust belt.

Joel Church-Cooper (Undatable, The Rotten Tomatoes Show) was the scripting equivalent of a farm-league ball-shagger when opportunity knocked in the form of a one-off skit Azaria did as Brockmire for the Funny or Die website, where he was freelancing bits on politics and sports. The Northern California-native was as big a baseball geek as he was a comedy nerd, so when his second or third assignment was to write a copy for Brockmire to appear on the Rich Eisen podcast, it was right in his wheelhouse. He was asked to write more bits and eventually a feature script based on Brockmire that became the IFC series.

He spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about his good fortune, the fantastic opportunity Brockmire affords him to write both actual and invented baseball colloquialisms, and how, at the end of the day, most of the show’s material comes from the years he spent as a boy, listening to baseball games on his portable radio.

There’s a lot of depravity here—as there is in real baseball. But how did you find that tone and was there any concern for going too blue, if you will?

IFC has been amazing. They put the show on and don’t give a ton of notes. That's sort of the nature of the bargain with IFC. What's great about it is, if you can figure out a way to do it, you get creative control, and that's what we really had to a large degree. So there wasn't any pushback on that level. For the tone, it's sort of a weird thing, because I'd been with this character for years, but I didn't do the original short—Hank came up with the character. So I was really adapting what was already there, from that place where you see him in the short having that breakdown. So, in my mind, if you're gonna do a story, you've got to do it about the comeback, right? And what happens in between. I just imagined that character would have terrible things happen to him. If you were cuckolded like that in front of America, there's just a very masculine thing that you would then try to go out and have sex with as many women as possible to try to prove your virility, right? So that just sort of flowed for me naturally. Of course he's gonna be a sex addict. Of course he's gonna be a drug addict. He was already a drunk. But the biggest thing in trying to get the tone and figuring out for the series is that I want it to be funny, first and foremost.

I'm sort of frustrated by a lot of, you know, peak TV, prestige TV—a lot of comedies just forget to be funny. They just go for tone and color, and it’s like, well, the score indicates when it’s supposed to be a joke. That bothers me. I feel like, if you’re in comedy, you should try to make people laugh out loud. So that was the baseline—I want to go for a joke that will make someone laugh out loud four to five times an episode. If that’s the intention, I feel like [the rest will work]…BoJack Horseman was a big influence because that show will do laugh-out-loud funny things and then in the next two-minute scene have no jokes, just drama. I was like, why are they able to do this? They're able to do it because they’re so funny that you've been laughing in the episodes, and they know you’re gonna laugh again once the scene is over. But you have to be very funny to pull that off. If you’re mixing tones like that, and you’re not funny, people change the channel.

So the key to mixing tones like this is it better be damn funny, is what you're saying?

I can’t speak for all the universal rules of comedic storytelling in 2017, but that was the key to making Brockmire work. The funnier we can make it, the more we can make people laugh out loud in their own homes—which I feel is a hard thing to do—then we can get away with a lot. We can get away with some political commentary. We can get away with some weird history monologues, you know? We can get away with some really dramatic, amazing acting by Hank Azaria, because now they’re invested in this character, and they also have a confidence that in five minutes they’re gonna laugh again.

Something that struck me watching the show, Hank is obviously an iconic voiceover actor, and this voice is so great, but were you concerned that the over-the-top “announcer” voice and some of the big comedy might not work with the realism and the drama in the narrative?

I 100 percent hear what you’re saying, and the answer was no. I should have been. Was it the overconfidence of a first-time showrunner, where I was like, “Yeah, the scripts work. He’s great, it’ll be great”? It was maybe the first dramatic scene the first or second day, I don't want to spoil it too much, but it was like in episode six, there’s a big dramatic scene between Amanda Peet and Jim Brockmire where they’re discussing something that’s very serious. And there are jokes in it, but the scene is, overall, a muted, realistic tone with jokes thrown in. And as we started doing it, I was like, Oh shit, this might not work. If this doesn't work, what else doesn’t work? And I realized that I’d written us into a corner somewhat where, unless these actors could deliver, we were gonna have a weird show that didn't work.

What I realized as a first-time showrunner is how important both our director, Tim Kirkby, who is fantastic, and casting is. The director can push an actor to get a little extra juice out of it, but if the actor doesn't have that ability to begin with, then it’s not there. And watching Hank and Amanda find that level where they’re doing drama, but they still have to hit the jokes hard enough, but not break the reality, watching them nail that, I was like, Oh my God, okay, we have something. We can do it. But, you know, I should’ve been more nervous and what bailed me out was just the incredible acting talent we have on the show.

And he’s doing the voice, too, which is very difficult to do. He pulls off real dramatic exchanges and doesn’t betray the voice, you know what I mean?

Yeah, there was a baseball writer who was sort of talking about [how] he had met Vin Scully in a non-professional setting and was wondering, does he really talk like that? And he said, “Yeah, that’s Vin Scully’s voice now.” He’s been doing it long enough, that, if he had a different voice, at some point it’s gone. He doesn't do it broadcast-level—his regular Vin Scully voice is like 75 percent of the broadcast voice. And that’s what, sort of instinctively, Hank found. There’s him on the mic, hitting everything hard, and then in the quieter moments, he takes it down, you know, a third or something. But it’s still there, because that is who that guy is. Joe Buck was on the show, and somewhat similar—[He] doesn’t do the deep baritone broadcast voice, but when you talk to Joe Buck, he still sounds like Joe Buck, you know?

Totally. He’s on the show?

Yeah, he’s in episode seven. They have a Biggie and Tupac style rivalry that’s you know, it goes back years.

From a writing standpoint, did anything surprise you how season one played out, what the show did, and how has that affected your approach for season two?

I was surprised by how well the dramatic stuff works. I knew we were gonna have dramatic elements, but then you get a director like Tim Kirkby who wants to play with that. He did Diary of a Mad Fat Girl, he did a bunch of Veeps. He’s a British director, and he was always very concerned about finding that reality and finding that darkness and that drama when it was there. You give that to an actor like Hank Azaria, who can do dramatic just as well as he can do comedic, and it really becomes something much more real than even I as a writer saw… I’d never written anything but comedy. Many of these scenes were dramatic, but I just was shocked at how powerfully it worked. So season two, going forward, I learned a lot of lessons from season one. We got generally favorable reviews, but when we did get critics who sort of dinged us, a lot of times I was like, “Yep, those were things that I thought, too.” There are things that I didn’t do, just through inexperience.

I've always heard the adage—and it’s totally true—season one is figuring out what the show is, and season two is like, let’s do that show. I feel like we’re definitely going in a darker direction in season two. It’s about him spiraling out of control, and we also found that that relationship between him and Charles has a lot of legs. So that’s going to be a focal point of season two as well. We’re going to balance this tonal stuff a little better, we’re going to be more real, we’re going to have more narrative drive, and we’re going to learn the lessons from season one.

Brockmire's career is in the toilet, and he’s humiliated at the start of the series, but he’s also not been a very good guy. So there’s no rainbow redemption in the immediate offing for him?

I would say, maybe not. It’s a two steps forward, one step back situation with him, you know? Over the course of the first season it’s about him running away for a long time, living in debauchery in his awful life. And he sort of pulls back to America and finds centers for his life, surrounded by Jules and Charles, who are good people. There’s this idea that baseball is an inherently decent thing, you know? The game is obsessed with fairness, it’s polite, it’s pastoral, it’s calming. Getting drawn back into baseball has a nice effect on him, too. But, you know, he’s still a fuckup, and he still is an addict. As nice as he can be sometimes, he can be an awful person. Going forward in season two [that] is much more the focus. Can he be redeemed? Is that possible? And then what does that look like?

Do you have a very specific routine and a place you like to do it and a way you like to do it, or is it different every time?

Well, the short answer for this is that season one was written, mostly, in the Silver Lake Public Library.

Nice, I know it well.

Because, IFC, as previously stated, has no money. So we really didn’t have a room for season one. We didn't really have a room for season two either. We had a room for like two weeks on season two. A couple friends of mine did freelance scripts, and we talked about them beforehand. I wrote five of the eight of season one. At the time I was living in a duplex, and then we just had a baby. So there was no space for me to write, so I went to the Silver Lake Public Library, and I’d work from like 11 to three, four maybe, and then come back and help with the baby for dinnertime, put the baby to bed, hang out with my wife, and then write from 10 to one or two.

Did you have to get a key to go to the bathroom?

You don’t need to get a key to go to the bathroom, but maybe you should, ‘cause there’s a lot of people doing a lot of business in there. There were a lot of people working on their freelance scripts there, and their sort of spec stuff, and my joke was that, just for my own ego, I wanted to hang a sign that said, “I’m getting paid for this, I swear,” over my laptop. The Silver Lake Public Library is known for its vibrancy and expansive children’s book section. So while I was writing this, there were definitely 2 and 3-year-olds running around having fun learning about reading as I was writing some pretty debaucherous stuff. Now, we got a house. I have my own office that’s in an attic. The house is so old that all the floors are slanted, so I spend most of the time trying to keep my rolling chair from rolling away. But now, I have a home office finally, no more libraries for me.

It is a weird juxtaposition, having a new baby daughter and then trudging through the depravity of this Brockmire character.

Yeah. The finale of season two is the darkest thing we will ever do on the show. I’ve been in sitcoms for so long, you know? There’s nothing sitcommy about that episode, and it stuck with me for like a day. It just felt gross. And my wife was like, “What’s going on?” I had to get into the headspace of these two characters… The scene was dark, and it was really depressing, and it sort of stayed with me.

It's like, the horror, the horror.

Exactly. You know, I imagine the people who do Criminal Intent, or Criminal Minds and SVU, are used to that. I was not used to that.

Brockmire’s manner of speech, not just the voice, but the old-timey, baseball colloquialisms, did you have to do any research for that?

I grew up with a huge baseball fan. I’m a San Francisco Giants fan. They have some legendary broadcasters who have worked for them in my time—Jon Miller, Hank Greenwald, Mike Krukow, and Duane Kuiper. If you listen to baseball, especially baseball on the radio, which is my favorite way to listen to baseball, there’s a lot of time to fill. And, as has been pointed out many times, the biggest asset and the greatest detriment to the game’s future is the three-hour game with about 19 minutes of actual sporting action. So what do you do in between? You tell stories. You tell stories about what that play reminds you of, on a day like this in the past, and you sort of reference the history of the game. The whole statistician thing happened because baseball, from the very beginning, was obsessed with marking down its own history. Keeping score in the 19th century was like an OCD level obsession. Why would you want to know how hard a ball was hit to the right fielder? And you’d come up with some little markings to say that? It’s just obsessed with getting down what happened when and who it happened to. Any time you’re obsessed with the past and history, old things get brought up. Because baseball is an old game, there are a million old phrases, like the “Texas leaguer,” “the dying quail,” “the butcher boy play,” “the Baltimore chop.”

So you were basically steeped in the Jon Millers, the Vin Scullys—in this lexicon and rhythm?

Exactly. I listened to games when I was a kid as I went to bed, with the portable radio to my ear. So the answer is, I didn’t have to do a lot of research. I would Wikipedia a few specific things. Like, I need a term in the pilot to suggest that Brockmire would commit suicide. And I was like, what was that thing where a player died in a game? He got hit in the head and he died?

In 1926, or whatever?

Yes. I knew that because I read a book when I was a kid filled with old baseball stories. I remembered reading a story when I was 9 years old about a guy who died because he got hit in the head. So I went to the Internet and found the specifics, but I already knew the story. The great thing about being able to do this show is that it’s really not a life wasted just listening to ball games on the radio. Now it’s actually become preparation. I didn't know what I was doing when I was seven, but it turns out I was doing research.

© 2017 Writers Guild of America West

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