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Joel Church-Cooper on bringing Brockmire to new heights by pulling Brockmire out of the gutter

Joel Church-Cooper on bringing <i>Brockmire </i>to new heights by pulling Brockmire out of the gutter
Photo: Brockmire (Kim Simms/IFC), Showrunner Joel Church-Cooper (Andrew Toth/Getty Images for New York Magazine), Graphic: Jimmy Hasse
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Brockmire was faced with a challenge entering its third season: Its golden-throated, snake-bitten play-by-play man had gotten sober. For much of the 16 episodes that preceded the IFC comedy’s 2019 run, Hank Azaria had played Jim Brockmire as a man committed to both rebuilding his reputation in professional baseball and completely destroying himself. But like any great manager, Brockmire showrunner Joel Church-Cooper could identify his star player’s strengths, weaknesses, and capacity for improvement, which is why the arc he envisioned for the inebriate in the checkered blazer involved getting clean, joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and going to where so many 12-step adherents had gone before: Florida.

Season three has seen Brockmire calling spring training games with and befriending retired softball all-star Taylor (Tawny Newsome); revisiting his strained relationships with his mother, Lorraine (Linda Lavin), and his sister, Jean (Becky Ann Baker); reconnecting with past partners-in-crime Jules (Amanda Peet) and Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams); and opening up and ultimately cauterizing old wounds with professional rival Matt “The Bat” Hardesty (J.K. Simmons). (If you’re wondering where your favorite character actors have been all spring, they were probably turning up on Brockmire.) Prior to tonight’s season finale, The A.V. Club spoke with Church-Cooper about writing a dry Brockmire, being an atheist running a show that has turned baseball into a religion, and whether or not Brockmire can join the many productions and creators boycotting Georgia in the wake of legislation that could ban abortion in the state.

The A.V. Club: What did you find that you could do with Brockmire that you couldn’t before the character got sober?

Joel Church-Cooper: I think the comedic opportunity that presented itself that we didn’t have before is Brockmire-as-straight man, probably best exemplified by the storyline with Charles in episode five, where Charles is in a destructive, dysfunctional relationship that Brockmire can see clearly and doesn’t know how to help him through. And now he’s the one reacting and tossing off one-liners while the other person’s acting crazy. On most shows you would never say, “Okay, we have a comedic persona. We have a certain rhythm for humor, let’s abandon that and try something new.” You’d be like, “Well, can the actor do it?” That just never comes up [with Hank Azaria]. He makes it look effortless. All of a sudden this guy who was the craziest guy in the room is now taking in information, processing it, and trying to be helpful, and making it a continuation of the same character.

I was very cognizant we were leaning on the drugs and the blowouts and the fucked-up behavior built on the drugs and the alcohol comedically. Past a certain point, it just starts to become unrealistic. It starts to become a cartoon. Season two, when I made this call, I showed the writers’ room clips of Foster Brooks. He was an old-school stand-up whose persona was he was drunk, and he was hiccuping, and he was just drunk on stage. That was that guy’s thing. And I just didn’t want Brockmire to become Foster Brooks, this stereotypical, comedic drunk from an old Western in the ’40s. I wanted him to feel like a real character. And so to do that, I think we had to show the dark side of his addictions and then get him out of that.

We had to figure out new ways of being funny, so we just spent more time on the jokes and on the scenes. We went over and over and over scenes much more than we did before. “Can we put another joke in there?” Also season two was so dark. Even though we’re still dealing with heavy themes, I wanted this to be a return a more season one level of humor, of “More jokes are coming and they’re not always so bleak.”

AVC: Watching the third season, it’s felt like “Well, they’ve taken the vices away, we’ll get to see the real person behind them.”

JCC: It’s that idea that Martha Plimpton [who plays Brockmire’s sponsor] verbalizes: “When you get sober, all you do is face the problems that you’ve been avoiding with alcohol.” It’s an escape for him. It’s an escape from his traumatic upbringing. It’s an escape from his own selfish behavior. It’s an escape from consequences for the mistakes that he’s made. And once you remove that escape, he has to just sit in all of it and get past it.

I wanted to strip away the artifice of the drunkenness and get into, “Who is this person, and let’s give him specific moral challenges.” Almost every episode [of season three] he’s faced with a moral decision. And I thought the way to swerve is, almost like a traditional sitcom, he quote-unquote always does the right thing. He always makes the right moral choice—even if he’s guilted into it, even if he bumbles into it. And the first four episodes, he makes the quote-unquote right choice and he just gets shit on. [Laughs.] And that to me felt like how life is. When you do the right thing, there is no reward for it. It often makes things worse. And watching Brockmire, who has never done the right thing, squirm through that process was very fun to me. The idea is, over the course of the season, the good works that he does in the beginning and the relationships he’s built come back to him in the end.

AVC: Did you want the spring training setting for season three to feel like a metaphor for this stage in Jim’s life?

JCC: We do try to use baseball as a metaphor for lots of things we do. So the idea of spring training as practice—you’re participating in games but they don’t count, you’re getting your body and your mind together to play this game—that felt right for what we wanted to say about Brockmire. He’s sort of a proto-human at this point. He’s practicing being a good person. And he’s failing a lot of the time because he’s never tried before. There’s never been a moment in his life where he has decided to be a moral upstanding citizen who is accountable to his own mistakes.

Originally we wanted [the setting] to be Arizona, to have that dry kind of feeling—that desert sort of heat. But we had to shoot in Atlanta for budgetary reasons, so then we switched to Florida, which still works because Florida is the recovery center capital of the world. We use the word “simulacrum” for Disney World [on the show], but I think all of central Florida is a simulacrum of niceness. It’s not nice, but it’s trying to give the impression that it’s nice, and we thought that would be a fun world put that character in this headspace.

AVC: It must’ve opened up a lot of joke-telling opportunities, especially given the way Florida’s become a national punchline in the past few years.

JCC: I never get tired of Florida jokes. There’s a reason we all love them so much: because they’re so desperately true. The first time I went there, I was a kid and I flew to Disney World. I was so excited, and we landed, and on the jet bridge they had a little crack of air in between where you leave the plane and the jet bridge. And that’s where I first felt humidity. I was from Sacramento, lived in California my whole life, never really been outside California until then. And [the humidity] hit my skin, and I was like [Gasps.] “Oh my god, what’s that?” My Dad was like, “That’s humidity.” And I was like, “People live in this? It feels like I just got out of the shower.” And then we went to Disney World, we stayed at the Motel 6 nearby, and there were flying bugs the size of my head, and I was like, “This place is hell. I don’t care that they have a bigger Disneyland here. Why would anyone go?” That was my first impression. That’s one that didn’t really change as I age. And I feel like the rest of America has come around to 8-year-old Joel’s opinion.

AVC: That blend of reverence and irreverence for the settings extends to the show’s treatment of baseball, too. In AA, Jim adopts baseball as his higher power, but there’s also a thread running throughout the series about baseball being a dying institution.

JCC: I think anyone who argues differently is not seeing things clearly. If you want to say, “What are the institutions of American life that have lasted over long periods of time?”, it’s really quote-unquote representative democracy and baseball. You can look at both and say “Are both healthy?” And the answer is no. And I want to talk about that, but I want to show a proper reverence for the game, especially because we make a point of saying everything that is good in Brockmire’s life comes from baseball. It’s what humanizes him. It’s what brings him into the lives of so many great people. And it saves him a lot of ways, because he loves it and his love for it is pure.

But let’s also talk about the fact that baseball is less diverse than it ever has been. The fan base is less diverse than it ever has been. Games are longer than ever before. The analytics—I understand why they make sense, but they’ve pushed baseball in a certain direction that is less watchable than ever before. It’s the nature of the show to cast a harsh eye to all aspects of [Brockmire’s] life, of American life, and to show that there’s beauty and there’s poetry in everyday life, and there’s also awfulness and cynicism and racism and destruction and the two coexist next to each other. On your Twitter feed, it’s this amazing picture of two puppies frolicking, and then you flip up one more and it’s like, “Oh yeah, democracy’s dead.” That dichotomy is the nature of life right now, and I definitely wanted to have that in the show.

Hank Azaria (left), Tawny Newsome
Hank Azaria (left), Tawny Newsome
Photo: Kim Simms (IFC)

AVC: In introducing the Gabby character this season, did you want to show that the bond Brockmire struck with Charles wasn’t a one-off thing?

JCC: I wanted to do two things that were sort of separate: For the character of Gabby herself, I wanted to show that there could be a queer woman of color at the center of baseball. Why is baseball so male-dominated? Why is [the fan base] so male-dominated? Why is it so exclusionary in a lot of different ways? I wanted to point out that this game can be for everybody, and there are lots of people who enjoy the game who aren’t stereotypically baseball fans, yet the game and the culture of the game is catering to one and excluding the other.

And I wanted to have Brockmire have a new relationship in the sober space. Everything else he could excuse with alcohol. “Oh, I failed you before, but I was drinking.” And “I have this history, and [Jules and Charles], you have a love/hate relationship with me, but we go back a ways.” [Gabby] is a person he has no excuses with. He’s a 50-year-old man who’s acting like a petulant 12-year-old. And she’s holding him accountable, and he has to earn her respect and earn her friendship.

I wanted to tease that out over the course of the show until [episode six, when Gabby learns she’s pregnant and her wife is cheating on her]. I wanted her story to exist on its own, for this character to have her own agency, for her to be in a moment of crisis, that we see over the course of the season how that came to be. And then in that moment Brockmire’s the one who walks her back from the ledge. And I wanted to show that friendship and to see that that’s the growth of this character. In season one, we watch him flame out on the air talking about his wife, and then in season three, we watch him talk someone out of flaming their wife on-air and destroying their career. And he does it from a place of real empathy, and to truly have empathy, especially in today’s America, is somehow a radical act. That’s why I wanted to tell this story this season and in this time: Is there anything more iconoclastic than choosing right now to become a moral human being? When you haven’t been one before, and when being a moral human being has never mattered less and has never been celebrated less?

AVC: Brockmire is a show that’s been produced in Georgia for three seasons, the first of which dealt with the subject of abortion frankly and gracefully. We’re speaking a day after Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that, if it goes into effect, will essentially ban abortion in the state. If Brockmire is renewed for a fourth season, will you shoot that season in Georgia?

JCC: This is a super-complicated subject. I’m only just processing it myself, and I’ll be the first to admit this happened yesterday, I haven’t done a ton of research into what the bill says. I know it’s horrifying, and I know it was upsetting to me and my wife and so many of our friends as we read about it online. We’re a very small show, done for very little money. We are already employing people in Georgia who did not pass this law. Some maybe are for it, I’m going to guess that a lot of our employees that have been with us for years are against it. It would feel cruel to take the jobs away from these people. And we are not the kind of show that we can pull out of Georgia and go someplace else. The money that that would take, we don’t have. And so we essentially would not have a season four—which honestly, is that the biggest thing? If there’s not a Brockmire season four, it doesn’t ultimately matter to anyone other than the employees who the show helps them make their living.

But I will say this: What Georgia offered as a tax incentive, and what Atlanta offered as a large metropolitan area which is cosmopolitan and wonderful, you go 30 miles outside of Atlanta and Georgia starts to get very scary. Some of the actors of color were warned in different spots about Klan activity. These are things that are happening in America, that were happening in Georgia when we’re shooting. That’s very scary and it’s very real. It seemed like Hollywood was a good thing that was bringing in money and jobs and maybe helping to shape the ideas that were coming into that state. Now, through voter suppression, this certain government has taken hold, and seems very hostile to those ideas.

I would never again take a new show to Atlanta if this bill becomes law. Tax incentive or not. At some point you have to take a stand. They’re making their state hostile to an entire sex, half the human race. Why would people want to work there? And it goes beyond the entertainment industry. Why Delta? Why Coca-Cola? When you’re a college grad and you’re a brilliant mind, why would you go to Georgia and take a job for a corporation who’s headquartered there? I think it will be the death knell of the entertainment industry in that state, which is a shame because a lot of people rely on this work, and they bought homes there, and they came from out of state to work there, and they’re changing their communities through that. [The state government] is declaring war on lots of things. The entertainment industry is bottom of the list, but there’ll be consequences for that.

J.K. Simmons (left), Hank Azaria
J.K. Simmons (left), Hank Azaria
Photo: Kim Simms (IFC)

AVC: Anything else you’d like to say about the show’s third season?

JCC: I’m really, really, really proud of episode seven, and particularly the death scene between J.K. Simmons and Hank Azaria. If I were to show one scene to people to [demonstrate what Brockmire is about], I would show that scene. It has, in a hopefully realistic way, the sacred and the profane and the funny that we try to have on this show as a mixture. We never try to be like, “Okay, this is the funny scene. Okay, this is the dramatic scene.” It’s all mixed together. That scene, we start off with a bunch really, really graphic dick jokes, then we transition into a moment of true vulnerability between two men that have transformed this epitome of a toxic-masculinity relationship into the complete opposite. And then we get to them inventing a religion.

AVC: It’s like Brockmire simultaneously getting its Bull Durham I believe in” speech and its Field Of DreamsWant to have a catch?” moment.

JCC: If you’ve watched the show over the years, you can sense that I hate mawkishness and I hate sentimentality. The fact that there is a sequel to a reincarnated dog movie makes me want to fucking hang myself. That people long for such a simple sense of the divine that it involves dog reincarnation… [Sighs.]

So, from that viewpoint, how do I write religion in a way that feels earned? And the truth is that these are two assholes. These are two problematic men who have made many mistakes and alienated many people in their lives, but they’ve also been a part of something beautiful and great and they’ve dedicated their lives to it. To acknowledge that and to say why in a way that feels true is hard for me as someone who is an atheist. But I felt like the viewpoint I expressed there, to me, is true. A dedication to something beyond yourself, to a sense of community and our participation in that community and a reverence for it—we all need that, whether you call it God or what. These two men bonding over that, I think it’s a unique discussion of religion, and when atheism is talked about in a public space, it’s usually Richard Dawkins yelling at someone, calling them stupid. And I wanted to show an atheist viewpoint that can be tender and can be beautiful and can be wise while also being truthful.